As Britain faces up to independence from the European Union, a new London group exhibition uses photography from the 1920s to the present day to examine perceptions of class and customs in our country, encapsulating how modern British identity has been created through social aspiration, multiculturalism, political protest and counter-culture.
The earliest photographs in the new exhibition at Beetles and Huxley gallery, London, are Bill Brandt’s and E.O. Hoppé’s studies of Britain’s interwar period, showing the idiosyncrasies of the British classes of the time, depicting miners, maids and gentlemen in their homes, on the streets, at work and leisure.
Coupled with this is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic documentation of the crowds during the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
The post-war period is represented by Frank Habicht’s photographs of the 1960s, when libertarian attitudes were expressed through fashion, design and political activism.
John Bulmer’s images of the same period show working-class communities in the north of England, while Charlie Phillips’ photographs document the integration of black communities into British towns and cities.
The exhibition also shows American photographer Bruce Davidson’s photographs of nannies in Hyde Park, as well as mining communities in Wales show the continuation of British traditions in the 1960s.
The political unrest and social divides of the 1970s and 1980s are represented by Syd Shelton’s images of the Battle of Lewisham in 1977, Philip Jones Griffith’s photograph of a young soldier in Northern Island, Neil Libbert’s reportage of the 1981 Brixton riots and Raymond Depardon’s bleakly cinematic images of Glasgow.
The emergence of a defined youth culture is shown through Derek Ridger’s iconic photographs of skinheads and punks, contrasted with Jürgen Schadeberg’s photographs of students at the May Ball in Cambridge. These images are juxtaposed with Martin Parr and Peter Dench’s wry and humorous studies of the British at leisure in the same period.
The most recent work in the exhibition is by Anna Fox, James Morris and Simon Roberts, whose work collectively explores social identity in contemporary Britain through photographs of the modern British environment, in the countryside and city.
Curator Flora La Thangue says: “The expansive historical scope and variety of styles amongst the photographers represented in An Ideal for Living underlies a constant preoccupation with what defines British identity.
“The exhibition has been curated with the breadth of cultural identities within modern Britain in mind, but also reveals historical and geographical patterns emerging through the photographs.”
An Ideal for Living, Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain, is on show at Beetles and Huxley gallery, London, from 27 July – 17 September 2016. More information is available here.