Heads Seen through Pub Window, East End is one of an extensive series of photographs of street scenes from London’s East End that Nigel Henderson took while living in the area during the late 1940s to early 1950s. It captures the interplay of light and texture created by a view through the obscured glass of the window of a public house. The picture plane is entirely taken up by the window, and is abruptly divided on the horizontal by two sashes of the window frame, which in turn frame the window’s large, middle section. Within this space two heads are distinguishable. On the right is the head of an elderly man: he is turning away and his face is in profile. On the left, the features of the other head are less clearly delineated. Here the wave-like pattern of the glass transforms the head into a warped and indistinct shape. The effect of this distortion means that the appearance of three dimensionality has been all but obliterated. Both heads, seeming curiously flat and insubstantial, have become almost completely abstracted.
During the years living in Bethnal Green in the East End, Henderson was undergoing a slow process of recovery from the trauma of his wartime experiences as a pilot. He took long ‘compulsive’ walks, as he termed them, around the area and surrounding urban districts: Bow, Hackney, Poplar and Stepney. Henderson used these opportunities to observe the communities around him. He later explained: ‘walking around – always taking streets unfamiliar to me – had become a soothing experience for a restless and anxious mind’ (quoted in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, p.3). In 1949 he started to take a camera with him. The resulting photographs demonstrate the artist’s fascination not only with street scenes, but more particularly with the textures and surfaces created by urban decay, and the patterns suggested by reflections and shadows, signage and graffiti (see, for example, Bag-wash 1949-53, P79305).
In a range of the East End photographs, Henderson emphasises a sense of separation from events he witnesses by photographing figures through some form of permeable barrier: through railings or over walls, or, more bizarrely, in Petticoat Lane Market (P79307), through a row of stockings hanging on a cord on a market stall. The effect emphasises the photographer’s role as observer as a surreptitious one and invokes a surrealist aesthetic. In Heads Seen Through a Pub Window, East End, the ruptured view through glass that transforms figures into distorted and unsettling forms, suggests the visual language of Surrealism. Moreover, Henderson makes the all-over, abstract pattern created by the textured surface of the glass the subject of the image.
Reflecting in 1978 on this period, Henderson noted connections between his art and the work of the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985) (Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green, p.5), whose images often evoke the rawness of urban textures. This new aesthetic of rawness and improvisation, exemplified by Dubuffet, was interpreted and discussed in depth by Michel Tapié in Un Art Autre, published in Paris in 1952. Tapié connected European artists’ concern with abstraction with the art of the American painter Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), and, in 1953, included paintings by Pollock in the exhibition Opposing Forces that he curated at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.
Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art, London 2001, reproduced pp.56-7.
Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, exhibition catalogue, Midland Group, Nottingham 1978.
Paul and Esther Jenkins, eds., Observations of Michel Tapié, New York 1956.