East End – Review

Patricia Cleveland-Peck writes about this nostalgic book filled with photographs by John Claridge and edited by The Gentle Author
Published by Spitalfields Life Books @ £25.00

Cover of East End (Detail) ©John Claridge

Cover of East End (Detail) ©John Claridge

Cold-Drinks London E1 ©John Claridge - Copy

Cold-Drinks London E1 ©John Claridge

Two Sofas London E2 ©John Claridge

Two Sofas London E2 ©John Claridge

Clocks London E1 ©John Claridge

Clocks London E1 ©John Claridge

Those of us, who follow that consistently interesting blog The Gentle Author’s Spitalfields Life, have had the pleasure of several tasters from this outstanding collection of photographs taken by John Claridge during the nineteen sixties.

Now the handsome volume is out, enabling everyone to visit this vanished world at leisure. It is a remarkable achievement, some 270 high quality black and white photographs which are above all, incredibly moving. Although about as far from the blue remembered hills as a landscape could be, and often depicting the grim realities of poverty and dereliction, Claridge’s East End nevertheless manages to evoke a land of lost content which cannot come again.

Most East Enders of the same vintage look back on their childhood and youth with happy, unsentimental nostalgia – and that an East End childhood was not measured by what it lacked but by what it offered, is born out by John Claridge’s own story. His talent though, was exceptional – and apparent at a very early age. He was clearly focused on photography from childhood, “I needed to take pictures,” he says in the introduction. “It was as natural as breathing.” He did a paper round and bought his first camera and set up his own dark room in his parent’s house in Plaistow. When he left school at fifteen he told the man at the labour exchange that he wanted to be a photographer and by good fortune there was a job going as assistant photographer in an advertising agency – although he was warned he wouldn’t get it. When he went to the interview kitted out in his best sharp East End clothes he saw he was up against older, smarter applicants in tweed jackets. He was the last to be interviewed and the boss asked was what film he used and on hearing his response, he was told he’d got the job – and that was before he had even shown the boss the portfolio of photographs which he had taken and enlarged himself.

It wasn’t long before he had his first exhibition the subject of which was the East End – he was sixteen. At nineteen he opened his own studio and was shooting for all the top magazines. He continued to return to the East End until his parents died in 1982. For him it remained, “The most beautiful place you could ever know with the most wonderful people in it.”

The photographs in this book cover a wide range of subjects and evoke a wide range of emotions. Quiet, luminous scenes, often empty of people such as those of docklands are simply beautiful; others depicting the lined and sad faces of people who have had much to endure are almost tragic; many though have a touch of irony verging on the humorous. This is often brought about by signage such in 1.20 pm E.1 or New Times E.1 or by the juxtaposition of objects such as in Two Sofas E.2, The Shoes E.2 or Man and Mannequin E.1. It is undoubtedly John Claridge’s eye for noticing and capturing such moments which makes him the fine artist he is.

Over a number of years after these photographs were taken the old East End was gradually dismantled. Families moved from the old terraced houses into new flats with bathrooms and increased opportunities. The ex-East Enders however, although scattered throughout the world, took with them a warm folk memory of the old vanished way of life. They will find much to love about this book but you do not have to have been part of this diaspora or to have any connection with the East End to appreciate it as an outstanding work of art.

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