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Alex Booker talks through the Clerkenwell series on the opening day of Design Undefined
24th May 2017

Performers, protestors and provocateurs: portraits of Clerkenwell’s past

The problem with research is that it’s easy to get lost. You plan to spend 20 minutes looking for an interesting historical figure to base a woodcut on and emerge several hours later, having disappeared into a rabbit warren of tragic socialists, troubled clowns, political agitators and musical coal merchants. 

At least, that’s what happened to Alex Booker, who has spent the last few months preparing for Clerkenwell London’s Design Undefined exhibition for Clerkenwell Design Week. His exhibited prints – and the live workshops he’s currently running at the show – delve deep into the history of the neighbourhood, presenting a selection of remarkable individuals who not only helped shape the character of Clerkenwell over the centuries, but had an impact on global culture and politics that can still be felt today.

From a potential cast of thousands, Alex chose six fascinating figures from the past 500 years as the basis for a range of beautiful woodcut portraits. Here are their stories – some comical, some heart-breaking, some inspiring, some downright bizarre… 
From Left: Joseph Grimaldi, William Lovett, Eleanor Marx, Dadabhai Naoroji, Guiseppe Mazzini, Thomas Britton and Zaha Hadid
Thomas Britton (1644–1714) was an unusual combination of charcoal merchant and concert promoter. By day he shovelled a coal into his stable off Aylesbury Street; by night he held musical soirées in his loft. An archetypal polymath, Britton was celebrated for his singing voice, a keen amateur chemist (commissioned to design moving laboratories for local apothecaries), and a renowned book collector – which earned him access to the most cultured echelons of London society. His free chamber concerts became the talk of the town, drawing the most highly regarded musicians of the day to perform at his home, including George Frideric Handel. Britton was also intrigued by the esoteric and the occult – an interest which may have contributed to his ultimate ‘death by pranking’, when a local magistrate hired a ventriloquist to inform the 70-year-old Britton that his end was near and kneel down to pray. Deeply affected by the experience, he died three days later.

Thomas Britton
Joseph Grimaldi (1778–1838) was the most famous comedian of the Regency era and a key figure in the evolution of Britain’s pantomime tradition. Grimaldi made his stage debut at the age of two, as a performing monkey alongside his father, when a breaking chain sent him flying into the audience. He was, miraculously, unhurt, and the incident made him a celebrity overnight. He spent a large part of his career playing to audience at Sadler’s Wells, where he reinvented the traditional clown role, donning whiteface, colourful costumes and adopting the name ‘Joey the Clown’. He was astonishingly successful, playing to packed houses, commanding large fees, and touring the country. His exuberance and dedication eventually caught up with him, and he was forced to retire in 1823 due to what doctors of the time called ‘premature old age’. His last decades were marked by depression, debt and exhaustion. He died – after a raucous night at the pub – in 1831. Grimaldi is still revered by clowns today.

William Lovett (1800–1870) was a Cornish-born cabinetmaker drawn into politics first as a union activist, then as the leader of the Chartist movement. A working-class organisation that campaigned for parliamentary reforms, Chartism was a prominent protest force between 1838 and 1850. It demanded suffrage for the working man, secret ballots, proportional representation, and payment for MPs – intending to overturn parliament as the preserve of a corrupt and socially disengaged elite. Lovett spent his life campaigning for equality, enfranchisement and social reform, enduring time in prison for his beliefs. He helped found the National Union of the Working Classes with radical colleagues Henry Hetherington and James Watson, and from his coffee shop in Hatton Garden, he provided free education classes for the working poor. Lovett didn’t live to see the Chartist agenda met – he died in poverty in 1870 – but today, all but one of the movement’s demands (annual elections) is enshrined in Britain’s constitutional law.
William Lovett
Guiseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) was a political revolutionary and campaigner for the unification of Italy. He entered university at 14, graduated as lawyer at 21, and immediately became involved with a seditious newspaper. By 22, he had been arrested as a member of Italy’s secret revolutionary society, the Carbonari. After four years in prison, he chose exile over house arrest, and moved to Switzerland, where he spent much the next decade remotely organising insurrections against the House of Savoy. Sentenced to death by the government, he fled first to Paris and then, in 1827, to England. Mazzini settled in Clerkenwell (which had already become known as ‘Little Italy’ thanks its considerable Italian population), where he set up the Free Italian School in Hatton Garden to educate the poor children of the area, and fervently continued to pursue his vision of a free Italian republic (while engaging in an ongoing exchange of rather vituperative insults with Karl Marx). Freed from exile in 1870, he died of pleurisy in Pisa, aged 66, but his thoughts and writings continued to influence political thinkers for the next century. Mazzini’s ultimate aspirations for a ‘United States of Europe’ were in many senses realised a hundred years later, with the establishment of the modern EU.
Close up of Guiseppe Mazzini portrait
Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917) was the first Asian member of the UK parliament, representing Finsbury Central from 1892 to 1895. An intellectual and polymath, he was a believer in peaceful protest, ethical business practice and women’s rights, but his greatest legacy was drawing widespread attention to the colonial mismanagement of India’s economy. He was dubbed the ‘Father of the Nation’ by Mahatma Gandhi, on account of the political groundwork he laid towards Indian independence. 
From Left: Joseph Grimaldi, Willam Lovett, Eleanor Marx, Dadabhai Naoroji and Guiseppe Mazzini
Zaha Hadid DBE, RA, (1950–2016) was one of the most pre-eminent architects of the 21st century. Born In Iraq, she was the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize (2004), and the first to be awarded a Gold Award by the Royal Institute of British Architects (2015) – as well as being the recipient of the Stirling Prize in 2010 and 2011, and a damehood in 2012. Celebrated for her fluid forms, perspective-shifting geometry and expressive modern style, the ‘queen of the curve’ died suddenly last year, leaving many of her designs still in construction. The main offices of Zaha Hadid Architects are situated in Clerkenwell. 

Eleanor Marx (1855–1898), aka ‘Tussy’, was the London-born youngest daughter of Karl Marx. Grounded in socialist politics since her infancy (her father was busy working on Das Kapital while she played in the next room), she became a prominent social activist, a staunch campaigner for women’s rights and a founder member of the Socialist League. In October 1887, she was one of the leaders of a procession of the unemployed from Clerkenwell Green to Trafalgar Square. Marx was also an actress and literary translator – she was the first to translate Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English and she taught herself Norwegian in order to tackle Ibsen’s plays. In 1898, upon discovering that her love of 15 years – the prominent biologist, Darwinist, atheist and socialist Edward Aveling – had secretly married a young actress, Eleanor took cyanide and died, aged 43.

Design Undefined is showing at Clerkenwell London, 155 Farringdon Road, until 25 May 2017.
Eleanor Marx

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