My Spitalfields Life

31 October 2012
Ben Pentreath

Do you have your own Spitalfields, and may I share mine?

I was young, eighteen, I guess, when I first discovered Spitalfields. I first went there to visit The Georgian Group, who I think were then housed in the old Georgian building that belongs to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings that I think is still in Spital Square. In those days, I seem to remember, and I admit my memory is hazy, the Georgian Group was run by a wonderful person called Caroline Lightburn. She took a young me under her wing, and was very kind indeed.

In those days, I didn’t really know where to turn to find out more about the eighteenth century buildings that I knew that I loved. The Georgian Group was not a bad place to end up, I suppose, although a bigger bunch of oddballs it would be hard to find in London (or the world). But at the time… I would say, there was something about the Group that meant a great deal to me, and a part of it still will, for ever.

Having found my way to Caroline’s office, which I seem to remember being upstairs at SPAB, and having said our hellos, and chatted, I had an afternoon on my hands to explore, and I can still remember that earth-shattering moment when I turned the corner down the Commercial Road and saw Christ Church, that magnificent building I didn’t yet know was designed by Hawksmoor. Fournier Street was a dream, a revelation.  I don’t think I could believe what I was seeing; the ancient Georgian city, still there, preserved, alive, crumbling, and perfect.

Later, after four years at Edinburgh, I moved to Norfolk where I apprenticed with the architect Charles Morris, deep in that haunting area of Breckland on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. It was a curious choice, perhaps, when all my friends were moving to London, but it was here I learned my first faltering steps about architecture and what makes life happen. I lived in a tiny low-ceilinged cottage down a long un-made up track called Fen Lane, in East Harling, and lived a pretty reclusive time one way and another, and that might be a story for another day.

It was all very well (and it really was well) but I loved my weekends in London when I used to come down (not every weekend, but many) to stay with my friends then setting up exciting new lives after university.

Liverpool Street was my station of arrival and departure, from where it was a short walk to Spitalfields. So time and again, if I missed a train, I would find myself having a spare hour to wander around, maybe missing one or two more trains after that. It all feels a long long time ago, but I can remember it in some ways as if it was yesterday. Spitalfields then – and we are talking twenty years ago – felt like a place that time and tide had forgotten. The world of early 18th century London collided with crazy, hectic 20th century Brick Lane, and I learned that I loved each as much as the other.

Growing up young, and gay, and from a deeply conservative middle class background, wasn’t as easy then as it would be today. It’s funny how two decades makes a difference.  But when you remember that John Major was prime minister, Mrs Thatcher just departed… well, that makes one understand the different Britain we were living in, in those days.

So I won’t quite say that I lost my virginity in Spitalfields, because that wouldn’t quite be true, but it was certainly the first time I had real fun.  That would have been when I was 22 or 23, and by fun, I think I mainly mean no guilt afterwards.  Eugh, what is it with guilt – that most useless of emotions, especially when we’re young. (that’s what I mean by things not being so easy then). Well, the circumstances were a little random. And perhaps the fun moment was something to do with the early Georgian panelling, who knows…! haha. (Okay, Mum, perhaps it’s time to stop reading)…

Well, “whatever”, as they say. Time and again, I’ve returned to these, my favourite streets of London, watching the changes. While I was in New York, I collaborated on a wonderful house in Greenwich Village, with amazing Marianna Kennedy, whose beautiful Spitalfields townhouse features extensively in my book, and I well remember my first visit to her on Fournier Street. When I first got back to London from New York, I remember then spending a dream day re-acquainting myself with Spitalfields after five years away – the photograph above is one of a handful that I took within a few weeks of arriving back in London in the autumn of 2003. I think that was with my friend Monica, and Mo, is that you just sneaking into the edge of the photo?  I am sure it is.

When Bridie and I set up the shop, 4 years ago almost to the day, we spent hours trawling the markets and dealers, and Bridie was and is still deeply connected with those little streets and lanes of Georgian buildings.

Why this stream of memory? Well, I think, because nothing has ever excited me more that what happens in the shop starting next week.

We are joining with the great chronicler of Spitalfields Life, The Gentle Author, to present ‘The Artists of Spitalfields Life‘.  I first got to know Spitalfields Life after Bridie’s remarkable Edward Bawden’s Birthday Cake was featured in those illustrious pages, and we have all stayed in touch ever since. It was over a year ago that the Gentle Author and Bridie began talking, excitedly, about the possibility of an exhibition and it has finally reached fruition.

It really is the most exciting moment for me since Bridie and I started up the shop, a summation of everything I think is important about London today. And in thinking about it all, and how much I love Spitalfields, so beautifully, lovingly and richly chronicled by the Gentle Author every day, I hope you don’t mind my sharing my own Spitalfields Life?

Every day, The Gentle Author will be writing in detail about the artists we are showing, so be sure to visit that wonderful blog even more often, and we hope very much that you can visit the shop again and again during the show.

The exhibition opens in a week, on Wednesday 7th November, and in the early evening we have a tremendous private view to which everyone is invited. The show runs until the 24th and pictures may be removed as soon as they are bought. New works will be hung in their place. So there will be many treats for the frequent visitor.

If you are not able to get to London, we will show as many pictures for sale as possible on-line, including the wonderful poster designed for us by Alice Pattullo shown here. Bridie has set up a wonderful Spitalfields Page here, with more pictures going up daily.  Call Bridie in the shop for more details or help if you need it.

I really hope to see you during the show. And if you’ve read this far, thank you again for indulging me on my trip down 1720s-meets-1990s Memory Lane.


10 comments on this post


Dear Ben, I’m always transported by your prose as well as your pics. But the writing in this one was esp dream-like and captivating. I wish you’d use the memory lane part of this as the opening of your next book. It’s so good and vivid and even dramatic. The book could be a mix of personal memoir and aesthetic coming of age, with photos of course, but with your prose as the real heart of the book. I’d love to read that. Thanks for all these wonderful entries, which I’ve been wolfing down in big doses the past few week, flopped on an over-stuffed couch in a stucco bungalow in Cambridge, MA, ignoring the weedy garden and the needy dog, just devouring the blog. But really, the memoir, think about it! Morgan

Deby (in Canada)says:

Yeah! I do love making plans and with only 11 days to spend in London I have likely made too many… what can I do thought with a furniture gallery opening at the V&A, new Alan Bennett at The National, Stephen Fry all to myself for a matinee (well, shared with a several hundred others), best knitting shop in Islington, Columbia Road Christmas market, yummy sunday lunches, Tea, Tim Walker and the tumblers at Ferdinand & Wells in one outing!!! and everything else…
here are my suggestions and happy to hear any you have…
first day-thursNov29 have dinner plan with beloved daughter at 6:00 but if you could escape early to somewhere close to home/office/shop I can cab to her
TuesDec4 or Thurs6 could go to St.Johns for the LittleBunMoment… I have been entranced since The Gentle Author wrote about it…
We do have a dinner reservation at Tramshed 9:00 Wed.Dec5 after the Columbia Road Christmas market… would be delighted if you would join… we could fuck your overpriced in restaurant with dead cow art and love that they serve Hendricks, beer from Palmers and best of all use Burrow Hill Cider Brandy in coctails
Thoughts? and cheers

deby, in Canadasays:

Dear Ben This is a very late thanks for such a wonderful post. I look forward to and enjoy all your posts and great photos but this one was really special. I know it was only a one way conversation, but it read like a late evening after lots of wine and good food conversation.
Reading favourite blogs, and I include you, The Gentle Author, Jane Brocket, Dove Grey Reader and a few others is a bit odd when I reflect- you all write so well and share so much that as the reader I feel like we are friends- but it is very one sided and I often think – oh, I wish I could invite them all for dinner or a tramp in the countryside- but Canada is a long way away. Then I had been thinking that when In London soon to visit beloved daughter I should just work up the courage to invite this charming young man, who best loves my favourite Eric Ravillious painting and thinks Oh Lucky Man is a great movie, for a drink or a tiny bun moment at St.John’s. Then I come to my senses and think , no he is a busy architect and shop owner, never mind the Parsonage and I think wait until next year after I have commented on more posts and he doesn’t just think I am a stray mad woman. Then while I am thinking this a I get a phone call from my best friend and find out she has cancer, very treatable and likely fine but she won’t know for many weeks and she says she has made a play list for her funeral. It makes me think life could be short and the hell with waiting. I will be in London from Nov.29 for a week and a bit and will naturally be coming by the shop to collect books organized through Bridie and hope you can be tempted out for a drink and a visit. So sorry to be missing the Spitalfields show… I could smell the chestnuts in the pictures of Wednesday evening. cheers Deby


what a great comment! And, I would love to have a drink and meet up! Let’s make a plan!! Ben


I’ve often wondered what your connection to Norfolk was having seen you mention it before. One of my closest friends at school in Norwich was the daughter of an East Harling pig farmer. What you say about arriving in London and the new found fun strikes many chords too. I spent many years drooling over the Georgian houses of Norwich followed by drooling in some of those I found myself in London. Now living in part of a Louis XVI hotel particulier in Versailles, still fou du XVIIIème, and now drooling over many of your photos. Your blog is a daily treat.

Wonderful post. Looking forward to the exhibition enormously.


Thanks for this, and all your other posts about Georgian houses. As I’m in the middle of buying a very run-down Georgian terrace townhouse in Devon, I am reading avidly, and looking for inspiration (although basic stuff like rewiring and renovating crumbling window frames will come first). And thanks for the links to the Georgian Group: I have a lot to learn, as I’ve only ever had Victorian houses before now. Your photos are just wonderful, and are helping me to learn to see with a better eye.

I first visited Spitalfields in the late 80s on a Hawksmoor pilgrimage. Most my friends (all American) were sketched out, but I was enchanted and (unsuccessfully) plotted a permanent return after college. Much of what I love about New Orleans was present, with different grace notes – curry vs cayenne. Wish I could make the exhibition.

Hello Ben
Kate Griffin at The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings here. Yes! we are still denizens of Spitalfields – we’re at No 37 Spital Square and our office is, indeed, in a ricketty old Georgian Building – very much like the one featured in your lovely blog post.
By the way, here at No 37 SPAB staff are thrilled to hear that the work of the very talented artist Joanna Moore will be featured in your shop at Christmas. Until recently Joanna worked at SPAB part time as our new media officer, until the art world lured her away.
Best wishes to all at the shop Kate Griffin, SPAB press office
P.S. It’s the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings : )


Dear Kate, yes Joanna is to be featured and whoops I must correct your title immediately! All best, Ben

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