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A Celebration Of Colin O’Brien

November 9, 2016
by the gentle author

This week, we are making the final plans for our celebration of the life & work of photographer Colin O’Brien (1940-2016) next Thursday 17th November at St James’ Church, Clerkenwell, and I hope that as many readers who are able will join us at this candlelit event, comprising a sequence of photographs, readings, reminiscences, films and live music, followed by drinks and a reception in the crypt. Bells will ring from 5:30pm and we will commence at 6pm. All are welcome.

Colin O’Brien’s words introducing his monograph of photographs from 1948-2015, LONDON LIFE

My mother and father both came from large families of some six or seven children, as was usual in those days. Many did not live beyond infancy, dying from diseases they would survive today, and my mother often talked about her beautiful sister Eileen, who died from pneumonia when she was nine years old. Families were poor and people often went hungry. Children walked long distances to school and shoes were a luxury.

My parents grew up in Clerkenwell, which was called ‘Little Italy’ because of the Italian immigrants living there. St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church was the focus of their early lives, along with a building called ‘The Red House’ – with a distinctive red brick exterior still visible in Clerkenwell Road today. This was where they went when they needed a handout of food or clothing.

I was born on May 8th 1940 in Northampton Buildings in Northampton Street in the now-defunct London Borough of Finsbury. Soon after my birth, we moved from there to Victoria Dwellings, a sprawling series of tall Victorian buildings which ran along the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road. Then Edward, my father, left to serve in the Second World War, travelling to Germany, France and Italy before returning when I was five years old. And I cried when I saw him again because I wondered who this strange man was.

When my father came back from the war with no prospects, little money, and a son and a wife to support, he may well have wished he was back in the army but, eventually, he got a job sorting letters at Mount Pleasant. I remember finding a diary of his after he died. One entry read, “Five shillings short on the rent this week, I don’t know what I shall do,” yet he must have found the money from somewhere. He came to one of my early exhibitions at the Morley Gallery and wrote in the comments book, “I am very proud of my son and I enjoyed the exhibition very much.”

My mother, Edith, never had a career. She looked after me and her mother, Ada Kelly, who was crippled with arthritis and sat in a chair beside the radio, chuckling at Wilfred Pickles or listening to Mrs Dales’ Diary. My mother and her sister, Winnie, occasionally went ‘up west’ to look in the stores and try things on, even though they could not afford to buy them. I took some photographs of my mother trying on hats in British Home Stores in Oxford Street and laughing her head off when she saw herself in the mirror. My mother loved bright colours and flowery patterns. She made the effort to brighten up the drab surroundings in Victoria Dwellings, but it all felt so cosy that, as I grew up, I never questioned how we lived. To me it was our home, it was where I felt safe.

‘The Dwellings’ – as we called them – had survived the bombing, but were surrounded by derelict buildings and dangerous structures. For us children, these sites became our playgrounds with many exciting adventures to be had. It was part of life that we were allowed to go and play on our own in dangerous places. Our parents were too busy earning a living to worry about us overly. We learned to look after ourselves, but local people also looked out for us and, occasionally, a policeman would clip us round the ear if we were doing something wrong. We stayed out all day and played until we were exhausted, then came home to our tea before we went to bed and sank into a dream world of fantasy and romance.

Our flat was number 118, at the top of the building, and the view from the living room became my first window on the world. It was from here I looked down onto the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road – where I took images of violent car crashes and fatal accidents, and of a window cleaner perched precariously on a high ledge opposite in a snow storm. It was from my window that I saw the annual Italian procession in which I walked as a train bearer when I was six years old.

From this aerial perspective, I photographed ‘The Steps’ across Clerkenwell Road in Onslow Street, our usual meeting place as children before setting off for a day’s play on the bomb sites. From the living room, I watched trolley buses, delivery vans and women chatting. One of my photographs captures an almost-deserted crossing on New Year’s Eve with snow falling, taken while we sat during a power cut to see in the New Year by the light of a candle in 1962.

Early pictures show me carrying a box camera around and my first real photograph was of two boys leaning against a car in Hatton Garden. This is where my interest started – there in Clerkenwell in Little Italy in the London Borough of Finsbury, where I grew up with my mum and dad, and my aunts and uncles, and all my friends and acquaintances.
My uncle, William Kelly, was a taxi driver and a bit of an outsider. He rarely turned up for family gatherings but, at Christmas when I was six years old, he arrived with a parcel containing some bottles of chemicals, a printing frame and a couple of dishes. We mixed up the chemicals, took a box camera negative and put it in contact with light sensitive paper held in a small wooden frame. After we exposed it to daylight, we dipped the paper into the developer and I can still remember that moment when I first saw an image appear as if from nowhere.

My first photographic impulse was to capture the childhood world that surrounded me in Clerkenwell but, as my universe expanded and I travelled further afield, I continued to take pictures without ceasing. Shaping my perceptions and approach to existence, it was the life I recorded with my camera in Clerkenwell that made me the photographer I became.

You may also like to take a look at

So Long, Colin O’Brien

Colin O’Brien’s Last Assignment

Days Out With Colin O’Brien

Last Days Out With Colin O’Brien

3 Responses leave one →
  1. November 9, 2016

    Interesting that Colin didn’t write here about himself as an only child. Photography – like reading and swimming, or I suppose, jigsaw puzzles – often seems to have attracted those of us in that position as there is no need for other humans to be involved.

  2. Janice P permalink
    November 9, 2016

    thanks for telling us again about colin’s life. i hope there are thousands more photos for us to enjoy in the coming years

  3. Phil maxwell permalink
    November 11, 2016

    I hope the TGA can publish another book of Colin’s photographs.

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