Before Thursday, the most exposure I’d had to Burberry was in counterfeit scarfs on market stalls in Birmingham. This was a far cry from the vaulted ceilings and brass chandeliers of Old Sessions House, with its artfully distressed plaster and iron-wrought staircase bannisters, illuminated with vertically-hung neon strip lights. The exhibition, ‘Here We Are’, plays with these juxtapositions, demonstrating – whether entirely deliberately or not – the complex place Burberry occupies within the stratification of British culture. There are, at times, clumsy attempts to act as a bridge between the Burberry of Fashion- runways, Vogue and £2000 trench coats – and the Burberry of the people – the iconic print dubbed ‘chav-check’, banned from various places in the early 2000s for its association with football hooliganism. For one of the rooms to then project pictures of football fields interchanging with old Burberry photoshoots, models gazing into the camera, stadiums and high-rise flats colouring the background, felt like a self-conscious attempt to address this association – or obliviousness to the conflict.
Room 10, ‘The Garden as a Self-Portrait’, potted-pansies stand cheek-by-jowl on a makeshift table in the centre of the room, with photographs of assorted gardens lining the walls; from Tessa Traeger’s picture of the wisteria of Vita Sackville-West’s garden in Sissinghurst, to a lone leftover poinsettia on the windowsill of a council flat. The curation suggests that regardless of space or prosperity, a garden is a universal, and unifying element. Yet the contrast obliquely emphasises the distance between the different manifestations of the Burberry brand. These contradictions reflect the inherent disjunction at the heart of the ‘Here We Are’ exhibition. Photographs which evoke a post-war bohemia hang alongside portraits of Notting Hill and its residents on the brink of the mid-century race riots, and whimsical pictures of teenage girls leaping into the air, with the same carefree inhibition that seems to permeate this building.
The exhibition attempts to invest in a wider, complex conversation on the changing identity of areas, the often uneasy and uncomfortable definitions of British class and the documentary of attempts to escape them. Yet far from being a ‘celebration of the many varied tribes and clans and classes that make up this island of ours’, as Burberry’s chief executive officer Christopher Bailey claims in the exhibition leaflet, it felt like an uneasy attempt to assert a breadth of personhood while looking through a pin-hole. It’s exemplified by the rows of mannequins bedecked in various Burberry ensembles: these white plastic figures fill the main auditorium, while other figures are arranged in parodies of motion along the balcony, limbs disarranged, arms reaching, scarfs trailing.
However, the exhibition is beautiful, for sure. To open Old Sessions House for a free exhibition is wonderful, and the assortment of dinners, poetry readings and gatherings which have happened in conjunction to the exhibition demonstrates an attempt to enliven a sense of the bohemian history of the area which is depicted in so many of the photographs. It’s worth going for Ken Russell’s ‘A House in Bayswater’ alone – a film made in the 1960s with the appearance of the pre-War 1940s, it follows the inhabitants of 30-32 Linden Gardens in Notting Hill, a slightly dilapidated house of mansion flats managed by the live-in housekeeper, Mrs. Collings. It is bizarre, but charming – particularly a scene in which an embarrassingly and obliviously un-talented dancer and her young protégée take to the stage.
The film was made in protest at the planned demolition of the house: despite the last scene depicting a man sledge-hammering an obliterated dining room, the house remains standing today. Despite the sense of ephemerality pervading the film – there is a constant feeling that this community, this way of life is temporary and in a state of transience – it is an artwork which has lasted, which has passed through its era into another, becoming more substantial through this disjunction. It is this which, for me, characterises the exhibition – the invocation of a former time, community, way of living – is reflected in the capriciousness of the fashion industry, yet with the September collection presented in the main room, surrounded by photographic ghosts more exuberantly alive than those wandering around the building, the past is yoked to the present, foreshadowing the potential for these clothes to become similar artefacts of this time, and all the complexities and conflicts it comprises.