Sunday, 1 June 2008

The 2i's Coffee Bar

In 1956, former wrestler and wrestling promoter Paul Lincoln opened the 2i's, an espresso bar at 59 Old Compton Street. With the coffee bar supplemented by a small basement club, the 2i's was quickly to become one of the hippest places in town. Billing itself as the 'Home of the Stars', it played host to many of the new up and coming stars of the day, including Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Joe Brown, Johnny Kidd, and the Vipers skiffle group. It quite rightly gained a reputation as being the birthplace of British rock 'n' roll.

Although the 2i's struggled on in business until 1970, its heydays were in those early few years. To commemorate its, albeit brief, influence on British music, a Green Plaque was unveiled in September 2006. The Boulevard Bar and Dining Room now occupies the site, and the former basement club is a  featureless lobby, which offers no hint of its past. 

Jazz in London: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band

Although the Original Dixieland Jazz Band incorrectly billed themselves as the 'Creators of Jazz', their appearance at the London Hippodrome on 6 April 1919 was without doubt the first time live jazz had been heard in London. The all-white five piece from New Orleans, who had arrived by ship in Liverpool on 1 April, had spent the previous two years making a name for themselves in New York City.

The group travelled to London to appear in a revue entitled Joy Bells at the Hippodrome, a trip arranged by band leader and trumpeter Nick LaRocca. After only a handful of performances the band opened as the headline act at the London Palladium on 12 April, and followed this by residencies at the Martan Club on Old Bond Street and then at Rector's Club on Tottenham Court Road. Having proved themselves as a big draw, in late November 1919 the band began a nine month residency at Hammersmith's Palais de Danse. During this period they also made at least 20 recordings for Columbia Records, including a brand new version of their earlier hit song, Soudan

Soon to follow in the footsteps of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band were Will Marion Cook's Southern Syncopators, an all-black combo, which featured a young clarinetist virtuoso called Sidney Bechet. Such was the publicity surrounding the arrival of the two bands in the capital that they were both invited to play for the Royal Family at the Buckingham Palace.

Disappearing London: Bloomsbury Service Station

Reputed to be London's oldest petrol station, Bloomsbury Service Station at 6 Store Street, is due to close on June 6th when its current lease expires. Opened in 1926, the filling station was turned down for listing by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport  in 2006. It is not known what will happen to the site, but it will almost certainly be redeveloped for residential or office use.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Architectural Icons: Hayward Gallery

Whilst revolutionary forces were gathering in Grosvenor Square and up in Hornsey in the spring of '68, a quiet architectural revolution was nearing completion on the south bank of the River Thames. On 9 July 1968 the Hayward Gallery opened, the final piece in the jigsaw of arts facilities, which included the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room. Named after Sir Isaac Hayward, former leader of the London County Council, the Hayward was built on the site of a former Shot Tower dating from 1826, which was retained for the Festival of Britain. It was designed by a team in the LCC/GLC Architects Department, headed by Norman Engleback.

The Hayward's distinctively harsh concrete construction has not brought it many friends outside the architectural literatti, nevertheless it is an icon of sixties Brutalist architecture and as such surely deserves consideration for listing.

Architects, Haworth Tompkins, carried out a programme of refurbishment in 2003 and the Hayward gained a new glass fronted foyer.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Hornsey College of Art: The Art School Revolution

Wednesday 28th May, marks the 40th anniversary of the so-called 'art school revolution' at Hornsey College of Art. One of the cultural markers amongst the various events surrounding the political upheavals in the spring of 1968, the sit-in, and the programme of films and debates that followed, has perhaps been overshadowed by the more violent clashes outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square earlier that year.

But a new book by Lisa Tickner, Visiting Professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art, explores the background to occupation and, drawing on interviews with many of the participants and hitherto unpublished archives, contextualises the student action.

Following a dispute over the control of student union funds, students occupied the Hornsey Art School building on the morning of 28 May 1968. Although originally planned as a 24-hour sit-in, the programme of films and debate expanded into a critique of all aspects of art education and led to six weeks of intense debate and the production of more than 70 published documents. Events spilled out of the college to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm Road, where a three day conference was held, and the ICA also mounted an exhibition, Hornsey Strikes Again. It also led to the formation of the short-lived, Movement for the Reform of Art Education (MORADE).

Among the student leaders was one Kim Howells, now Minister of State of the Foreign Office. The protest was supported by sympathetic academic staff and a variety of visiting artists and other public figures, including Joan Littlewood, Nikolaus Pevsner and R D Laing.

Despite the scale of the action, which lasted until the early days of July, when the college was repossessed by the local authority at the beginning of the summer break, it must be said that little was achieved.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Sandra Esquilant: The Movie

To those on the outside of the British art scene, the inclusion of an East End pub landlady in a list of most powerful figures in British contemporary art must have seemed a strange choice. Yet in 2002, Sandra Esquilant, who has been behind the bar at the Golden Heart pub on Commercial Street for 30 years, was named in the Art Review magazine's list at number 80. 

The 60 year old, who has played the role of agony aunt, mother confessor and confidant to a now not so young generation of YBAs, including Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, is now the subject of a movie directed by Hazuan Hashim and Phil Maxwell. Sandra, which has its world premiere on Sunday 20 April just up the road from the pub at Rich Mix on Bethnal Green Road as part of this year's at East London Film Festival, celebrates the life of Esquilant.  

London born and bred, Sandra Esquilant was brought up in a working class Catholic family. Having married Dennis, a former the Truman brewery worker who had aspirations to be a publican, the couple moved into the Golden Heart in 1977. The pub prospered and the Esquilant's children were sent to private school. But in the early 1980s the area went into a rapid decline. Spitalfields Market and the Truman Brewery closed, and almost overnight the pub's clientele vanished.   

But it was the arrival of artists Gilbert & George, who moved into a property just around the corner on Fournier Street, that changed Sandra Esquilant's life beyond recognition. The plight of the pub was such that by this time Dennis had turned to cabbying to make ends meet, and Sandra was running the pub single-handedly. The Golden Heart became Gilbert & George's local, and before too long a friendship developed and they began to invite Sandra to exhibitions.  

The availability of cheap warehouse space around Brick Lane and Spitalfields, and the presence of Gilbert & George drew the new generation of Young British Artists into the area in the late 1980s. Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas began to frequent the Golden Heart in 1993, when they opened The Shop on Bethnal Green Road. Soon the pub landlady was the doyen of the new generation of artists and the Golden Heart their party HQ. 

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The old Bedford Music Hall

In the opening sequence of Norman Cohen's 1967 documentary, The London Nobody Knows, narrator James Mason walks through the deserted and derelict Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town.

In its heyday, the Bedford had been one of the most popular variety venues in town. However, it had struggled to find an audience after the Second World War and closed down in 1959. Within two years of featuring in the Cohen film it had been demolished.

The Bedford at 123-133 Camden High Street opened in 1861. Designed by architect, Edward Clark, it was built on part of the tea gardens belonging to the Bedford Arms Tavern. It was destroyed by fire in the late 1890s, and was rebuilt to designs by Bertie Crewe. In 1933 the failing variety theatre was acquired by Associated British Cinemas and was operated as a cinema until mid-1939. It survived the war and returned to variety use before closing its doors for the final time in 1959. A modern featureless retail block now stands on the site.

The Bedford was a favourite haunt of the Victorian artist Walter Sickert, who featured interiors of the Bedford in several of his paintings, including 'Little Dot Hetherington at the Old Bedford' (shown above)