The story of Spitalfields

I love discovering London’s hidden stories and last Saturday I joined Blue Badge Guide Paula Cooze to discover to the story of Spitalfields.

It’s not the first time I’ve ‘toured’ with Paula, having started my fan-dom in September 2013 in the shoes of Matthew Shardlake followed by an architectural wander around the City four months later and then an amble around the Globe mid 2014.

So you can see that it’s been some time since a missive from Paula has found its way into my inbox and it was perfectly timed as Spitalfields is an area I brushed past earlier in the year and I have been itching to do ‘more’.

Wave after wave of immigration has shaped this gritty pocket of London and what was once slum housing and dangerous streets, has become regarded as one London’s places to be. In fact the gentrification of Spitalfields is fostering considerable debate and even protest, the most recent being the attack on the Cereal Killer Cafe at the top end of Brick Lane in September.

It’s a part of London bursting with expression, riven with side streets and alleyways and clothed in a patchwork of colour and smell. I was so excited that, in babbling on about it to friends after I’d booked my place, I actually inspired a couple of them to come along.

Spitalfields was named for the priory of St Mary Spittel, founded in 1197 in a field right next to the site of the current market. The area lay just outside the walls of the City of London and attracted many merchants and craftsman who were not part of the restrictive City Guilds operating inside the walls.

The multicultural history of Spitalfields is steeped in the ‘rag trade‘ and a fitting place to start our trip down memory lane was with a visit to Petticoat Lane. This street – now called Middlesex Street – was home to many Spanish immigrants in the early 17th century and although the famous market was only formalised in the 1930s, it has always been the place to come for cheap, second-hand clothing.

Petticoat Lane(640x360)

The Huguenot silk weavers arrived in the late 1600’s to capitalise on the area’s burgeoning reputation as a garment district and were followed in the early 1800’s by the Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia. Both fled persecution with little but their trade and so their sewing machines were a life-line, the only way for them to earn a living and survive each day in this then slum-ridden part of London.

Silk for sale (640x360)

This beautifully preserved silk weaver’s shop and residence in Raven Row is now an art gallery so you can take a wander through to see how the more affluent lived in the past and how the locals are expressing themselves today.

Cover up (367x640)

When we turned around from the silk weaver’s windows, Paula pointed out this controversial facade running along the back of Lilian Knowles House.

We headed down Artillery Row – the name a nod to King Henry VIII’s gifting of the area to the military during his reign in the 16th century – turned left into Crispin Street and passed alongside the Providence Row Night Refuge (now called Lilian Knowles House). It was here that Paula added yet another immigrant community to her story – the Irish, arriving in the mid 1700’s with their dreams of escaping the potato famine in Ireland to build a brand new life in America. The majority could not afford the dream and so stopped where the money ran out – in London.

We walked around past the ‘new’ frontage of Spitalfields market, stopping to admire number 40 Brushfield Street. Verde & Company Ltd is a tribute to both the slow food movement and the history of the area – Paula mentioned that author Jeanette Winterson is one of the owners…and that a hot chocolate will set you back about £5. (Just as well the more affordable – not by much – Patisserie Valerie is across the road.)

Jeanette Winterson shop (640x360)

We then turned right to head north(ish) though Bishops Square, pausing at the old Huguenot silk weaver’s residence at 18 Folgate Street (which has been painstakingly restored by Dennis Severs – pundits really rate the multi-sensory tour)…

Cotton Merchant (358x640)

…and with a quick left down the alley at the end of Blossom Street (the most inappropriate name for a street ever), we emerged at the bottom end of Shoreditch High Street. Ambling along Bethnal Green Road and back down to Brick Lane Paula explained to us a little about the street art scene.

Locksmith

This commissioned street art adorns a local locksmith on Bethnal Green Road. That’s the entrance on the right painted as the opening of a vault.

still there

Nice to see two of my favourites from my walking tour through Shoreditch in June – Gregos on the left and Ronzo on the right.

Locals

Life imitating art? Or is it the other way around….

Transport

Street art frames transportation for the young…while this Vespa was one of many I saw, perhaps appealing to the young at heart?

After cutting through the Old Truman Brewery complex and along Commercial Road (this is the side of Spitalfields Market that has had its original facia preserved), we made our way down Wilkes Street – where Keira Knightley‘s pad is up for sale – and into Fournier Street.

Keira's pad(640x360)

Keira’s townhouse has been up for sale for a while – I’m not sure whether it’s the price (the guide price on rightmove.com is a paltry £3 million) or the purple that’s deterring prospective buyers…

Architecture(640x360)

Wonderfully preserved buildings along Fournier Street.

And it’s here that Paula told the last of her stories and bade us all farewell. Another great tour from Paula – done.

It’s extraordinary to think that we spent a story-packed couple of hours in such a small area – here’s a rough map of our route…

Spitalfields Walking Tour map

So I’d really encourage you to have a look around the area for yourself – I’ll be checking out a visit to Dennis Severs’ house to really immerse myself in history.

But really, to get the full story, you’ll have to wait – perhaps patiently – for the next time Paula crosses the city.

If street art ruled the world

Yesterday I went on a street art walking tour through London’s East End.

Inspired by the discovery of Hosier Lane in Melbourne during my visit with loved ones Down Under, I’ve been keen to explore more on this side of the world since my return in January.

At 10am on a lovely sunny Saturday in London, about twenty-five of us met our guide, Dave, at the Goat Statue at Spitalfields market. This is the goat, not Dave…

The Goat Statue

As we meandered towards the church, Dave gave us a bit of an introduction to street art/graffiti and the emergence of London’s street art culture. He also explained that given the temporary nature of street art, the myriad of stickers on lamp posts and other street furniture can serve as a handy guide as to who’s been contributing to the urban art scene in the area at any particular time – a bit like passport control for those in the ‘street art’ know.

The example below shows the iconic winged figure of well-known artist D*face in sticker form in Brushfield Street and then his installation in the Old Truman Brewery Complex.

DfaceWe turned right at the church then took a left into Fashion Street and that’s when things really started to happen…here’s Dave introducing us to three different styles and artists – more on some of these later.

Dave in Fashion Street

I did find the bike image stenciled onto the road particularly amusing in this picture – the urban art scene rails against the things that the establishment tells us we must do (like staying in the bike lane?).

This is probably a good point to address the questions of ‘what is street art’ and ‘how is it different from graffiti’.

According to Dave, the definitions are many and varied but for him, graffiti (below left) is created for the appreciation of the urban art community who can, for example, really appreciate the intricacies of a tag. Street art (below right) is created with a wider audience in mind – Dave told us to “think of images you might consider being on a t-shirt or as a piece of art in your home”.

temporary

Both might consist of painting, stickers, paste ups or other types of ‘installations’  and both can be done with or without permission. But after seeing a few works in progress, I was left with the over-riding premise of street art/graffiti being both temporary and accessible in nature despite permissions granted – check out the works in progress below.

WIP

We wandered along Fashion Street, learning about different techniques as we went. Below are some examples of paste-ups – where the artist has completed the image elsewhere prior to pasting it on the walls. The top left image was created using screen printing for the main image with the coloured smoke added in situ.

Paste Ups

You can also see the temporary nature of urban art at work here with the later addition of the ‘cat chariot’ to the bottom of the original piece, a practice we saw a lot throughout the tour. Another common practice is for artists to spread their work in an area to make their mark – we saw two more of the ‘cat chariot’ further along Fashion Street and more scattered along our walking route.

An artist currently distributing himself throughout the area is Gregos. He’s a French sculptor who creates painted molds of his own face. He has installed two batches of these in London so far.

Gregos

We saw these three on our route, ‘stayers’ from his last batch of fifty earlier this year. (Dave assures us that having met Gregos, this really is his face.)

Speaking of sticking things on the wall, there were loads of other things to find if you kept your eyes peeledStuck on

The piggy you can see in the photo top left is part of a series by Love Piepenbrinck. We found them in all sorts of places and while we thought they were cute, it would appear that the urban artists themselves are quite enamoured of this idea. We found a number of works had been created around the little sculpture, leaving the ensconced piggy right where it was – maybe Piepenbrinck’s piggies will mark an era of (semi-) permanence?

The other pictures are just different examples that appealed to me: Eeyore perching gloomily amongst a frenetic background, the mirrored cloud that changed depending on my angle of reflection (pardon the pun –  couldn’t help it!) and the urban tweetie attached to a council sign.

This next image was quite stunning and really struck me with all of its purple and turquoise hues. Dave confirmed here that the artist had been granted permission (by the owner of the wall, not the council) to paint here.

Purple woman

However, what was even more amazing is that this was all painted with spray cans. Can you imagine trying to create this kind of delicate imagery with a set of spray cans? (I probably couldn’t even manage it with a paint brush). It gave me a new appreciation of the talent of these artists. Here are some more ‘girls’ I particularly liked…

Women

One of the elements of street art is the speed and ‘furtiveness’ required as most is completed without permission. One of the techniques used to aid this is stenciling (Banksy is a well-known exponent of this). The image on the right is painted on the door of a barber shop and so whilst the artist had probably obtained permission, this intricate portrait was still created using a whole series of stencils.

We saw some great commemorative art as well. Joe’s Kid (below left) actually runs the coffee shop that owns the wall and Charlie Burns (below right) ran the business whose shutters are right next to his image.

generations

The Charlie Burns image also embodies the dripping effect evident in much street art – let’s face it, if you’re trying not to get caught, you don’t spend time dabbing at the drips! In this case the artist, Ben Slow has used it to effect on the left hand side of the image and then merged into photo-realism as he moved towards the right.

And the piece below – just off Bethnal Green Road – is by Citizen Kane (CZK) and commemorates the suicide of his son in 2013.

Citizen Kane

Street artists are also known for their strong anti-authority philosophies and these next two are great examples of taking a humorous and well-aimed poke at the establishment.

Ronzo is a German artist and his style is typified by the bulging eyes and the tombstone teeth of his monsters.  We saw the rainbow image earlier in Fashion Street. On the right you can see Crunchy, The Credit Crunch Monster, Ronzo’s mascot for the global financial crisis, in the Old Truman Brewery complex while the City of Ronzo crest was on the railway bridge at the top end of Brick Lane. This guy gets around…

Ronzo

Frenchman Clet Abraham is another exponent of thumbing one’s nose at authority and uses his witty imagery on existing ‘displays of authority’ (street signs) to make his particular mark.

street signs

Nathan Bowen is yet another using his art to make a statement. Using marker pens in his signature style, he makes this plea for peace in Syria below.

Nathan Bowen

Conor Harrington‘s work also appeared in a couple of different places along the way…

Conor Harrington

…and he also worked with U2 on Crystal Ballroom, part of their Songs of Innocence project. (He’s the artist in the video.)

No street art tour – of London anyway – would be complete without Banksy so we snuck through the gates of Shoreditch nightclub Cargo to see this…

Banksy

Yes, it is behind perspex but while not in the temporary and accessible spirit of street art, I’m pretty glad I got to see a real Banksy. And yes, his real identity remains a mystery, even to Dave. (There’s more street art in Cargo – even another Banksy so might be worth popping down to Rivington Street.)

There was so much more on this almost 4 hour tour and it gave me a new appreciation for both this pocket of East London – about which I knew very little – and the urban art scene – about which I knew even less. I didn’t like everything – probably only half of what I saw really appealed to me but it’s interesting how with a little bit of background, the whole genre opened up and became absolutely fascinating.

And let’s face it, if street art ruled the world, there’d be a whole lot more of this…

Coloured walls

…and for my part, that just adds some welcome colour to a day.

If you are in London and fancy a bit of urban art for yourself, check out Shoreditch Street Art Tours – Dave is obviously a guy ‘in the know’ and for just £15, it makes for a pretty cost-effective and entertaining education!