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Jane England’s Turn And Face The Strange ©
Jordan with juke box at SEX, Chelsea, February 1976© Jane England

Peep this panoramic view of 70s and 80s London

Jane England’s black and white portraits, featuring a young Vivienne Westwood and an ageing Eileen Agar, prove that subculture and youth aren’t mutually exclusive

When Jane England first arrived in London in 1973, she remembers Bowie’s hit song “Changes” as having a particular allure. It sang of extreme individualism against the warring grey drabness enveloping the city, but deeper still the effects of time. Taking its title from the song’s lyrics, England’s first photo book Turn and Face the Strange is a collection of her early analog work from the period, which spans over a decade. Her striking images – a few unpublished and some unseen for years – offer a multi-faceted portrait of London’s interwoven subcultures.

The 1970s and 1980s were eras of both political and social upheaval. Thatcherite Britain woke up to a bleak reality: class conflict and mass unemployment – only to get slapped with the Falklands War. Yet, underground, London’s subcultural scene had exploded in a fit of rebellion. Fresh from Australia, England quickly found herself swept up by the early-1970s bohemian milieu, beginning to photograph the free-spirited coterie that gathered in her kitchen every weekend. Many of her subjects were friends and acquaintances, we see Vivienne Westwood and Jordan, PVC-clad and fierce, posturing in front of a mural of blitzed Dresden; Agnes, a towering Ossie Clark muse and royal relation to the Kingdom of Toro (who once wryly retorted to Idi Amin’s sexual slur “discussing Ugandan affairs” by wearing a t-shirt stating “Amin da Mood”). Next to them the capital’s artists: Warhol limply holding a microphone outside the ICA; Gilbert and George locked in stylistic dance alongside artful portraits of Eileen Agar, a surrealist dame.

The shift between decades and generations is what galvanises England’s portraits. Testament to her scope as a photographer, the book offers a panoramic view of countercultural London, showing that subcultures are not simply a preserve of the youth. When Bowie wailed that “Time may change me / but you can’t trace time” he dolefully spoke about time as a thief, but England’s photographs act a time-capsule, having faithfully documented a vanished London and retained a little of its magic.

“Looking back through my archive I realised that I had both deliberately – and inadvertently – documented alternative histories” – Jane England

Turn and Face the Strange is a powerful title in that it takes its cue from a Bowie song. Which aspects of the song did you feel resonated most strongly within the book?

Jane England: That fragment of Bowie’s song lyric for “Changes” played around with ideas of time, transformation, change and reinvention. Although it was written and recorded at the beginning of the 1970s, it was played insistently throughout the decade and became a kind of anthem for alternative culture. When I was working on my book, I heard the song again by chance and the phrase “Turn and Face the Strange” resonated with me and just seemed ‘right’. In an ironic coincidence, David Bowie’s unexpected death was announced a week after the book’s title had been registered for an ISBN number, which gave it another, even more sombre layer of meaning.

The images in the book kind of sit outside of time, it offers a trans-generational view of the era highlighting the influence one generation exerts upon another. The photographs are taken almost ten years apart. Was this a conscious attempt to show the passage of time?

Jane England: When Black Dog Publishing suggested a book of my early photographs, it soon segued into my selecting photographs that spanned approximately a decade: a period starting around 1973, when I began to take photography seriously, and on into the mid-1980s, a period of transition and social change. Looking back through my archive I realised that I had both deliberately – and inadvertently – documented alternative histories. It was not so much about consciously showing the passage of time, as rather going on a kind of idiosyncratic journey through a decade or so via images of people I met and places I went: a kind of unplanned visual diary or document of my life and interests at that period.

It has become a reflection on time in one sense – and sometimes functions as a memento mori. I was fully aware when I photographed a surviving Surrealist artist from the 1930s such as Eileen Agar that she was already in the last years of her life. I found it a privilege to spend time with her and other artists of her generation, whether well-known like Eileen, or almost totally forgotten, such as the Derby artist Marion Adnams. My curiosity about their life and work was an integral part of why I approached them to ask if I could photograph them.

When you are young, it’s almost impossible to imagine yourself as a different person in 20 years’ time, having gone through many a transformation – but I feel like that is a point you wanted to make?

Jane England: I do remember saying when I gave a print to a man I had photographed, that he looked so exquisite that it would surely end up used in the memoirs he was sure to write, and that the photograph would become a kind of Portrait of Dorian Grey in reverse. And yes, as I collected images together for the book, I consciously wanted to include images of people from different generations.

Your photographs speak loudly about youth, for whom extreme individuality and sense of belonging to a subculture was vital. It seems to have faded today. Was it a reaction to a political climate?

Jane England: It was the era straight after the rebellious youth ‘explosion’ in the 1960s, but individuality was something to persevere and strive for in the more depressed, grey and edgier atmosphere of 1970s London. Urban tribes had emerged in the UK since the 1950s. For example, I was fascinated to encounter Teddy Boys in their Edwardian-style drape suits and brothel-creeper shoes and elaborate quiffed hairstyles – they seem like a throw-back to the 50s.

My friends and acquaintance formed other new subcultures, from artists living alternative lifestyles in places like the studios at Butler’s Wharf or the squatted houses of Tolmer’s Square (now demolished); to those influenced by Bowie and Lindsey Kemp, to punk and then on to the New Romantics and Club kid. When The Guardian reviewed a major photography exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in the summer of 1977 that included a large group of my photographs, their reviewer commented on my arrival at the private view with some of my subjects, saying “… at the opening of the Serpentine Gallery’s photographic exhibition, she (Jane England) arrived surrounded by a dozen attendant punks who seemed slightly depressed by the unavailability of Martini cocktails. Punk is, of course, the latest form of Camp, which has been defined as the answer to the question of how to be an Oscar Wilde in the twentieth century and Jane England’s camera is its faithful chronicler.”

It seems weird to imagine Cheyne Walk and other areas of Chelsea as run down and full of bohemian, arty-types. Was London still a difficult city for artists to survive in?

Jane England: Most of Chelsea itself was not particularly run down, but there were creative and not particularly wealthy people living there in houses of various degrees of scale and battered grandeur, nothing like the manicured homes of today's international nouveau riche. There was a grim side to London then, and I think a lot of people found the city very bleak and depressing, but for me and my friends it had a real edge and seemed a place of endless possibilities. London was not so crowded, property was relatively cheap and you could usually find somewhere to rent affordably – and if not, you could always squat. There is a very appropriate quote of 1980s Mud Club host Philip Salon’s that I came across recently where he said: “Funnily enough, even despite Thatcher’s right-wing society, individualism thrived back then. As a left-winger, I believe in equality, but not in everyone being the same. And that’s the drawback today; now we live in a faceless world and that’s a pity.”

You are originally from Melbourne and you have some amazing images of Gregory Mannix from your time there - how did the Australian counter- culture differ from England’s?

Jane England: In some of the circles I knew in Melbourne and Sydney in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a sort of social micro-climate for the avant-garde and alternative that was in tune and influenced by what was happening in London or San Francisco or New York. However, it was at a remove as there was no internet, no instant way to plug in to what was happening elsewhere. Films, TV, books, records, and the magazines that would arrive a couple of months late, and returning travelers, were a lifeline to knowing what was going on. There was by necessity a local alternative culture that evolved as a way of avoiding what was then known as the ‘cultural cringe’.  

Do you still work as a photographer?

Jane England: Yes, I continue to take photographs. Although my main profession over the past 20 years or so has been as an art historian/curator/gallery director.

All images are copyright Jane England, none are to be re-produced without permission. Turn And Face The Strange, published by Black Dog Publishing, is available now