The 20 photographs of Vivienne Westwood taken at 430 King’s Road by art student William English in January 1975 have long been the holy grail of imagery to emanate from the boutique in its incarnation as Sex.
As a selling exhibition of framed prints from the photo-shoot is launched with a private view at London’s Maggs Bros Rare Books, we present a double exclusive: a preview of the show and an in-depth interview with English himself.
The photo-shoot took place at the request of English (who had been a customer at 430 since it housed Paradise Garage five years previously) for the photographic portfolio which formed part of his application for film studies courses at a couple of London colleges.
“Vivienne was friendly and happy to be photographed,” recalls English, who was intrigued by the environment, which included a sculpture of a severed leg left in the store by its creator and made a centrepiece of the interior display.
That day English shot a single roll of film on a Nikon borrowed from his friend, the late David Parkinson.
“After taking a few pictures I asked her to pose like a mannequin, to become stiff and awkward rather than the usual ‘relax and look natural’.”
Apparently it was Westwood’s idea to don the translucent rubber suit which had been hanging nearby; Malcolm McLaren was absent in America applying his energies to relaunching the drug-addled New York Dolls.
In the event the photographs proved a hindrance to English achieving his ambition. “I was turned down by both colleges,” he says. “During the interviews they just blanked the photographs, wouldn’t even discuss them. In retrospect they may have thought I was aiming to get involved in making porn films!”
This isn’t the first time the images have come to light; some have appeared in books and, in 2004, they formed the basis of an exhibition at the Aquarium gallery and a companion limited edition boxed set Venus With Severed Leg.
More recently English contributed to the Punk: No One Is Innocent show at Kunsthalle Wien.
Curated by Carl Williams, who runs the counterculture section of Maggs’ modern books department, the show which opens today not only captures the non-commercial, almost innocent atmosphere of the exercise, but also provides a flavour of the eerily-lit Sex in all it’s kinky, Peeping Tom glory.
“The shop always had a very distinctive ambience and felt like an art installation rather than a place of business,” says English. “Of course everything was for sale but it felt unique, very much an extension of Malcolm and Vivienne’s personalities.”
Inquiries about Sex Against Fashion should be made to Carl Williams.
To discover more about the photo-session, as well as insights into bubble cars, the Leicester connection and avant-garde film-making, read the full interview with William English below.
WILLIAM ENGLISH I’m from Leicester. I went to Loughborough Art School for what was then called a pre-diploma year. At the time I wanted to pursue painting but didn’t get into the college of my choice (Chelsea) and subsequently took time off. At Loughborough I encountered certain films for the first time; Godard, Robert Breer, Bruce Conner.
This was because Rodney Wilson was a tutor there (he eventually went on to the Arts Council’s Documentary Production Board). After three years, during which I worked in Amsterdam for about six months as a waiter (my mother was Dutch), I returned to England and got into the London Film School, which went bankrupt after 18 months and closed down, so temporarily I became a postman at the West Central District Office.
You’re described as a Let It Rock customer in Jane Mulvagh’s book An Unfashionable Life. How did you come across the shop, what do you recall of it and what did you buy?
I used to travel down to London from Leicester, often with Steph Rayner who later joined up with John Krevine and ran Acme Attractions and Boy on the King’s Road.
My older brother Jack (later to found Contemporary Wardrobe with Roger Burton) was friendly with Steph and David Parkinson, who had come down to London from Leicester to study photography and was particularly interested in fashion.
David took photos of 430 King’s Road when it was Mr Freedom, then Paradise Garage.
It was through him that we learnt about the shop. I visited Paradise Garage a couple of times and remember buying a Hawaiian shirt.
My friend John Cramphorn bought some white overalls with Firestone across the back.
When it became Let it Rock I bought three flecked jackets, including an amazing one in black and white which David Parkinson was eager to have but was too small for him. I remember him trying to force his way into it before giving up.
I also bought a few records there: some great singles on the King label and some Country & Western: The Long White Line was one, though I can’t remember the singer now. The shop had a very distinctive ambience, and felt like an art installation rather than a place of business.
Of course everything was for sale but it felt unique, very much an extension of Malcolm and Vivienne’s personalities.
How do you know Andrew Greaves?
I was introduced to Andrew by David Parkinson and became a lodger in his house in Hackney. David was a very stylish and striking individual and had been obsessed with clothes ever since he, Jack, Steph and their friend John Nixon had travelled to London in Steph’s car in the 60s, visiting Soho clubs like The Scene and the Flamingo.
I was too young at the time but curious and eager to emulate my brother as soon as I could. Once, when I was 14, I hitch-hiked down and went to La Discotheque on Wardour Street with a girlfriend. I was arrested coming out on Sunday morning for being underage!Tell us about David Parkinson.
He was always ahead and his taste in clothes was usually too eccentric to gain entry into mainstream fashion magazines.
Also, he adopted a style of photography which involved a cumbersome wooden apparatus as opposed to the 35mm David Bailey “school”.
He tried to tweak the content but was up against people like Paul Raymond, whose idea of art was far removed from David’s.
After working at the Post Office I was also able to buy a yellow convertible. There was a brief period in 1974, I think, when all three were parked outside Andrew Greaves’s house in Hackney. Eventually I paid Andrew his rent by giving him the red one. At this time David used to wear a black rubber trench coat. This, combined with the silver blue Messerschmitt, gave him a distinctly fascistic look.
When and how did the photographs of Vivienne Westwood and 430 King’s Road come about?
As part of my application to the National Film School and the Royal College I needed to put together a portfolio of photographs and early in 1975 decided to include Sex because of Vivienne and it’s environment, as well as the severed leg sculpture, which had been given pride of place having been left there by a sculptor. I borrowed Dave Parkinson’s Nikon and shot one roll of film with a couple of basic lights.
I got about 20 good pictures, some of which have been mislaid and/or appropriated over the years. Vivienne was friendly and happy to be photographed.
After taking a few pictures I asked her to pose like a mannequin, to become stiff and awkward rather than the usual “relax and look natural”. The transparent rubber suit was hanging up. I never dreamed she would wear it, but Vivienne suggested it and I’m grateful she did.
I put together the portfolio, which also included images of the bubble cars, attended interviews at both colleges and was turned down by both. I was dismayed that they took no interest whatsoever in the pictures. I mean they just blanked them, wouldn’t even discuss them. In retrospect they may have thought I was aiming to get involved in making porn films!
Why do you think it has taken so long for the value of these photographs to be recognised?
I never actively promoted them so they sort of lay dormant. Every five years or so I might get a call from someone asking if they could reproduce one image in a book, but even this would result in a wrangle over money.
One book publisher tried to persuade me to sign a contract giving them world rights. A picture appeared in the first hardback edition of one particular punk history but when I asked for payment for it to appear in subsequent editions they pulled the photograph.
What did you go into subsequently and what are your activities today?
I continued pursuing my interest in film and became interested in the experimental film scene which I had first encountered at Loughborough. I have several films in distribution at LUX in London and Light Cone in Paris.
In 1980 I took over a derelict coal cellar in Borough Market and, with my partner Sandra Cross, turned it into a fairly eccentric vegetarian restaurant which lasted for 10 years. Since 1990 I’ve been a dealer in rare books and since 2002 I’ve presented radio programmes on Resonance 104.4FM. I still make films.
Find out more about William at his website.