An independent mind
Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art At Gainsborough's House, Sudbury, Suffolk, until 25 November (then to Sheffield, Edinburgh and London) with book of same title by Victoria Walsh (Thames & Hudson, 168pp, £24.95)
For Peter Smithson, Nigel Henderson (191785) was 'one of the great artists of his time', while the influential art critic David Sylvester described Henderson as 'a seminal figure in post-war British art'.
Yet Henderson is probably the least wellknown of the artists, critics and architects (including, at various times, Richard Hamilton, Victor Pasmore, Eduardo Paolozzi, the Smithsons, James Stirling, Colin St John Wilson and Reyner Banham) who made up the now-legendary Independent Group in the 1950s. So much so, that the scale of his achievement and the pivotal position he occupied on the post-war scene have been underestimated and misunderstood. This fascinating exhibition, accompanied by Victoria Walsh's excellent book (beautifully designed by Martin Harrison), should put the record straight.
One problem was, as Colin St John Wilson comments, that 'Nigel had masses of talent, but he simply refused to be a star'. As a young man, Henderson was introduced to the literary and artistic circles of London and Paris by his mother - he knew TSEliot and Dylan Thomas, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp.
Peggy Guggenheim was his 'fairy godmother', and he married a niece of Virginia Woolf.
Only after the war, however, did Henderson - who had initially studied biology and worked as a conservator at the National Gallery - begin to realise his real talents.
He became an innovative and versatile photographer. The 1953 Independent Group exhibition 'Parallel of Life and Art', a collaboration between Henderson, the Smithsons, Paolozzi and the Arup engineer Ronald Jenkins, consisted of photographs of an extraordinary range of objects, hung over the walls and ceiling of the ICA gallery in Dover Street and intended to illustrate the unity of art, science and life. The installation has been recreated in part for the current exhibition.
Henderson's wonderfully evocative, and often strongly surreal, photographs of Bethnal Green (where he and his wife lived for some years) influenced the Smithsons and other critics of the mainstream CIAM position - many of them then working for the LCC - who were to ally themselves with Team X. The Smithsons' Golden Lane project represented an attempt to develop a new modern architecture which responded to the community life of the inner city.
Henderson's preoccupation with texture and grain was in tune with the New Brutalism's concern for materials used 'as found', and the frank exposure of services, vividly expressed in the Hunstanton school. An often-overlooked ingredient of the New Brutalism was its exploration of history.
For the Smithsons, the Industrial Revolution warehouse represented a high ideal, while there were strong Gothic Revival undertones in Stirling & Gowan's Leicester engineering block.
The Smithsons came from the North East, Stirling from Glasgow (via Liverpool), Paolozzi from a poor Italian family in Edinburgh. Their aesthetics were in their genes - they were well placed to counter the whimsies of the Festival style and the picturesque fancies of 'People's Detailing' and the New Humanism promoted by The Architectural Review. Like Osborne, Wesker and Sillitoe, they proclaimed a new populism at a time when Albert Richardson, Alfred Munnings and Somerset Maugham were still around to defend 'traditional' cultural values.
The Independent Group's restatement of the cultural, alongside the social content of architecture was contentious - when 'Parallel of Life and Art' was shown briefly at the Architectural Association, 'it was much criticised', Peter Smithson recalls. The 'bloody-mindedness' (as Banham put it) of the New Brutalism was hard medicine for those nurtured in an ethos of social engineering married to polite architectural gestures.
As the Smithsons and Stirling renewed British architecture, so the Pop movement infused new life into painting and sculpture, with Hamilton and Paolozzi leading the first wave. Hamilton's iconic collage, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? , was produced as a poster for the 1956 Independent Group show 'This is Tomorrow' and encapsulates the 'retrieval aesthetic' preached by the Smithsons.
Nigel Henderson spent the last 30 years of his life in rural Essex, teaching, founding the (unsuccessful) Hammer Prints business with Paolozzi, keeping up with old friends like Francis Bacon and David Sylvester - they were all West Ham fans - but making no attempt to market himself or his work.
His was a relatively obscure life but, as a catalyst and facilitator, as well as for his own considerable achievement, Henderson well deserves the handsome tribute of this exhibition and book.
Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist