I’ve written before about the Photographers’ Gallery in Soho and it remains a favourite spot as the exhibitions there are invariably fascinating, whatever the theme. What’s more the cafe’s pretty good and the shop has far too many photographic goodies to be kind to anyone’s wallet. However, when their lens turns to one of the iconic British midcentury photographers, it becomes a very special place for us indeed.
And that’s certainly the case with their current exhibition of the work of Roger Mayne. Mayne’s photographs are the pictures that provide the real life illustration of the world described by Colin MacInnes in Absolute Beginners and City of Spades. They reflect a time when in 1956, both ventured from the ‘nice’ parts of London’s suburbs into the decaying streets of North Kensington, or Notting Dale. There, rather than the gentrified housing we now connect with Kensington, they found the slums of Southam Street, soon to be swept away to provide room for the Westway and the Trellick Tower, housing a sometimes uneasy mix of traditional working class Londoners and the newly-arrived black immigrants, pushed out to the area by the colour bar elsewhere in the search for affordable accommodation. Beyond his technical expertise, though, the quality of Mayne’s photography lies in his search for good scenes and interesting people, rather than any attempt to create any form of social study. His shots are the more real for that, and one can believe that the individuals in them are going about their daily lives, rather than being picked out as studies to illustrate a sociological point. His streets are alive with grubby, grinning children, gossiping housewives on doorsteps, youths on the cusp between boy and manhood (with very few of them showing any sign that the concept of a ‘teenager’ was a luxury afforded to a generation who still went from school to work at an early age.
It’s not all about Notting Dale, either. A significant part of the exhibition is given over to Mayne’s photographs of Sheffield’s Parkhill Estate, depicting the new ‘streets in the sky’ in the brief moment when clearing the slums into new high rise estates seemed like a good idea, and there is a genuine contrast between the clean lines of the Sheffield flats and the crumbling dirt of Southam Street. There’s also a wonderful recreation of an exhibition staged by Mayne in Milan in 1964, featuring 310 constantly changing colour slides projected onto five screens depicting The British at Leisure. It’s enough to send you rushing home to dig out all the family holiday slides, get shopping for found slides on EBay and set them up in multiple projectors in the front room, but maybe that would be going a little too far!
Despite the lack of any social history intent in Mayne’s work, there’s also a wealth of detail for the midcentury culture buff, including some authentic London teddy boys before they were turned into the caricature figures we inherited in the 1970s as a lazy shorthand for rock’n’roll lovers. One photo in particular (sadly only seen in a catalogue) stood out to us, of a slim-tied surly youth in Brick Lane market (and interesting that what at first sight looks like a waistcoat is, at closer inspection, a sleeveless sweater). Later on, as we enthused about the exhibition to rock’n’roll polymath Martin Heaphy, he quickly dialled up the photo. ‘You mean this guy?’ he said, ‘He cuts my hair’. And that’s what makes these photographs all the more special – the realisation that, for the people in them, these iconic images were just a moment in a life, frozen and transformed into ‘art’. The exhibition explores some of this idea with a selection of the Penguin and Pelican paperbacks on which Mayne’s shots were used, including T R Fyvel’s seminal ‘The Insecure Offenders’, the handbook of the 1950s British juvenile delinquent.
With artistic appetites sated, it was time to satisfy more earthly cravings, and so a good time to head north to Portobello Road to try out the Gin Hotel. This newly-opened Gintopia builds on the existing success of the Portobello Gin brand to incorporate not only the distillery in the basement (the Ginstitute), but a bar on the ground floor, Tapas restaurant with extensive gin menu on the first floor, a private dining room and, for those intent on indulging in everything the first few floors have to offer, lodgings above. The bar menu has a lot more than gin on it, too, but we resisted temptation to stray from the path of gin and went straight into a pair of gimlets: for Mrs M a mix of house gin and Swedish Rhubarb cordial (there’s something about rhubarb and gin that just works), whilst I was inexorably drawn to a cocktail harvested from the pages of Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ comprising their Navy strength gin and lime cordial – enough to settle even my hyperactive Bopper’s Knees! A small plate of bread and olive oil cleared the palate for house special gin and tonics, each served in a bowl of a glass with an appropriate flower floating serenely on top. Billed as a ‘smoked’ gin, mine certainly lived up to its name, with a definite air of country bonfire teasing the nostrils, while Mrs M’s ‘buttery’ infusion suggested that we might want to sober up with a plate of toast on our return home. There are many interesting places to eat and drink along the Portobello Road, but this is one we’ll definitely be making a return to.
And now the links. You can catch up with all the detail on the Roger Mayne exhibition, which runs until June, along with all the other current and forthcoming shows, at the Photographers’ Gallery website. And if you visit The Distillery’s excellent website, you’ll find yourself strangely (or perhaps not so strangely) craving just a little gin and tonic before you get on with anything else.