Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story

Stephen King
The Conservation Centre, Whitechapel
26th February - 30th August 2010

Reviewed by John Owen

This is the photographic work of Stephen King. Not the horror writer, but an artist specialising in the atmospheric shells of closed buildings. It's a sort of romantic Bayeux Tapestry of urban degeneration, or the effects of the collapse of trade on big shops. How this once proud and ebullient high class "By Appointment To Her Majesty“ empire was the hallmark, that marked out the great shops or retail palaces in the city. Not for the likes of us.

“And of course where we got that man showing his tackle, on the front of the building, they came from everywhere to look at him. I remember my sister had some friends, who came especially from Ireland and everybody came down, they couldn’t believe it. Because at the time it just wasn’t heard of, never mind practically in the middle of Lime Street.”

This was the statue of legend by Epstein.

One hundred and fifty years of Liverpool social history are explored in the obituary-style photos. It's a series of poignant yet subtly exuberant snaps, epitomising the retail trade in this city, concentrating however on the fifth floor. The frippery fragrant and divine reduced like the pyramids to dust and dirt.

While outside rag and bone men stalked the city, and St Paddy’s market on Great Homer Street sold bundles of rags to people, there existed another world inside this tower of Babel, a service not unlike the TV sit comedy 'Are You Being Served?'

Here the camp and kitsch in the kitchen presided over a glitter palace of fun, the red rose silver service had exclusive written all over it, from the mosaic tiles design the whole set depicting a food wallpaper typography perfected by the soon to be developed motorway service, iconic notice boards based on the 1951 Festival of Britain designs. Very trendy for its time, as well as rude murals and an arty feel to the experience. Former glory has never looked so forlorn, like a statue in the rain too long it is barely recognisable.

Lewis's had its own hairdressers. A quote on one wall read: “There are salons where people go every week, it sounds mad but they do. Lewis’s had a lot of ladies who ran pubs in Scotland Road. They were rough, I mean they had to be, but they were great and you knew where you stood with them. They come in on Saturdays for the main job and midweek for a comb and to get more spray on top”.

“Nippies” is what they called the young waitresses doing the legwork for the customers at the far end of the restaurant. Photos of former staff tell how the place was like one big extended family and you were well in with a job here.

A short video by Jacqueline Passmore interviews former staff about the culture and experience of working there. This speaks to the images as a sort of code breaker for what could be too sentimental or a wistful portrait of the good old days - respect in photo tribute form.

Quiet contemplation of the images and voices reminds us of the vast changes still going on in the city.

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