Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Austerity Art

Sometime in 1974, when I was 11 or 12 years old, my dad took me to a new restaurant in Woolwich, south-east London. He had read about it as it was the only British outlet of a chain that was huge in the United States and, as we were passing through Woolwich on one of our regular Red Bus Rover trips around London that we took on Saturdays when Millwall were not playing in the capital, he decided we should give it a try. I have no exact memory of what we ate that day but I do remember my dad’s words as we left the restaurant: “Well, that was terrible; it’ll never catch on.” Typically, he was half right. It was terrible, but it did catch on. We had, of course, just visited the first McDonald’s in this country.

Where my dad was most at home eating when we went on a Red Bus Rover – a very early version of the Oyster card but for buses only – was at Jolyon on the corner of the Strand and Duncannon Street, opposite Charing Cross station. It was one of a chain of cafeterias that were successors to the Lyons teashops, or Corner Houses as three of the central London branches were known, that had dominated high streets for the previous 70 years. Struggling to maintain the demand for large-scale affordable dining that had grown out of the war-time canteen culture, the 1970s saw a make-over that relied on formica, brown geometric patterns and a funky renaming to reflect the founding father, Joseph Lyons. The re-launch failed and by the end of the seventies the Lyons name was most well known as a brand of ice cream. The restaurants never regained their place at the forefront of British life that they had occupied before, during and after the Second World War.

Just how integral Lyons teashops were to the post-war cultural landscape can currently be seen in an exhibition, The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity 1946-1955, at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne. Facing a drab period where rationing still held sway and raw materials were prioritised elsewhere, J. Lyons & Co found an imaginative way of sprucing up their restaurants and illuminating the lives of their customers: they commissioned a series of large lithographs, from artists of the day, to cover the walls of the teashops. Over three series, in 1946, 1951 and 1955, 40 separate prints were produced by leading artists such as L.S. Lowry, John Nash, John Piper and David Gentleman. Most of the contributors had worked as official war artists, documenting daily life on the home front in a time of conflict, so the shift to peace time adversity was a natural one.

All 40 prints are on show at the Towner, along with some original sketches and paintings that informed the lithographic process carried out by commercial printers Chromoworks of Willesden. Depicting life in post-war Britain, they present a fascinating example of the power of public art. The most successful at the exhibition are those, such as People by Barnett Freedman and The Railway Station by Edward Arrdizzone, that provide a glimpse of the grind of the time – the crowds and careworn faces of that austere post-war world. East Sussex features with Edwin La Dell’s view of Hastings from East Hill and Clifford Frith’s brooding The River Rother at Rye. But for me, nestling next to each other in a corner of the gallery, the contrast between Carel Weight’s melancholic and autumnal Albert Bridge and the spirited and energetic Herne Bay Pier by Anthony Gross, shows the true resilience of ordinary people in an age of austerity.

Perhaps that resilience explains why the streets are not filled with people throwing bricks in protest at our current age of austerity - but it does not explain where the response of art is now. I cannot imagine the fast food heirs to Lyons embarking on a similar project - corporations regularly sponsor art exhibitions, but that is merely advertising. What J. Lyons & Co did was to directly commission, oversee and exhibit these artworks to enrich the lives of the ordinary people who drank their tea.

The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity 1946-1955 is at the Towner gallery, Eastbourne until 22nd October 2013. £5.50/£4 concessions.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Crisis Management

It is a depressing fact that the most read item on this blog over the last three months is one I posted in October 2012 about Foodbanks in East Sussex run by the Trussell Trust, a charity working to combat poverty and exclusion through the provision of emergency food to those in crisis. This is not surprising considering the drastic changes to the welfare state which took place in April this year. Reductions in housing benefit, council tax benefit and child tax credit, the abolition of crisis loans for general living expenses and changes to the disability living allowance have made the lives of many ordinary and vulnerable people living in East Sussex intolerable.

Back in October, I wrote that Foodbank had doubled the number of people it had helped during the previous year at its 250 centres across the country, and that existing Foodbanks in Eastbourne, Hastings and Hailsham had become an essential part of life for thousands. There are now 325 Foodbanks nationwide and the Trussell Trust look set to increase the numbers they help by 170% this year. Here in East Sussex, an additional Foodbank has opened in Bexhill and is soon to be joined by one in Uckfield.

Food is donated to Foodbanks by individuals, businesses and local organisations; professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers and Citizens’ Advice Bureau staff identify people who are not managing and issue them with a voucher that can be redeemed for three days emergency food. Mostly, Foodbanks are being used by the working poor, the unemployed and the elderly who need to bridge the gap until the next payday, benefit or pension payment, or keep away from the clutches of payday loan companies.

If you are in need of help or want to donate or volunteer, local Foodbanks can be found here or at the following four locations in East Sussex:

The Methodist Church
Sackville Road
TN39 3JB
07866 570468

Albury House
1 Cornfield Lane
BN21 4NE
01323 409925

Sheriff Place
Rear of Link Shop
1 George Street
BN27 1AD
01323 844428

The Hastings Centre
The Ridge
TN34 2SA
07970 810008

Monday, July 1, 2013

Downland: part nine

Electric trams glide and rattle; an endless promenade. Their delicate waltz stretches the length of the street: from St. George’s Circus at the bottom, to the terminus at the top. From the overhead cables, sparks shower down outside the doorway of number 72 Waterloo Road. The cascade briefly illuminates the lettering on the window boards: ‘George Burchett – Artistic Tattooing – Crude Work Covered or Removed – Antiseptic Treatment’. It is late in the afternoon on a day late in November. Ridler is standing on the step; below him on the pavement is Gladys. She is impatient to catch the tram back home. Seventy-five times in six months they have made this trip; three times a week since 24th May 1934 – the date when Ridler had put his skin in Burchett’s hands with a formal letter of permission - they had travelled up from the clipped, suburbia of Raleigh Gardens in Mitcham, to the metropolitan mayhem of Waterloo Road. And now that it was finished, Ridler was taking one last look at this scene, taking in the sensual bustle before him.

Warm orange lights from shop windows reflect on wet glassy pavements. Angelic haloes of bright, white mercury street lamps plot a route that melts into a blue-grey infinity in the smoggy middle distance. Beneath the lights of this heavenly procession a more moribund parade: be-hatted travellers flood on foot to and from the railway, cheap cardboard suitcases hanging at their sides; passengers of a superior bearing, sweep through in Hackney carriages; market traders and barrow boys running their stalls from their pitches to the arches of their night-time perches. The carts’ clatter adds to the cacophony: steam trumpets from the engines above pierce the darkness; urgent bursts of the policeman’s pea-whistle direct the traffic at the junction with The Cut; the paper seller at the corner alternates his cry between “Star, News and Standard!” and “Germans re-arming, says Churchill!” The air is cold and damp and heavy with a sulphurous taste – the beginnings of a London particular from Bankside and the home fires burning in the Coin Street terraces. A hint, also, on the breeze of yeast and hops drifting downriver from the Anchor brewery to join the malodorous soup. He had known chaos nearly twenty years before - the noise and stench of war – and it was on its way again.