Peter Samuels belongs to an extensive series of photographs that Nigel Henderson took between 1949 and 1952, when he was living in Bethnal Green, London. Peter Samuels was one of the sons of his neighbours and Henderson took several photographs of him on his own, and of his family as a group. Here, Peter is shown on the left of the composition: he slouches against a high wall in a rubbish-strewn alleyway. His shoulder leans on a recess in the wall that divides the composition vertically into two halves. The child, aged approximately ten years, wears metal-rimmed spectacles. He is dressed in a smart but shabby jacket, short trousers, long socks and sandals. With his hands in his pockets, Peter assumes a stance of deliberate nonchalance. The wall dominates the right-hand side of the composition, and graffiti marks its entire surface. Splatters of dark paint, etched initials and doodles appear on either side of the figure. On the right-hand side and slightly above the boy, a face has been crudely drawn in chalk. Peter’s head is turned to the left and his gaze directed beyond the picture frame, in the same direction as the fictive gaze of the graffitied face.
The extensive collection of photographs recording aspects of the working-class communities of London’s East End, to which this portrait belongs, represent Henderson’s first experiments with photography. Having left the RAF at the end of the war with ‘nerves ... like stripped wires’ (quoted in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949-1952, p.3), he enrolled at the Slade School of Art with the aid of an ex-serviceman’s grant. In 1949 he borrowed a camera and started taking photographs on the long walks around Bethnal Green and adjoining boroughs that he frequently took, and which had become a kind of therapy for him.
In the 1930s, Henderson’s background had granted him privileged access to the work of contemporary European artists through his mother, Wyn Henderson, who was based in Paris and London and had a wide circle of contacts in the art world. On visits to Paris, Henderson met artists including Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Max Ernst (1891–1976) and Yves Tanguy (1900–55), introduced to him by his mother’s friend, the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979). In 1938, Wyn was involved in setting up the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London, which opened with an exhibition of work by Duchamp, with whom Henderson became friends.
After the war, Henderson went to live in Chisenhale Road in the working-class district of Bethnal Green with his wife, Judith Stephen, in connection with her work. She had studied anthropology at university before the war and in 1946 became involved in a social research project, entitled ‘Discover Your Neighbour’. Henderson explained:
[Judith] answered an advertisement placed by a sociologist J.L. Peterson, Warden of University House – one of two ‘Settlements’ in the Borough of Bethnal Green – hard by the ‘Salmon and Ball’ Public House – more or less in the heart of Bethnal Green where the long Bethnal Green Road meets the Roman Road ... I came to know this territory quite well. Judith’s job was to take responsibility for a course called ‘Discover Your Neighbour’...with the object of putting before professional people such as doctors, lawyers, probation officers, priests etc ... an analysis of the historical conditioning forces acting on a community and bringing, over time, a cohesive system of attitudes, sympathies, prejudices – what you like – which would in some measure represent such a community.
(Quoted in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, p.3.)
Judith’s specific task within the research project focused on close, but surreptitious, observation of the Samuels family who lived at Number 31, Chisenhale Road. The project was in keeping with other social observation experiments of the period, notably Mass Observation. Founded in 1937, Mass Observation was a social research organisation aimed at studying the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in Britain (see http://www.massobs.org.uk
). Henderson’s photographic project was never directly connected with his wife’s anthropological research. However, his images of London’s East End have a documentary quality, derived from close contact with the community, and an interest in its inhabitants and locales as subjects. Henderson termed this work ‘reportage’.
As well as the importance of the documentary model, Henderson’s East End photographs were also inspired by his wider engagement with modern and contemporary art practice. His use of graffiti in the portrait of Peter Samuels is a reference to Art Brut. In 1930s Paris, the Hungarian-born French photographer Brassaï (1899–1984) began photographing graffiti, seeing a certain purity in its crudeness. The inclusion of graffiti and other ‘popular art’ forms, especially with graphic elements (advertising posters, hoardings, signage), is a recurring feature of Henderson’s work. In another photograph of Peter Samuels (illustrated in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949-1952, p.11), the boy leans against a wall covered with advertisements, some ripped and some obscured by political flyers.
Nigel Henderson: Photographs, Collages, Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge 1977.
Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949-1952, exhibition catalogue, Midland Group, Nottingham 1978, reproduced p.37.
Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art, London 2001, reproduced p.70.