Tag Archives: Kings Road

Jonathan Gili, on collecting and connecting

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

The wonderful new catalogue by Maggs counterculture is dedicated to (a fragment) of the vast collection amassed over four decades by the film-maker Jonathan Gili. An insight into Gili’s collecting instinct comes from this article by Anthony Gardner:

Lift the lids of the boxes, and you can scarcely believe your eyes. There are bottles of Star Wars bubble bath and packets of Beatles bubblegum; fridge magnets shaped like kettles and Danish pastries; hair clips
commemorating the Queen’s coronation; Camembert boxes and plastic lizards and packets of tortilla chips. It is as if all the flotsam and jetsam of post-war consumer society had been washed up on a concrete shore and painstakingly catalogued by an tireless, obsessive beachcomber.

Although the catalogue focuses on the recognised brilliance of London’s 1960s psychedelic poster artists like Martin Sharp and Haphash And The Coloured Coat, Gili would collect anything – indeed, Gardner notes he was particularly drawn to sardine tins and even self-published a book about them. The items Maggs has for sale includes such magpie oddities as shopping bags, wrapping paper (albeit designed by Paul McCartney) and old newspaper posters, such as this one regarding Joe Orton’s murder, taken from a newstand in London in 1967.


In 1986, Gili wrote an article about his collection asking rhetorically: ‘Who could resist records shaped like Elton John’s hat or Barry Manilow’s nose? They have poor sound and often can’t be made to play at all… but as art objects they are sublime.’

Sadly, there are no records shaped like Barry Manilow’s nose in this catalogue as much of Gili’s collection went to a private collector sympathetic to the intentions and ambitions of Gili. But what makes somebody collect stuff like this? In his short, thoughtful, introduction to the catalogue, Carl Williams – who knows much about collectors – ponders that question. Collectors are often said to be creating a bulwark against their own death, but perhaps, speculates Williams, they also wish to act as a guardian for those things that would otherwise be ‘forgotten, scorned or destroyed’ as tastes and times change?  Today’s trash is tomorrow’s museum piece; yesterday’s lunatic is the future’s visionary. Gardner touches on this, with an anecdote in which Gili ‘rescues’ a particularly revolting object from a garage forecourt. It’s a revealing story. By the very nature of his collecting this worthless item, Gili has given it value. But he’s also, clearly and very simply, enjoyed the moment, relishing both the acquisition and the reaction it will get from his co-conspirator. Why collect? Why not!

Lucinda Lambton tells a story which epitomises Gili’s passion for acquisition. ‘We were driving through the outskirts of Guildford,’ she says, ‘and he suddenly shouted “Stop!” Then he jumped out of the car while it was still moving and ran across this huge, horrible garage forecourt. When he came back, he was triumphantly waving a gold-lamé-clad Michael
Jackson doll.

Collections also gain their own momentum, and I sometimes wonder how many collections have been made almost by accident – one minute you are idly picking up old books about London from secondhand shops and markets, the next thing you know you have 250 of the things and, inadvertently, the beginnings of a minor collection. And if you’ve started, you might as well finish. What else is there to do with your time?

More obviously, collectors hoard items that carry the echo of a cherished memory, certain pieces that remind them of a special moment in their past, or of a past they wished they had. Many of the items being sold by Maggs are focused around the London underground scene of the 1960s. I’m not sure quite what relationship Gili had with the counterculture, but he was clearly an interested observer at the very least – and he edited cult London film Bronco Bullfrog, with soundtrack by 1960s Gilbert & George support act, Audience.

Gili’s 1960s collection includes a number of items from that era that have always been regarded as important and beautiful, such as these stunning posters by Martin Sharp, one of my favourite psychedelic artists and, in my view, a rival to anything that came out of the more lauded Bay Area poster scene.

Cream by Martin Sharp

Cream by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Oz magazine

Oz magazine

UFO Club poster

UFO Club poster

Many of the objects are related specifically to the London scene – the shops, clubs, galleries and ‘fun palaces’ of 1960s London. Gili, then, had a close relationship with this city. One of his best-known films is the charming To The World’s End, about the No 31 bus journey from Islington to Chelsea. Interestingly, 1960s historian Jonathon Green recalls a map of this very bus route once published as a cover of IT newspaper, showing how it connected some of the key points of swinging London – ‘The hippie highway: all the way from Granny Takes a Trip to the Roundhouse’, as Green puts it.

A semi-thorough scouring of the ever-so-distracting IT archive has not turned up this delightful sounding map, so perhaps it was produced by one of the many other underground papers of the era. But it is not a massive leap to speculate that Gili, the great collector of underground London, noted this off-kilter way of observing and uniting the London villages, and later chose to make a film taking precisely that approach. Collections, like buses, are a way to make connections.


Lying about London

This appeared as part of an article that was published in the January 2012 edition of The Sunday Times Travel Magazine about London walks. Chris Roberts also runs the  wonderful One Eye Grey magazine and he will shortly issue a volume of stories from the magazine on Kindle.  In March 2012, Chris will be hosting some special related one-off walking tours

Deep in Chelsea’s prim back streets on a drizzly winter evening, half-a-dozen people wearing blindfolds are groping their way down a quiet Georgian square past James Bond’s house, leaning on each other for guidance, and giggling like schoolchildren. This is what happens when you go on Chris Roberts’s Liars London tour, a walk that offers fact, fiction and forfeits in the fancy surroundings of Sloane Square.

Roberts, a librarian, London historian and author, came up with the Liars London idea four years ago when he was asked to curate a tour for the local council. It’s a simple idea. Roberts and Silvana Maimone lead the walk and at each stop they both tell a story about the area: one story will be true and the other false. The audience are asked to guess who is lying and the person who is right most often receives a small prize at the end. Get it wrong, and you may have to pay a location-related forfeit, such as walk around in a blindfold, write a poem, or have a duel with waterpistols. Roberts and Maimone are a great double act, garrulous and witty, happily interrupting each other’s story-telling with exaggerated scoffing. Under their spell the 20-or-so walkers soon start to relax.

We are strangers when we meet among the evening commuters and blinking fairy lights at Sloane Square, but have already bonded by the time we reach the Saatchi Gallery at the affluent end of the King’s Road, where London’s wealthy still promenade in ostentatious fashion. Roberts is spinning an improbable yarn about British fascist Oswald Mosley, when an eavesdropping passer-by indignantly mutters in plumy tones, quite correctly as it happens, ‘What a load of rubbish!’ much to our amusement.

Because the walks require two hosts and require around 20 people attendees – people are happier to participate as part of a larger group, Roberts believes – they must be booked in advance. The Chelsea tour goes from busy Sloane Square down through quiet residential back streets, where every house is impeccably maintained and fragrantly festooned with hanging baskets, before finishing at Cheyne Walk, an 18th-century parade of grand houses nestling on the banks of the Thames, whose surface gleams inkily in the moonlight.

Over 90 fascinating minutes, we take in unusual landmarks such as James Bond’s fictional house on Royal Avenue and the riverside home of wombat-obsessed Romantic poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When it comes to the stories, the truth is often just as entertaining and unlikely-sounding as the fiction. Outside the rich brick walls of Chelsea Physic Garden, a seventeenth-century botanical garden, we are asked to choose between Maimone’s story about how a strange plant here became the inspiration for the fiendish foliage in John Wyndham’s sci-fi classic Day Of The Triffids, and Roberts’s (correct) claim that cotton seeds taken from Chelsea ended up being picked by slaves in the southern state of the United States, ultimately leading to the American Civil War.

Tall tales or otherwise, this sort of London knowledge is a personal obsession for Roberts, who has written a book, ‘Cross River Traffic’, about London’s bridges, and edits One Eye Grey, a magazine devoted to capital folklore. As such, he can’t help himself but pepper each conversation with a few extra facts and arcane titbits, making the walk a treasure trove for those who like trivia, albeit trivia that’s sometimes indistinguishable from entertaining falsehood.

Look At Life – London newsreel bonanza

I’ve just come across a treasure trove on You Tube of old Rank Look At Life newsreels, each ten-minutes long and looking at different aspects of London life. There are some real treats to be found, but here are a few I enjoyed when I should have been working, or at least making a cup of tea.

Members only, 1965 – inside London’s private clubs

Coffee bar, 1959 – the new world of Soho’s coffee shops

Goodbye, Piccadilly, 1967 – a portraiof Piccadilly Circus

In Gear, 1967 – an iconoclastic look at Swinging London

Top People, 1960 – the crazy world of highrise living

Shopping By The Ton, 1960 – Covent Garden, Smithfield and Billingsgate markets

Report on a River, 1963 – a love letter to the Thames