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Camden Arts Centre: Walter Price: Pearl Lines 19/8/2021

Camden Arts Centre to 29 August
It was with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation that I ventured to the first art exhibition I have seen since lockdown began in March 2020. My trepidation was soon overcome. Camden Arts Centre now sports a giant outdoor canopy for those who want coffee or lunch in the open air. The garden has been tidied up with many wonderful flowers. A new gate, opening directly onto Finchley Road, means that there is no need to be inside at all after you have viewed the art.

In addition to an installation by local special needs schoolchildren, the two current exhibitors are Walter Price (Pearl Lines) and Olga Balema (Computer). Both are New York-based artists born in the 1980s but Price is the more engaging. His works in chunks of colour combine painting and drawing on surfaces such as paper and wood. They are playful yet provide a thoughtful commentary on urban living and identity. Images of suspended hats creates the feel of a crowded city street.

Born in Georgia but living in Brooklyn, Price held a studio residency at the CAC in early 2020. During that time, he experimented with scale and material to create new, large paintings. Returning to New York during the lockdown, he created smaller works in confined conditions, using his existing paints. There is sometimes an overt lockdown theme to these works, such as the striking Where’s your mask, fool (2020) in which an oversized haunting figure looks down on a person with no face covering. But for me, the themes of alienation from other people and from the natural world were the more subtle forms of pandemic-thinking across the two exhibition rooms.

In the first, larger room, oil paintings on paper each portray a collection of images reduced or simplified to almost child-like forms. The painted images are spaced out on the paper, so that there is a large expanse of white on each one – mirroring the vast whiteness of the CAC itself. For me, the white spaces give these works a poster-like effect owing more to the world of pop art and disposable images than the art salon. It takes time for the eye to wander over each of the seemingly disjointed parts to understand the theme of the picture as a whole. The brush strokes on first glance seem to have been quickly executed, in unpremeditated fashion. Upon closer inspection, these are carefully crafted works. Step into the sun (2020) is typical of the deconstructed forms: a large foot (the person taking the step of the title) is placed in isolation above a yellow sun and a slab of green grass.

Smaller acrylics on paper are dominated by black paint. These figurative works with an urban feel represent black men. I did not see any women but there was an affecting picture of a child holding an adult’s hand before crossing the road (Always look both ways; 2020). A small series of bodies (Bod deese; 2015) creates a corporeal feel with simple curves.

The second exhibition room is devoted to small colourful works with paint covering the entirety of the surface – sometimes thickly laid and so that the images intrude outwards such as the rain clouds in Hold the umbrella tight while viewing my rain and Fate of the animals #2. These paintings feature high-backed sofas, reminding me of the inside (and sofa-based!) living that we have all experienced during the pandemic. Several showed wide landscapes and nature as if dreaming of outdoor freedom. A human house is like a cage: we live in spaces that intrude on nature but we remain constrained. In this room too, there are repeated but different portraits of a black woman’s head on pale backgrounds. In Is there a fundamental lack of internal volition? (2020), the head is symbolically spattered with white paint, returning to the theme of whiteness that is both artistic and political.

Many of the paintings in this second room seem to have a high degree of abstraction; but on further viewing, faces, sun, grass, water and clouds emerge. Combining the built and natural environments, they emphasise for me the way in which we have been couped up in lockdown and have had to resort to memories or imagination to reconstruct the larger world.

A film narrated by the artist invites us to place our own experiences onto the work. The artist has given the exhibition to us as a gift. I suppose it is only natural to look at the images through the prism of lockdown but I enjoyed the exhibition immensely. It is free, local and large enough that you don’t have to come within 2 metres of anyone if you don’t want to. What’s not to like?

Sorry that we cannot provide images but you can have a taster at camdenartcentre.org/walter-price-pearl-lines/.

Shaping Belsize and the BRA campaigns 19/8/2021

Through fifty years, we have commented on numerous developments, participated in campaigns and sought to improve or at least maintain the essential character of the area.

In late 2003, as part of its Network Reinvention Programme, the Post Office announced its plan to close the Belsize Village post office. At this stage, there were four post offices in the area. As well as the Village, there were offices in Haverstock Hill, Hampstead Heath and England’s Lane. Haverstock Hill’s post office closed a few months into 2004 with England’s Lane and Hampstead Heath closing in 2008.

Residents march from Belsize Village to Haverstock Hill on a chilly day

There was considerable opposition, with the Belsize Residents Association making its case to the Council and to the Post Office as it consulted about closures. The BRA Chair, Handley Stevens, is captured in the newspapers with the then MP Glenda Jackson relating concerns. There was a BRA and Belsize Conservation Area Advisory Committee march on 19 February 2005, in which 150 people walked from the Village to the Haverstock Hill post office. It was a “bitterly cold day”, but over the two hours, nearly 500 signatures were added to a petition. It did work: the Belsize Village post office was maintained until 2006, responding to the strength of residents’ feelings and gaining three extra years.

In the archived material, already in 2005, the Association had begun to propose putting a post office in Haverstock Hill Budgens. A Post Office Consultation Manager introduces BRA to a Post Office Network Change Manager who thought the idea was worth investigating. Things go quiet until October 2010, when the BRA Newsletter celebrates the opening of a post office counter in Thornton’s Budgens with a poem.

As BRA members marched to save post offices, they had reason to celebrate a different successful campaign. Since the mid-1980s, estate agent boards had been banned in neighbouring conservations areas: Hampstead Village, South Hill Park and Swiss Cottage. It was only through a long, 20 year campaign that the BRA received approval in 2005 for the ban to extend to the Belsize Conservation Area, alongside Fitzjohns/Netherhall and Reddington/Frognal CAs.

There had been some hope that this change would occur earlier. In 1994, a vote at Camden Council went against the ban only through the chair’s casting vote. There were also some legal successes to control estate agents that were breaching the regulations for boards. In 2000, the complaints made by the Association about agents who put up bogus for sale/rent boards, as a form of advertising, led to successful prosecutions that achieved media coverage.

As the ban came into force, in March, the Association was also on the frontline to enforce the changes. The BRA conducted a door-to-door survey recording all visible estate agent boards. Boards that were in place before the ban could remain there until the property was sold and the audit provided a means to identify new boards. The survey indicates where we might have been today: records show that 12 estate agent boards adorned Belsize Square and 16 in Fellows Road. The steps taken in the conversation areas have now led to a Camden-wide ban on boards.

The Association’s archives are full of examples where, over 50 years, the BRA and BelSoc have been active in shaping Belsize.The routine work of comments made on planning applications, complaints about breaches and responses to consultations stretches across five lever arch files making an impact in enhancing and maintaining the Belsize area.

Hampstead Theatre: a local gem reopens 19/8/2021

At long last, after having to shelve performances last year, Hampstead Theatre has been able to give us a series of productions that challenge and inspire. The Death of a Black Man, by Alfred Fagon (1937-1986), received its world premiere at Hampstead in 1975. The revival in the main theatre shocked and entertained in equal measure. Set in a flat on the King’s Road, the play centres on the lives of two black men and a black woman seeking to make their way in the world. The male characters evoke sympathy then suspicion and then horror as they exploit the woman with tragic consequences. The small cast (Nickcolia King-N’da, Toyin Omari-Kinch and Natalie Simpson) gave vibrant, pacy performances. Ably directed by Dawn Walton, the set oused 1970s kitsch. As some of the press reviews pointed out, the anti-racist themes would not be presented in the same way nowadays and some of the dialogue would indeed be controversial in its own right. Nevertheless, the radical force of Fagon’s writing made this a stand-out experience to watch and listen to.

Downstairs, Deborah Bruce’s Raya had a cast of four and a small audience but was engrossing. Roxana Silbert’s direction made a bare stage with a few colourless props feel like we were sitting in the downstairs floor of a house, where a man and a woman end up after a university reunion. Each presents to the other (and to the audience) with one façade but all is not what it seems. As the plot develops, the audience learns that neither has the life that they contemplated at university. Each has a personal tragedy which they mask by deception or by revealing less than the truth. The audience is itself duped – presented initially with a trivial meeting of two old friends but becoming, gradually, engrossed in their all too human problems. The play depicts two sympathetic characters doing their best in a tough world.

For reasons set out in the brilliant programme notes, Hampstead was in 1967 the venue for the premiere of Tennessee Williams’ The Two Character Play. A play within a play, Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla play a brother and sister who in turn play a brother and sister trapped in fear and confusion in the family home after the death of their parents. Directed by Sam Yates, the stage within a stage makes the action cramped, the only freedom in the entire production being provided by care-free dances which are elegantly executed by the two excellent actors. The dialogue is in the style of theatre of the absurd. The plot lines are inconclusive, life being a never-ending drama. This is not an easy night out, but worth the effort.

Future productions include Big Big Sky (Tom Wells; directed by Tessa Walker), The Memory of Water (Shelagh Stephenson; directed by Alice Hamilton) and Malindadzimu (Mufaro Makubika; directed by Monique Touko). Further details at www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/main-stage/. For information about the Alfred Fagon Award for Black British Playwrights, see www.alfredfagonaward.co.uk/about-us/.

31 Daleham Gardens: A new lease of life 16/5/2021

In September 2020, Camden’s Cabinet approved a regeneration strategy for property in Daleham Gardens, identifying the preferred option as being redevelopment through disposal to a local Community Land Trust (CLT). The approved strategy recognised that a locally-based, community-led developer, such as a CLT, with a strong local knowledge and community roots, non-profit status and focus on high quality affordable homes could be well-placed to deliver affordable housing on this site.

Following an Expression of Interest Process in early 2021, which sought submissions from community groups interested in the site, NW3 CLT were identified as Camden’s preferred submission, and Camden have now begun negotiations with NW3 CLT for the sale and regeneration of the site.

Sanya Polescuk, a director of NW3 CLT and a BelSoc Committee members writes: 

CLTs are community-led local organisations set up and run by ordinary people to develop and manage homes as well as other assets important to that community, such as community enterprises, food growing areas, or workspaces.

NW3 CLT is the first registered Community Land Trust in North London and was set up in April 2016. It is a not-for-profit, Registered Community Benefit Society with its base in Belsize Park, membership of close to 150 and a Board of five Directors. We work together to leverage our skills as a community and as individuals from diverse backgrounds, be they key workers and civil servants or building and finance professionals. 

As members of the National CLT Network (NCLT Network), we at NW3 CLT seek to influence developments in national housing policies. We work with local organisations such as Voluntary Action Camden and  Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum, helped by local media and social media. We are supported both financially and through mentorship by the NCLT Network and by the GLA’s Community-led Housing Hub. 

Over the last five years we have worked to raise awareness about the erosion of affordable housing stock in our area and the growing need to provide such housing in order to sustain an integrated yet diverse community – something NW3 has historically had but which is now endangered.

We campaigned for affordable and key worker housing in NW3 and adjoining postcodes. Our work included identifying and appraising unused and underused properties in NW3 with the aim of developing them in a way that maximises the provision of affordable housing. Architecturally, our approach has been to either retain, repurpose or reuse as much of a specific building and its materials as possible. Wells Court in Oriel Place, Old Hampstead Police Station on Haverstock Hill and Branch Hill Care Home are some of the properties where we have sought to secure the provision of affordable housing.

As a CLT that is focused on housing, our main task is to make sure that homes we develop are genuinely affordable, based on what people actually earn in our area, not just for now but for all future occupiers. We hope to use our upcoming project to showcase how this vision can become a reality. 

A detailed business plan illustrates our first affordable housing development in NW3 which aims to provide over a dozen homes for people who work or live locally.

The project will be funded through a combination of private and public investment and grants and developed in partnership with developers and registered housing providers. We are currently working on our financing matrix which will include a Community Share Offering. Our CLT members will be closely involved in both the development of the project and the management of the properties.

For further information about NW3 CLT, visit nw3clt.org.uk. 

Mary Shenai’s Belsize Walks 16/5/2021

As we celebrate 50 years since the first few residents came together to form an association for people living and working in Belsize Park, we look back on community walks by and for our residents.

In September 1998, BRA luminary Mary Shenai led a walk in Belsize Lane with the theme of “Standing in History”.  At that time, there had been changes in the Village.  Mary’s view was that those changes should make residents realise that they were part of a continuing process, standing in history, and that it was appropriate to look back during the walk at how Belsize had become what it is today.  All future walks looked both at the past and at the present – reflecting Belsize as a place that has evolved and not atrophied. 

In October 1999, Mary led a walk about the Eton Estate with notes written by Robin Woolven and in 2000 her walk focused on the architecture of Eton Avenue.  She described Eton Avenue as a “street of startling variety” when compared with the uniform stucco classical houses of Belsize built before the 1880s.  Eton Avenue is recorded as completely built up and numbered by 1903.  Mary observed that its houses were not designed by leading architects.  They are houses built in the prevailing style of their age by a far-sighted and imaginative developer, William Willett, using his own architects, Harry Measures and Amos Faulkner.  

In October 2001, Mary’s walk centred on Lyndhurst Road.  She said: “We need to get our imaginations to sweep away everything you see here today…none of these houses, no roads, no Fitzjohns Avenue, no Akenside Road, no Lyndhurst Road, only fields and one large house in its grounds”.  This was Rosslyn House (previously known as Shelford Lodge and before that as Grove House).  The most famous resident of Rosslyn House was Alexander Wedderburn, 1st Earl of Rosslyn (1733 – 1805).  He became Lord Loughborough in 1780 and Lord High Chancellor in later years.  Members will know Wedderburn Road.  Other roads in NW3 named after Lord Chancellors are Eldon Road and Thurlow Road – as well as Lyndhurst Road itself which is named after John Copley, 1st Baron Lyndhurst, who is buried in Highgate Cemetery.  

In September 2002, Mary’s walk was “Hayfields to Horizontal Windows: A Walk through England’s Lane”.  The name England’s Lane derives from an eighteenth century tenant farmer James England but Mary was keen to point out more modern buildings, such as Stanbury Court at the end of the Lane with its “horizontal paned windows wider than they are long, smooth white surfaces, rounded corners and flat roofs” making a “handsome building in a style uniquely of the twentieth century”.

The walk in 2003 concentrated on the left side of Belsize Lane going west towards Fitzjohns Avenue, and Daleham Gardens.  In 2004, the walk took in Belsize Park Gardens, Glenilla Road, Belsize Avenue and Belsize Square, ending with tea in St Peter’s Church.  The Church’s vicarage in the middle of the Square was sold to the New Liberal Jewish Community in 1947 who renovated it and commissioned a new synagogue by the Bauhaus trained architect H.W. Reisenberg.  A new hall was added in 1973.  Mary noted that the synagogue’s “symbolic gates proudly reveal its identity”.

In Autumn 2005, Mary led the walk with Gordon Maclean, talking about “Eton Avenue, Ancient and Modern”.  They noted the new Hampstead Theatre – opened two years previously and replacing an older prefabricated building near the Basil Spence library.   The theatre building was “one of the best new theatre buildings in England” with a glass and timber louvred skin surrounding a free-form 250 seat theatre.

Mary’s final walk took place in 2006, with “Belsize and Eton” as its subject.  She conducted the walk with Aileen Hammond who had an abundance of knowledge about Haverstock Hill.  Aileen spoke with affection about how “Haverstock Hill itself retains a slightly scruffier image – or at least we like to think so!  But Karl Marx who, we learn from Streets of Belsize, actually lived just round the corner in Maitland Park Road from 1864-75, always gave his address as Haverstock Hill.  When writing to his friend Engels he justified his rather lavish lifestyle by saying it would improve his daughters’ prospects in life.  Be that as it may, rumours are afoot that even ‘The Etons’ [Eton Road, Eton Villas, Provost Road and Eton College Road] have lost their most raffish residents – the cockroaches that gave such a warm, scurrying welcome to 1960s residents when they came home after dark and put on the lights.” How times have changed – and all the more reason to recall Mary’s words that we are standing in history. 

More recent historical walls were led by Averil Nottage and Aileen Hammond.  BelSoc plans to revive the annual walk – subject to any ongoing concerns about Covid. 


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