This photo of “S Lavner“, newsagent and tobacconist, situated at 241 Bethnal Green Road, E2, was taken in Bethnal Green by seminal British post-war artist, photographer, collagist, printmaker and teacher Nigel Henderson – and offers a fascinating snapshot of London’s past – and, indeed, comics retailing history in Britain.
Nigel Henderson lived in Bethnal Green between 1948 and 1953 and documented the life that surrounded him in photographs which have been published Nigel Henderson’s Streets by Tate Publishing, who issued this photograph as part of the book’s press campaign back in 2017.
Recently highlighted by artist and author David Roach, whose latest book, Master of British Comic Art is released next April, the newsagent proudly advertises that it sells American comics, the “Biggest Selection in East London” – which is interesting because there was no official distribution of US comics at that time.
So how did they get to the UK? Well, as we’ve previously noted in our 21017 item on an exhibition of Ken Russell’s photographs, there were two routes, one via US military bases in the UK during the 1940s and 50s. Artist Nick Neocleous recalls original Fantasy Advertiser editor and publisher Frank Dobson once told him host kids would ask the GIs “Got any gum chum?” But many would get comics from them.
“My dad told me that in the 1930s there was a newsagent about a mile away that, every Saturday, would get in American comics and film magazines, and the US Sunday comics supplements, and he would cycle over to get as many as he could afford,” recalls artist and Cartoon Museum curator Steve Marchant. “‘Dick Tracy‘ was his favourite.”
They also came over as ballast on ships, well into the 1960s, which is why they were so erratic as far as continuity was concerned. In Cardiff’s docks Saunders newsagents was where collector John Leslie Sinclair got my four colour fix in the late 1950s.
Comics collector Peter Hansen, who is driving a project to create a British Comics Museum, notes there was a British reprint of Crime Patrol on display in the window, and the Flash comic on display is actually a British one-off production, drawn by a single artist from around 1953/4, published more as an annual rather than a comic. “He’s more like a very strong cowboy hero who lives in a cave with his horse” Peter recalls, rather than DC Comics better-known Flash superhero character.
David Roach notes the shop is selling a great mix of sleazy US comics and magazines (Flirt, True Confessions) and equally disreputable British paperbacks such as Siren and Blonde Baby – and No Mean City, an expose about the mean streets of Glasgow that John Leslie Sinclair notes was so well known Maggie Bell sang about it in the opening to the TV crime series, Taggart.
Bear Alley publisher and author Steve Holland thinks the photo dates from March 1951. “The shop owner was putting out new stock, and quite a few of the paperbacks date from that month,” he notes. “Of those I can read, Devil’s Planet, Blonde Baby, The Chisellor, Dames Are No Dice and Six Gun Saddle Tramp are all March titles.
“There are also a couple of slightly older but still recent titles – for example, Tales of Tomorrow #3 from November 1950.”
Very much an image of yesteryear, readers will no doubt not be surprised to learn that S Lavner is long gone from the streets of Bethnal Green, today the location of a mobile phone shop.
Nigel Henderson, who died in 1985, prowled the streets of postwar East London with his camera. His work, which was regularly published in the British Journal of Photography, inspired a brash new wave of artists, but writer Tom Dyckhoff noted back in 2002 that this quiet amateur never saw himself as a cultural revolutionary.
Born into London’s literary and artistic world – his mother managed Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery – he moved to Chisenhale Road, Bethnal Green in 1945. His wife – Virginia Woolf’s niece, Judith – was contributing to a sociological project in the East End and Nigel was attending the Slade School of Art.
Over a period of years, Nigel became interested in photography. The life of his neighbours and their children fascinated him and he took thousands of photographs, which reveal a strong interest in direct observation as well as in graffiti and the graphic display of shopfronts and hoardings. The street scenes later provided important subjects for more experimental work. His photographs of the area comprise an invaluable testimony, many of subjects that are not recorded elsewhere, and their astonishing detail offers hours of delight for the curious.
“After the second world war, Nigel Henderson would wander the streets of Bethnal Green with his scavenger’s eye, looking for comfort in the continuity of life. It did him good,” Dyckhoff wrote for The Guardian. “Henderson had his war wounds like everyone else – not physical, but mental… At the end of the war, Henderson suffered a breakdown, and attended a clinic at Guy’s hospital. The walks were a kind of therapy, a routine to help make sense of the mess inside him and out on the streets.”
“Henderson’s routine was making art. After two years of walking and staring, he was given a camera, and began to photograph fragments from the world before the war. Its remains seemed to comfort him.”
In later life, Nigel Henderson lives and works in Essex and taught at the University of East Anglia. The Nigel Henderson Estate appointed Tate Images as the Copyright Agent for all permissions clearance of his work in 2012 and in April 2015 the Tate made over 3000 of his photographs available through its web site.
• Streets: Nigel Henderson’s East End, edited by Clive Coward includes 150 rarely seen photographs from Henderson’s collection held in the Tate archive, was published by Tate Publishing in 2017
This beautiful book showcases 150 of digitised photographs which capture the heart of working-class life. From hop-scotching children to a funeral cortege, and street parties celebrating the 1953 coronation, Henderson’s unique view of the streets evokes the wit, resilience and character of the local people as well as documenting a way of life that would soon disappear, as Britain moved into the 1960s. The blog Spitalfieds Life has a selection here, including the S Laverner photograph
With thanks to David Roach