The raw reality of Henry Grant’s photographs of London in the 1950s, 60s and 70s brings to mind a more magical festive period
• In pictures: vintage photographs of Christmas in London by Henry Grant
No, these are not actually photographs of Moscow in the cold war but pictures of Christmas in London from the 1950s to the 1970s. Some of the shabby scenes in these images portray what are now the capital’s most glamorous and expensive shops and neighbourhoods.
Henry Grant (1907-2004) was a socialist photographer who looked at a different London from the brittle metropolis of exclusive clubs and high society that can be seen in other photographs of the postwar era. There are no Cecil Beaton fashion shoots here. Instead, Hampstead ponds look arctic-like and a display of turkeys at Leadenhall Market has the pathos of a painting of butchered meat by Rembrandt or Soutine. Grant captures the awkward birth pangs of a consumer society in a monochrome Britain.
These pictures look ancient, although the oldest were taken just six decades ago. Christmas, it seems, is an electrifying measure of cultural change. From year to year it feels the same, yet look back in time and the tinsel gets tackier, the shop windows sparser, the school parties more basic. The gifts in West End windows probably looked majestic then but to 21st-century eyes they seem innocent. Where are the iPads and toy drones?
Perhaps we overuse the word “austerity” for our own age. It may be harder for many people to get stuff but there’s a lot more stuff around. These images reveal how far from Grant’s raw reality modern Britain has floated. At a point in the late 20th century commodities ceased to be dreams of the space age and became … genuinely space-age. The necessities got luxurious and the luxuries went nuts.
Grant’s photographs support those who fear the materialism of modern Christmas. The kids in these shots most likely wrote letters to Santa. Today, people take their children to the shops to pick a present. The British Christmas in these pictures may be more basic. Perhaps it is also more magical.
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