A Clerkenwell Design Week commission tells a sordid tale of the area’s former prison through clean, minimalist graphics
In Clerkenwell’s tangle of streets, there is little that grabs your attention about Passing Alley, a passageway with high brick walls and a fittingly undistinctive name.
But beware the non-descript label: it is designed to wipe clean this back alley’s sordid past, according to Karen Lansdown, one of the mayor of Islington’s official tour guides.
‘If you look at old maps, it’s [called] Pissing Alley,’ says Lansdown. In this pub-dense neighbourhood, the reason for its historic name will be clear even today to anyone visiting after a Saturday night, she jokes: ‘It’s a very long, thin, quiet, out-of-the-way place for a quick slash, basically!’
But legends more fantastical have long been attached to this dim backstreet, a location rich in debauched London myth of infamous prisoners and drunken hordes. For this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week, taking place from 21 to 23 May, Passing Alley will be one of six locations that make up the set of commissions titled Once Upon A Time, in which graphic design students from Chelsea College of Arts selected by a judging panel respond to the neighbourhood’s vibrant history.
Lansdown tells the story of a pub called the Old Baptist’s Head, near one end of the alley. According to local legend, it offered prisoners a place to pause while being transported to nearby Newgate Prison – for centuries London’s most infamous prison, which once held the notorious pirate Captain Kidd and was immortalised by Charles Dickens.
Here, lucky prisoners could have a final pint (and a piss) before continuing their journey. It is this story that Rory Brown, a graphic design student at Chelsea College of Arts, has represented in these three minimal graphic panels, which will be displayed as an installation down Passing Alley during CDW.