Last year I was approached by friend and local businessman, Brendan Conway, who had bought an old and somewhat faded Victorian pub, the Grosvenor Arms, and asked to document the process of refurbishment as well as capture some of the people who drank there. I had only been in a couple of times before Brendan took over.
The pub is across the road from a local restaurant which school mum friends and I had been to as we walked home after a night out, when we squeezed in a last drink and enjoyed karaoke there. The first time we went, it was a little bit like we’d just walked into a saloon in an old western film; strangers from out-of-town enter, everyone stops and stares, a moment’s silence and people turn back to their drinks and carry on as before, or a fight breaks out! But in real life, within a few moments we were welcomed by the barman (I would later learn, named Mitch), and despite being the very end of the night were able to put our names down for a quick but extraordinarily bad rendition of Island’s in the Stream. I seem to remember being an intensely annoying, more than tipsy idiot and showing off by taking images of people on my phone and then editing them to look a certain way as we chatted with people there. I also remember being mortified the next day and deleting them from my Instagram account as they were rubbish, and also felt vaguely patronising.
Middle class twits in an environment that had so far escaped the homogenised, plasticised fate of so many other pubs in the area. (I will say more about class in my current OCA S&O project very soon). To be fair, there is a pub further along the road, nearer the shops that has successfully retained an authentic pub feel and also attracts a broad range of people who drink there regularly. But the Grosvenor was not like that. A few of the dads from my children’s school drank there occasionally and a friend of mine who grew up round here remembers going to the same karaoke evening, hosted by Bob & Maureen when she was a teen. But otherwise it was a place I walked past and hardly noticed. When Brendan bought it, it might have been taken over by a property developer and turned into flats and a mini supermarket. Brendan feels he saved the old Victorian building from that fate, was eager to breathe life into it again, and hoped to recapture something it seemed to have lost. He also felt strongly he wanted to create a space that welcomed the usual regulars as well making new clientele welcome. What he felt really compelled to do was make sure we captured some of the stories the regulars told him, relating to the pub and their relationship with it. This has yet to be done fully really and may be the next stage.
You can see various iterations of the work I did in the pub in the following links:
Grosvenor Arms Events
Short edit on my website
Other short reflections about the work
This is the third time I have shown my work locally and invited people to come along. Recently someone spoke to OCA students about exhibiting work and made it sound like a huge undertaking that would take over a year to plan and needed a massive committee, and I wonder if he potentially put people off. He was, however, discussing a relatively high-profile event involving many artists, and my somewhat more humble approach has been quite different. Yes, it’s been daunting every time, mostly because putting yourself out there is unsettling. But I do feel I have benefited from taking manageable bites to begin with, and allowed myself to become accustomed to being exposed in this way in a relatively safe format before stepping things up a bit. In November I will be showing work with other artists somewhere more akin to a gallery space, as opposed to a coffee shop or a pub. This steady step by step development has suited me although it may not be right for everyone. But I would also say that smaller community venues will always be important to me especially as I’m interested for now in how communities operate.
Things I learned this time
I am becoming obsessed with making sure images are not obstructed by glass, reflections and anything else that has the potential to act as a barrier. I have not exhibited without glass before and it comes with other problems, which I need to think about in future. These images will be given to the people in them after the exhibition and so it’s right they are mounted and framed traditionally. The glass will be placed in the frames then too. There is some spray you can use to protect the images but this needs to be put on before mounting I think (ideally). Images are vulnerable without glazing. And not having glass in mounted images doesn’t stop the weird warping and warbling of some types of paper which made me cross to see, although I think this is down to the mounting process. I needed to print the number I did for this display as we had lots of wall space to fill and they will be gifts, but in future I might prefer fewer images and have them all on aluminium rather than paper/mounted. I used a very textured paper for other work I showed last year which also doesn’t tend to warp and warble in the same way. I suspect pinning in some instances might also be an option and Sam Laughlin’s work which I thought so much of was all pinned last year in Brighton.
Brendan was both a collaborator and a patron as he covered the costs of so much and paid me to document his events. But I realised in the midst of the process I must have agreements in place when working with anyone on a non-commercial basis and have since drawn up and implemented these for any subsequent projects.
I always try to write some context but this time I needed to incorporate some of Brendan into what I wrote. He had after all written his master’s thesis around the development of this space and what it means to him and his community. His work ties in very much with some of the things I’m concerned about. After sharing my draft online, many students (and an ex student who helped separate out paragraphs more effectively) and tutors suggested shorting it slightly. I agreed in principle but the Conways, both academics and professionals themselves, felt what I’d written encapsulated and communicated their own ideas and ideals so well that we agreed to leave it at its original length. There is more to say about this but perhaps not in this format. A PDF can be accessed here.
I am not sure I have avoided “the slimy and uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism” (Valentine, 2017) quoted on my S&O blog when thinking about Imperial Court. I very much hope so but this sort of work always risks an element of that .
I am happy to say people who attended the anniversary party were all very positive, including some of the people in the images. But people are generally kind to your face and who knows what they say when they get home. I hope the people in the images will be pleased with the gifts Brendan will give them – but understand this type of imagery is not everyone’s taste. I’m sure I may hear more in future and there seems to have been a local journalist making copious notes there too, which was alarming for me… we’ll see what she has to say soon enough.
I never know when a project is finished but this one certainly doesn’t feel complete. Brendan’s ideals provide him with many challenges to overcome, both personally and in broader terms. I have not had time to continue documenting as other projects demand more of me, but I am planning to take advantage of Brendan’s desire to turn his venue into an art hub by making use of the upstairs room to do some work related to Self & Other, and perhaps in time put some sort of document with stories together.
Image (c)SJField 2016
Some people who have been visiting the pub for years, since they were teenagers and can tell stories about having visited for the first time when the floor was still covered in saw dust.