Banana Art

Alternative Art in Covent Garden

By George Skeggs

Photo:The circle indicates my studio window overlooking the Japanese water garden under construction 1972/3 now Odhams Walk
Photo:Banana warehouse studio squat
Photo:Arts Lab Logo
Photo:Banana warehouse Squat 1974
Photo:George Skeggs in studio squat 1974/5
Photo:Some Banana Squat Art in progress
Photo:George Skeggs outside Smith's Galleries 1-2-3
Photo:Exterior studio view from Shelton St
Photo:The International Covent Garden Exhibition 1980s
Photo:Two members of the Basement Club in Shelton St 1970s or 80s
Photo:Janet Ellis Community Centre manager Festival Day outside 7 Dials Club 48 Earlham St 1984
Photo:More Festival Fun 1984
Photo:May Fayre on the Piazza 1987
Photo:Festival time 1984
Photo:Seven Dials Pillar Opening 1982 I'm in the crowd somewhere!
Photo:Still at it 2011 hanging my show in the 7 Dials club with Carmina

Covent Garden in the 1960s was not the fantastic official tourist location that it has since become M&S, Tesco, Doc Martins, Starbucks, Nero ... Yawn!! ... Yawn!!

I say this with a tinge of sarcasm. But by the mid-1960s and 1970s it was a great place for the alternative arts scene. As the flower, fruit and veg market moved out to Nine Elms in the 70s, it left lots of space which was put to use as alternative arts venues. I had an art studio squat in an old banana warehouse on Long Acre after Oldham’s Press closed down, then the Enterprise Pub next door also shut up shop. This meant the banana warehouse next door became vacant as well. This vacant lot stretched from the corner of Endell Street to Neal Street and continued into the now refurbished M&S shop. Along with Alan Spence and Ralf Gey and the Covent Garden Collective we got access to the old banana warehouse and turned some of it into studios, of which I acquired a good size space, or loft as it was, on the top floor. Heady days! It almost felt like a Warhol moment (Union Square, New York). The studio was a great space for me, as studio space was always a problem, as it  still is.

The previous two years I had shown a few of paintings (1973/4) at The Royal Academy summer show. One was bought by a oil baron and sent to Caracas, Venezuela, to add to his art collection. By now I was buzzing and full of idealism. Further along the passage, my fellow squatters, students from St Martin's School of Art, also set up studios of their own. The Acme Gallery opened on Shelton Street, facing the Japanese Water Garden and my studio windows.

Lovecraftbooks, the underground press, published The International Times at 22 Betterton Street (now The Poetry Place). Later on Shelton St housed the International London Film School and an Academy for ballet, now the site of Pineapple Studios. Later in 1976 the punk club, The Roxy, opened on Neal Street. However, earlier in 1967 the police closed down the Arts Lab at 182 Drury Lane as it had been attracting skid row drunks and drug addicts, and negative squatting. It was first opened by Jim Haynes in 1967. When Alan Spence and Ralf Gey, local activists tried to get the Covent Garden Community Centre up and running in the early 1970s, it was opposed by the police on the grounds that it would also attract undesirables like the Art Lab in Drury Lane (which had a brief life for a filmmakers cinema, performance art space, plus other activities, and a coffee bar). In fact David Bowie had rehearsed some of his performance art there in 1967 and later opened his own Arts Lab in Bromley, as had Yoko Ono and John Lennon. In the early 1980s I worked with Alan Spence on the Coent Garden Forum's alternate plan for the Jubilee Market building, as it was being developed.

The Community Centre did eventually open, and in a part of the Centre building, by default we housed another Arts Lab, which was soon to become Arts Meeting Place. I participated in the many exhibitions there. Alan Spence introduced me to John Sharkey (and another guy whose name eludes me) with whom he ran it. It was a great facility because anyone could come in from the street and do their thing If they needed space for an experiment to work out they were welcomed. I remember Anish Kapor, now an international artist, came in and occupied some space to try out something he was working on, got on with it and then left. We also had live music performances which included improvised jazz and loads of off-the-wall stuff. Many years later I saw the result of Kapor’s experiment when he had a one man show at The Royal Academy of Art. There were many exhibitions and happenings, which covered a wide range, some of which people might have found offensive and obscene. Indeed some of the work included full frontal nudity. But that is the nature of artistic inquiry anyway, it’s a very broad and wide canvas indeed, like life. Art is part of the same world mentally and visually. Anyhow, as long as it lasted, for me these were a golden days - every one of them!

We also had our own printing press to print up different articles, poetry and pamphlets. Some of the stuff we printed would be considered subversive. I recently gave The British Library a pamphlet printed at AMP for theie collection (idealism was part of growing up and realism was something else you have to live with). Our philosophy was anti-establishment, and anti-speculators. We were forced to think about what was going on in a corrupt world that surrounded us at the time. Indeed, the Covent Garden area, and our homes, were under attack from invisible speculators who were queuing up, hovering like vultures, waiting to make a killing on this prime piece of real estate. After lots of battles, some won and some lost, but we are still here! And there will be many more to come!!

In the Community Centre was the Basement Club which was featured in the film ’Quadraphenia’. The club was run by David Bieda, and also contained a recording studio and rehearsal room for the kids with a musical interest from the Covent Garden area. The Sex Pistols had rehearsed there as well before they found fame. It also had a life as the 7 Dials Jazz Club on different nights. My children Jackie and Frances soon became members. In the summer the club members were taken by David Bieda and his team to Barry Island in Wales, for a summer trip There’s an online site, for old members of the old Basement Club to share experiences and reunion as well.

Christina Smith opened her basement restaurant and Galleries 1, 2 and 3, and a bit later the small Casbar coffee bar on the corner block where Garage Gallery was previously situated in 1974. Jo Weir and I curated many Art In The Garden exhibitions with volunteers the generous sponsorship of Christina Smith. Held in in Smith's Galleries, the exhibitors were local artists, professional and amateur alike, who lived and worked in the Covent Garden area . The exhibitions were born out of our participation in the InternationalCovent Garden Festival on the Piazza, which was coordinated by Kathy Pimlott and built upon for future exhibitions. All these activities took place on the Earlham Street block which had in the past been a Victorian Brewery and a paper warehouse, Leopard & Smith. A shield and leopard can still been seen carved into the fabric of the building next to a more recent arrival of interloper Belgo’s Restaurant. The Cambridge Theatre is at the other end of the block on Seven Dials, and some of the stage hands pop into the Seven Dials Club for a drink today. Even in 2013 you can still hear another generation playing live music in the Seven Dials Club performed by Bruce Beach and his gypsy swing band, The Kings Cross Hot Club, a talented group of musicians, and maybe catch up with a new art exhibition, or indulge yourself in one of the quiz nights and much more.

Back in the 1970s, David Bieda made plans to return the original Seven Dials pillar (monument), which had a very interesting history, to its former home at the centre of the 'Dials'. Being unable to bring back the original one, it was decided, to fundraise (at first in Smith's Bar and Restaurant). High profile guests on this occasion included Prince Claus and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, plus myself and many others from the community. Over the years enough cash was finally raised, and a replica was built and installed by youngsters on a work scheme which can still be seen today opposite the Cambridge Theatre. In 1982 were were all invited by David Bieda to the grand unveiling by Queen Beatrix. Today the Seven Dials Monument attracts many tourists and workers, who sit on its steps to eat their lunchtime sandwiches and drink coffee.

In the formative years and many years later we always had our Covent Garden Festival Day during the summer months, in and around Earlham Street, with colourful stalls, live music, and plenty of booze, even V.E. day was celebrated in the Seven Dials Club. Other highlights included the May Fayre, with the Punch and Judy Festival, a colourful event held both in St Paul’s churchyard and around the Piazza. It is still held today in 2013. It starts with a procession through the streets lead by a New Orleans jazz band and group of Punch an Judy Professors who come from all over the country to participate in this event, along with clowns and Pearly Kings and Queens in attendance. They stop off at Peabody Buildings in Drury Lane to wake everybody up (its always held on a Sunday) There were also five community gardens built by volunteers, residents and workers during the 1970s. One was called the Community Garden and situated on the corner of Long Acre/Endell St, once the site of the Old Covent Garden Theatre, and much later the Odham’s Press. And another was on the opposite side of Endell St and called the Japanese Water Garden, now the site of Odham’s walk. Contained within was a small lakeand bridge, with ducks who would turn up from time to time.

They were used by the community, for barbeques, allotments for growing fruit and veg/flowers, and also fundraising events plus music venues and school field trips. My studio window overlooked the Water Garden and I saw it taking shape. The last one, and the only one to survive, is the Phoenix Garden on Stacey St, at the back of St Giles in the Field Church It still holds a summer fete which sometimes includes farm animals. It’s run by and tended by a enthusiastic group of volunteers--.Chris Raeburn, community gardener, Pauline Ferris chair, Doug Kean, Garrard Knowles, Jane Palm-Gold, Graziella Mecarone, Peter Corley, and Michael Ryley. You can enter and enjoy this beautiful garden for a peaceful break, only one hundred yards from busy Shaftesbury Avenue and feed the ducks which have recently appeared, according to Jane Palm-Gold. Maybe this duck is a descendant of the ducks that could be seen in the Japanese Water Garden all those years ago!

This gallery was added by George Skeggs on 08/07/2013.

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