Petticoat Lane Market is from a group of photographs of street scenes in London’s East End that Nigel Henderson took while living in the area during the late 1940s and early 1950s. It is one of two in Tate Collection featuring market stalls; see also Wig Stall, Petticoat Lane 1952 (P79307). The image shows a market stall selling women’s hosiery, viewed from the back. A row of stockings pegged on a cord above the stand creates a diaphanous curtain between the photographer-spectator and the stall’s all-female customers, who cluster in the front of the stall inspecting its wares. Their faces and forms are only visible in fragments: shielded and softened by the veil of sheer fabric created by the stockings, and obscured by the effects of low light and darkness. They seem oblivious to the photographer’s presence, with the exception of one woman who stares directly but impassively into the camera, returning the spectator’s gaze. Behind the customers, we catch glimpses of the street. A café frontage is recognisable from its partially legible signs.
Petticoat Lane market, located on the boundary between the City of London and the borough of Tower Hamlets, had been extensively photographed in the 1930s by the Hungarian-born American photographer László Moholy-Nagy (1894–1946). Moholy-Nagy’s photographs, commissioned to illustrate Mary Benedetta’s guide The Street Markets of London (London 1936), include an image of a stockings’ stall on Berwick Market, London (“There you can get thin pure silk stockings for 1s. 3d.” illustrated in Benedetta, facing p.63). The similarities suggest that Henderson was familiar with the image. His perspective echoes Moholy-Nagy’s: looking from the rear of the stall through a row of stockings at the street beyond. However, with Petticoat Lane Market Henderson shows a more pronounced interest than Moholy-Nagy in relationships between the customers and the stall, and in tensions between the photographer and his subjects.
In a range of the East End photographs, Henderson emphasises his sense of separation from events he witnesses by photographing figures through or over some form of barrier. These include scenes glimpsed over walls or through railings or a window, as, for example, Heads Seen through Pub Window, East End (Tate P79306), and have a similar effect of dividing viewer and subject as the stall in Wig Stall, Petticoat Lane, or the line of stockings in Petticoat Lane Market. For Henderson, a sense of unreality and theatricality shaped his encounters with the working-class communities of the East End. The sense of being detached from his surroundings was compounded by reason of class difference. Henderson found his subjects fascinating and dignified, but compared observing them to watching a theatrical performance. He commented: ‘I would think of the small box-like houses and shops etc. as a sort of stage set against which people were more or less unconsciously acting’ (quoted in Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, p.5). With Petticoat Lane Market Henderson and the viewer occupy a liminal zone, distanced, literally and figuratively, from the partially-obscured scene taking place.
Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, exhibition catalogue, Midland Group, Nottingham 1978, reproduced p.33.
Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art, London 2001, reproduced p.69.