Robin Maddock, England!? les anglais ont débarqué!

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 under Fire/hole imprint (here). Softbound book with exposed binding, 27 x 19 cm, with unique hand painted cover, 248 pages (4 removed by hand) with numerous images, illustrations, collages, and hand-drawn notes. Includes an essay by Johny Pitts. In an edition of 750 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: England is a land of tradition. For English photographers, few traditions are as attractive as sizing up their native country. Although this had been a popular pastime going back to Talbot, it kicked into high gear in 1897, with Sir Benjamin Stone’s formation of the National Photographer Record Association, which created a central repository for pictures of the homeland. Photobooks followed suit, including Bill Brandt’s The English At Home, Don McCullin’s In England, John Anderson’s English Journey, Homer Sykes’ This Is England, Martin Parr’s Think of England, and Simon Roberts’ We English, to list some of the more prominent titles. In recent years Cafe Royal Books (reviewed here) has created a cottage industry of English photographers photographing various English subjects, with an archive of hundreds of zines.

There may be a degree of national navel gazing in these publications, and their dominance by white men narrows their perspective. Despite their limits, they sketch the rough outlines of a national portrait. Each might be considered as evidence sampled from a spot on the English timeline. Taken collectively, they offer historical clues to basic inquiries: what is it that makes England look and feel like England? What distinguishes this place photographically from other countries? What is it about this small island that has had such an outsized influence on geopolitics and world history? 

Robin Maddock is the latest English photographer to tackle England. His recent monograph has just been released after several years observing the country and, more to the point, its people. His project passed through a few working titles over the course of that time. At one point it was to be called Engerland, and later Heavens below England. Maddock finally settled on the title England!? les anglais ont débarqué! (loosely translated: “England!? The English Have Landed!”). At least that is how it’s listed online. But even that name may be tenuous, since each individual copy is inscribed on the inside cover with its own unique title. Mine is called Make a bed and then lie in it! Colin Pantall reports that he owns Dreams of idiot sorrow and pebble dash. Other copies each have their own. Considering that the edition is 750, these personal inscriptions were a mammoth chore, with Maddock’s dogged determination revealing a hint of English grit.

Names may mutable but national identity is harder to uproot. This cognitive dissonance has always been latent in England. But it came into urgent focus with Brexit in 2016. Like the U.S. Presidential election it foreshadowed, the referendum to leave the EU was a blow to self perception. English citizens were forced into immediate reckoning. What country were they living in? Who were their compatriots? Where had this decision come from?

Maddock’s earlier books had poked around the edges of English self-identity, but never the whole thing. Our Kids Are Going to Hell (2009) examined life in Hackney and East London. God Forgotten Face (2011) did the same for Plymouth. After a brief foray into California to play with sculptural monochromes— the book III, a thematic outlier reviewed here—he was ready take on the entire country. But first he made his own English exit, decamping to southern France—les anglais ont débarqué, indeeda better launching pad from which to drop in on the island across the channel, which now seemed strangely unfamiliar. “I spent three years traveling around to try to get to know my own country better,” he writes on his site. “We should have all known it way better, before this shocker of a decision pulled the magic carpet from under our feet.”

All that French Riviera sun may have been an added shock to Maddock’s system. Or perhaps he was just better able to size up England’s cultural melange from a distance. Or it may have just been a mid-life phase, transplanting to another country with new routines and patterns. Whatever the ingredients were, the resulting monograph is an aesthetic leap from its predecessors. England!? les anglais ont débarqué! is a national temperature check of astonishing diversity, with a bewildering range of visual approaches, colors, treatments, and photos, all regularly annotated with rambling thoughts on nationhood, art, classism, music, and, well, just about everything. 

If European unity has been challenged, and British unity with it, why bother with graphic unity? At least that seems to the thinking here. Fonts change from page to page, as do background colors. Photos come in all shapes and sizes, some with stickers, or variously solarized, painted, trimmed, marked, taped, collaged, or typewritten. No two pages are quite the same, and no other photographer has made a monograph quite like this one. Perhaps Raised By WolvesThe Journals of Dan Eldon, or Peter Beard’s books are in the general neighborhood, as are recent experimental monographs by Theo Elias, Chloe Snell, or Vince Delbrouck. All push the norms of graphic design in their own way. But Maddock has carved out a space mostly to himself, a fact he’s made doubly sure of by gilding the cover and edges with airbrushed speckles, and scrawling written notes at various points within. And of course each book has its own title. If Brexit was a retreat from multiculturalism, Maddock’s book redoubles the effort toward it. This thick book bulges in a rainbow of ideas, images, and humanity.

Maddock establishes a few parameters with two initial text pieces. Both take an expansive and somewhat poetic view of the homeland. “England is expressed daily, like milk,” the book begins, “…is a woman on the street in tears on the phone to utilities, as an over weight school girl in stretched uniform, is leaning on a wall next to a canal…” On the next page the national temperature check comes into sharper focus with a tongue-in-cheek list of “Historic tropes of Englishness”. Stoicism, dog lovers, drunkeness (sic), a civilising force, gardeners, and so on. The phrases are by turns contradictory, absurd, and accurate, compiled with crackling wit. Some may play on preconceptions, but most have a grain of truth. This is a good starting point to survey England’s generalities in one page, and also a foundation for their critique. A few pages later, a sequence of haiku-like poems hints at Maddock’s resentments:

All those people in their houses, all those unseen lives, moving in small circles.

Trash talking, in ancient regional accents, about the next town.

Internal divisions signal Brexit as the mere end-product of long term changes, none of them particularly welcome by Maddock’s reckoning. “There was once an underground,” he writes wistfully several pages later, “England has turned itself inside out…putting our favorite songs on adverts, at its core an emptiness, when its (sic) all about money that kids can feel, its (sic) fucking them up.” And several pages later: “The Lost Left..victory was gifted, we got played, rolled.” These are merely a few examples of many recurring passages in which Maddock recalls a bygone era, always better. “The formative moments of my life were in England during rave culture and i have never felt so optimistic and proud to be English,” he writes on his site. “It was a country where the social codes and order could be re-written and shown by example to work again through music, drugs and shared experience…How did we lose this DIY spirit? How did we commercially assimilate all this and in so doing knowingly remove our own socially transformative power?..fuck you very much England, i love you…i survived.”

Very well. Stiff upper lip and carry on. But still, ouch. The lover spurned describes the post-Brexit mood, for Maddock and many others. There may be some nostalgic yearning involved, a tendency to romanticize the freedom of one’s youth. Those feelings are muddied and consumed by Maddock’s open critique of globalism and neoliberalism, and his helpless observation of England’s widening wealth gap, all among the many forces which paved the way for Brexit. In Maddock’s mind everything was better before…before something. Maddock never exactly defines the antediluvian state, but his vague sense of loss is crystalized in Johny Pitts’ essay which appears near the end, a scathing critique of economic class, imperialism, and “the end of empire”. Pitts and Maddock are angry at the right for its exploitation and greed. They’re angry at the left for its inadequacies. If they buck at received wisdoms and expected political divisions, they only follow English tradition, for rejecting authority is an old English habit. Perhaps Brexit is a traditional English outcome?  

Clearly Maddock is a man of ideas. He is careful to subtitle the book “Writings on and photographs of the the country of my birth”, with the emphasis on writing first. But what of the photographs? This is after all primarily a picture book, a photo monograph, at least in principle. With a few exceptions, Maddock’s subject is people. As one might expect in a book celebrating diversity, he has captured a wide spectrum of humanity here. Just about every race, age, class, religion or fashion can be found somewhere in its 248 pages, thrown onto the page in a genre-defying blend of portraiture, candids, street scenes, events, offices, and situations. Some are captioned with endearing personal notes. Most are anonymous. Browsing their many faces is the literary equivalent of a walk through Hackney, knifing through a flood of humanity. 

Despite its dour tone and sentimental yearning, there is a strong creative spirit in England!? les anglais ont débarqué! It’s hard to be pessimistic about England’s prospects after paging its rich and strange materials. It’s a tour de force, an artistic triumph, and a labor of love, with warm affection for his native country. If this the type of book produced by English photographers, the county must be doing something right. Maddock would might disagree, and perhaps pessimism will win out. It is early in the post-Brexit period and history is still being written. But as one sample point added to the country’s long photographic tradition, this book offers a ray of hope, and one which feels delightfully English.

Collector’s POV: Robin Maddock does not appear top have consistent gallery representation at this time, As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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