While wind, rain & sleet have been howling outside my bedroom window, I’ve been holed up with tea browsing through stacks of photos. That is, both my recent order of snaps which document my travels, projects and days out last year and rustling through some strange old art archives, and I have been transported elsewhere from the safe confines of my chocolate chai & hot water bottles.
It suddenly struck me, and the trail of thought that brought me to it has now gone, that I wanted to hunt out this particular wonderful photograph by Julian Trevelyan from 1937-8 entitled simply ‘Teapot Café‘ , and it was worth the search. The picture has fascinated me ever since I first came across it, during my studies of British Art in the 1930s during my final year of History of Art at university.
The photo was an undeniably joyous discovery for me… who knew that they had teapot-shaped enterprises by the beach in the 1930s? Serving ‘jugs of tea’ and perhaps a crumpet or two. Although what with the depression I don’t know if people could afford crumpets could they? This sort of image reflected the hard-earned week away by the seaside, probably Blackpool here, that would have been the working family’s highlight of the summer. Not so unlike our lives now then. Still, with our very current obsession with tea & coffee van conversions, it’s a real surprise to see something similar that existed over 80 years ago!
Trevelyan’s photo has particular significance as it was taken as part of the ‘Mass Observation’ movement, founded by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and British Surrealist Humphrey Jennings. The idea was to study and document the lives of everyday people in 1930s Britain – ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ – and to report the results. The results are fascinating, and really vary in artistic merit from unknown volunteer writers who kept daily diaries of their ordinary lives, painters such as the ‘Pitmen Painters‘, a group of miners who painted their surrounding cityscapes and who have even had a play written about them despite their lack of artistic training or background, to photographers Humphrey Spender and Julian Trevelyan who cast their artistic eyes over the dreary ‘Worktowns’ of Bolton and Blackpool, in an attempt to capture the working class life.
What really captivates me is just how un-groundbreaking this appears to us, to contemplate in 2015. ‘A Science of Ourselves’, people writing their own history and creating a ‘documentary’, a term that was still emerging at the time, of their lives. Of course, we now revolve to some extent around the internet with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and so on consisting of major planets in our virtual solar system (Great Rollright by the way, is an outlying asteriod that only occasionally gets wifi, ha!). Therefore, quite in contrast to the early 20th century, extreme amounts of information are accessible to us continually about not only our friends & family but Twitter might well tell us what type of toothpaste a complete stranger is using today. In a world such as this, the Social Realism of the 1930s seems pale and undeveloped.
Or does it? The ‘Science of Ourselves’ is the significant part. For Harrison & Madge, Mass Observation was a revolutionary idea that had the potential to unlock underlying patterns behind human behaviour and psychology, in a country which was desperately affected by the Great Depression and the terrible poverty that hit the working classes afterwards. Mothers were dropping dead because they were starving themselves to feed their working husbands & families. Men would walk from Glasgow to London in protest of the lack of jobs and food and in search of employment. Where Social Media seems rather frivolous, disorganised and info-heavy, Mass Observation wanted to find out why all of this was happening and what they could do about it – Social Realist painters, photographers and writers, including George Orwell & JB Priestley studied British life intently.
Of course their findings didn’t manage to solve all of the economic & social problems Britain was facing – but there were some rather interesting approaches and artistic outcomes of this project, especially in terms of the photographic documentation of the ‘Worktowns’ by those such as Trevelyan. Firstly, documenting through the eyes of artists is quite different from our general modern-day approach to recording every aspect of our lives. Some might say that the difference in classes between artists and workers prevents a ‘true’ impression of working life. But on the other hand, artists chose to immortalize and find fresh, subtle forms of beauty in the lives of the people that principally made up Britain at that time. The other aspect of the project that I think is quintessentially British and an important influence, is that where other countries saw movements such as Surrealism, and Social Realism and others as distinctly separate, led by different artistic groups, the British 1930s artists were not like this, often dipping in and out of what are thought of as distinct, European styles. It may be that ‘Realism’ and ‘Surrealism’ sound like opposites by their very etymological forms, but this is the very beauty of Trevelyan’s Teapot Café and many of the other photos of Blackpool taken by these Mass Observation photographers. They showed that the everyday odd, eccentric and downright bizarre corners of this dream-like holiday world were just as Surreal as any painting by Dali or Magritte. Real life is Surreal sometimes. The existence of teapot cafés is a testimony to that.