The New English Landscape

For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.

Insurgent Gardens: The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

Dalston Eastern Curve Garden © Larraine Worpole

Early in March this year an international conference was held in Austria on the theme of ‘The Child in the City’. It was organised as part of the Salzburg Global Seminar series of policy exchanges, and as one of the participants it was especially gratifying to hear two young women landscape architects – one working in Mexico City, the other in Beirut – say how much they had been inspired by their visits to the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. It was for them, they said, an international exemplar for the re-habilitation of derelict urban land awaiting development.

A crowded and enthusiastic party of supporters was held at ‘the Curve’ on Sunday, 9 April, organised to draw attention to the plight of the garden, now threatened by development. People came to show their affection for this unique public space, and to urge that it be protected against future development – whatever its temporary status might have been once – given its phenomenal success. In a short time the Dalston Eastern Curve has become one of Hackney’s best-loved meeting places, which may not have been predicted, but is now an established fact. And when the facts change, as John Maynard Keynes once wisely said, opinions (and decisions) should change too.

Speakers included landscape architect Jo Gibbons and architect Liza Fior, whose separate practices came together to instigate the project through the process of engagement with the community, alongside French architects, EXYZT (whose own involvement resulted from the Barbican’s ‘Radical Nature’ exhibition in 2009). It grew out of a Design for London initiative called ‘Making Space in Dalston’. Both said the popularity of the garden and its ecological impact had grown with the imaginative way it was managed for people as well as for plants, while dozens of admirers ranging in age from 8 to 80 queued up to testify how much pleasure the garden had given.

Two themes recurred in what people said was most important to them. Firstly that the garden had succeeded because of the dedication and love its workers and hundreds of volunteers had put in over the years – and you don’t often see the word love in many ‘regeneration’ mission statements. Secondly, that what made Hackney such a special place was that it was precisely a place where people did such things – especially around Dalston Junction (think Four Aces Club, think Centerprise, think Free Form, think Arcola theatre, think Café Oto, think Ray Walker’s great Peace Mural). Without these radical, eccentric, people-based projects, which attract interest from all over the world, the junction would be just another angry traffic jam churning out particulates into the lungs of all the passers-by. The borough has always been a social laboratory, and that’s what makes many people want to live in Hackney, rather than the enticement of expensive apartments and opportunities for fine dining.

Jardins insurgents: the Barcelona gathering in 2001 on new urban parks

So if Hackney finds an internationally-admired exemplar of urban renewal on its doorstep, of the kind hoped for by the 2001 Barcelona conference on Jardins Insurgents, giving people in places like Mexico City and Beirut something to aim for, it would be a betrayal to allow speculative development once again to triumph over proven community need. There are so few success stories in sustainable urban renewal, to have one that grows in reputation by the day is why so many people are now resisting it being bulldozed to the ground – especially to make way for yet another retail corridor of uncertain provenance or future. Whatever happens in future, do visit the garden to see what an amazing place it is, and support the campaign to save it (and as a result save Hackney from becoming just another high-end residential quarter at the same time). The future is a garden, not a discount store.


For more details about the campaign to save the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden:


John Berger 1926 – 2017


I first read John Berger in the late 1960s in his occasional pieces for the weekly journal, New Society. They were quite unlike anything else in that sociologically-inflected but much admired magazine, often including drawings and small fragments of poetry. One short essay concluded by citing a Russian proverb – ‘Life is not a walk across an open field’ – which I’ve remembered to this day. At some point New Society began to run extracts from a forthcoming book by Berger in collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The story of a country doctor, which, on publication in 1967, I actually bought new. This was a rare event for a book collector on limited means as I was then. It soon became the work that, more than any other, re-shaped my imaginative life, fostering an abiding fascination with the relationship between writing and photography, as well as investigating what might be meant by the idea of a life’s vocation.

With echoes of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, or Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest, it documented the daily round of a real-life doctor, Dr Sassall, serving a small community in rural Gloucestershire, in circumstances where for many of his patients life was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. In short, it was about the ethics of vocation, which as someone then training to be a teacher was becoming an important question to be asking oneself. For although I knew Berger to be a self-declared Marxist, this deeply sympathetic book celebrated the idea of vocation over and above the reductionist view of teaching and other public professions espoused by mainstream Marxist ideology.

Berger saw Dr Sassall as ‘a clerk of the records’, a dutiful man who listened to the stories people told him about themselves and their lives, thus validating their experiences. Jean Mohr’s photographs widened the scope and ambition of the book with a series of portraits of Sassall at work, but also of the landscape he traversed daily, a rural landscape that provided the background for his patients, for some the only landscape they would ever know from birth to death. For Berger, the natural world was not simply a stage set, for in A Fortunate Man he wrote that: ‘Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.’

He and Mohr later recalled that they had to negotiate their respective roles in the making of this book, so that what at first had been in danger of becoming a traditional text illustrated by photographs needed instead to become ‘a conversation, building on, rather than mirroring, one another.’ The effect was a complete re-invention of documentary form, with the words and the photographs independently complementing, independently challenging, but amplifying and enriching each other, a mode of working from which Jason Orton and I learned much. Berger frequently collaborated with others, perhaps most famously with Jean Mohr, but also with film-maker Mike Dibb on the TV series, ‘Ways of Seeing’, and painter John Christie. His life was constantly lived in conversation with others, both the living and the dead, close by and across the world.


Another two books by John Berger have a particular significance for me. His 2005 collection of stories about meetings with the dead, Here is Where We Meet, is one. I had thought I was somewhat eccentric in regarding the companionate dead – those people I knew who had since died – as dear to me as many of my living family and friends – but so did Berger. But there was an additional pre-occupation which Berger addressed directly – and again unusually – when he gives the dead the role of returning to the earth to repair what has been broken. (There is a long established Talmudic belief that the work of the good on earth is to repair the world). Thus he has his mother, who after dying returns to Lisbon to live her second life, where Berger meets up with her again. In one of their walks they come across a dog barking furiously. ‘One thing repaired changes a thousand others,’ insists the mother, and although the incident is traditionally expressed, the politics belong to the future. Noticing that the chain on the dog is too short to allow it reach the shade, hence its distress, she suggests that by lengthening the chain just a little the dog will find shade and stop barking. Thus the family and neighbours will become happier and start talking to each other again, and many other good things might flow from this one small act of thoughtfulness.


The Red Tenda of Bologna, with drawings by Paul Davis, published in 2007, is another favourite. It is a family story, yet again, this time of a fond uncle, long dead, whom Berger ‘meets’ again unexpectedly in Bologna, a city both men loved – as I do too. The red ‘Tenda’ are the shop blinds that distinguish many of the arcaded cafes and stores, but whose exceptional colour – and Berger was obsessed with pigmentation and its provenance – dramatised his memory of the city. The small book ranges across food, paintings, memories of the resistance, and martyrdom. On several visits some years ago Larraine Worpole and I spent days – she taking the photographs, myself taking notes – recording the many memorable tombs and public memorials, in La Certosa Cemetery, and in the city itself, for a book we did together, Last Landscapes: the architecture of the cemetery in the West. The memorial to the partisan resistance during the Second World War in the town square, which Berger describes in relation to a poem by Pasolini, is painfully unforgettable.


Detail of the tomb of Ennio Gnudi, leader of the railway workers’ union, by sculptor Farpi Vignoli at La Certosa Cemetery, Bologna. Photograph © Larraine Worpole.

Berger’s work has been incomparable in so many fields of political and cultural creativity. Sometimes the debt owed by his admirers has been obvious. The two volumes of Working Lives a group of us published in Hackney in the 1970s as part of an oral history project, mixing transcribed text with photographs, were a direct homage to Berger & Mohr’s A Seventh Man. But his influence has been subtle and pervasive in many other ways. We shall be walking and talking with John Berger for a long time to come.


Land: they don’t make it any more


Land is a finite resource, the Guardian journalist Peter Hetherington reminded us, in his opening address to a one day seminar organised by Shared Assets in London recently, on the theme of ‘Common Good Land Use’. He added that Mark Twain had expressed the same view more pithily: ‘They don’t make it any more’. Not quite true of course, when you consider the history of The Netherlands (or parts of East Anglia), but then again, that is always reversible. Hetherington’s punchy little book, Whose Land is Our Land?, on which his talk was based, points out that today in the UK, ‘57% of our best agricultural land is at or below sea level’. Climate change now threatens this; something more to worry about in a post-Brexit era, with its plucked from the air promises of increased agricultural self-sufficiency.

It was social rather than environmental concerns that were the focus of the day, however, as contributors referred time and again to the devastating effects uncontrolled land prices were having on re-configuring the social make-up of villages, towns and cities across the UK. House prices have been soaring, social housing continues to be sold off, and ‘buy to let’ schemes have brought high rents and increasing tenant turnover. All of this leads to more fragmented and less stable communities. In some parts of Britain today, according to Hetherington, the cost of the land constitutes two-thirds the price of a new home.

Land ownership in the UK is amongst the most concentrated in the world, with almost 70% of the landowner by 0.6% of the population. One issue not mentioned during the day was the disturbing new trend by which the volume house-builders now sell an increasing proportion of new homes on a leasehold arrangement, rather than the traditional practice of selling single houses freehold. This means that the developer retains ownership of the land and can continue to charge ground rent indefinitely. Nice work if you can get it.

High land prices mean that new social facilities such as parks, schools, libraries, health centres, churches, and especially public housing (rare as these are becoming), only get built if they form part of a development package that includes large swathes of private flats or offices. Public life and culture is being squeezed out of the street scene, as every available plot of land is handed over to the private sector for development.


If This Were To Be Lost by Jessie Brennan (2016)

This is the story behind artist Jessie Brennan’s exemplary project at The Green Backyard – a former derelict site in Peterborough’s city centre, transformed by volunteers into a vibrant community garden which I visited earlier in the year. Brennan’s book on the process, Re: development, shares the voices of those defending their right to the city. Published in October 2016, it includes not just documentation of the site and its transformation, but a number of essays – architectural, philosophical, political – by an impressive roster of writers including Anna Minton, Ben Rogaly and Jane Rendell, on the threats now posed by the unregulated market in land ownership to civil society and the public common good. Brennan’s work is a good example of the role artists now play in imaginatively alerting us to the most pressing issues in urban and environmental politics.

At the Shared Assets event there was much talk of Community Land Trusts (CLTs) being the way forward. There are now over 170 CLTs in England alone, and two of the larger London projects are based on places whose future development has been a matter of concern for some time: the former St Clement’s Hospital in Mile End, and at St Ann’s Hospital in Tottenham. They are big sites with ambitious plans for social housing, workspaces and other amenities. The rising land values that accrue from development will be captured by the Community Land Trusts that own and manage them to pay for communal benefits, in the spirit of Ebenezer Howard’s path-breaking model at the first garden city at Letchworth.

Despite the excessive use of the possessive case by politicians, with endless evocations of ‘our country’ or ‘this land of ours’, such sentimental rhetoric has no basis in the hard facts of actual ownership (much of it unregistered and therefore secret). Peter Hetherington boldly claimed that despite this, ‘Britain is ours morally, if not legally.’ The land question is back on the political agenda again.


Sanctuary, asylum and retreat


Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014)

Liverpool Street Station is the location of two memorials to the ‘Kindertransports’, the name given to the evacuation of ten thousand Jewish children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia at the start of the Second World War organised by the Refugee Children’s Movement (RCM), in which Quakers played a major part. Both are by the sculptor Frank Meisler, himself one of the child refugees. Britain seems to have been rather kinder to children fleeing war and persecution then, as only three years earlier in 1936 several thousand Basque children were given shelter and a new start in life during the Spanish Civil War. Several ‘retreat’ communities in Essex – the Salvation Army Colony at Hadleigh, and The Adelphi Centre in Langham – gave the Basque children a ‘place of greater safety’.

A deeply moving book on this subject, Sanctuary & Asylum: A Social and Political History by Linda Rabben, has just been published, raising questions of how we live alongside others in an age of large-scale migration resulting from a new era of poverty, war and persecution. Rather than recount the many shocking stories which led to the development of more codified agreements about rights to asylum or sanctuary, which Rabben’s book provides in detail, some general principles emerge which govern the conditions in which asylum is culturally accepted.

The first is that the concept of sanctuary itself is religious in origin, and remains largely so today. In pre-Christian times, those seeking personal safety from the violence of others, would hurry to a sacred site where the gods were held to be present, and thus secure divine protection. Christianity continued this tradition, with the church taking on the function of inviolable space, where the rule of the law, or vengeance of others, no longer obtained. Thus sanctuary has always acted as a counter-authority to the power of the state, ‘outside or against the law’ in the words of Rabben, and from time to time refugees still find sanctuary in religious buildings, where they are supported by church congregations.

In contrast, refugee status is ascribed from above, by legal processes usually involving recognition of statutory rights granted by individual nation states or international agreements. These rights are often bitterly contested and hard fought, and sadly have become deeply politicised as a result of globalisation, of which everybody wants the benefits – the cheap food, clothes, electronic goods, exotic holidays – but not the trade-offs and social obligations.

There is certainly a geography and landscape of sanctuary. In the era of the Greek city-states, we are told that, ‘Sanctuaries on the frontiers of city-states were well known. Promontories, considered sacred to the god Poseidon, often served as places of asylum, because they were accessible by both land and sea.’ During the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War, several villages in the remote mountainous Haute Loire region, most famously Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, sheltered hundreds of Jews for the whole duration of the war successfully, at great risk to the lives of the villagers and their families too, as well as those they sheltered.

The reference to the coastal location of the Greek sanctuaries reminded me of the Othona Community at Bradwell-on-Sea, bringing a third type of inviolable space – the retreat – into the vocabulary. Established originally by British and German Christians in 1945 at the end of the Second World War in a spirit of reconciliation, it still thrives and is open to people of all religions and none as a quiet place of short-term retreat. It too stands on the edge between land and sea.

In the course of researching the social history of land settlements and experimental communities in Essex over the past hundred years – which often employed the vocabulary of sanctuary and retreat – it has become clear that religious traditions and impulses lay behind the majority of them. It has been the conjunction of religious and political ideals that have resulted in the most successful experiments in promoting social – and more recently, environmental – change. This is still true today. In this respect I am looking forward to reading Duncan Bowie’s forthcoming book, The Radical and Socialist Tradition in British Planning: From Puritan Colonies to Garden Cities, due early next year, which examines the ethical and philosophical debates and initiatives which fore-shadowed 20th century town planning, and in which the overlap between religious and political beliefs was always extensive.


Labastida, Alava, Spain (2014) © Jason Orton


The Unbounded Savannah: Henry George and the Land Question


In his time far more influential than Karl Marx or Charles Darwin, the American land economist Henry George (1839 – 1897) was regarded as the guiding hand behind many worldwide radical social movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. Yet today he is largely forgotten. Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s co-equal in advancing the principle of natural selection, and later founder of the Land Nationalisation Society and ardent radical, thought that Henry George’s inspirational book, Progress and Poverty (1879) more important than The Origin of Species, the former selling millions of copies worldwide.

Researching the story of land colonies and experimental communities in Essex over the past century, I discovered Henry George’s name and influence proclaimed in almost every letter, pamphlet or book written in support of the ‘back to the land’ movement and other radical social initiatives. William Morris was a great admirer of George, as was, along with Wallace, Ebenezer Howard, George Bernard Shaw, George Lansbury, Joseph Fels, the McMillan sisters, and many other pioneers’ of ‘New Life’ movements, including Tolstoy. In America his influence was even greater, and he is regarded as the father of the ‘Progressive Era’. There would be no garden city movement without George, nor any tradition of – or aspiration for – agricultural self-sufficiency. Even contemporary notions of the networked city or the advantages of clusters were first outlined by George in his praise of city density and its reciprocity in trade and cultural life, alas too often undermined by unregulated land values.

Full disclosure. At the beginning of the 1960’s I attended a series of lectures on the economic theories of Henry George at the old Southend Public Library, keen to widen my political education. Alas I didn’t understand a word of what was said. Older and wiser, it is possible to see why George’s ideas are still relevant. In a nutshell he argued that any income derived from the rising value of land resulting from population growth, settlement and development is unearned income and should be taxed to support public amenity. The income derived from land ownership was specifically distasteful, given that possession was almost certainly obtained in earlier times by force, hereditary privilege or some other dubious device. There’s an old joke about this. A rambler is walking across the fields of a landed estate and the owner stops him and orders him off his property. ‘Who gave you this property?’ asks the rambler. ‘My ancestors fought for it,’ came the reply. ‘Well I’ll fight you for it now.’

We know from the punitive price of land in towns and cities today, that many forms of social architecture or provision – let alone experimental forms of community building – are no longer feasible. Only the rich can now live in many parts of London, and everybody else is being squeezed to the margins (and in some disgraceful instances required to move to another city in order to continue to receive housing benefit). It doesn’t have to be this way. Ebenezer Howard’s garden city model – as at Letchworth – is based on buying and holding the land in trust, so that all increases in value are captured and used for the common good.

Community land trusts are a start. So would be a more judicious use of planning regulation to encourage more experiments in communal freehold, along with the cross-subsidy potential of mixed tenure, mixed income development. Meanwhile local authorities are being quietly asset-stripped of much of their property and land portfolio, whether in housing, education, libraries and leisure facilities, all now being edged into private ownership. Parks are the latest example, as can be seen in the current Select Committee enquiry into The Future of Public Parks, which raises the possibility of privatisation. The land question is back with a vengeance, and a renewal of interest in Henry George and his ideas would be a cause for celebration.


Please note: the second edition of The New English Landscape will shortly be out of print. There are a few copies left and still available, but not for much longer.

Expect a fight


Rainham Marshes (2010)

When someone talks about the creation of a ‘new nature’ expect a fight. Yet it is happening all the time, since human activity has been re-shaping the natural world for millennia. Nevertheless, the pace of change has been accelerating, and for many observers now appears out of – if not beyond – control. Oliver Rackham wrote in his excellent ‘History of the Countryside’ that ‘Much of England in 1945 would have been instantly recognizable to Sir Thomas More, and some areas would have been recognized by Emperor Claudius.’ Coming closer to home he also noted that the pattern of development in south-east Essex today ‘has all been inserted into a grid laid out nearly two thousand years ago.’ When landscape architect Peter Beard marked out the footpath systems for the new RSPB site at Rainham Marshes, on the Thames, close to London, he told me he was following the lines of ancient brushwood tracks, traces of which date back to the Bronze Age.

The claim that we are in the process of creating a new nature is made by environmental historian, Paul Warde, in a collection of essays, Local Places, Global Processes, just published by Oxbow Books. Warde is one of a number of artists, academics and environmentalists gathered together for a series of workshops held at three large nature conservation projects in England, the papers, reports and findings of which are now in print. The projects evaluated were: Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, the Quantock Hills (England’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and Kielder Water and Forest in Northumberland, an almost entirely twentieth-century man-made environment of reservoirs and commercial forestry.

This is probably a book for a specialist readership, particularly those involved in nature conservation and landscape character assessment (though there is by now a tourist industry audience keen to develop new niche markets in ‘green leisure’). Issues of what is beautiful, what is sustainable, what is authentic and what is truly ‘wild’ are repeatedly discussed, often in subtle and rewarding ways. T.C.Smout’s short essay, ‘Birds and Squirrels as History’, is especially enjoyable and original, in tracing the rise and fall of different avian species in relation to social and economic changes in the environment. Equally clear-eyed and to the point is Paul Warde’s chapter, ‘Names and Places’, alerting us to the impoverishment of environmental awareness resulting from the loss of attention to the proper names of things and their provenance – an issue on which Robert Macfarlane has been much exercised in recent times, and rightly so.

The contributors make up a broad church, working along a continuum of interest in landscape matters, ranging from the art-historical, the aesthetic, the conservationist, the managerial, to those working in landscape design, as well as people interested in deep ecology and re-wilding. This is welcome. Although I much enjoyed Richard Mabey’s recent dismantling of the reputation of Capability Brown in the New Statesman, echoing and developing Mabey’s long-standing scepticism about nature conservation in general, and landscape architecture in particular, there is also much to be admired in the work of those who are trying to bridge the gaps, and work across the borders.

Neither is it too late to change your mind. Marianna Dudley tells the story of how the ageing Wordsworth – of whom it is commonly believed that he became an irredeemable and intransigent Tory – was told that his dinner party host one evening was the man responsible for building a wall across a local footpath. On learning this the poet shouted, ‘I broke your wall down, Sir John, it was obstructing an ancient right of way, and I will do it again. I am a Tory, but scratch me on the back deep enough and you will find the Whig in me yet.’ That is fighting talk.

Ken Worpole

Rainham Marshes (2010) © Jason Orton

Radical Essex Architectural Weekend: The Modernist County

10-11 September 2016

Ken will be joining a panel at the Radical Essex weekend on Saturday 10 September at Silver End to discuss Landscape, Identity & The London Spill. Other speakers include Matthew Butcher, Tim Burrows, Gillian Darley, Charles Holland and Rachel Lichtenstein. For the full programme of the weekend’s talks and visits go to:

Along the Outskirts: edgeland aesthetics and the origins and revival of the New Town with Marc Atkinson & Ken Worpole

along the outskirts cover

Commissioned by the arts organisation, Metal, the photographer and film-maker Marc Atkinson has explored the edgelands of Peterborough for a film & photographic exhibition, accompanied by an illustrated catalogue for which Ken has written an introductory essay. More details of the exhibition and related events are provided at the end.

For his project, Marc Atkinson returned to document the hinterland of the historic city of Peterborough where he himself grew up, and spent many days tracking the surrounding terrain of Peterborough proper. In doing so he talked to walkers, residents, itinerant travellers, edgeland workers, as he documented the hybrid new landforms and erstwhile woodlands, now to be found encircling the city. Many of these outings have been compressed into a series of eight walks which he has written up and illustrated on a website specifically established for the project.

‘These are not timeless landscapes,’ wrote Atkinson in the course of writing up one of his walks, ‘anything but.’ This they share with the peripheral territory surrounding most towns and cities in the UK today. Development can sometimes happen almost overnight. The centrifugal force to re-locate new housing development, superstores, warehouses, and even religious buildings, to the perimeter is still the main thrust of urban policy, despite oft-repeated appeals to consolidate and revive town centres.

Atkinson’s photographs reveal many awkward conjunctions of parkways and pathways, railway lines and feeder roads. Today Peterborough’s edgelands are dominated by car use, and those people who still choose to walk are regarded as aberrant. The woodlands are still used by dog-walkers, perhaps today the most intrepid group of all urban wanderers, but also by those without homes, or those engaged in illicit activities. Like many seeing Atkinson’s photographs for the first time, I was disturbed by the extent of the abandoned camp-fires, forsaken sleeping bags, make-shift benders and shelters, as well as the areas of the woodland floor covered with the multi-coloured spaghetti of cabling discarded once the valuable metals have been stripped out.

‘The edgeland areas can be frightening,’ writes Atkinson during another of his forays. ‘They buzz and tremble with alternate currents of stasis and activity – they froth with new natural life and are scattered over with our cheap plastic droppings left like offerings for the dead. These activities over time have been compressed and compacted everywhere you look and occasionally their significance is too much to bear.’

To launch their collaborative publication, Along the Outskirts, Ken will be joining Marc to discuss the role of landscape as heritage, as a rich pictorial tradition in art, as an ecology, and, perhaps most importantly, as a site of crucial contemporary debates about the value and meaning of place in a modern, post-industrial society.

Saturday, 23rd July, 1:30 – 3pm (free admission)

Peterborough City Gallery & Museum, Priestgate, Peterborough PE1 1LF

To book visit:


Ken will also be speaking the following Saturday in Stevenage, at:

The Recommission for New Towns

An open event on the past, present and future of UK new towns, featuring Sarah Gaventa on public art in Harlow; Christopher Smith on filming Basildon; Ruth Potts on economic transformation and Ken Worpole on building utopias. There will also be tours, talks, & debate.

Saturday, 30 July, 2016, 10am – 5pm

Stevenage Museum, St George’s Way, Stevenage, Herts SG1 1XX

For more details go to: The Recommission for New Towns

Under a leaden sky

IMG_3132.JPG WJS Bow Bridge ELG 70

Bow Bridge by W. J. Steggles

Our last blog suggested people hurry to see the ‘Peculiar People’ exhibition at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea. Now there’s an extra reason for a trip to the seaside. Only three hundred yards from Focal Point, the Beecroft Art Gallery is hosting a rare exhibition devoted to the work of The East London Group, and the two exhibitions complement each other perfectly.

The East London Group was a body of amateur artists inspired and taught by the academically trained painter John Cooper at an evening class in Bethnal Green (and subsequently Bow) in the 1920s and 1930s. They were quick to make their mark not only on the local scene but soon achieved national and even international acclaim. Hence the title of the beautifully illustrated volume re-issued again this year to accompany the exhibition, David Buckman’s, From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group. Within a few years of picking up their paintbrushes, two of the group, Elwin Hawthorne and W.J.Steggles, were selected to exhibit their work at the 1936 Venice Biennale.

ELG Front Cover copy

Full disclosure: everything I know about the East London Group I owe to Buckman’s wonderful book, a labour of love and the result of decades of research. To my shame I did not know of the group’s existence until this exhibition. Like the miners of Ashington, whose painting class was established in the same period, and whose work most recently enjoyed a revival of interest as a result of Lee Hall’s play, The Pitmen Painters, staged at The National Theatre, the East London Group was likewise made up of enthusiastic auto-didacts. The founding students included a park-keeper, basket-maker, engine-driver, window-cleaner and several office workers, who not unsurprisingly concentrated on painting domestic scenes and street life direct from experience.

According to one critic, what members shared in common was ‘the pale, attenuated light of the London streets’, while another chose to cite the American philosopher Emerson on the English aesthetic of evoking depth and sincerity in this kind of urban scene by painting as if ‘under a leaden sky’. Though focusing on street scenes to begin with, over time members travelled further afield, into Essex and Suffolk and beyond, where they proved equally adept at recording the mood and tones of different suburban and rural landscapes.

Cooper’s evening class in Bow was just one element in a rich network of ‘second chance’ opportunities for education offered in east London during this period – one thinks also of Toynbee Hall, The People’s Palace, Kingsley Hall, the Whitechapel Gallery and the Whitechapel Library, along with a number of Jewish organisations, clubs and theatres. In this period political activism and pedagogy went hand in hand.


Marian Square by Albert Turpin

The biography of Albert Turpin, a founder member of the group, is the stuff of legend. Born in 1900 in a tenement off Columbia Road, Bethnal Green, the son of a feather-sorter, Turpin left school at 14, became a boxing champion, fought in the First World War, and for the rest of his life earned his living as a window-cleaner. An active socialist he became Mayor of Bethnal Green, led the often brutal street-fighting resistance to Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s, as well as producing some of the finest oil paintings of East London life of any member of the East London Group. Towards the end of his life Turpin became attracted to the conciliatory ethos of Moral Re-Armament, as did a number of trade unionists and Labour Party stalwarts after the Second World War.

Not only were East London Group members lucky to have had Cooper as their tutor and fellow artist, they were also able to take advantage of Cooper’s contacts in the commercial art world. From the outset their work was exhibited in a West End Gallery, and was bought by collectors. Why the East London Group became forgotten – compared with the Ashington Group, for example – is a mystery, but the Beecroft exhibition combined with the new edition of Buckman’s book, brings them back into the light again, deservedly so.


Images of paintings published by kind permission of Francis Boutle Publishers

The East London Group – ‘Out of the City’ exhibition is on at The Beecroft Gallery, Southend on Sea, until 25 June 2016.

From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group, New Revised Edition, 2016, by David Buckman, is published by Francis Boutle Publishers.

‘We are not afraid of the future’ The Peculiar People: an exhibition at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, 19 April – 2 July 2016


Masthead of The New Order anarchist newspaper produced at The Purleigh Colony in Essex, and reproduced from ‘Alternative Communities in Nineteenth Century England’ by Dennis Hardy

There was a packed opening night at this new exhibition at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend on 16 April, and a great party atmosphere too. After decades of embarrassed silence, a rich history of political and religious non-conformism and radicalism in Essex is now being properly acknowledged, in a county that has been the subject of much cynical misrepresentation, but which is here revealed as a key social laboratory for all kinds of experiments in living in the 20th century. The exhibition title takes its name from a Nonconformist sect unique to Essex, The Peculiar People, about which we blogged earlier this year, and the gallery itself has been handsomely re-housed within the state of the art new public library, The Forum.

The tutelary spirit of anarchist historian Colin Ward hovers over the exhibition, for it was Ward, latterly with Dennis Hardy, who initially chronicled the self-built plotland communities and rural communes to be found on the margins of Essex. Ward suggested that they arose there because of a relative proximity to London’s politically volatile East End, but also – following the agricultural depression of the 1870s – land was cheap. The ground plans of the Dunton colony near Laindon are on display, but also included is a rare opportunity to listen to a recording of Ward giving his 1985 lecture, Arcadia for All – A study of the Essex Plotlands.

Close to Dunton, in East Tilbury, the Czech shoe manufacturer Tomas Bata established his model industrial village in 1932, having been persuaded by a local clergyman to come to the aid of the many unemployed in the area. At its peak, Bataville employed over 4,000 workers, many of whom lived in houses supplied by Bata, and designed in a modernist style. Workers were encouraged to participate in company leisure-time activities – outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, 350-seat cinema and technical college – and even took ski-ing holidays in Czechoslovakia at the company’s resorts there. No zero-hours contracts then. ‘We are not afraid of the future’ was Bata’s maxim, and a selection of plans and drawings of his model town are on display, supported by documentary footage from a film by Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope.


Credit: Fraser Muggeridge Studio

Along with Bataville, Silver End Garden Village near Witham was another attempt to build an industrial settlement as a utopian community (even if ordained from above, as both manifestly were). Established in 1926 by Francis Crittall (1860 – 1935), a successful manufacturer of metal window frames, the housing was designed in a high modernist style by architect Thomas Tait. The village was almost entirely self-sufficient, and at the time regarded as one of the healthiest settlements in Britain, and is still much visited by architecture students.

The overlap between the socially minded and the religiously inspired was strong in the early 20th century, so it is not surprising that many of the religious settlements featured in the exhibition – Hadleigh Farm Colony, Osea Temperance Society, the Othona Community at Bradwell, among others – were centres for the rehabilitation of those whose lives had previously been blighted by poverty, ill-health, addiction, or as places of spiritual retreat. Wide-ranging as it is, the exhibition only scratches the surface of the dozens of self-sufficient or therapeutic communities established in Essex over the past hundred years, many of which remain unrecorded.

The principal gallery space also includes the work of artists and architects who took a fancy to the Essex scene, possibly because of its rough and ready unfashionability. A large vitrine displays a model by architect Cedric Price for an unrealised 1972 proposal to construct an inflatable roof to cover Southend High Street, along with a number of Price’s bold and expressive drawings. Other exhibits include watercolours, drawings or prints by Edward Bawden, Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Milly Thompson, along with a generous display of work by poet and artist Henri Chopin.

The folk-modernist spirit of the old Southend Art College is captured in a display of books written and illustrated by Kurt Rowland, who taught at the college, and whose pioneering work in the field of design education became internationally renowned. Rowland may well have inspired the fanzines produced by the Southend Libertarian & Anarchist Broadsheet (SLAB) collective in the 1980s, a number of whom worked locally for HM Revenue & Customs, but, not unsurprisingly, contributed anonymously. Artist Christian Nyampeta completes the exhibition with his fashioning of Gallery 2 as a place for meeting, talking, reading and the exchange of views about the world, complete with striking murals, purpose-built furniture and book-shelves, all combining to create a small salon/library/retreat to which visitors can retire and reflect.

The exhibition is just one element in a longer project being carried out by Focal Point Gallery under the rubric, ‘Radical Essex’, and includes architectural study tours across the county, gallery talks, and related projects such as Matthew Butcher’s ‘Flood House’, the subject of our last posting. It’s a small step for Essex but a large step for mankind.


Ken will be giving a talk at the Focal Point Gallery at 7pm on Thursday, 12 May, 2016, as part of the exhibition programme:

The New Life in Essex: nonconformist life and culture in the 20th century’

Admission is free, but booking essential at

Before or after the Flood?

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Flood House, Thames Estuary. Drawing by Jason Coe

On Monday, 18 April, 2016, designer Matthew Butcher, will launch ‘Flood House’, an architectural prototype, at the Dauntless Boatyard in Benfleet, Essex, on the Thames Estuary. ‘Flood House’ is, in the words of Butcher, ‘a practical and poetic investigation into the living conditions of a seasonally flooded landscape.’

On first impression the proposed structure looks unwieldy, but for those aware of what often gets built on the fragile inter-tidal zone between land and sea – fishing sheds, pill-boxes, pontoons, houseboats – then the structure begins to make sense. It is also a gestural corrective to the old adage that architecture and water don’t mix.

Although Flood House will not be inhabited, it is nevertheless designed to test the conditions under which a floating habitat might work in the foreseeable future. This is with regard to ambient estuary conditions, whether in the form of changing weather conditions, tidal stresses, as well as air quality and changes in temperature and humidity inside the structure – all of which will be monitored. Flood House is made of ply and weatherboard and will float on three steel pontoons, all the elements of which will be assembled at the Benfleet boatyard, though much of it was pre-fabricated at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, where Butcher teaches.

‘Architecture is usually considered to be a stable, fixed entity where internal temperature and conditions of comfort are heavily controlled,’ Butcher wrote in his prospectus for the project. ‘Flood House seeks to challenge these notions, suggesting instead a nomadic architecture that forms a responsible relationship to its surrounding environmental conditions.’

When I recently met Butcher – along with project curator, Jes Fernie – I said I’d been following the architectural discussion in the UK over how the Dutch are now building on water. Butcher pointed out that admirable though the Dutch schemes are, they are mostly erecting conventional houses on floating foundations, which remain tethered to the shore. ‘Flood House’ is testing a prototype for a nomadic habitat, one that can be moved from one place to another, so in a way it is more boat than bungalow, more ship than shed. Following its launch on 18 April, the house will be towed from Benfleet to a boatyard in Wakering, then moored off Southend Pier, for public viewing.

‘Flood House’ is making more than just an environmental statement. Fernie, along with Focal Point Gallery, have also commissioned artist Ruth Ewan to work on the project. Under the rubric of ‘All Distinctions Levelled’, Ewan has designed a weathervane for the structure, inscribed with the palindrome ‘LEVEL’. ‘Level’ alludes to sea levels certainly, but also to levels of status and inequality, currently the subject of much political concern.

In the same way that the once abandoned canals of inner London have been given new life and public vitality in recent years by the proliferation of houseboat moorings, it would be inspiring to see more life in future around the coast and in the estuary as the result of a resurgence of foreshore or floating communities. Essex has a long tradition of houseboat communities – read Carol Edwards’ excellent little 2009 book, The Life and Times of the Houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea, for example – so one hopes that ‘Flood House’ represents an exciting new development in a continuing story of living off-grid, and on water.

‘Flood House’ is part of the larger ‘Radical Essex’ programme led by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, which will be the subject of our next posting.

For more details about ‘Flood House’ visit:

For more details about the ‘Radical Essex’ programme: