The London of the late 1940s was scarred by Second World War bombing and life was hard. Basic goods were in short supply and subject to rationing.
But by the early 1950s things began to change, and a new generation of young working class people were shaping popular culture.
These people were the subjects of the artist Margareta Berger-Hamerschlag, who was born in 1902 in Vienna.
A new book entitled Beyond the Jiving showcases her work. The author Mel Wright is a community worker and musician. He has written the book to tie-in with an exhibition of Margareta’s work from the 1950s at Honor Oak Gallery in London.
Berger-Hamerschlag began painting in the early 1920s. She fled Austria as the Nazis were on the rise.
She arrived in Britain in 1936 with her husband. The authorities held him on the Isle of Wight while she travelled on to London. She settled in the deprived Paddington area of west London.
Berger-Hamerschlag found work in the local youth clubs that aimed to give young people things to do in the evenings. This included educational programmes of English and maths as well as dance and art classes.
Her father had been a socialist and Margareta wanted to expand the horizons of the working class youth who lived in her area.
The Teddy Boy style was popular among her pupils. Despite general shortages, young people managed to carve out a signature look and lifestyle. Berger-Hamerschlag painted her male students in waistcoats, suits and ties – all trademarks of this style.
While she wanted to inspire them to see beyond their assumed horizons of work and drink, they came to inspire her. This led to her painting them in the youth club and in their free time, which was taken up mostly by dancing.
Although they were young, few of them were in full time education and many had to work to contribute to their family’s income. Her collection of diaries, ideas and drawings were published as Journey Into The Fog in 1955. This made a big impact.
Her insights into the difficult lives of these young people humanise them.
She wrote of one 15-year old boy whose dad had the deadly lung disease TB. The boy had to take on several jobs in cafes and on a paper round as they paid better than the joiners’ apprenticeship he was offered.
Teddy Boys also had a reputation for violence, which some brought to the youth club. But Berger-Hamerschlag was rarely fazed by this and saw their arrogance as insecurity.
She said, “They live from day to day, from minute to minute feeling a grudge against the world that they do not get what is due to them. These misdemeanours are their primitive revenge.”
Teddy Boy culture drew the attention of the media. Hysteria about gang violence in London’s run-down districts grabbed headlines and criminalised the sort of people Berger-Hamerschlag worked with.
They were portrayed as a danger to society, wild young men working in gangs armed with flick knives, razor blades and knuckle dusters.
This can be compared to the way working class inner city youth are depicted in the media today.
The message, then and now, is that these young people are a threat to the social fabric of communities.
Berger-Hamerschlag saw through this propaganda and explored how difficult and fragmented their lives were.
Her paintings and drawings show them in an honest way. Many depict her pupils smoking. The scuffles are portrayed too – women and men are shown to be standing up for themselves.
Suspended From The Club shows three moody looking men in Teddy Boys’ style suits sulking and smoking.
Berger-Hamerschlag’s portrayal of women is striking. They are in the foreground, colourful, moody and confident. Her work shows young couples but the women aren’t draped around their partners but taking equal space.
The Proposition shows a man trying to persuade a young woman to dance with him. His hand is on her waist but he is rebuffed by a hand held up to his face as the woman’s friend stands behind protectively.
Berger-Hamerschlag thought her work could make a difference to the young lives. She said, “If they draw their hands or a club member or an apple they discover that what they have produced is their own effort and that they have never looked at anything around them with lively interest.”
Fifty years after her death, Berger-Hamerschlag’s work is still of great interest. Her words and insights show the delicate and volatile people she worked with in a way that inspired people to see beyond the headlines.
Her paintings and drawings show the colour, movement and relationships that made the fabric of everyday life for the youth of west London.
Beyond The Jiving by Mel Wright available from » www.melwright.co.uk The exhibition is on until 18 October at Honor Oak Gallery, 52 Honor Oak Park, London SE23
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