‘Hackney was a cultural desert. Warhol made us want to improve it’: Museum exhibition explores pop-art’s influence

PUBLISHED: 12:18 18 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:45 18 July 2017

Neil Martinson at the exhibition launch in front of his prints. Photo: Hackney Council/ Hackney Museum/ Sean Pollock

Neil Martinson at the exhibition launch in front of his prints. Photo: Hackney Council/ Hackney Museum/ Sean Pollock

Sean Pollock Photographer

Neil Martinson was 19 when he designed and put up posters about the 1973 Chilean coup around Hackney. Forty-four years on, the only surviving copy is at the museum. Emma Bartholomew explains.

Neil Martinson. Photo: Neil MartinsonNeil Martinson. Photo: Neil Martinson

The discovery of American pop art pulled a teenage Neil Martinson out of the “grim cultural desert” he found Hackney to be in the ’70s and ’80s, and “opened up the world”.

“It was like everything was in monochrome. Cinemas were closed, buildings were falling down, grim pubs littered the streets,” the photographer, now 64, said.

“I was just out of Hackney Downs School where our wonderfully subversive teachers had introduced us to the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Picasso, and William Blake. Suddenly there was colour and there was politics. It was about changing Hackney for the better.

“Not for a minute would I say my work was anything like that but it gave us an idea of how to use colour and shapes, and it was for a very specific political purpose.”

Curators at Hackney Museum hang up the Warhol print, on loan from the British MuseumCurators at Hackney Museum hang up the Warhol print, on loan from the British Museum

An exhibition at Hackney Museum displaying prints by American artists Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Kara Walker – which are on loan from the British Museum – explores the influence those movements have had on art in Hackney from the 1960s through to today.

The exhibition – Warhol to Walker: American prints from pop art to today – juxtaposes the world famous art with work by artists in Hackney who worked in local print studios.

At the time, workshops at Chats Palace in Chatsworth Road, Homerton, and the Lenthal Road Studios in Stoke Newington used silkscreen and lithographic techniques to produce posters promoting political movements, protests and community events.

A poster about the 1973 coup in Chile, made by Neil the same year, is on display in the exhibition. He was 19 and had just left school.

A poster, courtesy of Lenthal Road WorkshopA poster, courtesy of Lenthal Road Workshop

Neil’s eyes were opened to politics when he got involved with the Centerprise bookshop and cultural centre, which had just opened in Kingsland High Street, Dalston, becoming a focal point for people interested in radical ideas.

“The posters were responses to political situations,” explained Neil, who is now 62 and splits his time between living in Haringey and Snowdonia.

“Certainly at Centreprise there was the sense that a lot of things needed improving in Hackney.

“There were lots of campaigns around the provision of nurses or class sizes, and a lot around housing, so a lot of the work produced was highly political.

A poster, courtesy Chats Palace print studioA poster, courtesy Chats Palace print studio

“A lot of people were either using posters or photography or print to look at how to make things better for people in 
some way.”

The posters were used to advertise meetings, or to lobby the councillors “who were pretty remote from what was going on” at the time.

Neil made the Chile poster at the Lenthal Road workshop, which was a bit like a garage where he was taught by “a very old chap” whose name he can’t remember.

“It was quite difficult to produce posters then,” said Neil. “Either you needed a lot of money or you needed somewhere to do it yourself.”

A poster, courtesy of Lenthal Road WorkshopA poster, courtesy of Lenthal Road Workshop

The design was made using three colours, and Neil had to cut all the stencils out by hand.

“It was a very laborious, slow process,” he said. “It’s not like now where you can put something online in three or four minutes. It took me three or four days. We fly posted it around Hackney, which isn’t really something you see now.”

About 100 would have been produced of each design, but the one in the exhibition is the only surviving copy he knows of.

“You just fly posted them,” he said. “At the time it would never have occurred to us there would be any interest in it so many 
years later.”

A poster shown in the exhibition, courtesy of Neil MartinsonA poster shown in the exhibition, courtesy of Neil Martinson

Catherine Daunt from the British Museum will will give a talk at the museum in Reading Lane on July 27 at 6.30pm. The exhibition runs until September 16.

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