Looking at Britain Looking at Britain: 1950–1959

Roger Mayne Southam Street, with women in the foreground 1961

Roger Mayne
Southam Street, with women in the foreground 1961

© Roger Mayne

Roger Mayne Teddy Boy and Girl, Petticoat Lane 1956

Roger Mayne
Teddy Boy and Girl, Petticoat Lane 1956

© Roger Mayne / Museum of London

Jack Smith, ‘Mother Bathing Child’ 1953
Jack Smith
Mother Bathing Child 1953
Tate
© The estate of Jack Smith
Prunella Clough, ‘Cooling Tower II’ 1958
Prunella Clough
Cooling Tower II 1958
Tate
© The estate of Prunella Clough
Prunella Clough, ‘Man Hosing Metal Fish Boxes’ 1951
Prunella Clough
Man Hosing Metal Fish Boxes 1951
Tate
© The estate of Prunella Clough
Nigel Henderson, ‘Wig Stall, Petticoat Lane’ 1952
Nigel Henderson
Wig Stall, Petticoat Lane 1952
Tate
© Nigel Henderson Estate
Roger Mayne Girl on the steps, St Stephen's Gardens, Westbourne Park 1957

Roger Mayne
Girl on the steps, St Stephen's Gardens, Westbourne Park 1957

© Roger Mayne / Museum of London

Lucian Freud, ‘Girl with a White Dog’ 1950–1
Lucian Freud
Girl with a White Dog 1950–1
Tate
© Tate
Michael Andrews People on the Beach (August for the People) 1951

Michael Andrews
People on the Beach (August for the People) 1951

© James Hyman Fine Art, on behalf of the Estate of Michael Andrews

Nick Hedges Mother and children, Balsall Heath 1969

Nick Hedges
Mother and children, Balsall Heath 1969

© Courtesy of Birmingham Central Library

The legacy of the documentary movement of the 1930s and 1940s endured in the post-war era, as did the concern with social realism in art. Humphrey Jennings was cited as a significant influence by the group of directors associated with the Free Cinema movement, who aimed to represent ‘the whole of Britain’ by bringing regional and working-class lives to the screen.

In painting, the lines were re-drawn between two opposing concepts of realism, Modernist realism and Kitchen Sink realism, and their respective advocates, the critics David Sylvester and John Berger. Modernist realism did not involve a single identifiable style but was characterised by a concern with the human condition and the nature of existence, while Kitchen Sink realism concentrated on unheroic depictions of the everyday in still life, landscape and industrial scenes.

The influence of Spender and Trevelyan’s Mass-Observation photography is clearly discernible in Nigel Henderson’s photographs of the East End, which, like the work of friend and fellow photographer Roger Mayne, focus on the extraordinary in the everyday. Meanwhile, Nick Hedges’ photographs for the housing charity Shelter embody an impassioned sense of social purpose and sit firmly within the tradition of realist documentary.

In the 1960s, the advent of television docudramas, documentaries and regional soap operas effected a dissemination of documentary realism through popular culture. Hybridisation in film and television, involving factual treatment of fictional, realist stories, increasingly became a way to address key social issues. Ken Loach’s television drama Cathy Come Home 1966 mixed fiction with documentary research and stylistic devices (such as action-led camera) to address homelessness; it contributed decisively to the debate about the power of television in raising public awareness and the ambiguities surrounding such hybrid forms.

Looking at Britain: films

Making History Art and documentary in Britain from 1929 to now past exhibition at Tate Liverpool 2006 exhibition guide section ...

Free Cinema

Making History Art and documentary in Britain from 1929 to now past exhibition at Tate Liverpool 2006 exhibition guide section ...