Photography Exhibitions Archive

Bert Hardy: The Elephant and the Castle. Vintage Photographs of London Life in the 1940s

16.04.2004 • 29.05.2004

Bert Hardy: The Elephant and the Castle. Vintage Photographs of London Life in the 1940s

Bert Hardy: The Elephant and the Castle. Vintage Photographs of London Life in the 1940s installation view

 

The face of the Elephant wears all expressions - victorious, defeated, homely and hoodlum... Faces to laugh at. Faces to wink at. Faces that hit you like a blow.

Its voice has the rasp of trams, trains, trucks. Its eyes have the blaze of street-stalls, eel-stands, pin-table arcades and chestnut cans. Its anatomy is decked with sooty bricks, cast iron spikes and the marble pillars of pubs. Its heart is that of its people - kind as a housewife, rough as a worker, busy as a tradesman, wide as a wide-boy.

A.L. Lloyd, 'Life in the Elephant', Picture Post, 8 January 1949.


Following recent exhibitions of paintings, drawings, sculpture and prints by Britain's leading artists of the twentieth century, James Hyman Gallery is pleased to present a very rare group of vintage photographs by one of Britain's most important photographers, Bert Hardy.

As chief photographer for Picture Post magazine in the 1940s and 1950s, Hardy travelled widely recording people and places across the world. Amongst the most famous of these pictures were an award-winning series depicting life in London's Elephant and Castle district.

Bert Hardy: The Elephant and Castle presents a selection of vintage photographs from this series.

As well as including pictures that were reproduced in Picture Post the exhibition provides an opportunity to view other photographs from this series which were not chosen for publication and which are exhibited here for the very first time.

Photographed over a three week period, between 18 November and 8 December 1948, these photographs were taken for a picture story entitled 'Life in the Elephant', which appeared in Picture Post on 8 January 1949.

Against a backdrop of bomb and building sites, these pictures also give glimpses of the modern city, such as some of London's first traffic lights. Bursting with incident they also give a fascinating glimpse of people's lives.
They range from intimate domestic interiors to convivial pub scenes, and include bustling streets filled with people, buses and trams as well as children playing hide and seek or clambering amidst the rubble.

The wintry weather had much to do with the atmosphere in these photographs. As Bert Hardy later recalled: it was a dreary November, and in those days before smokeless fuels, the whole area was shrouded in a thick smog for most of the time'

As a result there is an almost Dickensian quality to some of these scenes. A dense haze of smog shrouds the carts, trams and buses and the streets teem with a lively mixture of different characters.

An entrée was provided by Maisie, a helpful prostitute, who herself appears in some of the photographs on show. It was she who introduced Hardy to many of those he photographed, allowing him an insight into domestic life as well as life on the streets.

Overlooking all this is the image of the elephant and castle, standing proudly on the top of a pub, one of the symbols of London. As A.L.Loyd wrote of the statue in an accompanying caption:
The Emblem of the Cockney World. Seven bridges point straight to it. Six traffic arteries meet at its heart. From the top of the pub, the elephant with its castle dominates London's liveliest domain.

The exhibition comes at a timely moment. Following the recent announcement of the Southwark Land Regeneration plan of urban renewal, Elephant and Castle is braced once more for fundamental change.

Bert Hardy (1913-1995) is most famous as Picture Post's chief photographer in the 1940s and 1950s. Born in London he started work as a laboratory assistant in a photographic agency, worked freelance as a photographer and was then recruited by the newly launched photograph-led magazine, Picture Post.

Hardy initially became famous for his photographs of the Blitz and of the Second World War, before consolidating his reputation with award-winning photographs of deprived areas of Britain.

Deserving of consideration alongside contemporaries such as the great photographers of Magnum, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, Hardy also produced memorable pictures of the Korean War.


SELECTED REVIEWS
Bert Hardy
@ James Hyman Gallery
THE PAST, it has been said, is another country. It is hard to believe that it is only a little more than 50 years ago-that these photographs were taken. Bert Hardy's exhibition Elephant and Castle appears to have more in common with Dickens's London than with today's city of endless Starbucks and wine bars, Indian takeaways and towering glass offices. Hardy was one of. the leading photographers for Picture Post, a celebrated illustrated weekly that ran from 1938 to 1957 and greatly raised the status of photography as a journalistic form. Many of his black-and-white images have come to define an era. Perhaps his most famous picture shows two girls in Blackpool, the polka-dot dress of one lifted high by the wind. But he also covered the London Blitz, the Normandy Landings, the Korean War and the slums of Glasgow and London. His photos of Elephant and Castle, that rather vague region just south-west of Southwark, were taken for Picture Post between 18 November and 8 December 1948.

Although he had been born in the area, he and his fellow journalist Bert Lloyd
found it hard to get started. It was a time before smokeless fuel, and all they seemed to be able to shoot was "trams, smog and trams in the smog". Then, by chance, they met Maisie, a prostitute, who acted as their self-appointed guide. A "big" girl, whose husband was in prison, she lived in a grimy, gas-lit basement and was generally to be found in bed when "the Berts" arrived, as Hardy's photograph shows, with a Woodbine in her mouth. She took them through the alleys and backstreets coated with soot and grime to show them the rich pageant of human life: Levy's the tailors - 76 years in the locality - which dressed everyone from the local barrow-boys to boxers and sober Rotarians; the cloth-capped fellows at the local, being served by a mustachioed, white-coated barman. Poverty was all-pervasive. In the market, a woman, her head in a scarf and a fag hanging from the corner of her mouth, inspects cheap wares while small boys in grey woollen shorts and socks play amid the squalor of a grubby coal depot or look longingly in the toyshop window, crammed higgledy-piggledy with clockwork trains and matchbox cars, no doubt selecting what they would buy if they had the money. Wide boys in trilbies and a barrow-boy with a rakish grin strike a deal in the Horse Repository over a pony, for there were still blacksmiths operating in this part of town.

This was a London of bomb- and building-sites, of street markets and coal merchants, a cockney community that had essentially been untouched for generations, where children played in the street and escape from the hard grind of daily life was sought in the local pub. The faces are pinched and aged with hardship and deprivation, and almost exclusively white. It is a world that Hogarth might have recognised. Elephant and Castle was one of the most heavily bombed areas of London. Life was harsh and grinding, but with its boxing and music halls, its jellied-eel stalls, thieves and good-time girls, it was, as Hardy's photographs show, a real community.
SUE HUBBARD, THE INDEPENDENT REVIEW, Wednesday 21 April 2004

The late Bert Hardy joined Picture Post magazine when it was newly launched, and worked there as a chief photographer during the Forties and Fifties. His job took him around the world and into the fray of the Korean War, but closer to home he shot an award-winning series depicting life in the Elephant and Castle.

Photographed over a three-week period towards the end of 1948, the series offers and evocative glimpse of a very particular time and place; pub scenes, trams, children playing hide-and-seek amid the rubble of bomb and building sites. Look out, too, for London's first traffic lights.
HEPHZIBAH ANDERSON
Evening Standard Metro Life

Up the Elephant.
The Elephant & Castle is best known for its pink concrete eyesore. But Bert Hardy's images from the 1940s manage to capture its real spirit. Morgan Falconer is mesmerised

It is hard to imagine that when Southwark Council finally get around to wrenching out the pink pimple that is the old Elephant 8 Castle shopping centre, the grey scars that are the Heygate housing estate, and the filthy guts that are the warren of underpasses under the roundabout, that London life around the Elephant will be quite the same. It will be better, certainly, but the £ 1.5 billion regeneration that is planned for the area will bury the old community and a new one will rise up in its place.

Standing on the threshold of the new change it comes as almost a shock to see the pictures Bert Hardy took of the area in 1948. Hardy was a photographer for the Picture Post and one of his assignments one chilly winter was to capture the life of that working class community. It's a shock, because while traces of that life seem to reside within living Memory, the life itself has disappeared.

Gone is the genuine Victoriana and polished counter top of the local pub; gone are the flat caps on the heads of men talking at street comers; gone are the bespoke tailors; gone are the scenes of bartering at the market; and gone is the scene of the baby being bathed in a tub by the fire. One of the few things that remain from Hardy's photographs are the old Routemaster buses - and apparently they will vanish by the end of next year.

But in some measure Hardy's record was of course a fiction. The Picture Post was instrumental in creating a vision of harmonious everyday life in Britain in the post-war years. Its documentary ethic was worthwhile, but we don't feel dewy eyed at Hardy's pictures simply because of the passing of years - the pictures were meant to strum the heart strings in their own day and to bind the country together after the shocks of war. That the Elephant offered in some way a hostile world - and not the welcoming one the pictures suggest - is emphasised by the fact that to gain access Hardy, and the write who accompanied him on visits, A Lloyd, had to gain the confidence of a local prostitute, Maisie. In tribute, they depict her at her workbench, so to speak: lying in bed smoking a woodbine (that's a cigarette, for those of you under 30). It was Maisie who gave the nod to the neighbours to assure them that the duo meant well. That in itself is a sign of times past, because prostitutes are no longer the fairly casually accepted members of working class life they once were.

To some theorists of photography n the 1920's and 1930's, the medium was deathlike. Acclimatised now to the rush of reportage, the staging and theatricalisation of photography, we don't feel the same way any more. But looking at Hardy's photographs, their scenes of the old London pea-souper (that's fog, kids), the dark shadows and scenes of the 'good ole days', they do seem written over with change and death. And while that is shocking, it is also absolutely mesmerizing.

Bert Hardy: The Elephant and Castle is at James Hyman Gallery (Photography & Film) from April 16 until May 29.

MORGAN FALCONER
What's On


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