Tom Sutcliffe: When there are a few too many stereotypes on the streets of London


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The Independent Culture

I visited New York and found, to my great delight, that the city really did feature large chimneys funnelling steam out of the pavement.

Not only that, it had fat cops too, and wallowing yellow cabs and sidewalk pretzel vendors. And that delicious moment – at which the absorbed clichés of a city slid into perfect alignment over the thing itself – was a cliché too, or at least an almost universal experience for first-time visitors. You know a place from its reputation, often pieced together from stock images and overused tropes, and then it lives up to it. We shouldn't really be surprised at all, and yet that's one element of what you feel at such a moment. How remarkable it is to find that New York is quite so unabashedly New Yorky. You'd think it might be embarrassed to meet our expectations so squarely but it clearly isn't. In fact, you suspect that it doesn't even care what you think of it.

You might think that an artist's eye would flinch from such stock images –the archetypes of urban identity that are the stuff of souvenir key-fobs and fridge magnets. But that almost no one is immune to the charm of the previously anticipated is one of the revelations of Another London, Tate Britain's exhibition of photographs of the city taken by photographers from elsewhere. It's a fascinating show but one can't help wondering a little about that title, because this London seems all too familiar in some respects. True, it's a grubbier, murkier city than the one current residents know, smoke-stained and smogged. But it's also an assemblage of civic clichés. You want bobbies on the beat, and Big Ben and bowler hats and busbies and double-decker buses? Here they are in as much profusion as you would find on any Trafalgar Square souvenir stand, even if the composition and the framing of the images is a little more artful. There's even a Pearly King, photographed by Picasso's mistress Dora Maar, in an image as guileless as any tourist snap.

And it's here one wonders about the circularity of the "typical". All of these are features of London, of course, even if the bowler hat is something of a rarity these days (they seem to have been replaced by those dogged King's Road punks as a signifier of the city). But their status as emblems of London isn't really to do with how ubiquitous they are on its streets. It's to do with their status as identifying marks, a check-list of features which any visitor – touristic or not – unconsciously ticks off as they walk around. And since you're inclined to take them as proof that you really have visited London (and perhaps then take a picture as documentary evidence) their status becomes engrained until it is very difficult to replace with anything else. You can't see the city that's really there because of the city you've always imagined to be there. Some of the photographers in Another London come in close, as if to crop the commonplaces out: Bill Brandt takes a photograph of milk on London doorstep and Robert Frank offers an unexpected shot of a hearse on a London street. But the familiar easily exceeds the unexpected here.

And that's because we make ourselves at ease in foreign capitals before we ever visit them, accumulating landmarks by proxy and gratefully seeking them out when we do eventually travel there ourselves. Imagine for a moment visiting a city and not encountering the clichés that you'd been lead to expect by all the photographers who'd gone before you, both amateur and professional. How would you know you were home?

Crafty Perry puts Morris in his place

There's a nicely pointed contrast on show at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. The displays very effectively introduce you to Morris's own home-grown version of reactionary socialism. And then downstairs, in a new temporary exhibition space, you can see Grayson Perry's Walthamstow Tapestry (above). Perfect match, you think, until you notice that Perry's piece is a welter of modern brand names and the less pretty aspects of modern urban life, including old fag packets and discarded take-away boxes. The craftsmanship and medium appears to honour William Morris and then the content very quietly rebukes him for the escapism of all that cod medievalism. Don't know whether it was intended but it works very well.

Shakespeare shines in daylight

I did think that Mark Rylance would get a big laugh for his opening line as Richard III at the Globe last week, a matinee on a day of blazing sunshine being a nice foil for that phrase about "glorious summer". In fact, the arresting oddity of his performance (Harry Worth crossed with Voldemort) made it difficult to think of anything else. The sunshine turned out to be a problem for some audience members – a steady stream of evacuees trailing away from the exposed seats. But even so I found myself wondering whether this is the only theatre in London where it is better to go to a matinee than an evening performance. It isn't just that you see the play as Shakespeare's audience would have seen it, but that daylight seems to loosen up the groundlings, too. And if the production is as knowingly pantomime as Richard III is, that's precisely what you need.