Phil Maxwell & Sandra Esqulant, Photographer & Muse
“One day, about fifteen years ago, Sandra took a Hula Hoop and started Hula Hooping on the traffic island in the middle of Commercial St, and, without even thinking about it, I took a picture of her,” recalled Phil Maxwell in amusement, outlining the spontaneous origin of his photographic relationship with Sandra Esqulant, landlady of the Golden Heart since 1979. No-one has taken more photographs in Spitalfields than Phil, becoming the pre-eminent street photographer of the East End, and so it was inevitable that he would turn his camera upon Sandra, whose buoyant, playful nature is a gift to photography.
Once the pub for the Truman Brewery which closed more than twenty years ago, the Golden Heart was kept by Sandra and her husband Dennis together, until he died in 2009 leaving her to continue alone. Sandra has risen to the challenge heroically and, today in Spitalfields, she is among the few who connect us to that earlier time, when the life of the Brewery and the Fruit & Vegetable Market dominated, and the Golden Heart opened at dawn to serve the market porters. As a consequence, she is one who commands such affection among residents of the surrounding streets, that the question “How’s Sandra?” is exchanged as a kind of greeting, and the answer is taken as indicative of the state of things in general in this particular corner of London.
“At first, I knew her only to go in and have a pint, which I didn’t do that often. It was only in later years that I started drinking in the Golden Heart. I’d be completely broke and she’d always lend me twenty quid.” admitted Phil with an uncharacteristic blush,“After the Hula Hoop, she let me take pictures of her anytime. I was photographing her once when she was dancing in the bar and one of the customers told me to stop, and Sandra said, ‘Phil can take pictures of me whenever he pleases, he’s my photographer.’”
We were sitting in Phil’s studio in Greatorex St, in anticipation of the arrival of the great lady for a photo session, and just as Phil began glancing discreetly at his watch, Sandra made her entrance – worthy of a heroine in a musical comedy – bearing cakes and coffees and an abundance of goodwill, and exclaiming “Oh Phil, I love you!”
As we consumed our Danish pastries, Phil took the opportunity to focus his lens upon Sandra, while reminding her of the Hula Hoop incident, a cue for further hilarity. “As you know, I like making people happy and seeing everybody happy and laughing, even though I’ve been a bit down myself recently,” she confided to me, placing a hand upon my wrist. “I used to wind people up by saying I could do it for two days non-stop. My biggest thrill was doing it at two or three in the morning,” she continued, filling with glee at the mere thought of nocturnal Hula Hooping on a traffic island, “the police would come round and they’d say, ‘Don’t worry, that’s just Sandra.’”
“So when shall we do your portrait?” queried Phil, interposing the question as if it were something far off, but catching Sandra’s attention and causing her to sit up quickly, in the manner of a school girl when a teacher enters. Phil sat behind his camera on the tripod and Sandra sat facing him, expectant and eager. “I’ve put my lipstick on, do I look alright?” she asked, seeking approval. “You look good.” granted Phil gently, a little preoccupied now, peering through his lens at her.
I sat to one side, observing both photographer and subject, fascinated by Sandra’s impassive mode of readiness, with chin lifted just as she raises her countenance at the bar to greet a customer. Over all this time it has become the gaze that she raises to meet life.
Phil shifted his attention between the view through the lens and looking over the camera to meet Sandra’s eyes. In the silence of the intimate moment, emotions coursed through Sandra’s features like currents in water and as she looked towards the lens, it was if she were looking through it, deeper and deeper.
“She’s not a person who tries to hide anything when the camera is in front of her.” commented Phil afterwards, once Sandra had departed leaving a space in the room, a vacuum where her presence had been.“There’s never a moment when she isn’t the centre of attention, but she doesn’t demand your attention, you just can’t help looking at her.” he said.
Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell
You can watch Sandra a film portrait of Sandra Esqulant by Hazuan Hashim & Phil Maxwell by clicking here.
Phil Maxwell’s latest exhibition A Sense of Place: Living in the East End runs at the Rich Mix in the Bethnal Green Rd until Saturday 6th August, and I recommend Phil’s daily photoblog Playground of an East End Photographer.
More pictures by Phil Maxwell