I was 22 when I created Family Album, the installation a tribute to my family and working class background in the East End* of London. At the time of this work a lot had happened and I'd suffered great emotional loses and my art was developing into something new and what felt strange even to me. My foundation was in the classics, the Renaissance, Rubens, Rembrandt. My expression was rumbling change, no longer could it be fulfilled within the boundaries of two-dimensions, or paints on my brush, it was leaking into words and a need to be within four walls and not just the edges of a canvas, it was flowing into something larger.
In Family Album I wanted to share with the viewer the warmth my family gave to me and others who entered my families domain. My need in Family Album was to create a room with welcome like my grandmothers kitchen or my mother's shop, a room where someone could stay awhile and reflect, feeling embraced and not rejected. My mothers over-played cassette of the Mama's and Papa's 20 greatest hits played at low volume in the background and warm lighting from the standard lamps were provided by each of my family members, it was their lights that lit the room. The childhood portraits on each wall were of my grandmother, mother, my sister and myself. A large drawing of 'Our Hands Uniting' was suspended from the ceiling above and a funeral drawing on the floor underneath the hanging piece was of a tragic death that had united us women in life. An autobiography was placed on the sewing table in the corner of the room where a viewer was welcome to sit and read.
'Towards An Image Of Myself' a multi-media autobiography of my early family life in the East End of London.
The above image showing the drawings of my grandmother and sister and the suspended drawing 'Our Hands Uniting' above, the funeral piece placed on the floor underneath. In the corner the sewing machine with the chair and table where the multi-media autobiography 'Towards and Image of Myself' was placed for reading.
Installation drawing of my mother with her lamp on the shelf beside her. The shelf also held the original 1960's cassette tape of Mama's and Papa's which was playing softly in the background.
Preliminary sketch of the layout plan for the installation
The sewing machine and chair and the obvious mess of the room being used, cotton threads on the floor with a cup of tea on the table, the room feeling welcoming as though you had walked into my grandmothers kitchen, the warmth of being able to sit and stay as long as you want. It may not be palace but it is a home.
The original music cassette case of the Mama's and Papa's 20 Golden Hits was placed on my mothers shelf. It was music my mother played over and over in her first car, the cassette played as background music in the installation. The music came with memories where she'd take my sister and I to Victoria park in East London to relieve the house of children when my uncle Alan was in critical condition with leukemia with my grandmother taking frequent trips to London hospital.
The lamp on the shelf belonged to my mother, I'd asked each family member to allow me use of a lamp they liked and considered theirs.
On my sisters table was placed 'Two Trees' a handmade. Inside an etching of two trees coming together from once having grown apart, their form shows the nature they had witnessed and been influenced by, and now each passing year they were growing together. The deeply acid-etched plate was printed on handmade silk-threaded paper and contained a handwritten poem dedicated to my sister. The cover is made with hand-stitched calico cotton, one of the cheapest cotton materials used in dressmaking, inside the etching printed on handmade silk-thread paper, silk representing strength, value and beauty.
The hanging drawing 'Our Hands Uniting' which hung down from above.
The installation had to be a place where people would feel comfortable staying. I was influenced by my grandmothers home I grew up in where neighbors would pop in and share their life over a cup of tea.
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* East End of London.
The East End of London, also known simply as the East End, is an area of Central, East London and London Docklands, England; east of the Roman and medieval walls of the City of London, and north of the River Thames. The East End is the historic core of wider East London but is not defined by any universally accepted boundaries, though the various channels of the River Lea are often considered to be the eastern boundary.
The East End's emergence began in the Middle Ages with initially slow urban growth outside the eastern walls, which subsequently accelerated, especially in the 19th century, to absorb pre-existing settlements.
The first known written record of the East End as a distinct entity, as opposed its component parts, comes from John Strype's 1720 'Survey of London', where he describes London as consisting of four parts: the City of London, Westminster, Southwark, and "That Part beyond the Tower".
The relevance of Strype's reference to the Tower was more than geographical. The East End was the major part of an area called the Tower Division, which owed military service to the Tower of London. Later, as the East End grew and the Tower Division contracted, the East End became, arguably, conterminous with the Tower Division.
The area was notorious for its deep poverty, overcrowding and associated social problems. This has led to the East End’s history of intense political activism and association with some of the country’s most influential social reformers.
And if rents were low, there were greater savings to be made by cramming extra people in. ‘Miss M’ recalled that: ‘We used to use the doors off the cupboards laid on chairs and made up as beds. Nobody complained: the superintendent didn’t mind because everybody was doing the same.’ For Vicki Green, there was comfort in numbers, in ‘a three-storey house, two rooms on each floor, my uncle and family on the ground floor, another uncle on the first floor, and another on the second. My dad and mum and three of us kids on the top. There were 14 children in the house and we grew up almost like brothers and sisters.’
For some of the kids, growing up in such poverty was horrific. Charles Lisle was raised at 5 Wilson Street. ‘If you went out in the kitchen in the dark you trod on hundreds of black beetles. Oh it was a terrible place.’ And Vicki Green had a terror of going two floors down to the communal toilet in the middle of the night, lit by candle. ‘One of my cousins put the candle on the seat, and set her nightdress alight!’ Of course everything had to be shared with so many in one building. Sinks were in the backyard, as would be the one tap; washing would be hung along the corridors of the houses. ‘A primitive life,’ reckoned Vicki.
But for Jack Miller, growing up in Spitalfields in the 1920s, there was poetry in it. ‘We lived in two rooms on the second floor. My brother and I used to sleep in the garret but I liked it because it overlooked the rooftops and the soaring steeple of Christ Church. I was always charmed because there would be a carolling of the bells and it would waft across the skyline. That and the chanting, because on Sunday there would be Hebrew classes in the Brick Lane Talmud Torah. They would be reciting in Hebrew and it would blend with the sound of the bells.’
London's East Enders are known for being a tough, humorous and lively lot. In the early 20th century, families crowded into single rooms, children played on the streets and neighbours' doors were never locked in case you needed an escape route from the police...
World War 2 changed everything. During the Blitz, men set off for work never to return and rows of houses were reduced to rubble overnight. Yet the East Enders' ability to keep calm and carry on cemented their reputation for cheerful resilience.
They say Hitler killed off the bugs but, along with the slums, the Blitz destroyed a way of life. After the war families were scattered - some to estates on the edge of London, others to isolated high-rise blocks. The old East End communities were gone forever.