“I think it’s the most derogatory thing I can say about something: ‘God, it’s so fucking Croydon.” – David Bowie.
It’s safe to say that this blunt response in an interview with Q Magazine in 1999 did little to strengthen Croydon’s cultural cause, however, against the odds, the borough is fighting back. In a strong position to become the 2019 London Borough of Culture, Croydon is slowly overcoming its once negative reputation and now creeping further into the capital’s artistic landscape.
The latest example of this cultural resurgence comes in the form of a free exhibition inside the Croydon Clocktower on Katharine Street, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Croydon School of Art. Inspired by many artists who developed their craft or simply had connections to the college, the exhibition is now open until April 14, 2018. It currently displays 34 works which show how one of the borough’s key cultural institutions helped mould Britain’s artistic setting.
The Museum of Croydon’s collection officer, Emily Lansell, has been at the heart of putting the exhibition together. She reels off a list of artists who have been associated with the Croydon School of Art: Jack Merriott, Cicely Mary Barker, Bridget Riley, Richard Allen, Patrick Hayman, John Howlin and John Hoyland – all of whom are represented in the exhibition.
In more recent years, alumni of the school have also included Helen Chadwick (Turner Prize nominee in 1987), Sean Scully (Turner Prize Nominee in 1989 and 1993), Noel Fielding (Mighty Boosh comedian), John Rocha (fashion designer) and David Bowie (the late singer-songwriter).
“This exhibition can help spread the message of the long history of arts and culture in Croydon,” Lansell says, “and will give people a glimpse of some of the gems in the Croydon Art Collection.” She hopes that the exhibition will also inspire visitors to learn more about Croydon’s “wonderful” history.
Lansell also said how pleasant it was to surprise other students and staff members by informing them that their past work is now on public display – people like Mel Boyaner, a former member of staff who worked at the college from 1963 to 1969, and who is now in his 90s, and living in Canada. He was thrilled to learn that his intricate and colourful piece, Turn of the Screw, has been included.
The gallery’s next step could see future interaction with the School by promoting pieces from first or second-year students. This artistic response would help bridge the collection’s current gap that stems from around the 1970s.
As a whole, Bowie’s comments may well have been justified back when the borough was most famous for its grey-concrete nature. Now, not so much. With the emergence of a new thriving cultural scene, it may rather be a compliment to say: “God we’re so fucking Croydon”.