From Pop Art to Community Arts

‘Warhol to Walker’ Exhibition Launch – Thursday July 13th 6-7.30pm

This special exhibition explores the influence print movements have had on Hackney. Starting with the explosion of pop art in the 1960s, the exhibition displays works on loan from the British Museum by celebrated artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Kara Walker alongside Hackney artists.

To support the show, Fragile Archivists contributed silk-screen posters from the Chats Palace Archive as well as made a film ‘From Pop Art to Community Arts: Hackney in the 1970s-80s’.

Pop Art Exhibition launch


The film is displayed at the Hackney Museum from 11 July till 16 September 2017.
Once the exhibition is over, the film will be available online. Watch this space!

We can’t thank enough our interviewees, the most wonderful Hackney activists, artists and researchers – Jess Baines, Neil Martinson, Alan May, Ingrid Pollard, Red Saunders, Rene Rice and Rebecca Wilson.

From Pop Art to Community Arts

© Asya Gefter

Colin O’Brien and Chats Palace

One day in the early 2000’s I was listening to the tale of Magnum’s discovery of the great Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain from a Hackney photo activist and raconteur. I asked if it was possible that any other significant talents or bodies of work from the mid-20th century remained unknown or overlooked? “Highly unlikely in this day and age” came back the reply.

Well since then there has been the unexpected publishing story of the work of Vivian Maier to name but one. I would also suggest that the late recognition of Colin O’Brien, culminating in the summer of 2015 when his book ‘London Life’ was Amazon’s bestseller in photography is another life to celebrate.

I came across Colin and his work a couple of months after the above conversation. Walking along the chilly London South Bank in December 2006 I spotted a huge black and white print of a Morrissey concert in the Oxo Tower Gallery. Once inside the walls were packed with strong classic black and white images of mainly working class life from London and beyond, portrayed in a straightforward and dignified humanist style. Colin was on hand to chat about his work and offered a portfolio of extra prints where I first saw ‘Lady in a summer dress Chatsworth Road 1980’s’. Benjamin the Chemist plus landmark clock and Percy Ingle the baker were all present and correct in the background. I had walked down that street for 20 years. This was by far the best picture I had seen that summed up the atmosphere of unexpected and quiet beauty that pervaded the relative urban backwater of Homerton and Clapton in those days.

Almost exactly a year on in the late autumn of 2007 Colin installed his exhibition ‘Five decades of East London Photography’ around the downstairs corridor and bar area of Chats Palace. He was delighted that I couldn’t spot which of the prints that he presented in monochrome had actually been printed from colour negatives. (A tough challenge to successfully pull off in a darkroom).

Three large images of the Clerkenwell/Farringdon Road junction were placed above the bar. The alcove walls were similarly adorned with big prints, “Comings and goings in Club Row/Brick Lane 1986” and groupings of children from the series “London Fields travellers kids”. The bar pictures were so popular that Colin agreed to leave them in place for a couple of years after the official exhibition closed. Copies of his images became popular leaving presents for Chats Palace Board and Staff members, to the extent that workers joked of dreading being asked which their ‘favourite O’Brien’ might be. Colin found this quite funny. My personal choice was always “Snow scene New Year’s Eve Clerkenwell 1962” with the isolated single figure crossing the deserted street, composed from an elevated position and constructed with strong diagonals.

Three years later Colin was back at Chats Palace with a new group of pictures, this time of Chatsworth Road. “The last of the real high streets” was a joint project with Clapton writer Jane Eggington and comprised of a series of classic environmental portraits of small business shopkeepers from all over the world. Colin created the work on a digital SLR and grappled with his own digital colour management and printout for the first time. Meanwhile Jane produced a series of poignant pen pictures and anecdotal references to further our understanding of the hard slog contribution of these local businesses during a difficult economic era. Once again the exhibition was extremely popular not least amongst the hundreds of newer residents of Homerton and Clapton who found a sense of orientation of place amongst these photo stories.

Colin once mentioned that he had always wanted to exhibit at The Victoria and Albert Museum and in a way he did get to do that when he worked alongside photographer Asya Gefter and I on a schools based outreach project for The Museum of Childhood in 2011. ‘Playing In and Out’ looked at kids play over the decades and Colin got to show a large selection of his archive in a grid formation in the new front extention to the Museum as well as giving a lively interview session with a class of children from a Tower Hamlets Primary school .

In 2015 Colin became a trustee of Chats Palace and this year a small exhibition of his work was installed in the recently refurbished Blue Room on the first floor of Chats Palace where it will stay for the foreseeable future. As with all his work it shows the working class of London in all its multifarious ethnic and cultural, working and non-working forms. Inquisitive, confident and outward looking. A timely and timeless corrective for the caricatures of 2016. Thank you Colin.

Peter Young

The Pepper and The Palace

Fragile Archivists would like to wish everyone all the best for 2016 – the 40th anniversary of the start of Chats Palace.

Look out for our anniversary exhibition later this year. In the meantime here is this month’s Red Pepper magazine’s feature on 40 years of Chats Palace (click on the link to read the full article)!

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Available half-price from Chats Palace!

The story so far …

Visit our new page of Exhibitions and Talks and don’t forget that ‘Mike Gray – In Black and White’ photography exhibition is at Chats Palace bar throughout the Summer 2015 as well as the ‘Photographer Unknown’ next door in Chats gallery. Have a lovely Summer!

Mike Gray - In Black and White

Not a cupcake class in sight

Enlarged Lives – an exhibition of feminist related original silk screen posters is now on the walls of Chats Palace bar. Fragile Archivists invited Jess Baines, a researcher and member of See Red Women’s Workshop, to reflect on the experience of the womens movement during the 1980’s. Here is her response.

Collectively and individually these few posters provide wonderfully suggestive clues to some of the feminist and lesbian cultural activity of 1980’s London, as well as to the context in which it took place. Most of this activity had been set in motion a decade earlier as part of the women’s movement desire to come together and unravel the limitations of our own lives, not just through talking and protest, but creatively through writing, image making and performance.
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Women’s theatre groups for example had begun forming in the early 1970’s, out of frustration with the dearth of roles for women, even in the growing radical theatre movement. Groups performed, not just as in the posters shown here, at community arts venues and sympathetic theatres but also in women’s refuges and hospitals.
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The Women Artists Slide Library, set up in 1976, on the other hand was part of the larger women’s art and feminist art history movements that sought to challenge women’s absence from those fields; the image used in the poster here is from a work by the Italian Baroque female painter Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting (1690’s).
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Photography became a crucial medium in recording women’s lives, and led to fascinating explorations in its domestic role, along with a growth of women’s groups, classes and exhibitions. It is hard to imagine now (perhaps) but ‘serious’ photography, because it was considered ‘technical’ was seen as a male domain.
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Technical confidence was something Lenthall Road Workshop, the feminist photography and screenprint centre, also aimed to encourage through its classes and ‘skills sharing’ approach. Women only classes gave women and girls the space to muck about and learn without hindrance.
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Lenthall Road was also part of the growth of feminist work with young women and girls, hinted at here by the poster they printed for Stoke Newington Girls Festival. Note the activities; motorbikes, self-defence, pool… Not a cupcake class in sight.
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Some of the posters also point to the development of women’s movement discussions and practices around ‘inclusion’. From the lines ‘all women welcome’, and ‘crèche facilities’, to the logo for wheelchair access, and the image of black and white hands on the Lesbian Strength & Gay Pride poster, there are signs of larger movement debates about participation, access and representation.

Posters from Chats Palace Printshop_1

With regard to iconography, it’s interesting that the once ubiquitous ‘women’s symbol’ doesn’t appear at all. Doubled (or tripled for lesbian ‘non-monogamy’), along with the double-headed axe, it had been part of the ‘lesbian symbol’. But on the aforementioned poster it’s the newer black triangle that’s used, adopted in the 1980’s as a counterpart to the pink triangle of gay rights and pride. Digging into the context of this particular poster would open up a 1980’s history of both a separation and coming together of lesbian and gay political and cultural activity. Posters from Chats Palace Printshop_10

Lesbian Strength was the name given to a series of independent marches prior to Gay Pride between 1983-88; the pride marches were felt to be male dominated and lesbians marginalised. But it was also the period when the now famous Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners was formed, the birth of the Greater London Council funded London Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLGC), and the appearance of Lesbian and Gay Units in leftist local authorities which would lead to the infamous Section 28 of 1988 and an important political coalition between lesbians and gay men to fight it. (Many lesbians continued working with gay men in the AIDS/HIV activism of the following years).

The Humanist Party poster included here, ‘Maggie wants your blood’, reminds us that all of this was taking place under the socially conservative right-wing neo-liberal politics of Thatcherism. Thatcher of course presided over a sustained attack on the left, from the dismantling of trade union power to the undermining of the ‘alternative left’, members of whom had helped shape the municipal socialism of the 1980’s and its sympathetic grant giving policies, that as the funding logos show, supported a fair few of the activities here.

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These posters offer a partial snapshot of a moment in the cultural history of the women’s movement, in a complex context of the movement’s own diversification and internal struggles, the hostile climate of 1980’s Britain, and a temporary period of institutional support. Each one of them offers a potential gateway to a rich history of political, social and cultural resistance and creativity in the pursuit of an ‘enlarged life’.

Related Links:

Jess Baines looks back at London’s printmaking workshops of the 1960s and 70s
Posters designed and printed by See Red Women’s Workshop
The Women’s Liberation Music Archive
Recording the history of Alternative Theatre, 1968-88

Mike Gray

Michael Leslie Gray – Hackney historian and community activist: born London March 3rd 1938, died Toledo 10th January 2015

Mike Gray, who has died in Spain at the age of 76, said that his life was defined by three locations Dulwich, Hackney and Mora de Toledo, Spain. He was a lifelong community activist and animateur, who was the first Chair of Chats Palace and who will be most remembered for his leading role in saving Sutton House Hackney. Read more 

David Fox and Martin Goodrich on Mike Gray at Chats Palace:

Bob Lee adds:
Mike Gray, who was instrumental in discovering and securing Chats Palace for the people of Hackney and beyond, passed away in a Toledo hospital on Saturday January 10th 2015. Back in the mid 1970’s, Mike, along with Freeform (a voluntary sector organisation then based in Dalston) and other local organisations took up the battle to transform the old library in Chatsworth Road into a community project that lives on to this day.

Mike Gray also discovered the Elizabethan Sutton House and fought a successful campaign to have it restored and turned into another Hackney miracle. His portrait was/is on the staircase in Sutton House.

Mike Gray

Mike Gray

Brian Walker adds:
I am so sad to hear that our good mate Mike Gray has died. Although he has been very ill for the last couple of years it is still a shock. Mike was a good friend and a very fair and dutiful Chairman of Chats Palace. We never realised at the time what a great campaigner and forward thinking organiser he was. He made such an impact on Homerton and Hackney, but to many of us he was just our friend and companion, Mike. Thank you! RIP Mike.

Photomonth Events


Photomonth events at Chats Palace


40th anniversary of a Women’s Photographic Collective

Sunday 12th October, 2pm – 5pm


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The Hackney Flashers Collective was active as a feminist agitprop group in London from 1974 to 1980. The group produced two photographic/graphic exhibitions on large panels addressing complex ideas about women’s lives as workers and as mothers, inside and outside the home – Women and Work and Who’s Holding the Baby?

To mark the recent launch of the Hackney Flashers website, the group are calling a meeting of the generations: how did they work as a collective in the 1970s? How is the struggle for the most basic of women’s rights being carried on now, forty years later?
A rare chance to see some of the exhibition panels from the time too!


Exhibition ‘Photographer Unknown’


Thursday – Sunday, 12pm – 5pm

A selection from the 40 year old Chats Palace archive portraying Homerton scenes and characters through the ad hoc documentation of a group of voluntary and often uncredited photographers. Portraits range from casual snaps to more formal studies and in passing offer a glimpse of the area, within our living memory.

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