The History of My Hand-drawn Map at the Museum of London

Hand-drawn London Exhibition, Museum of London

To my utter disbelief I am currently in an exhibition at the Museum of London. No, I’m not a time traveller or old enough to feature in stories of the Blitz or even the Brixton Riots, I’m not even an artist, but somehow my hand-drawn map is in the most recent temporary exhibition at the Museum of London, ‘Hand-drawn London‘.

Me & my map in the exhibition

The exhibition is a collaboration with the Londonist website, and features ten hand-drawn maps hand-picked to represent different Londoners views and perceptions of the city they live in. There is a lovely depiction of Brixton as a tree, a very humorous insight into the world of an over-seas student whose world focuses on the Bloomsbury area with unmapped territory surrounding, and an intriguing look at London’s firsts mapping events and inventions that were premiered in London. You can find a preview with images of all the maps on the Independent website here.

My map is ultimately very simple (seemed the best idea due to my artistic constraints), and is probably one of the few without much annotation. With my interest in local history and my love of North Kensington I used the hand-drawn map project as an excuse to research the long gone Kensington Hippodrome, a Victorian racecourse that stretched from Holland Road to modern-day St Quintin’s Avenue.

When I first created the map I wrote a blog on the maps that influenced my final creation can be found here, but I’d thought I’d take this opportunity to share a bit more history of the Kensington Hippodrome.

A Notting Hill racecourse was the brainchild of local entrepreneur called John Whyte. Situated on 200 acres of the Ladbroke lands, leased from James Weller, the Kensington Hippodrome boasted a larger capacity and closer proximity to London than the other famous racecourses, Epsom and Ascot. It opened on 3 June 1837 to much praise and acclaim from the sporting and national press, and it was soon considered to be a very fashionable place to be and be seen.

"The last grand steeplechase at the Hippodrome racecourse, Kensington" oil on Canvas, by Henry Jnr Alken, Wikigallery

However, there had been an oversight in Whyte’s plans and it turned out that his racecourse intercepted an ‘ancient public way’. Though apparently situated in a sleepy and leafy area, the Hippodrome had actually been built next to one of the worst slums in London’s suburbs, the Potteries, possibly represented by the chimney in the background of this painting. And this public way, or footpath, had become popular with the inhabitants of the Potteries and the nearby area as they attempted to avoid Pottery Lane, affectionately nicknamed ‘Cut Throat Lane’, to give you an idea of the undesirables that resided there.

Whyte tried to block this footpath, but the locals were having none of it, and continued to protest, campaign and also dismantle any obstruction there. For the press this became a matter of class warfare, and to them it seemed acceptable that people should have a few hours enjoyment at the races without seeing the dregs of society, who kept breaking into the Hippodrome for free through the footpath.

This wasn’t the end of Whyte’s problems, and though the Hippodrome had become fashionable (visited by the Grand Duke of Russia and other foreign dignitaries) and extended in 1841; the jockeys weren’t keen on the clay soil and began to shun the racecourse. Eventually Whyte admitted defeat and gave up the lease in 1842. With this Weller turned to the builders and the Ladbroke Estate was subsequently built over the racecourse. This wasn’t the end of racecourses altogether in the area and there was a course also called the Kensington Hippodrome built as part of Portobello Pleasure Gardens, featuring a track around the axis of Talbot Road. Also in the early 1850s there was a third Kensington Hippodrome, this time an equestrian extravaganza amphitheatre on the site of De Vere Gardens.

Hippodrome Place, W11

Today the ghost of the Kensington Hippodrome still lingers in the area. There is of course street names, Hippodrome Place at Clarendon Cross, between Portland Road and Pottery Lane, and also Hippodrome Mews, former stables. There are also several pubs in the area that date back to the 1840s and probably have origins in Hippodrome business; the Prince Albert in Notting Hill Gate at the entrance to the racecourse, and the North Pole on North Pole Road at the other end of the racecourse. Parts of the Ladbroke Estate were also built along features of the racecourse, most notably that the Notting Hill grassy knoll, that became the ‘natural grandstand’ is now where St John’s Church is situated, accessible by a gate which is now the main entrance to Ladbroke Square Gardens.

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Museum Of London’s ‘London Street Photography’ Exhibition: An Introduction

A magazine seller at Ludgate Circus, 1893. Paul Martin

Yesterday I went to one of the ‘Meet the Expert‘ events at the Museum of London, held on the last Wednesday every month. The event normally consists of a curator, or other resident expert, talking about an area of their research or recent discovery. It’s held in the theatre on the 1st lower level of the museum – something I didn’t realise and was late for the start!

This was held by Mike Seaborne, the Senior Curator of Photographs, on the subject of the Museum of London’s newish ‘London Street Photography‘ exhibition. This exhibition has met with huge success, and I know the couple of times I’ve gone to have a nosey it’s been full of people absorbed in these intriguing images.

Admiralty Arch on the day before Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, June 1st 1953. Bob Collins. London Street Photography Exhibition, Museum of London

I know nothing about photography, I was a little familiar with the history of the development of the technology, but as a practice I am clueless. Consequently the talk by Mike Seaborne, was great for filling in some context and history of some of the images on display. I also learnt a bit about the theory of ‘street photography’ and recent debates on the subject matter.

For the Museum of London’s exhibition, they took a strict definition of street photography; that people should be the main focus rather than landscapes, that it should be in the street (though there are a few exceptions in parks), they should look at the everyday rather than important or unusual events, like festivals or protests, and finally the best ones, or perhaps the most interesting visually, have an element of chance or a juxtaposition of people and place.

The historical significance for these sorts of images almost goes with saying, but I’m going to say something anyway. As with written documents, photography all too often focusses on the big events and the important people. Street photography gives social historians, as well as architectural, cultural, and many other sorts of historians, an insight into the everyday life of the everyday person. From simple clues as to what people are wearing or carrying, to looking at more complex relationships, such as how people appear to be interacting, and what sort of people are in this particular place at a particular time.

As with any historical document the context of the creator, the photographer, is an important, if not crucial, part of understanding the image. I think this was the main point that Mike Seaborne was able to put across in his talk. He told us about the nineteenth photographers like John Thomson, who worked on a project with a journalist and would normally have some sort of arrangement in his photographs, but was not afraid to let the unexpected interrupt his composition. Also Paul Martin, who was one of the first to disguise his camera and take pictures of people on the street who were unaware of the camera under his arm. What was interesting about Paul Martin’s work, recording life at the turn of the century, was that he was an amateur photographer and part of a camera club and consequently expected to be trying to take more artistic photographs. His work was eventually appreciated later in the mid twentieth century, thankfully when he was still around to discuss his work.

Big Ben, April 2007. Stephen McLaren. London Street Photography, Museum of London

 

Paul Martin eventually became a photo journalist, an occupation that became possible from the 1910s due to developments in technology to print photographs, and over the course of the twentieth century the role of the photo journalism in street photography began to increase in significance. By the 1930s the genre was reaching a wider audience than ever before through the publication of specialist magazines, in which photo stories were featured. Seaborne described the post-war period, approximately 1950-1970 as the hey-day of street photography, possibly because it was a time of such change and redevelopment, photographers saw their role in recording the here and now.

Roger Mayne worked predominately in North Kensington and his photographs looked at the use of the street as a social space, being from North Kensington myself these images really intrigued me, especially as you realised that some of the streets in his images no-longer exist, torn down from redevelopment possibly replaced by Trellick Tower. The work of Charlie Phillips from the 1960s also captured the changing face of North Kensington, as he looked at the social interaction between the white and newly arrived West Indian residences.

Charlie Philips was born in Jamaica and is evidence of the increasing role of the immigrant photographer in twentieth century, bringing over new ideas and concepts they play a significant role in the street photography exhibition. They also continue to play an important role in street photography as Mike Seaborne informed us that many photographers make the trip to London specifically to take street photography here. Don’t we have very special streets?!

The final thing I’ll mention is the question Mike Seaborne left us with, which is where is street photography going? Photo journalists are now focused on either international disaster or celebrities in the street, and digital advancement allow photographs to be manipulated in ways never possible before. Many of the modern street photographs have a humorous element to it, but is there any documenting going on? And what can be call documentary now and at what point does photography become art? It seems street photography will continue to evolve and throw up interesting themes and maybe tell us something interesting about ourselves.