David Bailey's East End

From the swinging Sixties of Shrimpton and the Krays to the 2012 Games, David Bailey’s eye captures ever-mutable London

July 5, 2012

Credit: David Bailey/Catherine Bailey 1983

David Bailey’s East End

Compressor House, Royal Docks, Newham 6 July to 5 August

David Bailey, best known for his fashion photographs of the 1960s, was one of the creators of the original Cool Britannia. Now he’s back with a new exhibition concentrating on his home-town roots: the East End of London, that vast amorphous space that stretches from Commercial Street all the way to Old Ford and now beyond into the diaspora of cockneydom, the Essex of white van man.

Bailey considers himself a cockney: he was born in Leytonstone in 1938; his father was from Hackney, his mother from Bow and the rest of his family from Whitechapel. Indeed, he tells us in the catalogue that “London’s East End is in my DNA and I’m thrilled to be able to return to my roots in Newham. Now the rest of the world will focus on an area I’ve been looking at all my life.” Bailey was a wide boy on the make, a barrow boy made good, with as much in common with Lord Sugar as with Lord Snowdon.

The exhibition focuses on pictures taken in the 1960s, the 1980s and recent years. The first section features images shot for a Sunday Times Magazine article on gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray that was never published, since they went to trial just as the article was due to go to print. Bailey photographed one of their gambling clubs just before it was firebombed.

“Characters” in clubs and pubs formed the backbone of East End photography in 1960s London, but there are also images of decaying streets in Spitalfields and Stratford, unrecognisable today, with old shop fronts, children playing in bombed-out buildings and houses long since cleared to make way for tower blocks. These seem taken from another time and place entirely, something conjured up out of the imagination.

In the 1980s, Bailey was drawn back to the yuppie development of Docklands during the Thatcherite boom. The old Silvertown docks (site of this exhibition, ironically sponsored by Deutsche Bank along with the arts festival CREATE) were about to be levelled for redevelopment. Stately East London buildings in poor repair and working cranes are shot through barbed-wire fences and wire mesh. Urban landscapes would become Bailey’s signature setting in shoots with Jean Shrimpton and other now-iconic faces, and here he highlights a gritty Docklands in an image from a fashion spread for his own magazine Ritz.

The Olympic Stadium is the new centre of the East End. During the course of its construction, Bailey captured a huge blue fence marking the site where wastelands were to make way for the new buildings of the Olympic Park. Yet the photographs in this section also record the immense social changes the area has seen. There is still a vestige of the old white working classes, through images of a traditional funeral procession, but there are also Asian women in saris doing the daily shopping in Stratford’s street market. Unexpectedly, Stratford also becomes the unlikely site of rural idylls in images of the River Lea, the river that bisects the Olympic Park, and the plain of Hackney Marshes.

Whether filmed on a grainy roll of old Ilford celluloid, with a Linhof 5x4 or in digital format, Bailey’s street photographs of a captured moment in the pub or a model posed on a bomb site have an enigmatic and haunting quality reminiscent of George Brassai’s photographs of down-at-heel Paris in the 1930s or the first daguerreotypes that took minutes to pose, but in which a “ghost” sometimes seems to be wandering across. Bailey captures a costermonger offering a toast to no one in particular; a balloon floating in a hospital corridor; a finger pointing from behind a wall. Their enigmatic quality is reinforced by the lack of explanation in the exhibition’s catalogue, as if all the explanations we need are in the images, if only we could decipher them.

In 1894, Arthur Morrison, secretary to the administrators of the People’s Palace in the Mile End Road (now part of Queen Mary, University of London), introduced his collection of short stories, Tales of Mean Streets, with the comment: “The street is in the East End. There is no need to say in the East End of what. The East End is a vast city, as famous as any the hand of man has made.” In the 1920s, city explorers such as the journalist H.V. Morton could still describe the East End to middle-class readers of the Daily Express as a place of “oriental” peculiarity, where beautiful Jewesses, “strange foreign eatables” and the smell of smoked salmon and onions made any true Englishman long to catch “an omnibus back to England”.

The East End is a palimpsest of London experiences powerfully overlaid. Morrison asked “Who knows the East End?” It was more than a rhetorical question, as Bailey’s work proves, for the East End has a sort of feral vibrancy that defies categorisation and encourages enthusiasts such as the Whitechapel Society 1888 and the Jewish East End Celebration Society to go searching in its ruins and archives.

By the early years of the 20th century the East End was world famous, a strange mixture of the unwashed and the alien, made significant by Annie Besant, Charles Booth and Jack the Ripper. It played host to Jack London, Prince Kropotkin, Theodor Herzl preaching Zionism on Mile End Waste and Rudolph Rocker espousing anarchism, as well as Joseph Stalin slumming it at Railton House. The 1911 Siege of Sidney Street, where two armed anarchists fought it out with police and troops and Winston Churchill looked macho, was the subject of one of the first documentaries by Pathé News.

The area had already seen waves of Huguenot refugees escaping the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in the 17th century. The silk-weavers’ houses they built in Princelet Street and Fournier Street would slowly decay, only to be gobbled up in the 1970s by American antiquarians and the likes of Gilbert and George. Jews speaking the Yiddish of East European shtetls left bagel shops (pronounced beigel in East London), sweatshops and kosher delis, the vitality of Petticoat Lane and a host of synagogues; Bangladeshi workers would later turn Brick Lane and Middlesex Street into Banglatown, convert shops into curry houses and disused synagogues into mosques. The whole mosaic is now covered in vibrant graffiti.

The East End is still a strange and oddly alluring place. The last Jewish stonemason moved from Brick Lane some years ago, the building becoming a trendy art gallery for a time. The world that Morrison and Morton knew is as extinct as antimacassars and marcel waves. It has been replaced with wine bars and shisha joints, plush “city apartments” and Sunday market tat in Petticoat Lane, a mixture of dereliction and gentrification, including the refurbishment of the Whitechapel Gallery and the Bishopsgate Institute, both complete with restaurants offering the best in expensive dining.

My father, a true cockney who loathed the faux “realism” of soap operas such as EastEnders, would sometimes reminisce about going to fight the fascists in Cable Street in 1936. He apparently got his spectacles broken in a scuffle and got a clip round the ear from my grandfather when he came home into the bargain. The East End is defined by myriad such stories and images as real as the ever-changing landscape of poverty and prestige that David Bailey captures so wonderfully in this exhibition.

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