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This Was My Landscape

May 28, 2012
by the gentle author

My Backyard, E.13 (1961) by John Claridge

“My bedroom and darkroom.  What more could you want?  Somewhere to get your head down.  Somewhere to get your print down.”

When William Wordsworth was growing up, he had an overwhelming epiphany of the power of the landscape while out in a boat upon Grasmere beneath a starry sky, and photographer John Claridge had an equally influential experience at a similar age  – in a very different kind of environment – while out on a night’s ratting expedition at a piggery next to the London Docks. “There was the glow of the lights of the dock, but all around us were vast expanses of darkness,” he told me in his excitement at recalling the wonder of the East End during his childhood in the nineteen fifties, in the days before the halogen glow which obscures the stars today.

“It was a different kind of landscape – without fields – but it was a landscape I loved, the landscape I grew up with,” John confessed, remembering the acres of bombsites and craters, wasteland and allotments that he once knew, and which he recorded in this vibrant set of pictures published today for the first time. “When I was fifteen, I was interested in motorbikes, girls and photography, though I couldn’t say in what order,” he admitted to me with a laugh.

There is a certain cast of occluded light shared by many of these photographs that is partly the result of the London smog of that era, partly mist off the river and partly the light of the early morning when John delighted to explore the East End. “I’m still an early riser, from the days of getting up at five to do my paper round.” he explained, “I’d have breakfast with my dad and listen to his stories – that was my education – then I’d cycle around in the dawn delivering papers before school each morning. You always expected something to happen, but you had to let it happen – that was part of the excitement of seeing something that you weren’t expecting to see, and then you wanted to share it.”

In the post-war East End, prior to redevelopment, the open spaces created a landscape of possibility where nature thrived, where anyone could have an allotment, and where John liked to go scrambling on his motorbike. It was a landscape that offered emotional freedom and creative space to John, who as a fan of Dan Dare and Flash Gordon, was off on his own imaginative journey.

Then, at seventeen, John had his first exhibition of photographs and Dennis Bailey, Art Director of Town Magazine, declared “They have shades of Walker Evans and Bill Brandt.”

“I didn’t even know who they were,” John revealed to me with a shrug. Yet John’s talent took the young photographer on a journey far from his native landscape, giving him a career filled with globe-trotting assignments. Today these early pictures record a place that no longer exists except as a personal landscape of memory. They show how the first landscape that met John’s eyes became the landscape upon which his vision as a photographer was shaped. And it is an epic landscape.

East End Blossom, E.1 (1960).  “Blossom on a bomb site.”

Canning Town Bridge in the Fog,  E.16 (1965).  “Shot from my motorbike (Triton) – stopped, of course.”

Sewer Bank Rd, E.13 (1964).  “My house was just over the fence to the right.”

Ford & Vauxhall,  E.15 (1960).  “Turner Prize?”

Clearing a Bomb Site, E.13 (1961). “The next street to where I lived.”

Iron Bridge, E.16 (1964).  “An iron bridge across the railway line, not far from the docks.”

The East End Horse, Allen Gardens, Spitalfields (1972).  “The horse takes a break from the harness of a dray cart.”

Smoke, E.16 (1963). “Winter’s morning looking towards Canning Town. I used to take my old scrambler motorbike and ride the bomb craters there.”

Vicky Park, E.3  (1962). “Where I used to take the occasional girlfriend.”

Canal, E.3  (1968).  “Early morning, grey day but full of expectation.”

After the Rain, E.16 (1982).  “That beautiful smell after everything’s had a good wash.”

Scrap Yard, E.16 (1982).  “Sometimes it got muddy.”

The Path, E.7 (1960). “Neglected cemetery, always so quiet.”

Allotments, E.6 (1963). ” This area always had a strange presence, a symbiosis between industrial and natural.”

The Small Creek, E.3 (1987). Daybreak.

Along the Track, E.16 (1973). “Shot from a parapet, early morning above the rail-track. I wanted a bit of height.”

Rooftops, E.3 (1982). “There was always a great man-made sculpture around, not to every one’s taste but I liked it.”

Slag Heaps, E.6 (1963). “This area seemed to always have a greyness that sat in the sky.”

Spillers, E.16 (1987). ” I loved these buildings, it was like walking into an early sci-fi movie.”

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s East End

Along the Thames with John Claridge

At the Salvation Army with John Claridge

In a Lonely Place

A Few Diversions by John Claridge

28 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina B permalink
    May 28, 2012

    Canning Town Bridge in the Fog … the grain is pure poetry
    Vicky Park … blissful tranquility
    Rooftops … AH!

  2. May 28, 2012

    So evocative of my post-war London childhood, and the contrast I experienced between it and the North Yorkshire landscape where I spent my earliest years.

  3. May 28, 2012

    What a great series, there’s so much atmosphere in these shots, a brilliant work. Please consider making a book!

  4. May 28, 2012

    Another great set John, It still annoys me that I never did anything like this, I never thought anyone would be interested in what to me was just commonplace. I just love the shot of your house with darkroom, it’s how we all started but I just converted the bathroom. G

  5. May 28, 2012

    Such nostalgic photos, and who remembers HPS these days?

  6. Jennifer permalink
    May 28, 2012

    It’s funny how as children we would go and play on the “bombsites” – this was mid sixties when there were still some around! I love these photographs they capture the East End of London so well and bring my childhood back to me as if it was yesterday.

  7. May 28, 2012

    Another stunning set. Wonderful!

  8. May 28, 2012

    Beautiful, complex moods created by many of these. The shot of the cooling tower that John loves makes me think of some story about an alien invasion of planet earth, and I have the same thought every time I pass Didcot Power Station on the train or in the car. Must get on and write that story one day.

    Funny to still come across some bomb sites in central London, NCP sites now, of course.
    Looking at East End Blossom, E.1 (1960), “Blossom on a bomb site”, I was struck most powerfully by a poignant sense of WWII East End meets Far East.

    Thanks for them all.

  9. Kev O'Neill permalink
    May 28, 2012

    Keep ’em coming,John…Especially on a monday morning when the spirits need a lift.

  10. May 28, 2012

    Another world. Thought provoking and atmospheric.

  11. Marien de Goffau permalink
    May 28, 2012

    The world of John Claridge: “The landscape I grew up with”.
    John loves it and so do we. We feel it, we see it, we enjoy it,
    I would love to see this all in a book. All series.

  12. May 28, 2012

    You had your own darkroom? Lucky blighter! I had to black out the kitchen and hope no one came in while I was working in there. Great photographs John, got any of the Triton?

  13. Ree permalink
    May 28, 2012

    So magical…I can lose myself in those photos…Imagining that I am a boy in Post-War London…Finding all manner of exciting,amazing places…LOVE this work…

  14. Ros permalink
    May 28, 2012

    More wonderful prints that bring back so clearly how things were. All of them are special and have great atmosphere though I’d single out the Small Creek at Daybreak ,Sewer Bank Road, and the cooling tower looming over the rooftops . What is the building in the centre behind the wrecked cars in the Ford and Vauxhall one? It looks like part of an old station.

  15. Chris F permalink
    May 28, 2012

    ‘The Small Creek’, what a brilliant photo… John, your pictures fill me with so many mixed emotions. I’m not articulate enough or filled with the poetry to do justice to your photos, and although I wasn’t brought up in the East End, I know these places (If that make sense). I could change the names of the places and re-title them with my own place names and they would be the landscapes of my childhood. Thank you.

  16. May 28, 2012

    I feel like I’m there and breathing that air in….cough..cough!!

  17. Adrian Taylor permalink
    May 28, 2012

    More poetry! Thank you, John. I feel I know you better now.

    Hi Janet!


  18. Lee permalink
    May 28, 2012

    My Backyard ……… The Path …….. Along the Track ……….. and Vicky Park !

    It’s all so stark ….. yet an extremely beautiful reminder of days long gone …. and very fondly remembered.

    You certainly did it your way John.

    Thank you.

  19. AnKa permalink
    May 28, 2012

    I came to the East End last year (E13) and am experiencing the changes araound the games and also some traces of the past (along the canals and around Spitalfields). The only feature I recognise is the chimney of the Truman Brewery. Thank you for showing me this very different East End. And great photos, is there an exhibition planned? 🙂

  20. dennis permalink
    May 28, 2012

    Brilliant work John, how such empty pictures can evoke life as it was then. I agree with Chris F these could be pictures of my childhood in Hull especially playing in the craters on what we as kids new as “Bombed buildings” – didn’t make for much of a cricket pitch though. Thank goodness you had the eye and inspiration to do it.

  21. jeannette permalink
    May 28, 2012

    riding the bomb craters, yeah!
    reminds me of so much.
    opening credits of The Sopranos (urban New Jersey):
    all the wonderful street games NYC children play.
    and, finally, doris lessing’s great walking odyssey as martha quest through these parts of london in The Four-Gated City. awesome, awesome, awesome. (type “bomb crater” into the search slot in the left hand column.)

  22. May 29, 2012

    These are all wonderful. Scrapyard, Small Creek and Spillers speak to me.

  23. May 29, 2012

    From the dark satanic mills of the Lancastrian north to the dusky, musty shattered edifice of London Docklands’ East End . . . they all evoke memories for my generation of the gradual resurrection from the hell of war and dereliction . . . John’s Spitalfield images capture all of this yet with a commentary of warmth and affection which leaves us believing that he really loved this “his landscape”.

  24. john edwards permalink
    May 29, 2012

    Ah! JC – The man who fell to earth. Then raised the dead to salvation by elegy of minds eye. The cooling towers always have me seeing a coffee morning for industrial giants, who, alarmed, vanished as the shutter clicked, leaving their stoneware mugs faintly steaming. The lone horse looking fit and elegant, part Percheron by the great curved strong neck and lively head. Monday to be clicked and flicked by a Steptoe skellington along the percussive stone blind windowed {‘fetid’ [Angela Burdett Coutts ] } dwellings, with a doleful ‘ ayee ‘ol ra-bonenah ‘. Very nice looking Humber Snipe or Talbot in one shot lined up against the gasworks wall.
    The creek at dawn has Ansell Adams clarity of element and contrasts. Sums up the the beauty that rack and ruin can reveal to us that see, as strong an essence of antic-romantic you could wish for.
    The favoured black horizontals in most shots here are transposed from the insults they really were to a balletic flow by the composer of the frame.
    Once again the question rises – An alien lands and asks around; is told ‘ Yes. This is what we have achieved! Not half bad eh?’ The alien decides to keep looking through the galactic list of places to settle and with a polite smile, journeys on.
    Denis Bailey was far sighted and and quietly led a lot of us to know we weren’t frantic exotics [ to quote an ex-warder who patted me down on the stairs at the Old Bailey] mad.
    What JC and some of us were recording then was clear evidence that near all about us were – stark
    raving. What I love is the peace and content of these shots, which are fundamental to the man himself – Soothes my boiler-house rage. Thank you John.

  25. May 29, 2012

    I can only imagine what went on in the darkroom John! so wonderful to see yet another stunning portfolio of your times and I have to say my favourite is the blossom, but for very personal reasons.

    They are truely beautiful,and it is such a pleasure to see them,but I still want to see them in a
    book – so important! please someone take note.

  26. Cindy S. permalink
    May 30, 2012

    Like a box of handmade luxury chocolates, we love them all and yet secretly have our favourites.
    Thank you John- Yum Yum!

  27. Brian Walker permalink
    August 17, 2012

    ghosts of the past coming to life again,what a moving experience,apart from these words,words fail me.

  28. mike ferrier permalink
    September 15, 2012

    great pic john of along the track which you took from peggy legy steps which was a shot of the old mans breakers yard manor rd e16 good times

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