Bag-wash is one of a series of photographs that Nigel Henderson took when he was living in London’s East End in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It shows a detail of the window of a laundry. Henderson uses the grid of the window frame to structure his composition. A collection of signs are displayed within the window’s eleven glass panes, some clear and legible, others partially erased. These signs advertising the ‘bag wash’ and the other services of the laundry are either attached to the inside of the glass or painted directly onto it. The painted script has aged, the whitewash that once formed its background is scratched and worn, and the paper sign on the upper left is creased and torn. Henderson’s use of signage has echoes of Cubist collage.
Henderson is best known as a member of the radical Independent Group of the 1950s, a gathering of artists and others committed to the discussion and dissemination of new ideas on art practice. The Independent Group was involved in two principal areas: the use and analysis of the ephemera of popular culture, inflected primarily by America (which can be connected to the emergence of Pop Art), and the discussion of the Brutalist aesthetic, which was more oriented towards European models and the influence of Surrealism. Henderson’s interest in Surrealism was long standing, inspired in particular by his privileged access during the 1930s to the work of contemporary European artists through his mother, Wyn Henderson, in Paris and in London. In Paris, the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) a friend of Wyn’s, introduced Henderson to Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Max Ernst (1891–1976) and Yves Tanguy (1900–1955). In London, Wyn managed the Guggenheim Jeune gallery, which opened in 1938 with an exhibition of Duchamp’s work. Later that year Wyn included some of her son’s early work in an exhibition of collage there.
During the years 1949-53, Henderson photographed scenes he encountered on long walks around the working-class district of Bethnal Green where he lived, and the surrounding areas. Within the East End series is a group of photographs of shop fronts, doors and signs, to which Bag-wash belongs. These images unite evoke the photography of Eugène Atget (1857–1927), whose scenes of Parisian street life in the early twentieth century frequently used graphic elements, such as signage and advertising, and were often devoid of human subjects. While Atget had sought to pursue a documentary aesthetic, the starkness of his photographs appealed to the Surrealists, specifically Man Ray (1890–1976), who, when removing the photographs from their original context, saw in them the surrealist quality of the mysterious within the everyday. A surrealist dimension was frequently articulated by Henderson in his selection of scenes that juxtapose diverse elements and in his capturing of bizarre moments in which the real and the artificial combine; see, for example, Wig Stall, Petticoat Lane 1952 (P79307) and Petticoat Lane Market 1952 (P79308).
Bag-wash demonstrates Henderson’s fascination with urban textures and surfaces, and signs of fragmentation, elements that link his work to Brutalism and post-war art practice in Europe. He explained:
The slicks and patches of tar on the roads, the cracks and slicks and erosive marks on pavement slabs, the ageing of wood and paintwork, the rich layering of billboards etc ... linked with the work I did more directly with the enlarger and which I later felt made some common ground with some aspects of the work of artists like Tapiès [Antoni Tàpies, b.1923], [Alberto] Burri [1915-95], Jean Dubuffet [1901-85].
(Quoted in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, p.5.)
Henderson’s photographs of shop fronts and signs, that are at once fragmentary and ordered, may be connected with his long-standing interest in collage, an art form pursued by artists of the Dada movement and the Surrealists. Although a unified image, Bag-wash evokes a surrealist-inspired assemblage of ready-made elements or found objects. During the early 1950s, Henderson also exploited possibilities for combining photography and collage through photomontage, including, in collaboration with his friend and fellow Independent Group participant Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), Untitled (Study for Parallel of Life and Art) 1952 (T12444). This photomontage is linked to the planning of the 1953 exhibition that they were involved in curating, Parallel of Life and Art.
Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949-1952, exhibition catalogue, Midland Group, Nottingham 1978.
Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art, London 2001, reproduced p.74.