Essex, Cradle of Modernism and Social Utopias

Essex gets a lot of bad press  for being home to low-lifes and, well, not a lot else. But the county adjoins London, so  absorbed a lot of the displaced Londoners after the war, in search of a new life, so it is not so surprising it has produced a few dreamers, not least that of Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking. It is also the region where the cvil war began, and home to some of our earliest scientists such as Newton and Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich. This is from yesterday’s i paper:

Arts Council England has approved a £300,000 grant for a project which aims to challenge perceptions of Essex as a cultural wasteland and reinvent it as a left-field tourist attraction. the campaign, run with VisitEngland, will feature an Architecture Weekend, exposing Essex’s contribution as “the cradle of modernist architecture in Britain” and home of one of the UK’s first modernist building, in Braintree.

The Peculiar People, staged ah the Focal Point Gallery at Southend-on-Sea, reveals Essex as a landscape where utopias are imagined. It includes the pioneering industrial worker estates at East Tilbury and Silver End, alternative ideological communities such as the “Tolstoy-inspired naturist colonies” of Wickford, and Dial Farm in Ongar Great Park, where the anarchist punk band Crass Still live.

Joe Hill, director of the Focal Point Gallery, which shows contemporary visual art, said “For many people the perception of Essex is a post-80s stereotype of a commuter belt to London, with a reputation for hairstyles, sharp-suited business people and souped-up cars. ?Spending any amount of time here, ti quickly becomes apparent this is not the whole story. It is immediately dispelled by the beautifully melancholic landscape and you understand the aspiration and opportunity attractive to creative thinkers.  I’be always been interested in how the country thrived as – and remains – a eating ground for new radical ideas and experimentation. Essex is a home for ground-breaking architecture and unique says of living.”

Radical Essex highlights include Silver End, a model workers’ community developed in 1926, including shops, tennis courts and a slaughter-house with flat-top, Modernist-inspired concrete housing. The Wickford Colony, developed by a group of socialists inspired by the writings of Tolstoy, was home to exiled Russian prices and hosted the fist nudist colony and naturist society in the UK. Another stop on the Radical Essex tour is the Bata Estate in East Tilbury, the utopian vision of entrepreneur Tomas Bata, designed to meet all eh social net of the workforce and later extended to “recognise the needs of a socialist living environment.”

Essex’s “melancholy landscapes” inspired “Hollow Ponds” Damon Albarn’s 2014 hymn to the water-filled gravel pits near this childhood home in Colchester. Alfred Hitchcock, born in Leytonstone on the East London/Essex boundary features in the Peculiar People exhibition, as does Margaret Thatcher, whose spiritual home lay in the county.

Radical Essex will trace the county’s economic transition as agriculture is superseded by the growth of the financial sector inLondon’s East End and Britain’s first credit card company establishes itself in Southend-on-Sea.

The rambling Dial House farm cottage in Epping Forest has been an anarchs-pacific open house for nearly 0 years. the home for artists and bohemians became a base for Crass, the uncompromising punk band who infuriated the Tory establishment. The band’s founders eventually bought Dial House at auction, thwarting property developers.

Damon Albarn was raised in Leytonstone and Colchester where he became school fiends with future Blur guitarist Graham Coxon. He returned to his childhood haunts on his autobiographical Everyday Robots solo album. Hollow Ponds in Epping Forest inspired Albarn’s reverie about the heatwave-scarred summer of 1976.

The region is also home to the Othona community in Bradwell-on-Sea since 1946, a refuge for people seeking personal renewal and glimpses of the sacred.

Here’s an update on Essex and the exhibition. This is from yesterday’s i, an article y Yorkshire-born Joe Hill, director of Focal Point Gallery which is hosting the exhibition:

The negative stereotype probably originated when Essex was labelled a commuter overflow to t the suburbs of London. It was reinforced throughout the 1980s as Thatcher courted favour with the “Essex Man”, and later when Southend’s most famous daughter, Hellen Mirren, called the area “The armpit of the world”.

what all this mud-slinging has done is cover (pebble-dash, you might say) the underlying radical, experimental and pioneering history of the county, which began with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when thousands marched on London from Brentwood.

I have lived and worked in Essex for the past 5 years and the stereotypes .. were pretty quickly dispelled, as I found myself surrounded by the beautifully melancholic landscape and spent time with the diverse and creative people here. It came to me as no surprise that the county was credited by Alfred Hitchcock as being the reason he chose to become a filmmaker, and somewhere he frequently returned for inspiration.

This is the place that embraced modernism, with the first building in the UK to be designed in the modern style, as part of the William Morris inspired industrial town at Silver End. It became home to the first nudist colony in the country, provided a refuge for exiled Russian princes who lived by the teachings of Leo Tolstoy, and played home to the utopian vision of the “new town”…

We have pieces by Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson, made as part of their collaborative community in Thorpe-le-Soken, and are thrilled to be showing pioneering modernist architect Cedric Price’s model for an inflatable roof over Southend high street.

Hopefully we can shock people with something new, about a place everyone thinks they know, but so few actually do.


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