Words Jane Singer
Illustrations Lucy Bayliss
Soho has long been a hub of creativity. Poets, writers, artists, designers, musicians, have often found inspiration and also commiserated on the streets of Soho. Although the area was, in the 17th century, famous for green hunting grounds favoured by aristocrats, towards the 18th century, grand houses replaced them and became venues for parties attended by the trendiest and most fashionable of London’s elite. Much of Soho’s character that we see today stems partly from the neglect by rich and fashionable London, and the lack of redevelopment that characterised the neighbouring areas. As the mid-19th century approached, all respectable families had moved away, and prostitutes, music halls and small theatres had moved in. At the start of the 20th century, foreign nationals opened cheap eating establishments and the neighbourhood became a fashionable place to eat for intellectuals, writers and artists. By the early 1960s, the Soho pub landlords established themselves and since the 1980s, the area has undergone considerable transformation, housing upmarket restaurants and media offices, with only a small remnant of sex industry venues.
The vibrancy and diversity of Soho is nowhere better summed up than in the street art titled The Spirit of Soho. The scenes depicted in this mural are timeless and are no less relevant and symbolic of present day Soho than they were of the area through the 20th century. It was created in 1991 by the Soho community – coordinated by Free Form Arts Trust, who designed and executed the work, and Alternative Arts, who coordinated the workshops and public programme that went alongside – and shows Soho life and its people.
Standing on the Corner of Broadwick and Carnaby Streets, the viewer looks up at the towering flame-haired St Anne presiding over local notables. St Anne is patroness of unmarried women, housewives, women in labour, grandmothers, horseback riders and cabinet-makers. Due to the mural’s location and the surrounding narrow streets, the viewer is forced to examine it up close. St Anne carries a distracted expression on her face as she lifts her lace, fruit-hemmed skirt and petticoats to reveal the map of Soho and the hum of activity composed of craftsmen and London landmarks. Shaftesbury Avenue and the theatres along it are pictured on her skirt, as is Oxford Street and a little panel dedicated to China Town with a host of pubs, restaurants and an abundance of vegetables and fruits. Books and magazines are also carved into her skirt to pay tribute to the writing and publishing industries so prolific in Soho, alongside the film makers, textile traders, recording studios and musical instrument makers.
Look closer and the level of details expands. On either side of the main piece are six scenes representing a film animator in his studio (possibly Bob Godfrey), the rag trade, food and international restaurants, the Palladium, Carnaby Street and Ronnie Scott’s. A green border at the bottom includes pictures of Soho parish school, a Willow Pattern dish and Soho Street Theatre – presented by Alternative Arts. Dogs and hares are interspersed which hark back to the days when Soho was a Royal hunting ground. In the frame, along the bottom edge, sit blue plaques honouring Business Sponsorship Incentive Scheme, Sponsored by City of Westminster, Goldsmiths & silversmiths, Gunmakers, Jewellers & clockmakers, Furniture & woodworkers, Engravers and Science & medicine.
This beautiful mural was restored in 2006 by Shaftesbury PLC and The Soho Society and the clock was re-activated by The Lord Mayor of Westminster 19th October 2006. A whimsical addition is the clock striking on the hour. The actress and opera singer Theresa Cornelys winks at Casanova, Casanova blows a series of kisses to Cornelys and Karl Marx takes a sip of Coca Cola. How wonderful for all those who were involved in the creation to be able to walk past this piece of public art and smile and say, ‘I was part of it’. It allows the people of Soho to leave their mark and make a difference. Spirit of Soho adds vitality and colour to the neighbourhood walls. In comparison to graffiti, another type of street art, which is often made in minutes, this permanent mural is very much a testament to street art that enhances the ideas of commitment, community and collaboration.
Broadwick Street has played host to more recent and immediate street art. On the same spot where Banksy painted Kissing Cops, Paul Insect, a UK street artist, has painted a seal sitting on a coloured stool admiring himself in a handheld mirror. He wears a pink ruffled collar and sleeves and yellow jester-like shoes. Behind him lies a red and yellow-starred hat and a hat.
Insect is known for his provoking images, often depicting the frustrations of the modern man. In Western art, there is little or no reference to the meaning of seals. However, in Native American art, the seal stands for contentment, inquisitiveness and organisation. The image could represent the many street artists who perform in Soho; the seal looks like a court jester or circus performer. Here the seal perhaps is taking a break from performing and is admiring himself or maybe checking his face paint. Paul Insect is most famous for his 2007 solo show Bullion exhibition at London’s Art gallery, Lazarides Gallery. Damien Hirst is reported to be a fan, having purchased the show days before it opened. The street artist also goes by the name of PINS and has worked alongside Banksy at the Cans Festival and on the separation wall in Palestine. Sadly, the street art has been since whitewashed leaving a blank canvas.
One of the most recent street art is on the front wall of The Face Clinic and SoHo SKiN on Silver Place. It shows Pegasus’s latest artwork depicting Marilyn Monroe in a swimsuit adorned with stars and stripes and a pair of converse. Discussing his work, Pegasus said, ‘You’ve never seen Marilyn in a pair of Converse before’ said Pegasus, before going to on to explain how his work is centred on playing with the conventional and expected images of certain pop culture celebrities. His previous works include Cher with a David Bowie lightning flash on her face, Angelina Jolie dressed as Wonder Woman and The Queen poised as a young starlet. Often his images capture the sad and the inspiring simultaneously and there is often a strength behind the eyes of these women that evokes poignancy. Since her arrival, Marilyn has caused quite a stir on Silver Place with residents and local business’s coming round to see her and passers-by taking photographs.
Permanent or temporary, street art is a way of expression. As the development of Soho strides forward and the bohemian and creative character begins to fade, street art is still abound. Graffiti will change and as quickly as it appears, just as fast is the whitewash that covers it. Twenty four years later, St Anne still overlooks this enclave of the West End, in Spirit of Soho. Let us hope she continues to preside over for another quarter century.