An Ideal for Living: Photographing class, culture and identity in Modern Britain

An Ideal for Living is a new exhibition in London that uses photography from the 1920s to the present day to examine perceptions of class, custom and identity in modern Britain.

A timely consideration of what it means to be British, the show at Beetles + Huxley will draw on the work of 20 diverse photographers to present the habits, styles and routines, which encapsulate British identity through social aspiration, political protest and counter-culture.

The earliest photographs in the exhibition are Bill Brandt’s and E.O. Hoppé’s studies of the interwar period. These images show the idiosyncrasies of the British class at this time, depicting miners, maids and gentlemen in their homes, on the streets, at work and leisure. Another early photograph is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s sardonic documentation of the crowds during the coronation of King George VI in 1937.

The post-war period is represented by Frank Habicht’s photographs showing the spirit of the 1960s, a period when libertarian attitudes were expressed through fashion, design and political activism. John Bulmer’s images of the same time provide a contrasting view of this decade with photographs of working class communities in the north of England and Charlie Phillips’ photographs document the integration of black communities into British towns and cities. Also from this period, Bruce Davidson’s photographs of nannies in Hyde Park and mining communities in Wales show the continuation of British traditions in the '60s.

The political unrest and social divides of the 1970s and '80s are represented by Syd Shelton’s images of the Battle of Lewisham in 1977, Philip Jones Griffith’s photograph of a young soldier in Northern Island, Neil Libbert’s reportage of the 1981 Brixton riots, the bleakly cinematic images of Glasgow by Raymond Depardon and Richard Billingham’s hard-hitting series Ray’s A Laugh.

The emergence of a defined youth culture and identity is shown through Derek Ridgers iconic photographs of skinheads and punks contrasted with Jürgen Schadeberg’s photographs at the other end of the spectrum of unruly students at a May Ball in Cambridge. These images are juxtaposed with Martin Parr and Peter Dench’s wry and humorous studies of the British at leisure in the same period.

The most recent work in the exhibition is by Anna Fox, James Morris and Simon Roberts whose work collectively explores social identity in contemporary Britain through photographs of the modern British environment, in the countryside and city.

Curator Flora La Thangue said: "The expansive historical scope and variety of styles amongst the photographers represented in An Ideal for Living underlies a constant preoccupation with what defines British identity. The exhibition has been curated with the breadth of cultural identities within modern Britain in mind, but also reveals historical and geographical patterns emerging through the photographs."

An Ideal for Living launches on 27th July at Beetles + Huxley Gallery at 3-5 Swallow Street, London, W1B 4DE, and runs until 17th September 2016. Find out more at www.beetlesandhuxley.com. Admission is free.

Via direct submission | All images courtesy of Beetles + Huxley

Main image: Picnic in the car park on Derby Day at Epson Downs Racecourse, June 2001 © Peter Dench

Parloumaid and Under-Parlourmaid ready to serve dinner, 1936 © Bill Brandt

Parloumaid and Under-Parlourmaid ready to serve dinner, 1936 © Bill Brandt

Mill Girls, Elland, Yorkshire, 1965 © John Bulmer

Mill Girls, Elland, Yorkshire, 1965 © John Bulmer

Tuinol Barry, Kings Road, London, 1983 © Derek Ridgers

Tuinol Barry, Kings Road, London, 1983 © Derek Ridgers

Girls dancing in Wolverhampton Club, 1978 © Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos

Girls dancing in Wolverhampton Club, 1978 © Chris Steele-Perkins / Magnum Photos

School boy with luggage, Paddington Station, London, 1933, © Emil Otto Hoppe

School boy with luggage, Paddington Station, London, 1933, © Emil Otto Hoppe

New Brighton. From 'The Last Resort'. 1983-85 copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

New Brighton. From 'The Last Resort'. 1983-85 copyright Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

No loss of face, Earl's Court, c 1960 © Frank Habricht

No loss of face, Earl's Court, c 1960 © Frank Habricht

May Ball, Cambridge, 1983 © Jurgen Schadeberg

May Ball, Cambridge, 1983 © Jurgen Schadeberg

Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales, 2008 © James Morris

Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, Wales, 2008 © James Morris

Notting Hill couple, 1967 © Charlie Phillips

Notting Hill couple, 1967 © Charlie Phillips

Bagga (Bevin Fagan) Hackney, East London, 1979 © Syd Shelton

Bagga (Bevin Fagan) Hackney, East London, 1979 © Syd Shelton