Return to Spender

Over to Maldon on a quiet midweek afternoon to see an exhibition of photos and paintings by the late Humphrey Spender. When I say quiet, I mean that it’s quiet in the actual gallery.

Maldon High Street, where Haylett’s Gallery is situated, is hardly ever quiet. This is because, unlike certain other towns, Maldon’s still got lots of proper shops. It’s almost like being back in a busy 1960s High Street, a kind of lost world which the clone town movement hasn’t yet managed to seize control of.

I could have attended the exhibition’s first view, of course. But firstly, I got side-tracked the other week by the farce of Clacton’s station cafe closure and secondly, a man can only take so many first views.

At a first view you generally end up standing around with a flute of wine, trying to look vaguely erudite whilst not having a clue what’s going on.

Very often, you can’t even see the work in the first place, because a large woman with lorgnettes is standing in front of you, blocking your view. Or maybe that’s just me. No, I’m the wrong sort of guy to send to a first view. Far better despatching me to a livestock market or a car-boot sale, really. This was one exhibition, however, which I badly wanted to see.

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Humphrey Spender’s photographs are reproduced in the starkest black and white, the most famous of them taken mainly in the 1930s and 1940s. For here are the pinafored women scrubbing grimy doorsteps in an austere and car-free Bolton – ‘Worktown’ as Spender re-christened it.

Here also are cloth-capped Geordie shipyard workers in backstreet pubs, draped in the grey raiments of their own cigarette smoke. In other pictures, a moment of watchful anxiety is caught in a soldier’s eyes, or a woman struggles with a clothes prop underneath a line of washing strung across a bare cobbled street.

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The England of 70-odd years ago depicted in these images, is almost unrecognisable to modern eyes, especially when placed in the context of the country which we inhabit now.

In fact, I have only ever glimpsed the most meagre vestiges of this bleak, vanished world, whilst wandering a good few years ago in certain depleted areas of post-industrial Middlesbrough.

It’s a chastening thing to be drawn into the grim reality of our recent past by a mere two-dimensional image. Perhaps it’s because the shots are in monochrome.

It does make you wonder whether they would have retained their edge had they been taken in colour instead. But here, nonetheless, are your English people of the 1930s. Everyone but the very youngest in these pictures is now dead. Their eyes have witnessed the end of horse-drawn transport and the coming of the motor cars.

Their ears have heard the rattle of clogs on cobbles as well as the first radios. What we in today’s Britain might think of as being hard-up they would simply not have understood.

For Humphrey Spender, too, whose mesmerising work is before me, the poverty and anxieties of his time were real. As a photographer, Spender’s work was featured in Picture Post and Left Review.

His work for the Daily Mirror under the name “Lensman” led him to be described, justifiably, as one of the outstanding chroniclers of his generation.

An exhibition of Spender’s photographs and paintings are on display at Haylett’s Gallery until today. This particular exhibition – small but impressive – is only one of a series of events commemorating the centenary of the artist’s birth.

Other exhibitions will take place soon in venues as diverse as Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury and The Leica Gallery in New York. Spender, who died in 2005, was not a son of Maldon but lived for many years in a Victorian rectory at Ulting, just outside the town.

In the 1950s, he turned from photography to painting. The contrast between his two chosen art forms is somewhat surprising. Spender’s paintings are vibrant, almost breezy affairs featuring flowers, fields and the marshes of the Blackwater. Somewhere within them it’s almost as if he’d found some kind of antidote to the darkness of his photographs.

The paintings are pleasing to the eye often rather pretty. But, for me, at least, they don’t have the shocking power of his photographic work.

Exhibitions of these photographs should be mounted once a year in every secondary school in the country, so that 15-year-olds could be shown how their immediate ancestors used to live. Maldon itself should be rather proud that this work has come home.

“He was a lovely man,” says the Haylett Gallery’s Sally Patrick, who’s been kind enough to guide me through the exhibition and remembers the by then elderly artist.

Spender, by all acounts, was an extraordinary man and like many such men, he led an extraordinary life. He hung around in pre-war Germany, for instance, with Christopher Isherwood, whose book, Goodbye to Berlin was the inspiration for the musical Cabaret.

He nearly got killed while flying around Morocco in a plane piloted by a drunk. On another occasion he and a friend, the poet Geoffrey Grigson, managed to get themselves arrested – not once but twice – when they were mistaken for the spies Burgess and Maclean whilst working on an assignment in the West Country.

But in later life, when it had all quietened down a bit, he settled here in estuarine Essex. Extraordinary men. They do that sort of thing, don’t they?

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