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At The Painted Hall In Greenwich

May 22, 2017
by the gentle author

Currently, there is a once in a lifetime chance to climb up and view James Thornhill’s astonishing painted ceiling at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich at close quarters. When you walk into Christopher Wren’s magnificent dining hall, you are confronted with an intricate silver structure of scaffolding filling the space and you ascend the staircase to enter another world. You discover yourself then suspended in the half-light of an arena tinged with a golden hue by the vast painting glowing overhead.

You crane your neck to make sense of the brushstrokes and, from the gloom, faces emerge peering back at you. Out of the depth of the shadows, figures become manifest where there was only miasma upon first glance. You are in the world of the gods and immortals. It is the greatest mixed metaphor in London – here are figures representing rivers and some representing seasons, while others incarnate abstract notions like ‘peace’ and ‘fame.’ And there are portraits of kings and queens, and the astronomer royal, and the first inhabitant of the naval hospital, a bearded gentleman who warms his hands by the fire in the embodiment of ‘winter.’

As you walk around with your eyes cast upwards, new images appear as others vanish generating an unavoidably surrealist experience. It is something like the disorientation of a dream or stumbling through a crowd drunk. There is no reference point to appreciate the relative scale of the figures hurtling towards you from heights above and the unexpected physicality of these larger than life bodies is startling when you find yourself confronted with a huge heaving cleavage or a monstrous pair of buttocks.

Fortunately, there are helpful guides on hand to show you photographs of the entire painting, thus permitting you to fit it all together in your mind and appease the prevailing confusion. They explain that once James Thornhill completed the murals in the dining hall, it was deemed too grand for the retired seaman who were the residents of the hospital and they were shunted off to eat their dinners in the undercroft instead. An alternative theory might be that this phantasmagoric vision with so much gratuitous nudity and chaotic action could hardly be conducive to the digestive process of the superannuated sailors who – at very least – would be in danger of contracting a stiff neck from gazing at the epic panoply overhead rather than contemplating their modest vittles in front of them.

Christopher Wren designed both the Royal Naval Hospital and St Paul’s Cathedral

James Thornhill’s next commission was to paint the interior of the dome at St Paul’s

King William

William & Mary

In 1797, a mischievous painter engraved his name on Queen Mary’s chest

Old Father Thames

Portrait of the first inhabitant of the Royal Naval Hospital in the guise of ‘winter”

John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, and his telescope

Flamsteed’s prediction of an eclipse in April 22nd 1715 was painted here over a year before the event

George I and descendants in the House of Hanover

James Thornhill’s self portrait

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At The Old Royal Naval College Greenwich

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In The Woods With Barn The Spoon

May 21, 2017
by the gentle author

Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven travelled a long way from Stepney to spend a weekend in the deep woods with celebrated East End Spoon Carver Barn the Spoon and members of his Green Wood Guild, and she sent me these pictures as a record of her pastoral adventure. ‘It was a beautiful place, wild and free, half-exposed to the trees and skies with a fire pit constantly alight to boil the kettle and a wood burning stove cooking delicious apple crumbles,’ Patricia recalled fondly, ‘And a memorable experience to witness Barn in his element, selecting trees, cutting them down and transforming them into beautiful spoons.’

Barn the Spoon goes in search of a tree

Barn spies a suitable tree

Barn selects a tree

Barn clears the undergrowth with his axe

Barn fells the tree

Barn examines his tree

Barn carries the tree back to camp

Barn’s tools

Barn carves a spoon with his axe

One of Barn’s spoons

Barn’s woodland spoon rack

Diverse spoons by Barn

The fire pit

Barn fries the bacon

Barn’s woodland fare

Sausages for all

Members of the Green Wood Guild dine in the open air

Dusk gathers

The cabin where Patricia Niven spent the night

Enfolded by woods

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

Barn the Spoon’s book SPON – A Guide to Spoon Carving & the New Wood Culture is published by Virgin Books on 24th May and his shop is at 260 Hackney Rd, E2 7SJ

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Moyra Peralta’s Spitalfields

May 20, 2017
by the gentle author

Men sleeping outside Itchy Park

“I felt Spitalfields was my home at one time, even though I was never resident there apart from staying at Providence Row for the occasional night.” admitted photographer Moyra Peralta when she showed me these pictures, taken while working in the shelter in Crispin St during the seventies and eighties.

Every time I look at these, I see myself there,” she confided, contemplating her affectionate portraits of those she once knew who lived rough upon the streets of Spitalfields, “yet it doesn’t feel like me anymore, now that I am no longer in touch and I have no idea how many have died.” Despite its obvious social documentary quality, Moyra’s photography is deeply personal work.

Recalling the days when she and her partner, Rodger, studied under Jorge Lewinsky in the sixties, Moyra revealed the basis of her vision. “It opened up the mental apparatus to see photography not as an amateur hobby but as something fundamental to life. And it was doing the Soup Run that triggered off the urge to record. At first, I couldn’t believe what I saw, because in the day you didn’t see it. At night, you see a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise see – hundreds of men sleeping at the back of a hotel in Central London, when there was no sign of them by day because they went to the day shelter.”

Forsaking her chosen path as a teacher, Moyra spent more than a decade working in shelters and on the street, befriending those with no other place to go and taking their pictures. “I started out as a volunteer on the night Soup Run, but once I got to know the men individually, I thought – that’s it, I don’t want to be anywhere else. I realised they didn’t lose their soul, and that spirit was what turned me from a volunteer into a full-time worker at Providence Row,” she confessed.

“Our children were exposed to the scene and spent every Christmas with us at the night shelter where we volunteered. We used to have people home for the weekend as long as they didn’t drink, but I think they found it quite a struggle to stay sober for two days. I could quite understand why people would drink, when it’s so cold you can’t sleep and you’re scared of being attacked by ‘normal’ people.”

Gerry B. in his cubicle at Providence Row – “Gerry sent me a letter containing only a few lavender seeds and a one pound note – the significance of which I shall never know,  for Gerry died a few days later. He always had been so very kind and I never quite knew why. Like many before him, his remains were laid in a pauper’s grave.

I remember, above all, his intervention on my first evening at work, when men in the dormitory had planned a surprise to test the reaction of the greenhorn on the night shift. Forewarned is forearmed, and the equanimity with which I viewed a row of bare bottoms in beds along the dormitory wall stood me in good stead for future interaction.”

“The women’s entrance at the corner of Crispin St & Artillery Lane, where Sister Paul is seen handing out clean shirts to a small group of men.”

Dining Room at Providence Row.

“The two Marys, known as ‘Cotton Pickin’ and ‘Foxie,’ making sandwiches at Providence Row for the daily distribution in Crispin St.”

Providence Row Night Refuge, Crispin St.

Men waiting for sandwiches outside Providence Row Night Refuge, 1973. “Established in 1880, this refuge offered free shelter and food to those who needed it for over one hundred years.”

Market lorries in Crispin St.

White’s Row and Tenterground.

Charlie & Bob outside Christ Church. “Charlie was a well-known East End character and Bob was my co-worker at the night shelter.”

Charlie, Bob & J.W. “Charlie rendering ‘Danny Boy’ to his captive audience.”

Charlie & Bob.

Sleeping in a niche, Christ Church 1975. “The crypt was opened in 1965 as a rehabilitation hostel for meths and crude spirit drinkers.”

Mary M. in Spitalfields.

“In Brushfield St beside Spitalfields Market, Dougie is seen having his lunch at ‘Bonfire Corner.’ Traditionally there had been a fire on this corner since the fifties.”

Sylvia, Tenterground 1978. “This homeless woman slept rough but accepted meals from Providence Row in Crispin St.”

Brushfield St, 1976. “Discarded vegetables at the closing of each market day proved a godsend to people on low incomes.”

Painter, Providence Row.

The bonfire corner at Spitalfields Market, 1973. “There had been deaths here from market lorries reversing. Ted McV., however, died of malnutrition and exposure. “


Old Mary, seventies.

John Jamieson, Commercial St 1979.

John Jamieson smiling.

J.W. with harmonica

J.W. & Pauline in Whitechapel, eighties

Pauline in Whitechapel, eighties.

Willie G. in pensive mood, rolling a fag in Whitechapel, 1976.

Gunthorpe St, 1974

Michael, Cable St 1973

Moyra & her partner Rodger in Spitalfields, late seventies.

Photographs copyright © Moyra Peralta

Signed copies of ‘NEARLY INVISIBLE,’ including these photographs and more by Moyra Peralta plus writing by John Berger & Alan Bennett, are available directly from Moyra for £5 plus £2 postage. Email to get your copy.

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East End Toy Manufacturers of 1917

May 19, 2017
by the gentle author

Seeking lost East End toy manufacturers by studying copies of GAMES & TOYS, a trade publication from 1917, recently in the V & A Museum of Childhood Archive in Bethnal Green, I was struck by the irony of the tragic contrasts in this magazine – where celebratory warlike advertisements selling toy guns and tanks to boys sit alongside features promoting ‘patriotic’ companies employing wounded soldiers in toy manufacture.

Images courtesy V & A Museum of Childhood Archives

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East Enders In Uniform

May 18, 2017
by the gentle author

In this selection from Philip Mernick‘s splendid collection of cartes de visite from nineteenth century East End photographers, I publish portraits in which clothing and uniforms declare the wearer’s identity. All but two are anonymous portraits and I have speculated regarding their occupations, but I welcome further information from any readers who may have specialist knowledge.

Superintendent of a Mission c. 1880

Dock Foreman 1891-4

Merchant Navy Officer c. 1880

Policeman c. 1880

Sailor c.1880

Beadle in Ceremonial Dress c. 1900

Private in the Infantry c.1890

Indian Gentleman 1863-5

Naval Recruit c. 1900

Sailor Merchant Navy c.1870

Chorister c. 1890

Cricketer c. 1870

Merchant Navy Officer c. 1870

East European Gentleman c. 1910

Clergymen c. 1890

Telegram Boy c.1890

Member of a Temperance Fraternity c. 1884

Naval Recuit

Policeman c.1890

Merchant Navy c. 1870

Royal Navy  1887/8

This sailor’s first medal was given by the Royal Maritime Society for saving a life, his second medal is the Khedive Star Egyptian Medal and the other is the British Egyptian Medal. The ribbon on his cap tells us he served on HMS Champion, the last class of steam-assisted sailing warships. In the early eighteen-eighties, HMS Champion was in the China Sea but it returned to the London Dock for a refit in 1887 when this photograph was taken, before going off to the Pacific.

Photographs reproduced courtesy of Philip Mernick

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