Vergeltungswaffen (vengeance weapons) were pilotless aircraft launched by the Luftwaffe between 1944 and 1945. Mostly landing in London, they carried a tonne of high explosive that caused extensive damage and loss of life. By photographing the sites and neighbourhoods where the bombs landed, I tried to reflect upon a concept of landscape that represented places deeply implicated in the development of memory, identity and belonging.
Adolphus Street, London SE8 - 15 Fatalities
Lukin Street, London E1 – Unknown
Lower Road, London SE16 – Unknown
Wickham Road, London SE4 – 9 Fatalities
Chingford Road, London E17 – 16 Fatalities
Billet Road, London E17 – 10 Fatalities
Ley Street, Ilford IG1 – 14 Fatalities
Palmer Place, London N7 - 1 Fatality
Westwood Hill, London SE26 – 9 Fatalities
New Cross Road, London SE14 – 168 Fatalities
Guards’ Chapel, London SW1 – 141 Fatalities
Iverson Road, London NW6 – 3 Fatalities
Gillender Street, London E3 – Unknown
Harper Road, London SE1 – 2 Fatalities
Woolwich Road, London SE7 – Unknown
Tranquil Vale, London SE3 – 5 Fatalities
Besson Street, London SE14 – 1 Fatality
Achilles Street, London SE14 - 8 Fatalities
Kitto Road, London SE14 – 1 Fatality
Marnock Road, London SE4 – 14 Fatalities
Blackhorse Road, London E17 – 10 Fatalities
Creekside, London SE8 – 2 Fatalities
Prince Charles Road, London SE3 – Unknown
Aldeburgh Street, London SE10 – Unknown
Southwark Park Road, London SE16 – 8 Fatalities
Sunfields Place, London SE3 – 19 Fatalities
Castle Wood Road, London SE9 – Unknown
Farnan Avenue, London E17 – 6 Fatalities
Usk Road, London SW11 – 17 Fatalities
Sherard Road, London SE9 – 7 Fatalities
Smithfield Market, London EC1 – 110 Fatalities
Acre Lane, London SW4 – 5 Fatalities
Stavely Road, London W4 - 3 Fatalities
Axminster Road, London N7 - 38 Fatalities
Pelham Road, London N22 – 7 Fatalities
Hughes Mansions, London E1 - 134 Fatalities
Tottenham Court Road, London W1 - 9 Fatalities
Long Acre Road, London E17 – 8 Fatalities
A PRESENT ABSENCE
Like sculptures, cities are made up of solids and voids, the there and the not-there. Between these two possibilities lies another, liminal one, of spaces where there should be structures, structures that stand in for spaces. These are the most eloquent parts of a cityscape, alive with a sense of wrong. Their voids are solid, their solids void. It is such oxymoronic places that Tim Wainwright explores in the work in this show.
The Vergeltungswaffen or “vengeance weapons,” known to us as V-1s and V-2s, reshaped London. Unmanned, haphazard, they fell like a malign fate. A single V-1, hitting the Guards' Chapel in June 1944, killed 121 people. The V-2 was deadlier still: the 1,358 that dropped on London in the six months from September 1944 killed 2,754 people, two for each bomb. Many of the spaces they left – a single V-2 could wipe out a city block – spoke of an immediate absence, of lives ended all at once. Each of the images in this show records such an ending. On the back of the photographs I worked from in writing this essay, Wainwright had written two things, an address and a number: Ley Street, Ilford (14); Usk Road, SW11 (17); Pelham Road, N22 (7). The number was of the site's dead.
As with the human ones, the physical gaps left by the Vergeltungswaffen were filled in after the War. And yet, as with the human ones, they were not. The houses and roads and lock-up garages and gardens that are the subject of Wainwright's photographs are different from each other, but they are also oddly alike. Geography does not remember, but Wainwright's seems to.
Looking through these images, it strikes me that there is an impossible kinship between them. In part, this has to do with circumstance. Many of the Vergeltungswaffen sites were built over in the decade after 1945, when materials were hard to come by and the emphasis was on Utility with a capital “U”. What seemed an optimistic narrative then – slums replaced by rubble, rubble by neat council houses or garages, supermarkets, the symbols of a never-had-it-so-good prosperity – now look cheap and gimcrack: literally, jerry-built.
Wainwright's speculative eye also imposes a likeness on these sites. His camera records what it sees, as baldly as the figures on the back of his photographs. What that camera sees is the emptiness of a bus shelter in Blackheath or a creek in Deptford, walls put up as though around a crime scene in Sherard Road or Palmer Place. Like the things they record, the images are deadpan, anonymous, no-comment. These places have the sense of being hushed up, as though their meaning is not to be spoken of, never questioned. Wainwright goes along with that.
But history does not stop. Layered over the original sites are six decades of palimpsest. In Ley Street, time can be read backwards, in a series of recessions parallel to the picture plane: a royal wedding flag from 2011 in front of a white panel advertising car washes in front of a brick wall in front of…what? That is the question Wainwright asks, again and again; and each time, he hits the same wall.
In an image baldly inscribed “New Cross Road, SE14”, red, white and blue bunting hangs in front of oversized bottles of fizzy pop in front of a white wall. The air is jaunty, bright, prosperous; and yet there is a feeling of execution. Next to the address on the back of the photograph is the figure, 168: the number of people who died in a moment when, on 25 November 1944, a V-2 fell on the packed Woolworths that stood where the Iceland Wainwright photographed now stands. Plus ça change.
But there is another absent presence in these pictures, an unknowing future as well as an unknowable past. It would be eminently possible to look at the Vergeltungswaffen images and see only a hymn to urban ennui, as in the Humbrol paintings of George Shaw. Wainwright, though, has another fascination.
As the places he has shot elide solid and void, so they mark the exact moment when history becomes memory. To remember the day when Hitler's vengeance weapon fell in the New Cross Road, you would have to be in your mid-seventies. In another few decades, there will be no-one alive who saw the shop's walls bulge outwards as the rocket's ton of explosive amatol detonated on impact: who knows, rather than merely has learned, what lies behind the bright ranks of Coca-Cola bottles lined up against a wall in the local supermarket. The things in these images will mean something else then. But what?
Charles Darwent (writer and art critic)