Discovering feminism in Camden through the homes of famous women residents

Ladies of the Press are taking part in the Women of Camden walk. Picture: Elly Clarke

Ladies of the Press are taking part in the Women of Camden walk. Picture: Elly Clarke - Credit: Archant

In September the Ladies of the Press will be discovering Hampstead’s most interesting women through their homes, as part of the Camden50 project, celebrating the borough’s half century anniversary

Ana and Renee, a.k.a Ladies of the Press. Picture: Elly Clarke

Ana and Renee, a.k.a Ladies of the Press. Picture: Elly Clarke - Credit: Archant

Ana Cavic and Renee O’Drobinak, otherwise known as artistic duo Ladies of the Press, are dressed in holographic silver jumpsuits and rainbow wigs when I meet them in the inconspicuous Natural Kitchen on the conspicuously affluent Marylebone High Street. They stand out, but in a good way.

“They’re from Etsy!“ Cavic says to me enthusiastically, “We had them custom made - for every artistic project we try and create a new look.”

The project they’re currently involved in is Camden 50, a celebration of Camden’s half a century anniversary that is taking place this year, curated by Charlie Levine. Cavic and Drobinak were asked to get on board because of their strong reputation and their ardent adherence to feminism.

“They said they wanted someone to look into the female and feminist issues and also to look into radical press,” says Cavic.

“We said, “That is our turf darling,” O’Drobinak finishes.

Cavic and O’Drobinak speak fluidly, finishing each other’s sentences often in a way that reflects the seamlessness of their artistic relationship. Not only do the pair work together, but they also share a live-in apartment.

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“We’re like the Gilbert and George,” says Cavic — “Georgina!” chimes in O’Drobinak, giggling — “of publishing. Everything we output we run through our mutual machine and we’re constantly collaborating.”

Singer Gracie Fields in 1952. She lived in a house called Blue Tiles on Frognal Way

Singer Gracie Fields in 1952. She lived in a house called Blue Tiles on Frognal Way - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

Their main output comes in the form of a performance piece where they produce magazines on the spot, in what they’ve named “live press”. The magazines printed are both personal and objective, well thought through and rough around the edges, but ultimately authentically created with a pinch of love.

“We both attended the Slade school of art and it’s kind of legendary, the story of how we met,” says Cavic, explaining how live press first began eight years ago when they were at university, after they attempted to make a magazine about an art show but received no contributions.

“We took the press to the gallery instead and it turned out to be amazing,” says O’Drobinak.

While Cavic was born in the former Yugoslavia and grew up in Australia, O’Drobinak is half Japanese and half Slovakian American, growing up in Tokyo. It would be fair to say that their backgrounds encompass the spirit of Camden’s ever mutating demographic.

One of the most exciting things they’ve been doing as part of Camden 50 is finding out about the women of Camden though the premise of exploring Camden and its properties, and in September they will be helping to lead a walking tour of the area.

Starting at Hampstead tube station and winding round the streets of the borough to the mainline Hampstead line, they will be producing a magazine while discovering the homes in an area where an extraordinary amount of inspiring women lived, from cellist Jacqueline du Pre to florist and educator Constance Spry.

“It’s so fascinating,” says Cavic, “At the beginning of the project we knew so little and now in some ways I feel like we know even less even though we’ve absorbed so much. It’s such a rich place, Camden, it’s just layered with alternative history. A lot of strong women.

Cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who lived in Pilgrim's Lane

Cellist Jacqueline du Pre, who lived in Pilgrim's Lane - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“There were influential suffragettes who lived in the borough, and Virginia Woolf was in Garden Square and Tavistock Square, along with Gertrude Stein who also spent some time there.”

“There’s a great network of homes here in Camden,” adds, O’Drobinak, “there’s definitely a historical precedent as to why there’s been so many amazing women living here.”

Anne Tickell, of walking tour group Footprints of London who are putting the tour together, stresses that the walk isn’t yet finalised, but adds that while it’s been tricky link the homes of women into the walk, there are some beautiful properties to be seen along the way.

“Some of them lived in idyllic cottages in Keeps Grove and so on,” she tells me, “I have to say that most of the houses they lived in are rather simple, standard Victorian houses but writer Daphne du Maurier lived in a rather fabulous place called Cannon House which will probably be on the walk. It’s a stunning piece of architecture.”

While gentrification has priced both of the Ladies of the Press out of the Camden area, with the average price of a home in Camden costing £802,042 (and average rentals being over £700 per week) they feel uncomfortable about finding their cut-price rent home in east London.

“Gentrification is obviously not exclusive to Camden,” says O’Drobinak, “The people who are running our building are literally decanting people from social housing so that it can be sold off and we’re only living there in the interim, renting on the cheap.”

“It’s like, Jesus, I can’t even afford my own ethics. I can’t afford a house anywhere round here, a room, or even a bathroom door! London is turning into a city of really sick rich people. I’m slowly watching my creative community disappear everywhere, especially Camden.”

Dame Edith Sitwell blue plaque at Greenhill in High Street, Hampstead. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Dame Edith Sitwell blue plaque at Greenhill in High Street, Hampstead. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

She elaborates: “I used to walk up and down Tottenham Court Road all the time when I was studying and there were actually squats. You’d go into these old buildings and people had just inhabited it, and I guess the romantic way to put it is that bohemian art student existence. Now it’s all Itsus and Prets, and even more expensive sushi!”

For two women, neither of whom were born in the UK, it seems significant when Cavic calls Camden their “spiritual home”. Cavic says that working there as part of Camden50 has been made possible because they have been fortunate enough to be able to pursue a creative idea, calling their existence precarious.

While they’re able, Ladies of the Press want their work to inspire a new generation of women to live, love and work in the Camden borough, hopefully so that it retains an element of its historical, feminist past. The walking tour is set to be treat that will help to expose that radical energy and the magazine that they produce while taking part in it is likely to be just as exciting.

THE WOMEN OF CAMDEN WALK by Amber Raney-Kincade and Anne Tickell

The walk begins at Hampstead Underground station and we then make our way to Gracie Fields’ Mediterranean-style house in Frognal Way. Her home was a charming ‘cottage’ called Blue Tiles which she had built between 1931 and 1935.

We will then spend some time in the churchyard of the Parish church of St John at Hampstead, talking about a few of the very different women buried there – including novelist Eleanor Farjeon, committed suffragist Eva Gore-Booth and even Joan Collins’ mother.

Dame Anna Neagle lives in Holly Mount in a charming Georgian cottage, and from there we will be passing through the very pretty area of Hampstead Grove, Admirals Walk and Fenton House. P L Travers and Mary Poppins have connections to the Admirals House.

We then cross Heath Street to the area west of East Heath Road where we find Daphne Du Maurier’s Canon Cottage in Well Road. We will be criss-crossing our way through this part of Hampstead, spending time at Well Walk.

We will talk about Marie Stopes whose family planning work has become an international organisation, and the writers Faye Compton and Stella Gibbons. All of these lived in the big Victorian Houses in Well Walk.

Maggie Richardson the Flower Seller in Willoughby Road also has a wonderful mural to mark 60 years of her flower stall.

Jacqueline du Pre, famed for her courage as well as her music, lived in Pilgrim’s Lane in a pretty but not very distinguished house.

Photographer Lee Miller lived in one of the early Victorian houses in Downshire Hill and some of her work is displayed round the corner in 2 Willow Road.

Keats Grove is our final stop where we talk about the colourful Edith Sitwell and the politician Lady Violet Bonham Carter - neighbours to Keats House which we will pass on the way to Hampstead Heath Station.