There is an obvious difficulty with living in cities: their sheer gigantism can sometimes make it difficult to find meaning. Many confine themselves to a few safe places: the local pub, the newsagents, the high street. To venture out further might be to court a sense of bewilderment, or even to run into conflict.
Art has always worked against fears of this nature. In fact, the earliest art we know of in the caves of Lascaux in southern France seems to have had precisely this motivation: image-creation was an attempt to promote understanding, and to reconcile these early humans with the shocking complexity of life.
Well, the world has never been less innocent or more complicated than it is today. In Peckham, in south London, we can still see this instinct at work in our street art.
In fact, the place increasingly seems to want to be an art gallery. Images come out of the earth with a primal force. They cover the sides of pubs and houses; they supervise parks. Sometimes they jostle at us and demand that they be considered. At other times, they are tucked away proudly as if to say, “Look at me, or don’t – I don’t mind”. These images – raw and unfussed as to whether they constitute great art – nevertheless whisper to us about who we are and, in doing so, promise to make the urban environment less alienating.
Consider for instance, this rat on the western wall of that beacon to footsore travellers, the Queen Victoria pub on Bellenden Road. This distended vermin has just enough room for its snout to fit into the upper corner of the building. It is an urgent image: the artist may have clambered up and over the pub to paint it, or else must have jumped down from the window on the upper right of this shot.
From Shakespeare’s Hamlet about to kill Polonius with “How now, a rat!” to “the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built”, this creature, with its invasive cunning, has long held a dark fascination in the collective mind of Londoners. Much as the animals of southern France did for Upper Palaeolithic man, it has a hold over us that demands to be exorcised – as it is here. Enlarged and hoisted, it might seem to hold sway over the viewer, were it not also elongated, and made a little ridiculous.
Yet Peckham isn’t just a place of urban squalor. It is also highly conscious of a strain of lyricism in its past. Modern Peckham has become a hub for creative artists, which is especially fitting when one considers that creative greats associated with the area range from Robert Browning and Kenneth Branagh to John Ruskin and William Blake.
Blake claimed to have had visions of angels in nearby Camberwell. Here, in this image before a children’s playground overlooking Goose Green, his work has been directly referenced. The church in the picture’s distance is recognisably that of St John the Evangelist church, whose distinctive spire is one of the landmarks to the west of Peckham. But a ghostly Blake can be seen in the left-hand balcony, peering out over the blue flame of his vision. It is as if we are looking at the world through Blake’s own eyes – a world that might any moment burst into vision.
There is even a note by the artist in the corner: “Originally painted with community in 1993, repainted May 2009, with added Blake poem ‘Echoing Green’.” The picture has been revisited after an encounter with the poem whose reference to the “cheerful bells” of the church, and its sports on the green, must have struck the artist as apt. Peckham therefore comes to us as a self-aware place – an example of the city coming all the time into deeper knowledge of itself.
This self-consciousness can be seen in another picture just off Dog Kennel Hill, that Sainsbury’s-dominated hinterland between Denmark Hill and Lordship Lane.
This picture of a girl at a window is a take on a Rembrandt housed in the nearby Dulwich Picture Gallery. A riff on one of the most astonishing pictures the Dutch master painted, it might be more powerful still if it didn’t tell you what it was up to in its bottom right-hand corner.
Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable addition to an otherwise desolate part of Peckham. The cans of spray-paint tell us that this is a self-portrait, and therefore an image of that glamorous Macavity of our cities – the street artist. Her look is visionary and confident as she surveys the possibilities of the environment around her. Again, the image shows us that our street artists are hungry for knowledge – we can imagine how the decision to paint will have been prompted by a visit to the nearby gallery. This encounter has in turn led to a reinterpretation of the world. It is both an exhibitionist dialogue between past and present, and a conversation between London and mainland Europe.
As the city has become increasingly gentrified, Peckham has begun to shed its hostile reputation. It has become, in effect, more like Dulwich and less like itself. But it has never lost its edge – the Blakean thought that here, any minute, something surprising may happen.
This rawness can be seen in the picture at the top of this essay where two men next to the East Dulwich Tavern are shown about to engage in fisticuffs. Its location just outside the area’s most famous pub seems a satirical comment about the place. It is, like the Bellenden rat, a kind of unburdening: if we are prepared to look at violence as archaic like this, then we have also made a move away from it.
But Peckham, though it is able to laugh at itself, is also a place which sometimes seems to be dreaming on elsewheres. It is increasingly idealistic, with a strong green streak, and vehemently anti-Brexit (its borough of Southwark voted to remain in the EU by a whopping 72.3 per cent).
This can be seen in its street art too. For instance, on Choumert Road, there is this enjoyable idyll, a homage to wind energy. It is an odd image. The plane flying towards the rainbow, though anachronistic, is presumably still run on oil, and as such seems out of place. But this is still a welcome moment of pastoral, climbing out of the telephone booth, and the litter-strewn pavement: a dreamy alternative.
I don’t think these are great pictures, but they undeniably contribute to the dynamism of a great part of this city. Through these images, Peckham is shown to be in constant reassessment of its identity. It is amorphous and unsentimental, but also occasionally nostalgic and full of dreamers. It is educated and edgy, a place that revels in its own contradictions.
Above all, Peckham’s street art shows this city to be what it needs to be – fundamentally unafraid and continually creative.
All images courtesy of the author.