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Upon The Subject Of C A Mathew’s Pictures

March 6, 2014
by the gentle author

In September 2010, I wrote speculatively about the photographer C A Mathew and his pictures of Spitalfields 1912 held in the collection at the Bishopsgate Institute. Today I reconsider the nature of his fascinating work and its meaning in the light of new research into his life by Vicky Stewart.

What is the subject of this photograph?

This is – perhaps – the least-examined of the twenty-one photographs which Charles Arthur Mathew took in Spitalfields on Saturday 20th April 1912. It is entirely lacking in the drama of spontaneous street life that has drawn a wide audience to his other photographs in recent years. Yet – although it may appear to the contrary – this curiously mundane picture is not without interest, since it is the key to understanding C A Mathew’s intentions as a photographer on that day.

From the evidence of this picture, it is apparent that his primary intention was not to capture the people of Spitalfields – who have come to form the central point of interest in his photographs, a century later. The fact that C A Mathew made this handsome yet unremarkable commercial building the subject of his photograph, while neglecting to take a picture of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church nearby, also tells us that he was not setting out to photograph sights of historic or cultural interest. It raises the question whether the qualities we appreciate in his work today were merely incidental to C A Mathew’s photographic intention.

Following in his father’s profession, C A Mathew worked as Clerk to the District Surveyor in Walthamstow in the first decade of the last century before setting out to make a living as self-employed photographer in 1910 at the age of forty-seven, two years before he came to Spitalfields. He was familiar with using a surveyor’s tripod and it would not have been very different setting up a camera. Furthermore, C A Mathew labelled his Spitalfields pictures in his precise surveyor’s handwriting and it is this information which reveals their subject.

He gave each of the pictures their locations and several are also labelled to indicate sites in the photograph where buildings have been demolished, and those portraying streets leading to these sites are labelled with their width to the nearest inch. Thus the nature of C A Mathew’s commission becomes apparent, he was undertaking a photographic survey to permit comparison of development sites. The primary importance of access suggests they were developments that would be used by large numbers of people.

In fact, the vacant lots he photographed in Steward St, Crispin St, Wheler St and Norton Folgate are all within reach of the Central Line and a debate about the viability of an additional station between Liverpool St and Bethnal Green has rumbled on for more than a century. The picture of 92 Middlesex St reproduced above and others to the south of Spitalfields in Cutler St and Devonshire Sq are situated in the vicinity of the line between Liverpool St and Aldgate, suggesting that C A Mathew’s pictures were in service of future railway development. Yet, frustrating any conclusion, C A Mathew’s prints reveal no indication of who commissioned him and the coming of World War I precluded whatever proposal was being considered.

Thus the paradox of C A Mathew’s pictures is that his unusually natural portrayal of people in the street, which permits us to connect with them, stems entirely incidentally from a technical photographic survey. C A Mathew was not actually photographing the people, they are simply curious bystanders watching him at work who got recorded for eternity as a byproduct of his task and, in several pictures, he may even have asked them to stand back out of the way. Consequently his work lacks the preconceptions of his age. He did not set out the deliver a picturesque view to charm us or use photography to expose the poverty of the East End in order to draw our sympathy.

C A Mathew’s commission was to make series of technical photographs that showed the built environment clearly. The irony is that it was his complete lack of ego or aspiration to an artistic style which produced photography of the highest calibre. Transcending his own subjectivity and that of his contemporaries, his fascinating images speak across time and offer us a uniquely unclouded window into our own past without any moral or aesthetic judgement.

We may conclude that C A Mathew’s pictures were not the result of filling time while waiting for a delayed train at Liverpool St Station, as I once imagined, nor of a wealthy plutocrat commissioning a record of his beloved childhood streets, as has also been previously suggested.

Historically, Spitalfields has been an area defined by volatile change – from the time Henry VIII dissolved the Priory of St Mary Spital and turned their lands into his artillery ground, to our own day when Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, acted in a similar vein last year by insisting upon the demolition of the Fruit & Wool Exchange against the unanimous wishes of the elected local council.

We value C A Mathew’s pictures for their human quality, in offering the best vision we have of life a century ago in a place that has seen dramatic social change. Yet it appears his beautiful pictures were themselves the outcome of this same process of relentless urban redevelopment that was ultimately to remove the people he photographed from the streets.

Steward St and Artillery Lane, buildings demolished 1907

Crispin St and Duval St, buildings demolished 1908 - the development site can be seen to the left and right of the pub

Wheler St, width 23ft, no 88 demolished 1891 - the development site is down the street to the right

Vacant site on Norton Folgate

Artillery Lane from Bishopsgate, width 16 ft 3 inches - primary access to the Steward St site

Sandys Row, 13ft 8 inches, looking south from Artillery Lane – access to the Steward St site

Spital Square, width 18ft - access to the Wheler St site

Widegate St 16ft looking towards Artillery Passage 8ft 6 inches & Sandys Row intersecting - access to both Steward St and Crispin St sites.

Frying Pan Alley, access to the Crispin St site - the children have been told to stand back

View looking south towards Aldgate Station, showing space occupied by Inner Circle Railway taken from Cutler St at the corner of Harrow Alley and looking down Back Gravel Lane.

C A Mathew photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

Exhibition of C A Mathew’s photographs opens at Eleven Spitalfields in Princelet St on Friday 7th March and runs until 27th April

Take a look at more of C A Mathew’s photographs and read my earlier stories

C A Mathew, Photographer

In the Footsteps of C A Mathew

In Search of C A Mathew

C A Mathew at Brightlingsea

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Libby Hall permalink
    March 6, 2014

    The amazing detailed research Vicky Stewart had done on C.A. Mathew has made what seem, to me, to be quite ordinary photographs into something far more special. Knowing who this man was who took these really quite pedestrian photographs, and why he took them, give that one day in 1912 an even more magical feeling of a run-of-the-mill day frozen in time.

    In the late 19th century and early 20th century the London County Council commissioned hundreds of absolutely superb quality photographs that are available today in beautifully reproduced books – photographs taken by mostly anonymous photographers. Compared to those photographs I think it’s important the Mathew’s photographs are not romanticised into something they are not. Vicky Stewart’s meticulous research and the Gentle Author’s interpretation of that research, give us a far more realistic and grounded sense of what these photographs were than some of the more exaggerated hyperbole that seems to be surrounding this photographer at the moment.

  2. March 6, 2014

    Yes, such were the times. — Nowadays those people are suspiciously “observed”, who DO NOT play and take photos with their smartphone (because they haven’t got one luckily) …

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  3. Peter Holford permalink
    March 6, 2014

    Tremendous piece of research that gives context to the photos and thereby provides information the eye doesn’t necessarily see. That is the tragedy of so many old photos, especially the family albums of nameless people whose names were not matched to the photos.

  4. isa permalink
    March 7, 2014

    Stunning photographs showing .a bygone time of people and places captured for ever.

  5. March 7, 2014

    A fascinating article and interpretation of the photographs. Also intriguing to speculate on what plans may have been afoot!

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