Memoirs 1936–2011

Chapter 12 1962 - 63 Fournier Street

Ian Carr, Norman Sherry and Gerald Laing, Fournier Street, 1962
12 Fournier Street, 1963
Young Contemporaries Exhibition Invitation (Designer: Michael Foreman)
Painting Brigitte Bardot, 1963
British artists in Paris, 1962. From the left are: Joe Tilson, GL, Frances Moreland, Peter Phillips, Peter Blake, Dereck Boshier, Allen Jones and David Hockney (Photo: Joe 0’ Reilly)
British artists in Paris, 1962 (Photo: Joe 0’ Reilly)

Gerald and family move into a house on Fournier Street, Spitalfields.
The Young Contemporaries exhibition and the painting of Brigitte Bardot.
The 1963 Paris Biennale.

Fournier Street was built early in the 18th century by Georges Fournier, a prosperous Huguenot who carne to London as a refugee from religious persecution in France.

Most of the houses in the street date from this period and have survived more or less intact.  Poverty has been responsible for this.  Once the Huguenots had been assimilated, and after the silk weaving which was their trade had been ruined by the factory-made material which replaced it, Whitechapel gradually become a depressed and neglected ghetto where successive waves of immigrants found their first foothold in their new country -much as they did on the Lower East Side of Manhatten.  Members of this shifting population either became successful and moved on to better areas of the city, or remained poor.  Thus, neither the money nor the commitment necessary for redevelopment was available in Whitechapel and the buildings remained pretty well untouched.  Much of Fournier Street is as intact as it was in its brief heyday in the 18th century and recently it has become fashionable and expensive with the buildings restored to the splendid state of their inception.
At one end of the street stands the magnificent Hawksmoor church of Christchurch, Spitalfield - still intact and miraculously still in use; a building of such architectural importance that it is now extremely doubtful if it will ever again be allowed to fall into jeopardy.  At the other end is a neo-classical building which, since its foundation, has served as a Christian church, a synagogue and, most recently, a mosque, each reflecting the changing demography of the area.

In the early 1960s most of the houses were divided into one-room tailors’ workshops; the owners drove in each day from North London in large cars which they parked on the pavement at 6.00 am and went to work.  From my window I could see the crouching figures of men, alone in shabby but once elegant rooms, rapidly and expertly cutting out ten or twenty suits at a time from a thick pile of cloth, using hand-held electric jig saws.  These tailors, who soon gave way to yet cheaper means of production, were even then being slowly invaded by the next wave of entrepreneurs, Indians and Bangladeshis, importing and marketing produce from the Indian sub-continent.
Number 12 Fournier Street was to let; its last occupants had died or moved on and it was vacant. Like the other houses in the street, it is a magnificent example of 18th century domestic architecture.  All of the interior is panelled, the original fireplaces remain and the light-shaft for the basement kitchen window is lined with blue and white Dutch tiles.  The whole of the top floor was the silk weavers’ studio, brilliantly lit by a continuous dormer window which runs the full length of the roof. The house was ideal for my purposes but too large; or rather, the rent of the entire building was beyond my means.
Other students from St Martin’s occupied the basement and the ground floor; a rootless Canadian couple with a new baby moved into the first floor; and I was able to take over the top two floors with my young family.  The rent was £5 per week, which represented my entire grant. All other living expenses would somehow have to be found elsewhere.

The landlord remained a shadowy and insubstantial figure – I never met him face to face.  It soon became apparent that the building was infested with fleas, which gave us some idea of the quality of our predecessors.  The Council vermin control officers obliged us with a potent fumigation service, one which forced us to leave the building entirely for forty eight hours but which was completely effective.  We sanded the floors, scrubbed the woodwork, cleaned the windows and with our minimal array of furniture and possessions we took up residence in September 1962.  My wife earned extra money by looking after a couple of young children whose mothers worked -and I continued at St Martin’s, commuting daily by Tube from Whitechapel.  On the station platform there was a unique opportunity to watch the evolution of fashion, the passionate fulfilment of the newly enfranchised young who, for the first time, had a real spending power of their own which liberated their taste and enabled them to express themselves by their own choice of clothing.  When young people had to depend upon their parents for money to buy clothes, older people had a great influence over what their teenage children wore.  Hitherto, this had tended to be a youthful version of existing adult dress; but now the increasing employment of the young and the availability to them of surplus funds entirely at their own disposal allowed them freedom both of choice and self expression.  This was the original impetus which gave rise to the fashion revolution culminating in the phenomenon known as Carnaby Street.

The most vigorous and inventive ideas came from the teenagers of the East End. Their life patterns tended to a brief flowering; their search for a novel and strong identity during this butterfly moment was both intensive and short-lived because it was inevitably displaced by the next generation elbowing its way into prominence. This Darwinian imperative exists in any walk of life, but it seemed to me more remorseless and evident in that society than any other. A particular, momentary freedom removed constraint, and the availability of the primary means of production (the tailors’ workshops nearby)  facilitated its expression. Timely innovation began in the East End; they were then taken up by the high fashion designers. Much later they filtered down to the rest of the population through mass production and mass marketing, by which time the people who had created it had moved on.
I first observed this phenomenon as I stood one morning in the rush hour at Whitechapel Station. Suddenly and as if by preconceived arrangement or hidden command, every young girl on the platform that day was wearing a very long brown tweed overcoat. The conformity was similar to that of a hatch of Mayfly on a summer’s evening. Many weeks later, similar coats were available in department stores.

Sartorial matters also concerned us art students very deeply. We believed that we were moving forward to a future in which we would find a relevance to society unseen since the Renaissance. New, light, flexible but business-like was to be the look, with an accent on things American, the latter not yet available in any quantity in London shops. Jeans were as highly valued in London then as in any Communist country of the Cold War period and sneakers were almost beyond price. Tee shirts with things printed on them had been seen in magazines but were unobtainable. I printed my own; they had a drag racer and the word DRAG on them, the double meaning of which I was at that time entirely unaware. But America was only part of the picture; any outside influence might have had an effect. For instance, soon after the film “Jules et Jim” was released everyone seemed to be wearing long scarves trailing almost the ground. Attitudes remained quite liberal; a uniform had not yet been mass produced for us.
The two undisputed leaders of male fashion at St Martin’s, whose influence on the tailoring world was enormous, always wore dark suits; the jackets were cut in an Italian style, the trousers were quite tight as far as the knee then swelling out into a gentle and hitherto unprecedented flare, set off by high heeled black boots.  This was completely different from the 14 inch peg cuffs which were generally worn then.  Their hair was back-combed, high-crowned and tapering to the neck like a guardsman’s bearskin.  The precision of their appearance and the authority with which they assumed it made them a perfect visual expression.  They spent nearly all their time dancing in the Common Room, often with each other.
I had no money for clothes and limited myself to spirited hunts around the shops of the East End for blue cloth with very large white polka dots from which the narrow, ‘de rigeur’ ties could easily be made.

Probably the most extreme and committed example of these small vanities of appearance, which are to be expected and. even commended in the young, was a girl in the fashion department of St. Martin’s called X. She turned up every day, impeccably dressed in the latest and quite expensive clothes, with a tiny fluffy dog on a lead.  Her bouffant beehive of hair sported that indispensable adornment, a flattened bow made of black velvet which perched on the delicate airy mass like a dragonfly at rest.  Her blackened eye rims were cluttered with enormous false eyelashes, and she teetered on tall heels through the paint-splattered art school and past the mucky students, a criticism made flesh.

I thought she must have very rich parents to be able to be so elaborately groomed; but years later and quite by chance I learned her true story.  She in fact came from one of the poorest parts of the East End; she had stolen all of the clothes she wore and kept them all in a left luggage locker at Euston station.  Each morning she would leave her house dressed as shabbily as any of us; she would go to Euston, take her fancy wardrobe into the ladies lavatory, and deck herself out in her finest array before arriving at art school.  In the evening she would return to Euston station and revert to her true appearance.  It is hard not to admire such dedication to these high standards of appearance, even when they are made possible by morally low ones. I do not know what she did about the little dog.

Much of the East End had been demolished and was awaiting redevelopment.  Gridded networks of streets lay bereft of buildings.  Only the ground plan of the tiny houses remained.  The rooms were minute.  Occasionally in the midst of all of this destruction would stand, isolated and surreal, an untouched pub, for some legal defiant reason still trading, though with only the ghosts of its old clientele remaining.

On Saturday mornings the Petticoat Lane market would attract the knowledgeable from all over London, and we would have visits from friends who for the rest of the week lived in Chelsea.  I sometimes think of our school visits to the boys’ club in Bethnal Green, and realised now that I was in a similar position to the objects of our youthful charity.

More students from St Martin’s moved into Fournier Street. Back at last from his European travels, my old friend the jazz musician and author, Ian Carr, established himself across the street and I have a photograph of him, Norman Sherry (now the official biographer of Graham Greene) and me striding along the pavement, all apparently equally confident of our different futures.  About us, the signs sticking out from the buildings indicate the variety of the enterprises which surrounded us: Sydney Young, Furriers; M Lustig, Superior Men’s Clothing and P Sumner and Sons, Banana Merchants.

I saw little of the other occupants of Number 12.  Once I knocked on the door of the Canadians living below us and went in to find them both standing motionless at the empty fireplace, their baby in a cot beside them.  Deep in a heroin-induced stasis, they had vague smiles on their faces and made no response to any of my remarks.  It was my first experience of a drugged condition and I had no idea how I should act.  They were withdrawn entirely from the world in which I lived. They were on a methadone programme, and their lives centred entirely on the allowance they were given each week. Apart from their visits to the chemists (they knew precisely the opening hours of every late-and all-night chemist in London), they seemed to do nothing at all.

Joe Tilson, who at that time was teaching painting at St Martin’s, had a lease on a rather smart house on one of the streets which slope northwards from Kensington High Street.  The ground floor rooms, so much lighter and airier than those which I occupied, had been run together to form a large living and eating area, which was a novel idea at that time.  Joe had spent some time at the British School in Rome and had brought back with him an Italian influence which overlaid his domestic environment.  Here, he lived and worked, his cheerful enthusiasm quite infectious.  He had a thatch of dark hair, brushed forward rather like Stanley Spencer’s, and very large horn-rimmed glasses.  He dressed in dapper manner, favouring lightweight materials, and was an early devotee of the seersucker suit.  He was an accomplished carpenter and much of his work involved complex wooden construction.  He was deeply committed to what was called popular culture, though his taste was in fact quite selective, concentrating mainly on music and film and entirely omitting quite genuinely popular concerns such as football. His children grew up in an enviable atmosphere of intelligent play, surrounded by the artefacts of the Pop world.

Once a week he would invite a group of about twenty students and artists to this generous house and there would be debate and conversation.  The sessions were organised by Jann Haworth, who had arrived from the USA to attend the Slade and who contacted those fortunate enough to be invited. A regular visitor was Peter Blake, whom she later married.  He also taught at St Martin’s - a hesitant, quiet man, devoted to his eccentric interests.  These included hero worship of certain pop singers, film stars and wrestlers and fascination with the artefacts of his youth, particularly those seen in toyshop windows and fairgrounds: objects of a humble longing, bright votives which brought colour and consolation the mean grey streets of a depressed and narrow Britain.  When I first met Peter, he was painting his famous self portrait with badges and also constructing the toyshop front which is filled with the things that he loves.  In it, the commonplace is celebrated and the naive illusion unquestioned. Peter Blake’s child-like innocence is the catalyst by which these simple objects, the tinsel catch the childish eye, are turned into an urban poetry.

The weekly meetings at Joe Tilson’s house provided a vital sense of community and mutual reassurance.  Students who attended came from the Royal College, the Slade, the Royal Academy Schools; I was the only one from St Martin’s.  All of the group members were seen by their peers to be engaged on work which was new and relevant, and which had a basically Pop aesthetic,  although the term Pop Art had scarcely been invented and was certainly not one we would have thought of using ourselves.  What we had in common was an interest in certain cultural manifestations which we incorporated into the art we were making.  The selection of what might successfully be included was governed by a deliberate will to goodness, an attitude which insisted on the happiest interpretation of circumstances and an apotheosis, so to speak, of the banal.  The gloomy prognostications of the existentialists was cast out as a counter productive bore; introspection was not permitted; life was to be a Beach Party movie as soon as possible.  It was quite a shallow approach; but it was very cheerful and positive and it was precisely what the era demanded.

As a contemporary critic wrote ‘... at no time in life is one more alert to the actual moment than on that threshold of experience when one has acquired no personal past nor a real sense of the past of others: one grasps more instinctively at what is relevant here and now…’.

Late in 1962, the invitation to submit work for the annual Young Contemporaries exhibition was circulated throughout the art schools.  The logo for that year consisted of a grainy Ben-day dot black and white photograph of the face of Brigitte Bardot, on which a black annulus had been superimposed.  The stated intention of the graphic designer was that by including those two images he had inferred the type of work of which the exhibition was likely to consist. The popular icon of the film star would naturally seem relevant to our group, and the severe abstraction of the annular disc which would perhaps appeal to the numerous contemporary enthusiasts for Russian constructivism.  To me, the entire image seemed like a gift and I determined to appropriate it in its entirety.

It thus became the subject of my next painting, enlarged, gridded and recreated on a canvas five feet high.  The temerity of taking the advertisement for the exhibition and turning it into a part of the content -a complete reversal of the usual sequence of events seemed absolutely appropriate; the blurring of the contrast between advertising and art, and the cupidity of the enterprise had a perfect and inevitable symmetry.  The selectors, all students, agreed and ‘BB’, together with my paintings of ‘Cleo de 5 Á 7’ and ‘Roger and Annette’ were accepted for the exhibition which took place in February 1963.  Scarcely had I finished the painting than I was visited at St Martin’s by Roddy Maude-Roxby, who had heard about it.  His acting career had been preceded by study at the Royal College of Art and he was collecting vigorously the work of his contemporaries.  He bought the painting from me for the then generous sum of £40 and still owns it.  Thirty years later, in 1993, it was included in the exhibition ‘The London Art Scene in the Sixties’  at the Barbican Gallery in London, and has since become one of the best known images from that period.

Another circular appeared, this time inviting suggestions for a “TRAVAIL D’EQUIPE”, or cooperative work, to represent Britain at the 1963 Paris Biennale.  This was to be a mixed media project and I immediately thought of my two friends, Terry Stuart the architect, and Ian Carr the musician.  Ian suggested a grand theme -the grandest possible - ‘Birth, Life and Death’ . We put our heads together in order to come up with a means of expressing it which would utilise and conjoin our various talents in one work.  Eventually, Terry designed an innovative building, uteroid in form, and constructed like model aeroplane with formers and stringers of plywood over which was stretched a rubberise skin.  On entering it you were supposed to squeeze through a thick rubber diaphragm into the first section, which represented birth; life was a long up-hill ramp and death a dark spiral.  Ian composed and recorded music and I provided paintings and images appropriate to each section.  We built a neat and elaborate model and provided a tape recorder for the music and an accompanying text which explained the work.  We won the competition with this entry and were invited to Paris for the exhibition at Easter.
The rest of the British contingent were exhibiting paintings.  Joe 0’ Reilly, who taught at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Photography, accompanied us and took a series of brilliant photographs of the group, some of which have since become well known. In one, the British artists are shown lined up against an Art Decorative frieze of maidens and putti, embellished with animals, columns, vines, masks and formalised drapery.

Inscriptions invoke a fabled world EROS, THALIE, BUCOLIQUE.  The British artists look out towards the camera, leaning nonchalantly against the work of another age -Joe Tilson, Frances Moreland, Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, dapper-suited and expectant. Only David Hockney, boldly holding his empty glass up to the drooping penis of a sportive Eros, and I, seated lugubriously on a low ledge, strike alien notes - the one of overt and splendid confidence and the other of hesitant and quizzical doubt.