A town centre amble that goes from the sublime to ridiculous

KEN TOWL took a stroll down Surrey Street and Church Street and encountered two different takes on what passes for ‘culture’ in Croydon

Phipson’s view: some things in Croydon town centre have not changed…

The Croydon Clocktower has an exhibition of the works of Evacustes Phipson.

“Evacustes who?” you may ask (or perhaps, “Which Phipson?”).

Croydon from the Palette of Evacustes Phipson displays the work (unfortunately, in the form of prints, rather than the original watercolours) of a little-known artist from the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Phipson was a well-travelled man who nevertheless spent much of his later life in Croydon. And when he was here, he painted, prolifically.

Evacustes (the name was an affectation; he was born Edward Arthur Phipson) was a leftist radical who displayed scant interest in the patronage or the palaces of the rich and powerful. His legacy is a richness of portrayals of the life of ordinary working people and the buildings where they lived, worked and shopped.

His watercolours focus on the buildings, though there are a few matchstalk men and women, very much like LS Lowry (but a few decades earlier).

Croydon ‘Castle’: Phipson’s take on Croydon’s town centre waterworks and Surrey Street from around 120 years ago

Part of the pleasure of this exhibition is recognising addresses in the paintings and comparing them to the current buildings.

Waterworks view: today’s more prosaic take

The work is also reminiscent of French impressionist Camille Pisarro, famous for his dictum that beauty could be found in the mundane. And he would know, as he painted the streets of south London while living in Norwood, a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War.

Phipson manages to draw out the beauty of his street scenes and the effect, inevitably is a sense that things, in Croydon at least, are not what they were, that things have changed, and not for the better.

The comments in the visitors’ book at the exhibition reflect this over and over again.

We learn that this house no longer exists due to a German bomb, or that one because it was demolished to make way for an overpass. The combined depredations of the Luftwaffe and town planners have reduced the beauty and increased the mundanity of our hometown.

Church Street as it once was: the Phipson watercolour, as shown as a print at the exhibition

Inspired by the paintings, I took a walk down Surrey Street and then along Church Street to try to photograph some of the buildings that Phipson painted. The sense of loss was only exacerbated by this.

The exhibition is part of This Is Croydon, the branding that the council has chosen to market its Borough of Culture status. “This Was Croydon (before we got our hands on it)” would be a better title.

The exhibition has been curated by the esteemed and respected Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society. With the idea of an exhibition of artworks to show how Croydon looked more than 100 years ago, they applied for a Borough of Culture grant of £6,505.

No Pain, no gain: and Church Street as it is today

They were given just £505, which might explain why the exhibits are prints, and not the originals.

Due to a presumably well-meant but rather bizarre initiative, while on my walk I was able to enjoy another “art” show.

Around 60 giraffes, large and small, have been placed around central Croydon. It is not entirely clear why but, anyway, there they are.

They are mostly rather garishly coloured with names that are either puns (Giraffiti, Ziggy-Raff Stardust, Strictly Tall-Room) or mawkishly right-on (Sustainability, Humanity, Community Life) or both (Diverse City).

This “art trail” has been put together by Croydon BID, the business improvement district that operates in the town centre. They asked for £50,000 from the Borough of Culture to curate their fibre-glass giraffes. They were granted every penny that they asked for.

Croydon BID has got some of their members – businesses – in on the entirely derivative giraffe fest, as sponsors of what they’ve called “Croydon Stands Tall”.

Derivative, unimaginative, trite: how Croydon spends £50,000 of culture cash

“As a team we immediately resonated with Croydon Stands Tall, and giraffes being animals with the biggest hearts that thrive when surrounded by others,” according to Amy Davies, who is “People Director, Superdrug”, one of the BID members.

“We are committed to building relationships with the local communities and investing in people. as we look to support Croydon into the future.” This is exactly as the quote appears in the Croydon Stands Tall brochure, unchecked, uncorrected. Everything just a bit shit.

I saw a few of the giraffes.

Not one, I am afraid, evoked any sort of response in me but hey, the beauty and the mundane are in the eye of the beholder. Somebody, somewhere will love them.

Some, though, clearly don’t.

One of the giraffes, called “Spirit of Adventure”, in Church Street, had “Fucking cunts” written on its base – no doubt by an outraged art critic.

Fortunately, a couple of men from the council turned up and scrubbed it almost to invisibility. Given that the giraffes only went up on Monday, this says a lot for the anti-graffiti work of the council or Croydon BID. Unless, of course, giraffe-based cleaning gets priority over everything else.

The £505 exhibition Croydon from the Palette of Evacustes Phipson is on at the Clocktower until September 27 and is not to be missed.

The £50,000 giraffes threaten to “stand tall” until October 27. You probably won’t be able to miss them.

Read more: £1.5m being spent on our Borough of not-very-much Culture
Read more: Having a giraffe! Business group spends thousands on statues
Read more: It’s hard to find signs of the borough’s musical heritage trail
Read more: GLA has few checks on how £1.3m Culture grant is being spent

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Activities, Art, Borough of Culture 2023, Croydon BID, Croydon Council, Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society, Ken Towl, Surrey Street and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A town centre amble that goes from the sublime to ridiculous

  1. Brian Finegan says:

    “One of the giraffes, called “Spirit of Adventure”, in Church Street, had “Fucking cunts” written on its base – no doubt by an outraged art critic.”

    I fucking love Croydon sometimes

  2. Kevin Croucher says:

    “Building relationships” , ‘Investing in people ” Could have come straight out of some online BS generator

  3. PalaceCeltic says:

    I think you’re being a bit harsh about the giraffes, it sounds like the kind of thing kids/ families may enjoy, following the trail. But I do agree the money could’ve been much more evenly spread

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