I’ve spent the last month putting the final work into my exhibition for the Bloomsbury Festival. ‘A Portrait of 18 Rugby Street’ is a photographic exhibition (or, more accurately, installation) about the Bloomsbury house I have lived in for most of the last decade.
The house is famous primarily because Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath lived there in the 1950s. They spent their first night together there as well as their wedding night. Ted Hughes wrote the poem ’18 Rugby Street’ (from Birthday Letters) about the house and its place in their story. Over the years I have learned more and more about the house’s previous tenants and met many of them - it became clear that there was more to the story of this house than the two legendary poets and a poem... Over time I became aware that number 18 had an incredibly rich creative history - in the 50s, as well as Hughes and Plath, Peter O’Toole often stayed; the influential designer Richard Hollis lived there and used the top flat as his studio; Jacques Tati and Albert Finney used to pop round regularly.
There is a fascinating story around another book associated with both Hughes and the house - Timmy the Tug - conceived and illustrated by another resident of the 50s, Jim Downer (more about that story here). But as well as these famous names, it became clear that young creative people of all disciplines had made number 18 their home for decades. When I met Jim Downer and Richard Hollis at the launch of Timmy the Tug and invited them back into 18 Rugby Street, they were intrigued that the house was surprisingly unchanged, and even more so that the creative spirit remained. This meeting with Jim and Richard was the catalyst for this project - although I didn’t at that point (2009) know it would end up as a photographic endeavour.
Over the last 18 months, as I became more and more interested in photography, I began capturing quiet corners of the house, largely on my iphone. I was trying to capture the changing light falling through the different windows, although with no particular overall unifying purpose. When you have lived somewhere for a number of years I think you become sensitive to the subtleties in light: I realised I knew when the best light would fall on different floors, at the front or the back of the house, in different weather conditions. These iphone photos became studies for the project - a kind of photographic exploration of the house. I became interested in the timeless nature of the original features of the house - the Georgian wood panelling and sash windows, for example - against the changing light and air, the people coming and going, life moving in and out.
Eventually I decided to develop these quiet still-life studies and juxtapose them with portraits of previous creative tenants from the 50s until now. I was already in touch with Richard Hollis, so from there I worked forward and started researching tenants from the 40s forwards. I also got in touch with the people who lived in the house when I moved in and started working backwards from there. I ended up with portraits of tenants spanning sixty years - from people in their late 70s and early 80s all the way down to my youngest housemate now, who is in her mid-twenties.
Sadly, we don’t have much time left in number 18, which has become another catalyst for the project. The owners of the house are redeveloping it to command a much higher rent, so my time in the house is coming to an end. The house has been an affordable, quirky place to live for decades, which has made it ideal for young artists starting out in their careers in London. That era is coming to an end - I can’t say that no creative people will ever live there again, but, like much of London (central and beyond), the kinds of people who have helped make the area vibrant, culturally rich and attractive are being moved on by ‘market forces’. I wanted to document this era - a certain creative life of the house - before it comes to an end.
I shot the project on film - Kodak Tri-X - using the old Pentax MX manual camera my auntie gave me when I was about eight years old. Because I wanted the work to have a timeless quality, I felt it was important to reflect that in the medium: the format I used could have been used at any time since the 1950s, so I felt it helped support the concept as a whole.
I also made C-Type prints of many of the iphone studies for the exhibition, and included some Polaroid studies shot on Impossible Project instant film.
There is a website to accompany the exhibition - www.18rugbystreet.co.uk - it contains additional photographs, audio interviews with previous tenants, additional research and links.
The exhibition is only running this week, from the 15th to the 20th October, at Ben Pentreath Ltd, 17 Rugby Street, London WC1N 3QT. I am planning to turn the project into a book and hope to re-exhibit when the book is launched.