Something Fishy at Billingsgate Market
It is not often I get to say this in my line of work, but here is something for the fishmongers out there!
I spend much of my time searching for new pieces of artwork to offer you all. My main rule for buying pictures is that they speak to me. Although I keep my eye out for specific items or artists, if something calls out at me, I try to get it. Whilst I am trying to find a new owner for it, I can spend some time soaking it in – a temporary owner of hundreds of artworks.
I spotted the above lithograph by Virginia Powell, of Billingsgate Market in London – the white coats and graphic design caught my eye, it looked clinical like a medical setting. I didn’t have much idea what it was, but something about it looked good to me.
Having had it in my ownership a short while, it’s been great finding out a bit about the history of the business that it illustrates. I have to confess being a vegetarian, a fish market would not be my natural hunting ground for food, but how can you not love the detail and interpretation of this busy marketplace.
I showed a friend of mine a picture of it on my phone when I was at their house. “Hang on” they said, “I recognise those fishmongers”. Impossible, I thought. This is a little known artist, working with an unusual subject matter. Minutes later they appeared holding a booklet in their hands … “it was in the cooking section!”.
And of course it was, because ‘it’ is a wonderful illustrated booklet written by C. J. Jackson and Chris Leftwich and illustrated by Virginia Powell all about Billingsgate Market and fish. It has a wonderful pull-out at the back, of the very same lithograph I had bought. A handy guide to the history of Billingsgate, its traditions, how to spot good/bad fish and some handy recipe tips.
So… through the looking glass of food marketing and trade illustration I go.
Powell was drawn to people at work. She had a residency at an operating theatre at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in the late 1990s, just as Barbara Hepworth had done in 1947 at the dawning of the NHS. Where Hepworth perhaps focused on capturing the skill and haunting focus of surgery, Powell is interested in the ‘team’ and the group of people within their workplace.
Powell illustrated brochures and menus for Loch Fyne Oysters, following the strong tradition of artists working as illustrators. Look at these lovely headed papers by Edward Bawden and Sarah Nechamkin for Barrows General Stores in Birmingham from the late 1940s!
Powell loved the life and hubbub of a busy market and the recording of food journeys in particular. Her work for the Loch Fine Oysters company led her to other fish based studies, and to her work at Billingsgate.
Billingsgate Fish Market is located near Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs in London. It is named after the ward where it was originally established, on the bank of the river Thames in the City of London. In the early 2000s Powell took up a residency at Billingsgate – spending four years regularly sketching all aspects of the market, for an hour or two in the early morning buzz. In 2005 she had an exhibition of her paintings, lithographs and etchings: ‘Billingsgate Market’ at Abbott & Holder, Museum Street, London.
Coming back to that booklet we found in the kitchen, Powell describes the format as inspired by a booklet published in 1963 titled Marketing the Fish. She published her booklet in 2007 and it was sold at the training school, at the market.
The text on the history of the market and information on buying and preparing fish was written by C. J. Jackson, the director of the Billingsgate Seafood training School and Chris Leftwich, the then Chief Fisheries Inspector.
In the 1940s, Barnett Freedman conceived a similar booklet for the Milk Marketing Board called Real Farmhouse Cheese which is all about the delights of cheese. He had it planned for many years, but it was finally published in 1949 and is full of fabulous dairy related lithographs.
Powell’s obsession with fish lived on beyond her work at Billingsgate – and she was inspired in 2010 to create the ABC of Fish. The book was dedicated to her grandchildren and I would love to find a copy of it. A, of course, is for Anchovy, and is illustrated potted in a little glass jar.
Powell was working within a tradition of artist study, of life, of business and of presenting the ‘everyday’ in a way that is engaging and delightful. The lithograph of Billingsgate Fish Market is a beautiful reminder about how closely fine art and book illustration are connected. They are both ways to present and explore ideas through visual representation, and both full of joy and beauty.
If you know of a fishmonger in need of a piece of art for their wall – now is the perfect moment to put that right. I hope you have enjoyed my little wander through the world of food marketing and other illustration. I have enjoyed getting to know about Billingsgate Fish Market – another example of the wonderful world or art research!
Virginia Powell studied at the Chelsea Art School 1959 – 61 and was immediately drawn to printmaking. She was exhibited by the very well respected Michael Parkin Gallery in the 70s and 80s. She is a prolific sketcher.