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Seventh Annual Report

August 26, 2016
by the gentle author

Today, after publishing more than 2,600 posts and over 31,000 photographs in these pages, we arrive at the end of the seventh year of Spitalfields Life. Customarily I produce a celebratory annual report reflecting upon the anniversary of my starting to write in August 2009, but this year the moment is coloured with sadness by the unexpected death of my good friend and long-term contributing photographer Colin O’Brien a week ago.

My deepest sympathies are with Jan O’Brien, his widow after thirty-five years of married life. We plan to organise a memorial service for Colin and the date will be announced in the autumn, so that you may join us in paying your respects.

Foolishly, when I set out to write Spitalfields Life every day, it never occurred to me that the people I wrote about and whom I worked with might die, or that the acknowledgement of their passing would become part of the project. I have discovered that my ambition to pursue stories no-one else would write carries a certain responsibility, causing me to recognise that if my account is perhaps the only written record of a person’s life then I have a singular duty to do them justice.

Inevitably, many of the people whose stories you read in these pages become friends and, like others in Spitalfields, I feel the tragic loss of Rodney Archer who was such a popular figure in our community. Equally, I was alarmed to get the call from Viscountess Boudica of Bethnal Green the night her flat was burgled and I found myself wedging a broom handle across her kitchen window, where the thieves had entered, to prevent further criminal ingress. Readers will no doubt all be relieved to hear that the reports from Uttoxeter are good and the Viscountess assures me she is settling in well, up in Staffordshire.

The act of producing a story every day makes me very conscious of time passing, of the transient nature of the world and of the rapidity of change. Yet writing is both a consolation and a bulwark against all these things, a means to preserve, record and cherish the fleeting brilliance of life. Consequently, I have never had cause to regret my promise that I made seven years ago to publish a story every day, because it has filled my life with such richness of experience. Undertaking this work has introduced me to so many people that I should never have met in any other circumstances, while the constant search for subject matter forces me to explore the world more conscientiously, uncovering wonders that would otherwise pass me by.

Publishing books is another means to cherish pictures and stories that deserve permanence, and I am very proud of the three Spitalfields Life Books publications for which I was responsible as publisher in the past year – Baddeley Brothers, Cries of London & John Claridge’s East End. Baddeley Brothers tells the story of London’s oldest-established specialist printers, Cries of London celebrates four centuries of artists’ images of street traders and John Claridge’s East End is a candid insider’s portrait of an entire society observed by a distinctive photographic talent.

This November, Spitalfields Life Books is taking the bold step of publishing its first biography. The Boss of Bethnal Green is Julian Woodford’s shrewd account of the breathtakingly-appalling life of Joseph Merceron, Huguenot, gangster and corrupt magistrate, who ruled Bethnal Green & Spitalfields from his house in Brick Lane through violence and intimidation for half a century.

More recent criminals and political miscreants in the East End pale by comparison with Joseph Merceron’s staggering violence and ruthlessness, and Julian Woodford’s eloquent biography – the first on this subject – makes compelling reading for all those interested in eighteenth century London, anyone fascinated by the capital’s criminal history and everyone who loves an exciting true story well told.

And thus, with all these thoughts in mind, I come to the end of this seventh year of Spitalfields Life.

I am your loyal servant

The Gentle Author

The Gentle Author’s cat, Mr Pussy, fifteen years old and still thirsty

Published October 2015

Published November 2015

Published June 2016

For the next week, I shall be publishing favourite stories from the past year and I am delighted to announce that the distinguished Novelist & Historian of London, Gillian Tindall will then take over for the week commencing Monday 5th September to celebrate the publication of her new book The Tunnel Through Time, until my return on Monday 12th September.

You may like to read my earlier Annual Reports

First Annual Report 2010

Second Annual Report 2011

Third Annual Report 2012

Fourth Annual Report 2013

Fifth Annual Report 2014

Sixth Annual Report 2015

Save The Royal Exchange Murals!

August 25, 2016
by the gentle author

Alfred the Great repairing the walls of the City of London by Sir Frank Salisbury, 1912

The Foundation of St Paul’s School, 1509, by William F Yeames, 1905

Reconciliation of the Skinners & Merchant Taylors’ Companies by Lord Mayor Billesden, 1484, by Edwin A Abbey, 1904

Nelson leaving Portsmouth, 18th May 1803, by Andrew C Gow, 1903

King John sealing Magna Carta by Ernest Normand, 1900

A developer proposes inserting a new mezzanine in the Royal Exchange which will bisect London’s greatest murals and mask a 25cm section across most of the pictures with a silicon seal where the new floor touches the surface of the paintings.

So I asked designer Adam Tuck to create the montages at the top of this feature as an illustration of how this intervention may affect the composition of these pictures. I do not think it will be an improvement. The top strip with the words ‘Mezzanine Floor Here’ represents the depth of the floor, while the lower strip gives an indication of how the bulk of the floor is likely to mask the picture for a viewer.

It was a greivous error when obstacles were first placed in front of these paintings in the eighties, yet the existing shops do not touch the murals and it has always been possible to walk around the restaurant on the first floor and view the sequence of paintings from above. The developer claims that their new proposal will make the murals more visible, when it actually chops most of them in two, making it impossible to view them in their entirety.

The justification for turning the interior of William Tite’s Grade I listed Royal Exchange of 1844 into a Duty-Free-type shopping mall selling glitzy gifts is that this is necessary to make it ‘sustainable,’ when revenues earned by the City’s other properties are more than sufficient to sustain the Exchange.

It is a disappointing course of action, especially since the Royal Exchange is essentially a public building and, in my opinion, the City has a moral duty to maintain it as an unobstructed showcase for all to see these important murals telling the story of our capital.

Below you can view the full sequence of paintings in their glory. Arnold Bennett saw them and wrote, ‘You have to pinch yourself in order to be sure that you have not fallen into a tranced vision.’

You can view the planning application and object on the City of London Planning website

You can read the Victorian Society’s letter of objection by clicking here

The developer’s proposal

The murals as they were intended to be viewed, without obstacles

Phoenicians trading with early Britons on the coast of Cornwall by Lord Frederick Leighton, 1895

Alfred the Great repairing the walls of the City of London by Sir Frank Salisbury, 1912

William the Conqueror granting a Charter to the Citizens of London by John Seymour Lucas, 1898

William II building the Tower of London by Charles Goldsborough Anderson, 1911

King John sealing Magna Carta by Ernest Normand, 1900

Sir Henry Picard, Master of the Vinters’ Company entertaining Kings of England, France, Scotland Denmark & Cyprus by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1903

Sir Richard Whittington dispensing his Charities by Henrietta Rae, 1900

Philip the Good presenting the charter to the Merchant Adventurers by Elija A Cox, 1916

Henry VI Battle of Barnet 1471, the Trained Bands marching to the support of Edward IV by John H Amschewitz, 1911

Reconciliation of the Skinners & Merchant Taylors’ Companies by Lord Mayor Billesden, 1484, by Edwin A Abbey, 1904

The Crown offered to Richard III at Baynard’s Castle by Sigismund Goetze, 1898

The Foundation of St Paul’s School, 1509, by William F Yeames, 1905

The Opening the first Royal Exchange by Queen Elizabeth I by Ernest Crofts, 1899

Charles I demanding the Five Members at the Guildhall, 1641-42, by Solomon J Solomon, 1897

The Great Fire of London, 1666, by Stanhope Forbes, 1899

Founding of the Bank of England, 27th July 1694, by George Harcourt, 1904

Nelson leaving Portsmouth, 18th May 1803, by Andrew C Gow, 1903

Destruction of the Second Royal Exchange in 1838 by Stanhope Forbes, 1899

Opening of the Royal Exchange by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, 28th October 1844, by Robert W Macbeth, 1895

Women’s Work in the Great War, 1914-1918, by Lucy Kemp-Welch, 1922 (Only a black and white image is available)

Blocking of Zeebrugge Waterway, St George’s Day, 23rd April 1918, by W L Wyllie, 1920

Their Majesties King George V & Queen Mary visiting the Battle Districts in France, 1917, by Sir Frank Salisbury, 1917

National Peace Thanksgiving Service on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, 6th July 1919, by Sir Frank Salisbury, 1919

Modern Commerce by Sir Frank Brangwyn, 1906

Images courtesy of the Mercers’ Company

You may also like to take a look at

Dorothy Annan’s Murals

An Excursion To Tudeley

August 24, 2016
by the gentle author

Today I publish an account of my last assignment with Photographer Colin O’Brien, who died last week, a day’s excursion with a coachload of East Enders picking blackcurrants in Kent organised by Company Drinks. Details of a Memorial Service for Colin O’Brien will be announced in the autumn.

Colin & I met at quarter-to-eight, in the cool of the morning, at Empress Coaches in Bethnal Green and were the driver’s only passengers until we reached Dagenham, where he pulled up on the pavement next to the library and eager blackcurrant pickers embarked clutching their pots and bags.

Mid-morning, the coach was winding down a Kentish farm lane and all seemed well until an autocratic landowner driving a four-by-four pulled up beside us, exasperated at being unable to pass. When it was explained that we were a coachload of blackcurrant gleaners, he feigned alarm as if had caught a gang of thieves red-handed and, after a tense conversation with various agricultural employees, it became clear that we were expected at a neighbouring farm. As the coach returned down the lane, Colin & I drew great amusement in imagining this ‘gentleman farmer,’ breathing a sigh of relief that no ‘dirty cockneys’ would get their hands on his blackcurrants this year.

Arriving at our destination, we passed through the tiny village of Tudeley, lined with twisted weather-boarded cottages, before we saw the field of blackcurrants, stretched out in long lines and harbouring their purple fruit beneath dense foliage. These rows had already been picked mechanically several times, as we could tell by the thousands of blackcurrants littering the ground, but since it was no longer viable to harvest the bushes again this season we were permitted to glean the remaining fruit that would otherwise go to waste.

With barely a word, everyone set to work, pleased to be in the fresh air after sitting on the coach and excited by the prospect of blackcurrants. Pulling back branches revealed purple fruit hanging in the shade, sharp on the tongue yet irresistibly tangy. A disparate bunch, we were all unified in our delight at blackcurrants and took the opportunity to taste as many as we could, occasionally whooping with joy to discover branches heavy with fruit concealed beneath the leaves.

Colin worked his way up and down the rows with his camera, and had no problem finding subjects who were eager to show off their precious harvest of blackcurrants, while I picked pint-sized cups of fruit which I donated to boost the haul of some younger pickers.

At lunchtime, while Colin & I took a break from the heat of the sun in the shade of a hedge, eating our sandwiches with the other pickers, I confessed to him that I had spied a beautiful country pub far away across the field and I could not resist the thought that it would be a very attractive prospect to pay a visit for refreshment. Colin confided that to me that the very same thought had occurred to him and confirmed that he had taken his set of portraits. Yet we both agreed that we felt uncomfortable admitting this idea to the other pickers, even though we had effectively completed our assignment.

Consulting the map of Tudeley, while munching my sandwiches, I noticed that there was a church at the centre of the village. ‘Why don’t we go for a walk up the road and visit the church?’ I suggested to Colin and then, with his assent, we made our departure from the group, explaining our purpose and sloping off down the lane. ‘Shall we go in and have a drink now or shall we visit the church first?’ I asked Colin once we arrived at the pub. ‘Let’s walk up to the church first,’ Colin decided, and I dutifully accompanied him up the hill, leaving the pub behind yet hopeful of a swift return.

The first wonder we encountered was Tudeley Hall, a charismatic half-timbered medieval pile with twisted brick chimneys and a line of old red roses blooming in the front garden. Tall trees lined our path upon either side, arching in a vault over the road and filtering the rays of the sun to spectacular effect. ‘You could wait for days for the light to be as it is now,’ said Colin, as he pressed his shutter to capture a picture of the lane shimmering in hazy sunlight.

Turning off the main road, we approached the church up a pathway lined by well-kept cottages with gardens in flower, arriving at the graveyard dignified by ancient yews, and sat there upon a bench to admire the view across the farmland of Kent in the stillness of the summer afternoon. We were ready to walk back down the hill to the pub, when we decided to go inside the church and take a look.

An unexpected revelation awaited us.  Leaving the dazzling glare behind, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the low light inside, where coloured glass gleamed with rich hues illuminating the gloom of the shadowy interior. All Saints, Tudeley, is the only church in the world to have all the windows designed by Marc Chagall.

We learnt the poignant story behind these windows – how local landowners Sir Henry & Lady D’Avigdor-Goldsmid commissioned Chagall to create the east window as a memorial to their daughter Sarah, who drowned aged twenty-one in a sailing accident in 1963, and how, when Chagall came in 1967 to see his worked installed, he fell in love with this small bare church and said, ‘I will do them all.’

Spellbound by the vision, Colin photographed each of the windows, beginning on the north side with the creation of the world from the blue void and culminating in a pair of south-facing windows executed in the golden tones of the sun, with images dissolving into light. Realising that we had to leave if we were not to keep the blackcurrant pickers waiting or miss the coach back, I only persuaded Colin to go once I had taken some pictures of him standing beneath the large east window.

I checked my watch as we walked sharply back down the hill and, when we reached the pub, I realised it was too late for a drink but instead I went inside and asked if I could use the toilet. Once I emerged from the bathroom, Colin was holding two bottles of lemonade with straws in them and we sipped upon them as we walked up the lane to the coach.

The blackcurrant pickers were waiting for us, their lips and fingers stained with purple juice. ‘We know where you’ve been!’ they teased, as we climbed on board the coach, confronting us with the realisation of how transparent our departure from the field had appeared. Fortunately, Colin was able to show his photographs of the Marc Chagall windows, serving as both our alibi and as illustrations of our adventure.

I was thinking what a lesson the day had been – that the instinct to stray was one that should not be resisted because you never know what wonders you might discover – when I fell asleep. Colin & I woke up in London and he descended from the coach at Hackney Downs, where the days’ harvest was delivered to be cooked and bottled with lemon juice, prior to being made into blackcurrant soda. I stayed with the coach until it reached the depot off Mare St beside the canal and walked back from there to Spitalfields, with my plastic box of blackcurrants in my bag.

The excursion to Tudeley was our final assignment, our last day together and the last time I saw Colin O’Brien.

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

Movements, Deals & Drinks is a project by international artist group Myvillages, founded in 2003 by Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra & Antje Schiffers. The project was commissioned by Create and is registered as a Community Interest Company with the name Company Drinks. Company Drinks is supported by the Borough of Barking & Dagenham.

You may also like to read about these other Company Drinks projects photographed by Colin O’Brien

Hop Picking at Lamberhurst

Scything on Walthamstow Marshes

Julie Price, Artist

August 23, 2016
by the gentle author

Later this week, I shall be publishing my final assignment with Colin O’Brien –  but today I am delighted to introduce you to the joyous paintings of Julie Price, whose debut exhibition opens in the New Artist Fair at the Old Truman Brewery on 9th September and runs until 11th September.

Elder St

Folgate St

Dennis Severs’ House, Folgate St

Wilkes St

Townhouse, Fournier St

Ten Bells

Leila’s Shop, Calvert Avenue

Arnold Circus

Wilton’s Music Hall

Julie Price in Spitalfields

Paintings copyright © Julie Price

You may also like to take a look at

Peta Bridle, Artist

John Allin, Artist

Eleanor Crowe, Artist

Alfred Daniels, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist

So Long, Colin O’Brien

August 22, 2016
by the gentle author

With deep sadness, I announce the loss of my good friend and long-term Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien, who died unexpectedly last Friday aged seventy-six. Later this week I will publish our final assignment together, undertaken a week ago, when we enjoyed an excursion picking blackcurrants in Kent.

A recent portrait of Colin O’Brien in his Hackney kitchen by Bob Mazzer

One day, I was walking through Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell when a photograph caught my eye through the window of a restaurant and stopped me in my tracks. I went inside and was truly astonished by a series of large black and white photographs of car crashes upon the wall. I had never seen anything like these pictures before, but the grace and accomplishment of these breathtaking images convinced me that they had been taken by one of the great photographers of our time.

Imagine my surprise when I realised that all the photographs had been taken in Clerkenwell by a photographer I had never heard of, Colin O’Brien. Immediately, I wrote to Colin and was delighted to meet a man who was as modest as he was talented. Quickly, we fell into a working partnership, creating stories together using his photographs accompanied by my words. In subsequent years, we undertook more than fifty assignments together.

It was Colin who persuaded me to become a publisher and create ‘Spitalfields Life Books,’ when he asked me to publish his photographs of ‘Travellers’ Children in London Fields’ in 2013, beginning his collaboration with book designer Friederike Huber. Two years later, they worked together to produce his authoritative and tender monograph of the capital through seven decades entitled ‘London Life,’ which I also published.

Colin once said to me that while Don McCuillin went away to photograph war and David Bailey occupied himself with fashion and celebrities, he had stayed at home and simply photographed the life of people on the street. A purist who managed to resist any commercial imperative or editorial intervention, Colin took only the photographs he pleased, resolutely pursuing his own personal interests and focussing particulary upon the everyday lives of Londoners.

Colin’s brilliant portraits of children reveal his singular empathy with the young and also his unassuming nature, never putting himself above those he photographed, so that subjects discovered a rare freedom in front of his lens, liberated by his kindly nature to present themselves as they pleased.

In his teens, Colin was fortunate enough to receive a 1931 Leica camera from a neighbour in Clerkenwell who worked as a chauffeur and ‘discovered’ it left behind by a wealthy client. It was with this lucky acquisition that Colin took much of his precocious early work, some of which was exhibited to great acclaim last year at the Leica Gallery, delivering a satisfying poetic resolution to the narrative arc of his long photographic career.

I was grateful to Colin for his reliable ability to put people at their ease, his extraordinary stamina and resilient good humour, but most of all I feel privileged to have collaborated with such an inspirational talent. My admiration for Colin’s genius only increased over time. The sheer volume of his work between 1948 and 2016 is monumental – I believe his achievement in photography is unique and incomparable, and I know he was one of the great masters of our time.

Colin marches in the Clerkenwell Italian procession in the forties

Colin with his first camera, a Box Brownie

Colin photographed by Solly, a local Photographer in Exmouth Market

Colin’s parents with their young son the roof of Victoria Dwellings, Clerkenwell

Colin as Head Boy at Sir John Cass School, Aldgate

Colin with his first Leica

Colin photographs his mother trying on hats in Oxford St in the fifties

Colin on the roof of Victoria Dwellings with St James Clerkenwell in the background

A self-portrait, skylarking with pals at the Kardomah Cafe, Oxford St

Colin looking sharp in the sixties

Colin looking with-it in the seventies

Colin at his photography show on Waterloo Station

Colin at the Aldgate Press for the printing of ‘Travellers Children in London Fields’

Colin talks about photographing the ‘Travellers Children in London Fields’

Colin at L.E.G.O for the printing of ‘London Life’

Colin at the launch of ‘London Life’ (photo by Simon Mooney)

Colin with Friederike Huber who designed ‘London Life’ (photo by Simon Mooney)

Colin taking a photo in the Italian church in Clerkwenwell with his 1931 Leica (photo by Alex Pink)

Colin O’Brien (1940-2016)

The Gentle Author’s portrait of Colin O’Brien on the balcony of the flat in Michael Cliffe House, Clerkenwell, which Colin moved into with his parents when it was newly-built in 1966

You may like to take a look at this selection of Colin O’Brien’s work

Colin O’Brien, Photographer

Colin O’Brien’s Travellers Children in London Fields

Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane Market

Colin O’Brien’s Clerkenwell Car Crashes

Colin O’Brien at the Clerkenwell Italian Parade

Colin O’Brien Goes Back to School

The Fly-Pitchers of Spitalfields

Gina’s Restaurant Portraits

Colin O’Brien’s Kids on the Street

At Colin O’Brien’s Flat

At the Hula Hoop Festival

Colin O’Brien’s Pellicci Portraits

At Carters Steam Fair

Gerry Cottle, Circus Showman

At Smithfield Christmas Eve Meat Auction

So Long, Clerkenwell Fire Station

Peter Sargent, Butcher

At the Blind Beggar

On the Buses With Colin O’Brien

At the Whitechapel Mission

Among the Druids on Primrose Hill

Jasmine Stone & Sam Middleton, Campaigning Stratford Mothers

At the Spitalfields Nativity Procession

Last Orders at the Gun

Scything on Walthamstow Marshes

Hop Picking at Lamberhurst

At the Blessing of the River

Elegy for Upton Park

George Parrin, Ice Cream Seller

At Denmark St

Colin O’Brien’s Last Days of London