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Robert Clayton's Estate

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An early 90s photographical study of the Lion Farm Estate in the West Midlands mixes architecture and social history

The nine tower blocks and rows of houses that make up the Lion Farm Estate rise out of the pylon-peppered land between Birmingham and the evocatively named Black Country.

In 1991, ‘fresh out of college’, photographer Robert Claytonx ‘stumbled upon’ the estate, and spent the next eight months taking pictures of people, pets, cars and graffiti; interiors and exteriors, close-up details and the estate as a whole.

More than two decades on, he has collated his work in a book, simply named Estate, with introductory essays by Jonathan Meades and east London gallery director Laura Noble.  

Clayton’s work includes documentary shots, in which the photographer is an outsider, as are we, looking in on what Meades describes as ‘a time capsule of ordinariness’. Any people in these pictures are unaware of the camera or caught off guard. The more deliberate portrait shots are all the more striking for their scarcity in the collection.

The impression of want and emptiness is strong, but redeemed by the signs of humanity

There are consciously artistic entries, such as the most pleasing kitchen table you’ve ever seen. Blue floral wallpaper matches blue floral table top on which sits a radio, a glass bottle of milk, and a glass bowl of white sugar, indented by the teaspoon that peeks out between bowl and radio.

One photograph is a close up of a battered board, stained and padlocked with some small reflection that ‘Emma is Buitiful’. It is all the more ‘buitiful’ for its soul-felt spelling; a word that looks precisely as it should.

Meades writes that ‘the overwhelming impression is of want and emptiness, a void in the heart of England, a zone bereft of people’. The impression of want and emptiness is certainly strong, but is in fact redeemed by the signs of humanity that recur throughout.

This estate as Clayton shoots it is defined by arms linking arms, neighbours gossiping, children converting battered sofas and disused pipes into playgrounds, washing on lines, red cars, alsatians, shopping bags, cigarettes and faces surprised by the photographer.

A girl sits with her back leaning against a tower, her head turned away from the camera. The towers look vertiginous and on a slant; in no way supportive. Windows are smashed and doors are boarded up. It’s a strange place for her to alight.

By 1992, writes Laura Noble, ‘all but three of the nine tower blocks were marked for demolition. The condemned blocks were left to fall into disrepair.’ Disrepair is more than evident in Clayton’s study, and with it, a kind of incongruous frailty considering the very robust and muscular look of the buildings; like watching rugby players cry as they sing the national anthem.

The last picture is taken late in the afternoon, perhaps the saddest time of day, of the site from a distance with a line of barbed wire cutting through the most prominent tower. This is the end, it seems to say. 

You can buy Estate from specialist book shops, Amazon, or direct from Robert Clayton at www.stayfreepublishing.co.uk 

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