London Loves its Markets: Reflections from my Free Day
Every January, the first-year fellows of the Winterthur Program and several students in MA and PhD programs from the University of Delaware take part in British Design History: a three-week course on design and material culture with one week at Winterthur and a two-week field study in Great Britain. Traveling to cities including London, Stoke-on-Trent, and Bath, the students have an opportunity to study American Material Culture within a greater global context. Students’ posts in this section are centered on their experiences in England or working with British objects in the Winterthur collection.
After our first week visiting sites in London, January 21…free day… arrived. While my classmates had concrete plans for their day, I was still deciding how to spend my time. My original goal to revisit museums sounded appealing, but I could not ignore the feeling that I was missing something from our London experience. I decided to explore Brixton Market and Camden Market in the interim. It became the best decision I made since both destinations allowed me to gain new perspectives on London’s artisanship, culture, and economy.
Brixton Market, found in southwest London, was an eclectic blend of international food and hipster taste. Brixton Village and Market Row created the full experience of Brixton Market. Meats, seafood, and exotic fruit dominated the market stalls, but the area seemed a bit deserted. Where were the people? Most were brunching at eateries nestled between small art galleries and home furnishing boutiques. It was difficult to tell what felt more out of place: the restaurants or the market stalls. I decided that this strange experience was the result of a rainy Sunday afternoon; surely Camden Market would have a similar issue.
When I arrived at northwest London’s Camden Market, it was a distinct experience from Brixton. People packed the market’s stalls, sidewalks, and surrounding streets. Camden Market, originally an arts-and-crafts fair, featured hundreds of stalls selling handmade art, jewelry, and clothing – all original and unique. Each stall held goods for a variety of tastes: flower jewelry, ethically-traded Indian textiles, lanterns, illustrated music sheets, wooden watches, you name it. While keeping in mind my strict souvenir budget, I spent time watching people: comparing prices at different stalls; haggling for bulk prices; and people offering their opinions on vendors. This is what I had been searching for – interaction, engagement, and the banalities of life.
Reflecting on the sites we visited, the markets provided me with realizations on artisanship and local economy. My market experience at Brixton reminded me of two markets we saw on our London walking tours: Leadenhall and Smithfield. Both markets were built as a response to 19th century hygiene concerns and to centralize the meat and produce trade. While both markets still stand, Leadenhall has been transformed into a shopping and dining experience, while Smithfield runs as a wholesale meat market. The handmade goods at Camden Market seemed like a 21st-century continuation of the Arts and Crafts movement. People of diverse backgrounds and skill sets all had something unique to offer at each stall, placing an emphasis on the quality of work they produced. Although the Brixton and Camden Markets were smaller markets than Leadenhall and Smithfield, they both provided first-hand experiences in the continued tradition of local trade. This type of economy kept everyday life moving during the 17th and 18th centuries and continues as a legitimate income source (and leisure activity) today. If ever I return to England, I would love to continue my exploration of markets in other parts of the country.
By Elizabeth Humphrey, WPAMC Class of 2019