Nigel Henderson | Animating the Archives

Nigel Henderson | Animating the Archives


This image sums up Nigel Henderson more than any other image for me. It’s a man of two halves, split down the middle, looking into his camera, looking out at the world, and the reflection looking back. Nigel Henderson, by his own admission, often referred to himself as being born in 1917 on April Fool’s Day. I think that tells you a lot already about the man that he was. He had a sense of humour, a sense of irony. Henderson clearly felt very suffocated by a kind of upper class background that he originally grew up in. But there was obviously something about the way his mother engaged with artists, the kinds of things she was interested in, that really infected Henderson’s way of looking at the world. It’s clear, from even the early days, from Henderson’s own writings, that he was quite a shy, unconfident boy. In 1945 Nigel Henderson moved to Chisenhale Road with his wife Judith Stephen and their children. He found it a great antidote to the nervous exhaustion he had suffered immediately after the war. People lived on the streets in the East End in the sense that most of their life, their daily lives, were acted out on the stage set, as Henderson experience it. It was a surprise to me to discover this person called Nigel Henderson who was a photographer and who worked with Eduardo Paolozzi and so on. I didn’t know about him until Carolyn made this discovery one day outside the house. So, ever since that time I’ve really pursued his work and it’s been a fantastic journey to learn about his work. Well we moved here in 1999 and it was about a year later I think when I was unloading the shopping from the car and there were three people on the opposite side of the road who were really, really scrutinising the house, almost casing the joint. And I sort of looked across at them and thought ‘hmm..’ It was a man, a woman and a young lad so I thought, well they’re not actually burglars so I went and I asked if I could help them, and they were the first ones who alerted us to the man who had lived here. To some extent you could say Henderson fell into photography. His initial exposure to photography was someone lending him a Leica camera, which had to do that kind of relationship to the world. And then Eduardo Paolozzi gave him an enlarger but really his world came much more together once he had bought a Rolleiflex camera, which had a different relationship to image making and image taking. Although he had some formal training at the Slade School, his approach was one, really, of experimentation. In relation to photography, there are almost three different types of photographic work. The first is what are called his Hendergrams. Henderson is using an enlarger: instead of where you would put a negative, Henderson put the material he’d found on his walks around the East End, of bomb debris, of gnarled wire. He’s played with photographs, photographs which he called Stressed Photographs, and the third are his, perhaps what some people call documentary photographs. Throughout all of his experimenting with photography was another way of engaging with the world, of trying to look at the world differently, but also trying to present the world differently back to other people. Walking around with a Rolleiflex camera, a camera which you looked down in order to take the photograph, he found a way of being amongst people but not in direct contact. And found this a very creative and productive way of engaging with people, and took photographs of everything he saw, from children playing, shop fronts, rag and bone men in the street, coal deliveries, the milk float. And really was, inadvertently, creating an extraordinary document of post war London in the East End. I think what’s nice about them is they’re not patronising. You know, you often have people come to the East End to take photos and they often invade the sort of joy that was around, and his photos really show that. There’s one from upstairs which is now our bedroom – it was probably theirs actually – and it shows the window cleaner’s funeral down the street, and all the people gathered there and the absence of cars and things. It just a very sort of normal, normal scene. I mean I love the shot looking down the steps at the kids. Or the one above, there’s the one looking down from the bedroom. I think the shot of the dredger on the canal, and the ice, and the swan coming through the ice in the mist, is just stunning. Just discovering that someone who, clearly wasn’t exactly famous at the time but has had a lasting legacy, lived here, and he’s obviously left a legacy in the art world but from our point of view he’s also left that legacy of where we live. And we’ve shared it with neighbours and things and they all love the photos as well. It’s a fantastic thing to have, this resource. The Resident’s Association wanted to do something to bring the community together and so, in a way because we were aware of Henderson’s photos, we decided to do a youth project which had a bit of now and then in it but also used the photos to stimulate people to look at the area differently. It produced quite a lot of interesting stuff, so that was kind of set against Henderson’s original shots. So much of Henderson’s work has not been able to be seen before now because there were over 3,000 negatives that had never been printed. It is extraordinary in many ways to reflect on how invisible Henderson has been in the history of British art. We know he was very close friends with Francis Bacon, indeed he influenced Francis Bacon’s paintings through his stressed photographic images. We know he had a huge impact on Richard Hamilton, he was close friends with Eduardo Paolozzi, he changed the way Alison and Peter Smithson, the architects, were re-imagining the future city building of Europe and the United Kingdom. And yet he has remained invisible up until recently. The archive offers a unique opportunity to look into the world of Nigel Henderson as an individual, as an artist, as a photographer, as an ‘amateur’, as he liked to describe himself.

Only registered users can comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *