Labyrinths and Archives

In 1999, during the development of the area, a number of important archaeological sites were unearthed in Spitalfields. These included the remarkable Spitalfields Woman1 and the Charnel House, close to the site of the Hospital and Priory of the Blessed Virgin Mary without Bishopsgate which became known as St Mary of the Spital and gives the area its name2. Founded in 1197, St Mary of the Spital was one of the largest hospitals in London during the middle ages and was itself built upon a space previously occupied by Saxons and Romans. The Charnel House was built in 1320 in the cemetery of the chapel of St Mary Magdalene and St Edmond the Bishop to house bones disturbed by grave digging in the cemetery. Carefully preserved during the development of 1 Bishop’s Square, the Charnel House is the site of the location specific and site responsive multi media work Shadow Rounds by Kerry Andrews.

Shadow Rounds is an evocative sound installation featuring human voices which speak across generations yet remain rooted in the specific location of Spitalfields. Through thoughtful selection of texts and careful recreation using numerous collaborators Andrews brings the history of the area vividly to life. As darkness falls in the old churchyard we begin to hear the past speak to us both literally and metaphorically as these local tales unfold.

Using the latest FeONIC sound technology3, the glass partition that separates us from the Charnel House resonates with two thousand years of human experience. Shadow Rounds allows us to hear for ourselves the stories of the inhabitants of this area throughout history and this quiet act of listening amongst the urban hubbub makes us reflect upon our own stories and experiences. Taking us into a space of reflection and contemplation as befitting a site so closely associated with religion and in such close proximity to death.

Religion and death can be seen as two of the important themes that weave their way through the text presented in this piece. From the Roman worship of Mithras, a male only mystery cult popular amongst the many soldiers garrisoned in London following Boudicca’s destruction of the city in AD 60, to the extraordinary sermons of the poet turned Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral John Donne whose oratory attracted huge crowds and who preached at the Spital cross open air pulpit in 1622, religion and death were never far from the thoughts and experiences of the people of the area. The location of Spitalfields, outside of the city walls and the jurisdiction of the established church and all powerful trade guilds, made it a place which was attractive to successive waves of immigrants. Immigrants for whom Spitalfields and the surrounding area was a space, a liberty, allowing them to practice their faith.

Notable amongst these were Huguenots, French Protestants who began to arrive in the area after the 1572 Massacre of St Bartholomew4 and who brought with them their skills in silk weaving and associated trades. Huguenot refugees continued to arrive in the area making Spitalfields synonymous with silk weaving. Further persecution in France with the overturning of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 led to the arrival of more French Protestant tradesmen, further establishing the silk trade in the area. The Silk trade was to flourish for the next hundred years, with many of the skilled artisans building houses and workshops in the surrounding area, lending a unique architectural flavour to Fournier Street, Fashion Street, Wilkes Street and Princelet Street. The early nineteenth century saw the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the lifting of the ban on the importation of French Silks into Britain. This led to the slow but steady decline of the silk area5. Shadow Rounds brings this decline into sharp focus as we listen to the tale of the struggle with poverty of a local artisan and again as we hear the court proceedings of one of the area’s, all too frequent, infamous murders. We also hear the voice of a Huguenot translator speaking in his native French giving testament to his Protestant faith which further underlines the importance of religion to this historically significant site.

Alongside the voice of the French Huguenot we hear another of East London’s immigrant languages, that of Yiddish, in the words of Avram Stencl. The East End of London occupies a central place in the long history of Jewish settlement in Britain. The violent pogroms in Russia and Poland following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 lead to a large influx of Jewish refugees who settled in Spitalfields and Whitechapel6. Terrible events in Europe during the 1920’s and 1930’s led to a further influx of Jewish people into the area further adding Jewish culture to the ethnic and religious makeup of the area.

One of the most unusual stories to emerge out of the Jewish East End, is that of David Rodinsky7. Published to wide critical acclaim in 1999, Rodinsky’s Room chronicles the search by the artist Rachel Lichtenstein for the mysterious David Rodinsky. Rodinsky was the caretaker of one of the areas most interesting buildings, 19 Princelet Street a former synagogue, who vanished from his attic room in 1969. When work men discovered the abandoned room in the late 1970’s they revealed Rodinsky was a Jewish scholar engaged in esoteric Cabalistic researches, fuelling wild speculation about the nature of his disappearance. Lichtenstein’s search for Rodinsky becomes a search for her own Jewish identity and a further layer is added to the story with Iain Sinclair’s thoughtful commentary on Lichtenstein’s quests.

The area features in another recent bestseller dealing with Jewish history and identity. Austerlitz by German writer W G Sebald outlines the search for identity by the eponymous architectural historian Jacques Austerlitz who, as a young child fleeing Nazi persecution, escaped to London on the Kinder Transport.

The role of Spitalfields in the life histories of people seeking refuge is also taken up by Bengali poet Shamim Azad, whose lyrical Across Seven Seas evokes the experiences of the areas more recent arrivals, the Bangladeshi community.

Another of the key thematic threads contained within Shadow Rounds is that of theatre and performance. Its location outside the reach of church and city authorities made the area ideal for the establishment of the theatre. In 1567 actor James Burbage opened a theatre in nearby Shoreditch and a few years later a second theatre, The Curtain, was built in the vicinity8. Thus the area became a centre for Elizabethan theatre with plays by both Shakespeare and Marlowe being regularly performed. In earlier times the city of London was the birth place of medieval narrative poet Geoffrey Chaucer, perhaps the founder of British literature as it is known today. Theatrical and performative aspects of the area continue into the present and twist their way through Andrews’ Shadow Rounds piece. Californian artist Dennis Severs restored the Huguenot house at 18 Folgate Street and until his untimely death in 1999 staged theatrical guided tours in period costume recreating the atmosphere of earlier times9. The house is still open to the public on the first Sunday every month and is one of the areas most quirky and interesting days out.

The quest for knowledge is another of the themes which has become synonymous with Spitalfields and is represented in a number of the texts chosen by Andrews. Herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpepper lived in Red Lion Street in the 1640’s and the spirit of the Enlightenment was in evidence in the area in the meetings of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society.

Strange parallels exist between the quest for knowledge in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and the tale of David Rodinsky both of whom meet a sad demise through their strivings for knowledge. Indeed, Lichtenstein’s quest for knowledge of both Rodinsky’s story and her own Jewish identity is also in keeping with this theme, as is the inclusion of numerous religious texts and sermons. The above discussion and elucidation of the texts which comprise Shadow Rounds throws up some surprising and interesting interconnections between the lives of people in the area across time and as such Andrews’s piece is both an example of and a contribution to the archive of Spitalfields.

The notion of the archive is an interesting one and is central to discussions of contemporary art practice10. A recent compilation of writings by critics and artists published by that progressive East End institution the Whitechapel Gallery foregrounds an “archival impulse”11 in much of what is vibrant and exciting in contemporary art. In a process of extensive research Andrews rummages through diverse institutions such as libraries, local history societies, museums and art installations each one an archive in its own right. The archive of Spitalfields exists in innumerable written sources some factual and some literary, each archival in nature. Shadow Rounds therefore, is an archive of the archive providing rich material for the understanding of the discursive and conceptual construction of a particular place.

In a recent and influential book on current multi media art practice12 the critic and curator Nicholas Bourriard suggests that two new models of aesthetic production have emerged in contemporary art. These being the flea market and the DJ. Artists take existing cultural artefacts and put them to new uses incorporating them or recycling them into their own work. In popular culture the disc jockey creates his own work on the basis of the selection of existing cultural forms. With the recent emergence of Spitalfields as a vibrant night time economy and the local tradition of world famous street markets, the very form of Shadow Rounds with its post productional tropes of the flea market and the DJ resonates once again with a sense of this particular place.

Martin Denyer


  1. Necropolis. Catharine Arnold, Pocket Books, London, 2006, pp 12-14
  2. The London Compendium, Ed Glinert. Penguin, London, 2004, pp 282
  3. FeONIC
  4. The East End Chronicles, Ed Glinert, Penguin, London, 2006 pp 40-53.
  5. Ibid p 51
  6. Ibid p 124
  7. Rodinsky’s Room, Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, Granta, London, 1999
  8. London: A Social History, Roy Porter, Penguin, London, 2002, p77
  9. The London Compendium, Op cit, p 287
  10. The Archive, Ed. Charles Merewether, Whitechapel Gallery and MIT London, 2006.
  11. The Archival Impulse, Hal Foster, In The Archive Ed Merewether, Op cit pp 143-148
  12. Postproduction, Nicholas Bourriaud, Lukas and Sternberg, New York, 2002.