Syd Shelton

New Cross Road, Lewisham, London, 13 August 1977

1977, printed 2012

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Syd Shelton born 1947
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 280 × 418 mm
Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2016


This is one of a group of black and white photographs in Tate’s collection by the photographer Syd Shelton (Tate P14374P14380). They were taken in London and date from between 1977 and 1980, a period when Shelton had recently returned from living in Australia, having spent four years there between 1972 and 1976. On his return to London, he was stunned by the rise of far right groups and fascist attitudes in his home country; he became a founder-member and official photographer of Rock Against Racism, a collective of musicians, artists and political activists active between 1976 and 1981, which was established as a response to the increase in racial conflict in British society and the growth of openly racist nationalist groups, particularly the National Front. The photographs in this group were taken against this background of social unrest. Their titles record the location and often the date of their making.

Jubilee Street, Stepney, London 1977 (Tate P14378) shows a man walking past a piece of graffiti stating ‘Remember Cable Street, smash racism’, in memory of an earlier confrontation between fascists and anti-fascists in the streets of London in 1936. The two photographs titled New Cross Road, Lewisham, London, 13 August 1977 (Tate P14374 and P14376) document a memorable day in the history of London and the country as a whole, known as the ‘Battle of Lewisham’. On 13 April 1977 a large anti-racism demonstration halted a National Front march in Lewisham in south London. As the anti-fascism demonstration grew, a confrontation ensued between protesters and police, with police forces charging anti-racism demonstrators, clubbing, dragging and arresting over two hundred of them. Shelton’s photographs take the police force as their subject. In one, mounted police advance on the New Cross Road while, in the foreground, placards have been set on fire and are burning in the middle of the road. In the other, a line of police is the object of smoke bombs being thrown at them by protesters.

Bagga (Bevin Fagan), Hackney, East London 1979 (Tate P14379) and Southall Carnival against the Nazis 1979 (Tate P14380) relate to Shelton’s engagement with Rock Against Racism. Shelton, like everyone involved in the establishment of Rock Against Racism, believed that music could unite people against violence and prejudice in the face of a growing wave of racist attacks in Britain. Skinheads, Petticoat Lane, East London 1979 (Tate P14375) portrays two skinheads in the streets of East London, standing in front of a corrugated fence. The young man nearest the viewer looks straight at the camera, his fist clenched. Shelton remembers arguing with the youth and contesting his views, when suddenly he could see he was angry, his fist clenching and his blank gaze staring at him. That was the moment he felt he had a picture: for Shelton, in portraiture as well as street and group pictures, ‘you want that communication, you want that moment when the sitter actually acknowledges you as well as the camera’ (quoted in Adam Phillips and Syd Shelton, ‘Still from Life’, in Shelton 2015, p.17). Anti-racist Skinheads, Hackney, London 1979 (Tate P14377) adopts a similar composition to portray another couple, this time of anti-racist skinheads, the young man on the left wearing a badge with the inscription ‘Rock Against Racism’. Both photographs present what Shelton has defined as a ‘theatrical space’, a shallow field, exploring the relationship between subject and background, as in traditional studio portraiture (ibid., p.15).

The prints in Tate’s collection were made by Shelton in 2012 and are all number one in an edition of ten. They were previously in the Eric and Louise Franck Collection, London.

Further reading
Syd Shelton, Rock against Racism, London 2015.

Elena Crippa
April 2016

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