“Streets”, a collection of photographs from the 1950s, is testimony to a bygone age but also one of (post-war) austerity in London’s East End.
The residents are proletarian and cash poor – it would be decades before the term ‘gentrification’ would be used to describe the changes this part of London would undergo – and the photographer Nigel Henderson (1917-85) has a canny eye for what defines their material environment.
World War II ended in 1945 but it was 1954 before food rationing finally ended in the UK. The great socialist reforms instituted by the post-war Labour government were beginning to take effect but life was hard for the working class.
There were no supermarkets, fridges were strictly for the wealthy and shopping for food was often a daily affair.
Children played in the streets, advertising and Americanization was in its infancy – ‘stop here for American comics’ reads one sign outside a shop that also boasts being an ‘authorized agent for BIRO and refills’.
“Another London” is also a set of images of London, covering the years 1930 to 1980, this time by visitors from overseas, many of whom emerged as the twentieth-century’s finest photographers, who came with their cameras in tow.
They travelled from other parts of Europe, the United States, what was then the Soviet Union, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. As outsiders they could see the blatant class differences that separated the city’s human population as if they belonged by nature to entirely unrelated species.
Bill Brandt was born and raised in Germany but came to live in London in 1933 and one of his photographs, taken four years later, of a kneeling woman washing the doorstep of her home in Bethnal Green, is typical of the quality of the images brought together in “Another London”.
Brandt’s camera is positioned at pavement level, framing the woman by the vertical doorjamb on one side and the horizontal line of the doorstep she is scrubbing clean.
Her right hand is submerged in the bucket of water by her side, her gaze directed downwards towards the soapsuds on the doorstep and – investing the scene with a saintly aura– the woman’s torso slightly askew in the manner of a Renaissance Madonna or a Vermeer domestic servant: a portrayal of working-class life as art; and the viewer is left yearning to know this woman’s name, her family and her whole life.
Other photographs capture different positions on the spectrum of London’s class system: a rich fur-clad dame reclining in her carriage on The Mall (Inge Morath); English nannies toiling as they push privileged babies in prams (Bruce Davidson); city toffs in bowler hats (Milon Novotny); patriots waiting in Trafalgar Square for a royal occasion (Cartier-Bresson).
“Streets” and “Another London”, without inviting nostalgia, capture life as it was once lived in London.
Nigel Henderson’s “Streets” is edited by Clive Coward, and “Another London” is edited by Helen Delaney and Simon Baker. Published by Tate Publishing.