England Observed is a collection of black-and-white photographs taken by John Gay. The volume contains an excellent introductory biography which reveals that the photographer was actually born Hans Ludwig Gohler in the German town of Karlsruhe. He came to England in 1935 on a student visa, intending to learn English at Pitmans College in Russell Square, but subsequently studied watercolour painting instead. Gay spent much of his time in London. He was not technically a refugee and had to struggle to remain in the country, but the Second World War changed this; Gay joined the Army in 1940. Two years later he married Marie Anita Arnheim, a German Jewish Londoner, and not long afterwards the couple adopted the surname Gay and Hans anglicised his name to John. For some years they were effectively in a photographic business partnership, with 'John Gay' as the brand. Gay was demobilised in 1946, following which he was granted a Certificate of Naturalisation.
The "Philosophy" section of the book describes the artistic impulse behind Gay's photography. In a 1936 article entitled "But One True Viewpoint" (reprinted in full at the back of this book), Gay defines his approach using four principles. First, "spacious views do not give photography its full scope; it scores in careful and minute details." Second, light and shadow add interest to a picture, and a carefully-chosen focus point guides the viewer's eye. Third, the angle and viewpoint can create an interesting contrast between perspective, proportion and form, and fourth, an original and unusual perspective makes an image arresting.
It would be easy to assume that this is yet another nostalgic collection of old photographs depicting an England which never existed, save in the artistic and romantic imagination of a few reactionaries who wish to put back the clock and resume living in a time when (so they believe) England was a universally green and pleasant land. However, this is no mere assembly of steam trains, half-timbered cottages and cobbled streets. Gay profiled the entirety of the English way of life, warts and all: people and places; town and country; cats and dogs.
Gay is a chronicler of England in all its aspects. The images are not falsely contrived, not desiccated set-piece studio shots; rather, Gay's camera captures naturally occurring moments. He is a species of photojournalist who is also an artist, his painter's training revealed in his photographs. While the book's main selection covers the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, certain images have an eerie nineteenth-century feel to them. This shows Gay's ability to trace the continuity in English life: so much appears to change, but so little of the substratum really does. There are a couple of oddities—photographs of Dylan Thomas and of a French park—neither of which appears to be relevant to England, but then again, their eccentric inclusion could be seen as an instance of quintessential English quirk.
The photographs are divided into headed sections. "Portraits" begins, appropriately, with an image of John Betjeman standing by the Thames, wearing a heavy overcoat and a wrinkled brow that denotes concerned thought, rather than whimsy. Apart from the expected images of the great and good, such as Agatha Christie, Vita Sackville-West and Terence Rattigan, there are pictures of a London bobby, Charlie "Wardy" Ward (a livestock photographer), and two very self-conscious Beat Generation artists sitting on a pavement in Hampstead. The section also contains a study of an old man dozing on a park bench, a folded newspaper in his hand, almost gurning in his soporific state. Gay interestingly juxtaposes two photographs, one of a policeman with his arm raised to halt traffic in a City of London street, the other of a West Indian at Speakers' Corner, waving his arm for emphasis. A particularly poignant picture shows a West Indian girl buying fruit in a London street market, while a passer-by scowls at her; his face is contorted into ugliness by the outward manifestation of his inner prejudice, contrasting with her attractive knowing smile. This was in the early years of post-war immigration, and by taking such a photograph, Gay—himself an immigrant—was consciously making a social statement about racial tensions.
"Leisure" begins with an image of middle-aged men playing bowls on a green in Battersea Park, their tall, spare, white-clad figures echoed by the two pale chimneys of Battersea Power Station in the background, changing an otherwise purely bucolic scene into one of brief retreat from urban living. A picture of an artistic, slightly dishevelled young man smoking a cigarette and sketching beneath a tree on Hampstead Heath is very appealing (though he is clearly wearing socks with sandals). This part of the book also contains the cover image, of an elderly man at Blackpool, his back to the camera, wading calf-deep in the water with the trousers of his heavy wool suit rolled up above his knees, supporting himself with a walking-stick as he looks out to sea. Blackpool Tower is on his right, and both man and tower seem to have adopted a Churchillian stance, defying the waves. All classes of English society are represented in this section, from the wealthy on a shoot at the Holkham Hall Estate in Norfolk to a young woman in Trafalgar Square, feeding the pigeons that fly and flock around her. An interior of a grand house in Hampstead shows a music room, with neatly-arranged, expensive furniture, a lute on the sideboard, and an elegant woman sitting at a harpsichord or small piano. Two pages further on, there is a picture of a fair: a crowd of 'ordinary' people cluster around one of the fairground attractions while, in the foreground, a man basks with his hat over his face, near a woman with a pram and a toddler. Later, a shot of two smartly-dressed West Indian women shopping in Petticoat Lane Market once more reflects the mixing of cultures so typical of England's past and present.
In "Childhood," the first photograph shows an adventurous boy clambering over piles of stacked gravestones, a scene worthy of a John Donne metaphysical poem about the transience of life on earth. Images of a small girl peering through the windows of a cake shop and a dirty-faced boy by a pool licking an ice-cream are saved from being routine by the facial expressions, the girl looking worriedly quizzical, the boy wrinkling his nose. A memorable picture shows two West Indian children wearing hoods (these are not hoodies in the modern sense, more innocents in anoraks) at Paddington Station. The boy smiles at the camera, while the girl has a stick of liquorice hanging out of the corner of her mouth, as if pretending to smoke a pipe.
"Animals" is a veritable menagerie of cats and dogs; horses, deer and sheep; turkeys, seagulls, and a swan with cygnets, in both urban and country settings. Gay's wit is displayed in photographs of a dignified-looking poodle sitting at the wheel of a car, a cow tethered to a parking meter, eyeing the camera seriously, and a donnish magpie, looking very still—almost stuffed—as it stands, apparently studying a newspaper on a kitchen table.
The section entitled "Rural" is full of atmospheric still-life images. A Harvest Festival cornucopia, a mixture of local and exotic fruits spilling out of a wicker basket inside a church, is a vague echo of the Empire or Commonwealth, and potentially symbolic of the diversity of English society. There is a bizarre and comic photograph of a tractor being driven through a narrow church door, barely avoiding a collision with its sides. Most of the pictures are of classic country life, new farming methods contrasting with ancient landscapes, as in a study of a farmer (with his sheep dog) on a tractor, looking over his shoulder at Glastonbury Tor behind him.
"Work" covers mostly manual labour in fields, but with some factory scenes and one unique image of an elderly woman busking, playing a violin at Hungerford Rail Bridge in London—a rare sight, for buskers are almost universally young. At the end of the section is a young oriental chef taking a telephone call in the kitchen of a posh London restaurant. Though he is in full chef's attire, his wide black-rimmed spectacles remind the viewer of a Swinging Sixties Michael Caine.
"Urban" demonstrates that the word does not have to connote concrete, glass and steel, or modernity. This section reveals glorious architectural interiors, notably that of the Royal Exchange in Threadneedle Street, and also haunting, deserted exteriors, such as Regent's Canal. There are locations outside London too, including Lavenham, a mediaeval Suffolk wool town with timber-framed houses of exquisite chocolate-box standard. Cars are a subject, as they are so much a part of the urban landscape, and there is a telling contrast between one image of snow-covered vehicles sitting quietly in an exclusive Hampstead row and, on the opposite page, a wrecked, wheel-less empty shell dumped on a waste ground in Camden. Gay photographed at different times of the day and in various weathers (early evening, early morning, bright sunlight, light fog) to capture a range of moods. He takes original photographs of standard subjects, such as Big Ben, using a trick of perspective to make it seem dwarfed by a neighbouring road sign which, pointing towards the clock tower, says 'Turn Left'—an oblique political comment, no doubt.
Perhaps the most surprising part is "Modern Architecture," which covers virtually all types of post-war buildings—certainly those from the sixties and seventies, at any rate. Gay depicts innovative, cutting-edge designs with photographic acumen to match, making these houses and offices more striking through the angles at which he photographs them. Two images are especially arresting: the first, "Flats and housing, Gospel Oak, London, c. 1974," shows a railway cutting in shadow, with the words "YANKS OUT OF VIETNAM" daubed in whitewash on its surrounding wall. The second is a view of steel and glass offices taken from a London Bridge Station platform, so that Victorian ironwork atop a station pillar is silhouetted in the foreground, an image that once more reflects continuity of the old alongside the new.
The "Railways" section mainly contains interior shots of large London mainline terminus stations, atmospheric images which capture the feeling of unadulterated steam power. Shadows give proportion to the vast vaulted metal ribs of these structures, columns of iron rising up from the ground like giant trees, while shafts of light pierce the glass roofs as if shining through a forest canopy. Despite the industrial context, these pictures have an organic feel. They alternate with photographs of tiny, doll-like commuters pouring off trains and groups of passengers (definitely not 'customers' in the consumer-speak of today) waiting on platforms next to piles of luggage. Gay unsurprisingly features many Victorian stations, notably the neo-Gothic St Pancras.
"Cast Iron" depicts ironwork from the ornate and elaborate (foliated gates at Hyde Park Corner) to the basic and mundane (angular, unadorned railing at a housing terrace), along with Victorian decorated arches that are both attractive and functional. These photographs are silhouettes, and it is explained that when he was young, Gay used to make paper cut-outs with scissors, a fascination that clearly never left him and is reflected in these pictures. The choice of subjects shows equal appreciation for simplicity and complexity, utility and practicality, decoration and art.
In "Highgate Cemetery" the opening image is of a stone lion which appears to be cradling snow between its large paws, as if hugging a blanket for comfort. In many of the following photographs other monuments are similarly softened by nature: ivy creeps around tombstones, clusters of wild fungi dot the ground, and there are the expected misty catacomb scenes. Nature is gradually reclaiming the hard stone of inanimate memorials, giving them life again. The section closes with a fascinating picture of Chinese delegates surrounding the tomb of Karl Marx in reverence and awe: an obvious reminder that England attracts free-thinkers and dissidents, with the ironic twist that the men are all wearing identical garb, no doubt from the period of the Cultural Revolution.
The "Advertising" section is the smallest, with four pictures, the boldest of which shows a boy holding up a bag of Bassett's English Liquorice Allsorts. The styling is strangely modern: only the boy's right eye is visible above the packet, and it stares straight into the camera lens. This style of picture has become very popular in the noughties, but Gay's image was clearly taken at least forty years ago: the weight of the allsorts is only expressed in ounces on the packet.
Gay consistently followed his four photographic precepts, as the selection in this book vividly illustrates. He puts forward a variation on a theme, a unique set of timeless, iconic images of England. These photographs are meticulously composed, but not contrived—witnesses to an England both changing and immutable, to imaginative whimsy and to the solid world. The detail in all the photographs is extraordinary and compelling: each image demands at least an hour's study, because it is a silent social record of a moment in England's past. --Alexander J Betts
"For me there is something very special and rather humorous about the 'English way of life' and I wish to record it from my particular point of view before it becomes more Americanised. We are at an important stage in our history, having in a sense just been reduced to an island and defrocked and, as De Gaulle remarked, left naked."(1)
Though photographer Tony Ray-Jones died in 1972 at the age of thirty, the influence of his stealthily iconic images on the way we picture the English is inescapable. His photographs of the English at play, taken in the final five years of his brief career between 1966 and 1971, anticipated much of the visual grammar of Englishness, in an era when interest in the interrogation of our native culture was flowering for the first time in the shape of the Anglocentric turn in literature and the Mass Observation social anthropology movement.
Born in Somerset in 1941, Ray-Jones studied graphic design at the London School of Printing under Rolf Brandt, Bill Brandt's brother. Galvanised by Rolf's encouragement and Bill's advice (he told the novice photographer to "get closer"), Ray-Jones won a scholarship to study design at Yale, but soon gravitated towards New York City's burgeoning photography scene. He joined a generation of American street photographers for whom Brandt's maxim was the touchstone of their technique. Toting lightweight 35mm rangefinders, photographers including Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand roamed the city streets, capturing the brio and vim of New York's colourful street life. Theirs was an art of the fluke, keen of instinct and quick on the draw. Getting the perfect frame in the ever-spooling life of the street depended on the perfect, momentary synthesis of compositional elements (light, shade, figures, cityscape), a highly aestheticised contingency.
Vitalised by the New York scene, with its proliferating neologisms and flourishing visual culture, Ray-Jones was culture-shocked by his return in 1966 to an England still in recovery from World War II. Although its capital supposedly swung, the nation was deeply embedded in tradition, riven by class and filled with cultural anxieties after the decline of the British Empire. Ray-Jones found himself fascinated by this, in his words, "right little, tight little country" of pigeon fanciers, ballroom dancers, dog breeders and day-trippers that, after five years abroad, seemed very foreign indeed. The English were engaged in a highly ritualised programme of leisure that Ray-Jones dubbed "daily anachronisms." Consciously (through folk dancing, the Sealed Knot's historical re-enactments, the town carnival) or unconsciously (the seaside strongman and beauty competitions, the annual week's holiday at Butlin's) they were partaking in an intoxicating cultural myth.
Back home, photographer became ethnographer. Ray-Jones, like so many concerned with the representation of England in the uncertain aftermath of World War II, was keenly aware of the threat of Americanisation, and went about his photographic research with all the vigour and urgency of someone documenting a disappearing tribe. With girlfriend Anna Coates, an art student from St Helens, he set off in a VW campervan in search of the English at play. He kept extensive notes, and tick lists of potential locations—seaside towns and tourist honeypots that plot the social spatialisation of England—organised alphabetically by county. Consulting the Tourist Board, the English Folklore Society, and the newly-published Country LifeBook of Old English Customs, he toured the country, photographing the Crufts Dog Show, the London May Queen Parade, Butlin's Holiday Camps, and the Dickens Festival in Kent. The resulting collection A Day Off: An English Journal, published posthumously in 1974, is the summation of his project. His framework was the relationship of custom to national identity, explored in five sections: "The Seaside," "Summer Carnivals," "Dancers," "London," and "Society."
In the photographs that Ray-Jones selected for publication, objects and figures are seen in disarray. The drab and the gaudy, the realist and the absurdist are juxtaposed. His photograph Great Yarmouth (1966) depicts a dissolute couple on a wooden bench, the man clinging to the woman, who is sulkily staring into the middle distance. They are framed by a concrete wall, behind which sprout tall artificial palm trees strung with fairy lights, and an Oriental pagoda. In the background a neon sign reads "JOYLAND." Eastbourne (1966) captures a vista of shingled beach, strewn with clothing, prams, and supine, semi-naked bodies. In the foreground, a man and a child snooze in a striped deck chair. They are wearing matching Stetsons, the man's askew and sliding down his nose. In Bournemouth (c. 1967), we find a man reclining on a sun lounger. Behind him sits a row of figures: a trio in swimwear, and two bored woman, fully dressed (down to their shampoo-and-set) with cups and saucers laid out between them for tea.
Ray-Jones's aesthetic and practice, his peculiar ethnographic strategy, clearly echo the work of the Mass Observation movement, which had begun thirty years previously in 1937. In the movement's early days its aim was the homeward turn of anthropology as "ethnographic surrealism," a term coined later by James Clifford in The Predicament of Culture to describe the intermingling of the two disciplines in twenties and thirties Paris. Founders Charles Madge, Humphrey Jennings and Tom Harrisson announced the Mass Observation project in a letter to the New Statesman and Nation in January 1937, with a catalogue of topics for investigation:
Behaviour of people at war memorials Shouts and gestures of motorists The aspidistra cult The anthropology of football pools Bathroom behaviour Beards, armpits, eyebrows Anti-semitism Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke Funerals and undertakers Female taboos about eating The private lives of midwives (2)
These playful juxtapositions and inventive recombinations of social behaviours, cultural peccadilloes, and bodily functions immediately highlight the group's surrealist origins. Theirs was an ethnography of everyday life via André Breton's Second Manifesto. Thousands of Mass Observers (or, as commonly quipped at the time, nosey parkers) were mobilised to conduct fieldwork on the startlingly ordinary, by, for example, recording conversations overheard in Bolton public toilets at 5.30 p.m. Mass Observation was a vast, collectivised endeavour: from a proliferation of viewpoints on a vast array of particularities, an image of England would appear in fragmentary, defamiliarised form. Although Ray-Jones had been abroad for a stretch, he was no tourist, and refused to accept these ritualised expressions of national identity at face value. In his photographs, a panoply of bizarre contrasts (picnickers amongst strange sedimentary rock formations in Brimham Rocks, 1968) and ambiguous narratives (an elderly couple flanked by teddy boys in Chelsea Flower Show, 1967) estrange the viewer from an excessively familiar image of Englishness, revealing an extra-ordinary England disporting itself.
Here, at leisure, Ray-Jones catches the English off-guard: fallen asleep on the train, mouth agape; perched on a deck chair, sipping tea from a cup and saucer with self-conscious propriety, but with legs akimbo revealing support tights and ruddy knees. In the erotically-charged Beachy Head Tripper Boat (1967), boat trippers discreetly look away whilst a young couple share a passionate clinch. In another picture, an elderly woman sits amongst preparations for afternoon tea, her concerned, almost tearful gaze fixed on a young man holding his head in his hands. Both the woman (jaunty hat, jam jar spectacles) and the man (overcoat, short back and sides) are illuminated by shafts of daylight from Venetian blinds. Beauty Contestants (1967) captures a spivvy judge at a beauty contest, tongue lolling lasciviously. There is a very surreal sort of poignancy in these fleeting moments of bored, aroused, or despairing isolation from the crowd. Ray-Jones's photographs detect the silent howl amid the forced cheer of the holiday camp, sex in spite of Victorian restraint.
The seaside was an especially fertile site for candidly picturing the English. By the sixties, the coast had come a long way in the English cultural imagination. The nineteenth century medicinal cure of sea air and bathing had given way to charabanc daytrips, a "contaminating atmosphere of excursion trains, rowdyism and uproarious multitudes." (3) A seaside holiday granted temporary repose from everyday existence, a "collective release from the rationalized regimes of industrial labour." (4) The English cast off their inhibitions at the seaside: they are boisterous, their clothes are in disarray. In the States, Ray-Jones boxed and weaved with New York street life to produce visceral, emotionally-heightened, almost operatic images that confront their subject—and the viewer—head-on. Back in England he took a cooler approach, his deadpan eye allowing the multivalent absurdities of these English dioramas to develop of their own accord.
Though Ray-Jones abandoned his fledgling career in advertising design to pursue photography, the multi-planar, near-architectural quality of his composition testifies to his Yale studies with geometric abstractionist Josef Albers. Ray-Jones's scenes are variously framed by the protuberance of a Victorian pier; precarious on dune or cliff; scattered amongst rolling dales or bizarre rock shapes. Though his art is in the chance moment, his composition has a highly orchestrated feel. Against the plasticity of his abstract landscapes, Ray-Jones's figures are vaudeville performers suspended in time. In this tension lies the power of his photographs. These images are mythopoeic stills that combine the representational strategies of surrealism, street photography, and abstract art to describe the performative nature of culture, and the incipient humanity that nonetheless escapes it.
Ray-Jones remained largely unknown after his untimely death from leukaemia until the recent surge of interest in explorations of Englishness, together with the 2004 retrospective A Gentle Madness: The Photographs of Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) at the National Museum for Film, Photography and Television in Bradford and its accompanying monograph by Russell Roberts. Name-checks from similarly preoccupied photographers, such as Martin Parr, have also contributed to his growing reputation.
Despite his relative personal obscurity, Ray-Jones's visual grammar is so entrenched in our collective imagination that his representations of Englishness have almost become imminent. Though his express intention was the preservation of English culture's peculiarities against what he saw as an inexorable Americanising tide, his photographic tropes strongly persist into the present day, most notably in the work of Parr, who first encountered Ray-Jones's photographs at a lecture by Bill Jay (Ray-Jones's friend, and co-editor at Creative Camera magazine) at Manchester Polytechnic in 1970. Parr's brilliant body of work updates Ray-Jones's elegiac brand of surrealism with a vicious, grotesque satire that better befits the current climate. Those who lean too heavily on Ray-Jones's visions of Englishness risk, at best, redoubling anachronism on anachronism, and at worst a rather questionable politics.--Jennifer Hodgson
 Tony Ray-Jones, 'Photographs of England and America', Creative Camera, October 1968.  Extract from "Anthropology at Home," a letter published in New Statesman and Nation, January 30th 1937, co-signed by Charles Madge, Humphrey Jennings and Tom Harrisson.  R. Manning-Sanders, SeasideEngland, (London; Batsford, 1951), p. 121.  Rob Shields, Places on the Margin: Alternative Geographies of Modernity (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 85.