Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
Croydon: The English Everytown
“The personal feeing and native instinct of me had been fastened irrevocably…under the low red roofs of Croydon…by the cress set rivulets in which the sand danced, and the minnows darted above the springs of Wandel.”

One hundred and fourteen years after Ruskin recalled his formative years, I’m getting off a tram close to those Wandle springs in Croydon’s Old Town, on my way to see a selection of pieces from Croydon Council’s Art Collection at a new exhibition at the Museum of Croydon.

First wandering up Church Street, past the Old Palace, London Piercing Clinic and the Chinese Supermarket, I then negotiate my way through the mobile phone covers, fruit, veg and bustle of Surrey Street Market. Ruskin’s beloved low red roofs are still there, but big-broad-shouldered regeneration projects under construction muscle in to view and hint at an ongoing story of Croydonian ambition. The exhibition ‘Scene Unseen’ is in the Croydon Clocktower complex. Attached to the 1890s Town Hall, the Clocktower – completed in 1993 – houses one of the UK’s best libraries, the David Lean Arts Cinema, a permanent collection of Chinese pottery and ceramics and the FAT-designed Museum of Croydon. However, despite brimming with brilliant stuff, most of the Clocktower’s wonderful secrets remain unseen, even to many Croydonians.

Scene Unseen aims to reveal some of Croydon’s best-kept secrets. Croydon Council owns over 2000 artworks, gathered since 1890, when pieces were acquired to decorate the new Town Hall. This big Victorian civic investment marked the birth of the County Borough of Croydon; a significant event in the story of the gradual decline in power of Croydon’s Lords of the Manor - the Archbishops of Canterbury - who had their summer seat here.

The exhibition puts a small selection of those 2000 works on public display for the first time since 1988. This effort to make the public’s collection public is to be applauded. These are the people of Croydon’s works of art, on display for free, in a wonderful civic facility.

The pieces range from local scenes by local artists that satisfy local interest, to pieces of international significance by the likes of Max Ernst. Some of the pieces – and the collection as a whole – manage to combine the best of both worlds; revealing truly universal value through the particularly local.

The exhibition is small and simple, arranged over two rooms. The curation here is not world changing and does not aim to challenge. The pieces are simply hung and arranged in to the themes of Landscape, Croydon at War, Buildings, People and Abstract Art. However, the work begins to reveal stronger, more sophisticated themes, the closer one looks and the more one remembers to place the collection in its context.

The majority of the work documents a change in landscape that is particular to Croydon, but which will resonate with any visitor. Carefully reading the series of paintings, drawings, etchings and prints, Croydon becomes a unique microcosm of English social history and urbanism; from medieval feudalism, to post war ‘never-had-it-so-good’ space race pop. The English Everytown. Representative, but unlike anywhere else.

Produced in 1946, ‘Croydon Corageous’ by artist Norman Partridge shows crowds of people being rescued from Croydon bomb sites, with the Parish Church in the centre horizon and those familiar low red roofs present, but blown to bits. Despite being very particular to Croydon, the work manages to perfectly represent the common cultural image of wartime Britain.

Meanwhile, the portrait of black Croydon composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor by Stanmore Gibbs and two arresting pieces by Bengali mystic, writer, composer and social reformer, Rabindranath Tagore, reveal the complexities of Britain’s attitude to race and the wider implications of Empire. Tagore rejected his knighthood in 1919 as a protest against the Jalianwalabag Massacre.

In the 1960s - acting with what appears to be remarkable civic foresight – Croydon Council’s Education Department collected a series of pieces by contemporary artists that constitute the real surprise of the show. On display here are pieces by Allen Jones and Bridget Riley - both of whom taught at Croydon’s Art School - along with a delicious screenprint by Patrick Caulfield and works by Henry Moore, John Hoyland and Max Ernst. As a Croydon resident, I feel quite chuffed that I own these.

Filling the galleries with the exuberant sounds of Surrey Harmony Barber Shop Choir and the North Wood Morris, a film made by contemporary students of Croydon College Room aims to give the show a contemporary context and reveal a thriving local creative scene. It focuses on groups who continue the legacy of the Croydon Art Society, which is apparently the oldest art society in England. But one suspects that far more interesting creative activity is happening in the suburb that inspired the punk aesthetic and the dub-step sound.

So, in order to make the most of this small exhibition, to contextualize Everytown, and to seek the real Scene Unseen, I suggest you wander the streets of Croydon. Push your way through Surrey Street Market, explore the Whitgift Centre, tram-whizz past the Ikea Chimneys on Purley Way and loop around Croydon’s Old and New Towns. Climb to the top of a multi-storey car park and view the low red roofs, concrete office blocks, out-of-town sheds and suburban treetops. Recall Ruskin and listen to the punky echoes in Malcolm McClaren:

“Croydon will always be remembered [for the] rites of passage of my life - the constant roaming at night through its market streets and thereafter navigating those deep leafy suburbs into the countryside beyond - spending hours looking out of Croydon's art school windows observing and then struggling to come to terms with these giant triffids of buildings that rise up and spread themselves all along East Croydon's path, using charcoal pencil and anything close to hand, I drew and drew and drew”.
Published by Vincent Lacovara
A review of the exhibition ‘Scene Unseen: Unpacking the Art of Croydon’.
Shorter version published in Building Design Magazine 13 November, 2009