We discovered the East End fairly recently, long after it had been colonised by artists, gallerists and the uber-trendy figures that are part of its shabby-chic, eclectic ecosystem today. I can’t make out the distinction between Hoxton, Shoreditch and Spitalfields yet, but I’m fascinated by their cultural diversity, multi-ethnicity, appetizing smells of east-meeting-west; the young crowds, the street art, the vibrancy… East End districts are the very definition of ”melting pot” and, for an all-too-brief moment, we were part of it.
I actually didn’t mind being kept awake till the early hours of Sunday morning by the bustling youth going wild in the streets of Hoxton. In the morning I went scouting for earplugs. To my surprise, none of the shops in the wider area sell them. Who needs earplugs when they are out partying in the streets all night, anyway?
But much as I’m drawn to its lively present, I am all too aware that the East End is changing fast. And as a newcomer, I had been missing a reference point, an anchor – and I mean besides its many vintage and thrift shops, treasure troves that they are…
I found that link in Spitalfields.
Eleven Spitalfields Gallery was showing an exceptional collection this spring: ”21 photographs of Spitalfields a century ago, by C.A. Mathew”.
Not a lot was known about the photographer and the leaflet we were handed didn’t shed any light, either. It wasn’t until Spitalfields’ kindred spirit, the Gentle Author, decided to do some research that we learned a little about his background.
Charles Arthur Mathew from Essex was apparently working as a Clerk to the District Surveyor when, in 1910, already in his forties, he made a total career change and became a self-employed photographer.
A couple of years later, perhaps for lack of something better to do while waiting for his train, he walked out of the Liverpool Street Station and headed towards the heart of Spitalfields, camera in hand. It was Saturday 20th April 1912. Spitalfields was then a predominately Jewish neighbourhood; it was the Sabbath which would probably explain the number of people – mainly children – crowding the streets dressed in their Shabbos best. Considering the rising levels of poverty and overpopulation at the time, seeing so many well dressed children is a pleasant surprise.
Whether for work or as a pastime, the fruits of this walk are some of the most stunningly clear, realistic, lively examples of street photography – free from the rigidity of posing, unlike most of the photographs of the time. Still, Mathew and his work were quickly forgotten, after his death in 1923… until a few years ago, when the photographs resurfaced in the archives of the Bishopsgate Institute, where they’d been safely tucked away in a cardboard box for at least 60 years. They have now been carefully restored by contemporary Spitalfields photographer Jeremy Freedman and during the exhibition at Eleven Spitafields, prints were available for purchase.
I was so intrigued, my immediate impulse was to get out and follow Mathew’s trail, see how much the landscape had changed. But this would entail some prior mapping and time was running short. Luckily the Gentle Author, coming once more to the rescue, walked in the same locations, took new pictures and compared them to Mathew’s. You can see the results here.
For more reading and photos about C. A. Mathew and everything worth knowing about the daily life and history of Spitalfields, visit the magnificent Spitalfields Life.
Photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
London, 22-25 March 2014