Hillfields Happening

George and Violet TilleyLR

This very formal photograph of Violet and George was taken in black and white then hand tinted with colour. I believe the portrait was taken to mark their engagement in Coventry in the late 1920’s or early 30’s as was custom in those times using photography to mark important milestones..

George and Violet were eventually married and had one son who they named Donald. Very sadley Donald died at around the age of three, there are various family rumours that surround Donald’s death and so much time has passed since then we will never know the exact truth. Unfortunately George never wanted any more children; Donald we believe was perhaps being born out of wedlock, George it has been said felt cursed that a great sin might have been committed, subsequently denying Violet anymore children.

George and Violet Tilley did have a long marriage lasting over 40 years, living for much of their life in Foleshill in the north of Coventry. They lavished much of their affection on their God son Tony Leeson. Both George’s and Violets family were originally from Hillfields in Coventry.

During their married life George became superintendent of Triumph motor cycles whilst Violet worked in a confectionary shop in Trinity Street in the city centre. Violet by all accounts had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong, always clean tidy and very precise. “A very proper person”, I’m told.

Violet Tilley copy


Soon after Violet died members of my family visited her terraced house each taking an item as keep sake, a small reminder for them of her long life. Violet was the last in a long line of her generation of Tilley’s in Coventry.

My mother chose to take a box of photographs and within that box were a set of beautiful bromides taken at  Tayler Brothers studio 20 Primrose Hill Street in Hillfields Coventry. The address clearly printed on the back of each image.

The significance of that box remained hidden along with the faces of the people who sat to have their portrait taken; they were kept safe in an old cupboard at my parents’ house for over three decades. I found those photographs on my return from India in 2009 and wanted to find out more.

These formal photographs represent a small section of the community in Hillfields from 1915 to the late 1920’s and I have since learned many of the people who sat to have their portraits were family members My Great Grandparent’s Great Uncles and even my Grandmother ‘Queenie’ seated in the centre of this photograph below.

Family to war  copy

In 2014 at an exhibition opening at The Photographers Wall gallery at The Library of Birmingham I was in conversation with the elder statesman of British photography John Blakemore talking about his life in Coventry in the 1960’s I mentioned to him these photographs and was astonished to hear that John, a completely self taught photographer at that time started his career at Tayler Brothers Studious in the early 1960’s.

Small mounted portrait unfolded copy

My photographs were obviously from much earlier time in the studios history but none the less I’ve been fascinated by this for some time. It was the beginnings of an idea. #HillfieldsHappening.

Re-engaging with Hillfields has been an “absolutely apeshit out of order pleasure” (thanks Barrie). Since the end of my People of India exhibition at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in January I have spent many days wondering the streets of Hillfields streets alongside Warwick University researcher Ben Kyneswood.

When I say re-engaging I am comparing previous experiences of Hillfields during my miss-spent well-spent youth.

My Grandparents (on the ‘English’ side of my family) lived doors away from each other on Coronation Road Hillfields. They met here as children and years later they were married in a not very plush wedding day.

Many many years after this ancestral family love affair I had the misfortune to be mugged in Hillfields, I was only in my early teens. My elder cousin came off much the worst losing his much valued studded Elvis Presley denim jacket during the attack.

Years after the mugging I spent numerous evenings bouncing home along walls after hedonistic nights out at The Tic Toc club or after its name changed to the colosseum; when at that time I was definitely old enough to know better.

In many ways Hillfields always remains the same but in so many ways because of recent European borders openings or the desperate circumstances in countries thousands of miles away, this tiny corner of England  is a constant and timely reminder of our country’s close connections to the rest of the world. How do we imagine our cities might be in years to come?

These are some recent photographs taken in Hillfields during my Arts Council England funded residency at Coventry University. I will post photographs taken by the legendary British photographer John Blakemore taken here in the 1960’s  next week.


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