By Paul Wright
Robert Clayton is a freelance photographer based in London. Early on in his career whilst working under acclaimed photographer Nick Hedges he undertook a social photography project, capturing the residents and everyday life on the Lion Farm estate in Oldbury, West Midlands.
Oldbury sits on the eastern fringe of the Black Country, with a long industrial links to the nearby mining towns. Before de-industrialisation, like many large towns and cities in the UK, many of its residents worked long hours in the the nearby mines and numerous factories, living in the traditional two up two down terraced housing.
When the Lion Farm estate was built after the slum clearances in 1963 it was seen as an upgrade for the newly rehoused residents. Many coming from properties with outdoor toilets, so having a toilet inside their property was seen as a luxury. However over time the estate became plagued by neglect and lack of maintenance, and was earmarked for destruction.
Twenty seven years after these photos were taken the images remain very poignant, the need for affordable, and quality social housing is still greater than ever. The right to buy scheme in the 1980s saw huge stocks of social housing sold off at a fraction of the market value, adding significantly to crisis and demand for social housing we see today.
Rob’s images capture a time and place, like many large council estates during the early nineties, the images resonate with generations of people who grew up in and around them.
When Robert started his series on the Lion Farm estate he wanted to highlight and capture the reality of everyday life for it’s residents, he explains in an interview with PhotoMonitor:
“I wanted to photograph in a very accurate manner an environment that a lot of people have to endure in their daily lives. So the playgrounds for example were hardly used and why should they be? One element of them was old sewer pipes (I believe left over from the days of construction) that were set into cement and deemed a suitable apparatus for children to play on/in – a cheap and nasty add on. Jonathan Meades in his accompanying essay in the books refers to this in that he questions the lack of maintenance afforded to such estates once they were built. They were Utopian in that they helped solve a real housing and public health crisis in the UK (look at Nick Hedges work Make Life Worth Living) and this is to be applauded, but then councils tended to walk away and neglect their upkeep.”
“Today, in areas that are desperate for public/social housing, these tower blocks are real assets with big waiting lists to acquire one. This is despite the long term neglect they have suffered. Most of the blocks in my work were demolished which I think was a real shame. So the playgrounds – why? Is this good enough – of course not! I was glad where I grew up my local play park was better than this and I wanted to expose this. Did anyone responsible for this genuinely believe this was good? Would they design this for their children?”
The series eventually became a critically acclaimed photo book ‘estate’ including essays by writer and gallery owner Laura Noble and the writer and film maker Jonathan Meades. Jonathan sums up perfectly in this extract taken from the forward to the book:
“There was nothing special about Lion Farm Estate. It could have existed in more or less any British conurbation which was on the cusp of losing its raison d’être. What is special is Clayton’s humane rendering of it as a time capsule which emphasised ordinariness. This was how it was for millions of people in the early 1990s.”
“This was Britain between Thatcherism and, well, the smiley neo-Thatcherism of New Labour. A new political consensus was in place, an insidious consensus which blithely disregarded the sort of people who lived on such estates, the invisible people, the little people who had not the wherewithal to exercise their precious right to buy. Again Clayton leaves us to reach such conclusions. He has a broad and important socio-political point to make. It is all the more potent for being made so quietly.”
Robert has a follow up to the estate, the ‘estate – return’ coming in 2019.
Robert Clayton’s book ‘Estate’ is available here
All Images used with permission of Rob Clayton. All photos © Rob Clayton, All Rights Reserved.
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Article by Paul Wright for British Culture Archive.
2019 © British Culture Archive