Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing was bought by Sir John Soane in 1800, not as a home but as a place to entertain his friends, socialites and other intellectuals around London. In 1802, he bought William Hogarth’s series of paintings The Rake’s Progress from Christies for just under £600 and immediately displayed them at the house. This autumn, for the first time in 200 years, that series of paintings has been returned to Pitzhanger Manor as the centrepiece of an exhibition called London Voices, London Lives, that focuses on the lived experience of being in London.
Caroline Douglas (CD): Hi John, good morning and thanks so much for joining us here at Pitzhanger Manor. It’s a treat to be here with you, to look at this part of the exhibition that produces the rather extraordinary juxtaposition of your Low Relief series of photographs with William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress.
The Rake’s Progress is an episodic series of paintings which are highly narrative, but one of the characteristic things about them and the thing that connects them to your work is how they are located in very recognisable places in London. They are shown here in juxtaposition with your series of works called Low Relief, which I believe is the first time you made work that focussed on London. You have photographed in Italy, the US, Japan to name just a few locations. What made you finally come back to London in 2006 and consider it as a subject?
John Riddy (JD): I always felt that I needed to have worked out where my voice was a bit more in taking and making photographs before I came to something that was fairly familiar. I had a back catalogue of something I’d like to make at some point, but I didn’t want to do it until I felt like, yeah, this is right. Although the pictures in this series were actually taken over a two to three-year period, to me they are more like twenty years’ work in that most of them are from locations that I had passed many times. And I’d built up this kind of image bank of things that I knew at some point might work, or that at least sprang forwards once I set out in earnest to make the series.
CD: So it’s a much more familiar subject to you…
JD: So this picture from the Wyndham Road Estate is only 2-minutes’ walk from my studio and you can actually hear the bells of Big Ben from there, but you’re surrounded by something that could not be more removed from your image of parliament, authority and anything else that goes with the chimes of Big Ben. And more and more it occurred to me that that was something that I wanted to get into the series, that you could start off in the morning and walk for an hour and go from this to the Bank of England or the Houses of Parliament or St James’ or whatever.
CD: Of course Hogarth is a highly socially aware artist and The Rake’s Progress is one of his most important works. It charts the passage from high to low, if you like, the tragic, or tragi-comic, descent from the comfortable middle-class into destitution and Hogarth takes great pleasure in depicting all the different tiers of society. You, by contrast, seem to approach your subjects with the same sort of dispassionate eye, there’s the same attention to detail to this rather unmaintained estate as you bring to more grandiose pieces of architecture in London.
JR: I had a strong sense of the overall atmosphere I wanted to end up with once the images were hung together. I didn’t want too many perspectival ways of getting out of pictures. I cropped a lot of them so as to keep this kind of blank flat surface. Once I’d come up with the idea of calling it Low Relief it really amplified that because the title became quite like an object to me, and it was something I really wanted the work to relate to, not to be in any way arbitrary. So in the case of Wyndham Road, I really love this group of colours and shapes and the spatial changes within that area.
CD: I’d like to start with looking at this one of the Rake’s Progress series.This is the episode in the Rake’s story where he is accosted by the debt collector. One of the analyses I’ve read is that he’s on the way to St James’ Palace to be presented at court – and you can see St James’ Palace here in the background, still easily recognisable today. As usual with Hogarth, the image is full of incident. I love this figure here of the lamp lighter. Such is his lack of regard for poor Tom Rakewell that he is spilling some of the oil onto his head. One of the things I was reading about this period is how London was very early on renowned for how bright its streets were because of the lights in the street. I’m just wondering if we can talk about the question of lighting in your pictures because one of the really defining features of your work is the way that you treat light. Right opposite, we have your image of the Garrick club, actually quite a dramatic image because of the juxtaposition of light effects.
JR: I was really interested in having throughout the whole series this question of is it daylight, is it darkness? Two or three times at least I did recces to check out how the light worked at The Garrick at night and did tests to make sure I could hold detail inside the club and keep detail on the outside. Of course, with the light inside it’s just such an incredible fantasy world at night. This was incredibly difficult to take; there was quite a lot of work involved. This is the only parked car and at first I thought that was a problem and then the more I worked on the image, I realised it was an absolute godsend because it gives you that length so that these are not just completely separate vignettes, the windows, because the colours occur naturally down and open, it gives them a kind of gravity.
CD: Turning now to the image of the statue of Sir John Soane next to the Bank of England. It’s just so emblematic of how London can be grandiose and incredibly grotty at one and the same time. John, this is a part of London that would normally have buses thundering past, taxis, hordes of people, lots of noise and yet like so much of your work, there’s this stillness that creates such atmosphere. What time of day did you take this?
JR: It’s not that late and I have to say I took this photograph five or six times on different days.
CD: Was it dawn or dusk?
JR: It’s dusk. I wanted that sombre atmosphere for the statue. I actually really like this statue, there’s no irony here, I really love the presence this statue has.
CD: You’ve captured an almost ethereal golden glow playing into the niche the statue stands in.
JR: It’s beautiful lighting. Again, a lot of my comings and goings were to do with getting that light right, getting that moment.
CD: It’s wonderful the way that you slow us down to look at parts of London that we just walk past all the time, having this extreme sensibility for atmosphere, for lighting effect.
JR: That again was a really important part of the series. I didn’t want anything where I gained access in some way. I wanted to go for something that people walk by. It’s crucial to the series that we’re all walking by these things in the pictures. So that’s part of the poetry; it is the everyday rub of London that’s been converted within the frame into something else.
CD: And your mention of poetry makes me remember you referenced T.S. Eliot’s Preludes in relation to this and that wonderful evocation of London. It’s so personal, but it’s London in all its seaminess, its grime.
JR: Yes, “the burnt-out ends of smoky days”.
CD: But then the first verse ends “And then the lighting of the lamps.” That evokes that moment just before the dusk is interrupted.
JR: Absolutely, it’s exactly that, where the works seems to slow down and things are on the cusp. This photograph is clearly on the cusp.
CD: For this exhibition and for the very first time, you’ve allowed some of your images to be reproduced at this huge scale. This image must be more than 2 metres tall. And it faces directly onto the park behind Pitzhanger Manor, making a lovely sort of urban-pastoral connection with the landscape that we’re sitting in. But I wonder if you could talk us through this image, where it is, and how it connects with some of the other photographs in that it was taken at an in-between time of day, just at the lighting of the lamps.
JR: This is in Burgess Park, in south east London, just off the Walworth road, and again it’s very close to my studio. This was a location that I pass frequently and thought a lot about how the composition might work. I also really like the central tree because it is symmetrical and looks like the veins of a leaf, which gives it that sort of excitement: is it three-dimensional or is it in relief.
There is also a lot in this image that doesn’t exist anymore and that’s true of so many of the photographs in the exhibition. One we might look at later, the Heygate estate has been demolished as well. The image of the wall that we shall come to next used to be a viaduct wall underneath London Bridge station, but is now part of the interior of the station. It’s something that you become more aware of the longer you live in London, how quickly things disappear. And even without trying hard that has become over time an issue that’s documented within the series in quite a nice way. Nothing really looks the same as it did fourteen years ago.
CD: I suppose it gives the whole series a rather elegiac quality.
JR: I think the landscape element that you talked about earlier, the Samuel Palmer element, the Constable element, is quite strong obviously in this one. It’s very nice here having a relationship to Walpole Park.
CD: Yes. I mean we talked about this in-between light moment, in-between periods of the day, as a quality. But actually standing here now with the darkness of the sky above and the brilliance of the lights makes me think of Magritte.
JR: Yes, I really like those Magritte paintings. Is it day? Is it night? When I was doing A-level art, I was fascinated by those paintings, the blue skies and the street lights.
CD: To finish up with I’d like to talk about this image here John. Somebody reviewing the exhibition said that it was literally you asking the viewer stare at a brick wall, which is amusing, but actually maybe it’s one of my favourite images. It’s so austere, so pared back. It’s so abstract actually in its form and arrangement and yet if you move in as close as we are now, the amount of incident in this brick wall is just breath-taking.
JR: There is a fine line between the illusion or the illusionistic effects that are contained within the wall. And then you just suddenly have the yellow lines and the curb. If you didn’t have that, and you didn’t have the big gutter at the top, and you simply photographed this, that wouldn’t work. So you need the two things working in a row together.
CD: So you have this sort of horizontality and the verticality.
JR: The image almost has a golden section. I had known this street, which goes underneath and meets London Bridge, for a very long time. When I left college, I worked for about three years as a cycle messenger and our base was on Tooley Street, so I probably passed this wall ten times a day for three years.
Incredibly, when I came back to do this many years later, in around 2008, nothing had happened really. It was all still there. If anything, it was even better. This took two or three goes since it’s not easy to get something like this without traffic or people. But the thing about photographing these walls is that they are in a weird halfway world, which is totally separate from everyday time and lives, so you can do it whenever you like. It doesn’t change. It’s just caught in this weird status of light. So yes, it was simply a case of finding the right section that works in relation to the road and finding the right time to do it in terms of people and traffic. And again, yes, I took it with a 90-second exposure, but actually I had been taking it in my mind for many years. It was just something I had to go and actually turn the switch on.
CD: Press record?
JR: Yes, exactly. It had been there for a long time. I think of it like there is the lens in the camera, there is the lens in your eye, but there is also one in your brain. When you look at something like this, whether you’re aware of it or not, there are a whole load of memories to do with art and real life situations, dreams even that are also being sucked into that particular lens and that get resolved when you make this slightly separate world within the photographic frame. It all has to be pulled in and then somehow resolved in the printing process.
CD: I’m sure your affection for the place is dissolved within your incredible attention to detail in this, the understanding of the texture. It makes me think that there is maybe something particular to the condition of the city-dweller that we can conceive affection for a place like this because of its place in our autobiography.
JR: Absolutely, right and that was really why I felt Low Relief had two meanings, there’s ‘low relief’ in the artistic sense of the word, but there’s also this kind of familiarity with these things, the things we pass by on the bus everyday. There’s a kind of low relief to the surfaces in that they become friends over time. They’re something that’s been there throughout your life, in the city on a day-to-day basis.
Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery, Mattock Lane, Ealing, London W5 5EQ. Open Thursday-Sunday 11.00-19.00. Exhibition continues until 31 December 2020. www.pitzhanger.org.uk
For more information about John Riddy, visit frithstreetgallery.com