Saturday, 18 August 2012

Traces of London Life: Refusing to Despair

Despair in all its forms have been troubling me in the last few weeks. It's sad to see someone you care about come apart at the seams and know that you can only help by staying away. I've never suffered the true despair that comes with mental illness; my despair has been caused by very natural causes suffered in the course of life. Change. Loss of love. Death. All terrible but all possible to overcome with the right outlook, contrary indomitable spirit and very good friends to help you through the impossible times.

With this in mind, this evening got me thinking about the despair of people in the past. They suffered the same trauma as us; life, death, debt, illness and so on, and their feelings were the same as ours but reaching out to them is different from reaching out to a friend in need. How does one travel in time to meet these characters? Traversing familiar streets can illuminate their glee, contact made via a flash of dragonfly along the canal, eating hot street food with them, feeling a jaunty exchange with an East London white van man, a flash of thigh and there you are, slap bang, in the middle of the darkest, seediest Victorian London.

Lulu's flash of twelve year old thigh titillated in the bordello of the old Marquis of Lansdowne in the last quarter of the the 1800s. Along with her four elder 'unfortunates' she worked as a 'bobtail' in the stifling hot rooms upstairs. The reinvigoration of the derelict building by Traces meant that I was able to reach out to her, read the description of her innocence in her less than conventional carte de visite, peep at the admiring letters from her lovers and see the envelope containing her wages. I also saw the menu of special services the house offered, the lace gloves and riding crop. But most importantly I was able to smell her. The citrus that these working girls used to hide the scent of sex, the florals cutting sharply through the musk and sweat. 

Let me set the scene. Downstairs, you enter into a gin parlour with gorgeously textured and designed tiles on a bar, surrounded by gin bottles. Contemporary uncanny features include a crushed penny farthing, strange old/modern photographs and a notice board with adverts from local people desiring accommodation 'a cheap bed', work wanted or workers required on local ships or in industry. It's dimly lit, has a slightly unsettling atmosphere, perhaps lacking in the pipe smoke, heady gin house fumes and raucous talk of the Victorian east end. 

After reading the latest scandals in the Hackney Gazette/Shoreditch Observer *drunk disorderly women* *thieving servants* *young violent louts* *stolen goods*, you could head up the rickety stairs into the feminine wonderland above. Strewn across the landing is an array of lingerie leading you into a tiny room of Morpho Eugenia Victoriana. Mrs Haversham lace dresses, pottery, glass, stuffed birds, feathers, jewellery, mottled mirrors feature, all with that smell of camphor reminiscent of house clearance/antique shops. The Victorian fascination with organic materials and changing nature is allowed to run riot in the minds of contemporary artists, to excellent effect. But it only works because of the space; this is essential.  To further the AS Byatt theme of mixing Victorian and modern, the empty painted grandfather clock is a key piece. It contains a bell where the clock face should be and is a verdigris/copper non passing nor ticking of time. 

As for the wallpaper; who hasn't had to strip back years worth of the stuff? The paper, all differently patterned appears to be like an onion; revealing the layers of lives of people who lived here. From the strange insects to the wild birds and fruits, exotica was still felt and experienced in these dark London homes.

The second upstairs room was my favourite. A change of mood, from forgotten treasures to very earthy and bodily pleasures. Red lights, sumptuous fabrics strewn about with lace covered erotica on the walls. The smell of dried, dying foliage with the floral citrus hits you as you enter. The bed is extraordinary; a mix of wild and garden flowers on a bed like a grave. Almost a parody of a medieval stone memorial with a stuffed dog at the end of the bed. We later find out through letters that this little dog is part of the story of the house.

The next two tiny rooms are heavy on the smell of musk and cedar. The feminine wooden bureau of letters contains all manner of secrets which are accessible by a number of clues in pictures and notebooks; lamps, monkeys and clocks are cleverly placed to unlock drawers full of wax sealed letters. These revealing hand written specimens shed light on Birdie and her business ventures and married lover. Also available to rifle through are her notes on her 'girls', their health, pregnancies and financial accounts.

In the final snug study room is a masculine space with patched chair and industrial desk. This was the best place to sit and read the personal letters of John Bonny. He was trying to provide an education for his son who detested being at school. John had fallen out with his daughter because her boyfriend had accidentally shot his dog. He also had some really shady business dealings... he sounded very East End. A totally fascinating character. The metal desk gives an idea of his sharp dealings and uncompromising nature, a clever and striking juxtaposing of the ultra feminine surrounding this space.

There is a danger of falling into mawkishness and finding only melancholy when reconstructing people's lives, especially in such extremes of poverty and hardship. Also given that it is a commercial art installation, there is a danger of it being utterly misconceived but for me, it worked as a way in to thinking about other stuff. I opened this post with despair, have sensed despair in this old condemned house but refuse to end on it. The fact is, life has gone on there and there have been moments of pleasure, love, insight, pain, illness, boredom, wishful thinking; the whole gamut of emotions. We know this because we are living those too, and thanks to art and imagination, we can also appreciate and access the past in a meaningful way.


  1. Fantastic piece of writing ... really brought the experience to life ... wish I was about to visit also

  2. Thank you...I've had a profound thought sort of week. C