© David Hepher, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

NUMBER 22 1972

David Hepher (1935 – )


193 X 244 CM
Accession number


Starting in 1969, David Hepher was to spend five years painting suburban house fronts in south London. Number 22 is one of a row of Edwardian semi-detached houses in Townley Road, East Dulwich. Its front garden, panelled door, stained glass and bay windows are typical of a nostalgic kind of architecture that mushroomed in the interwar period around British towns and cities, alongside expanding transport networks.

Born in Redhill, a commuter town in Surrey, Hepher studied at south London’s Camberwell School of Art, then the Slade, where he recalls the prevailing principle was that what you painted didn’t matter so much as how it was done. When he left, he immediately started painting the view from where he was living, and made subject and style inseparable. The consummate anthropologist, he picks apart the phrase, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ by grounding his observations in years of research. After making drawings and photographs, he recreated the houses of Townley Road at half their actual size. This façade is plotted in minute detail, from picket fence and lonely shrub to moulded glass in the upper windowpane and the folds of the net curtains (installed to keep out prying eyes) – all extremely conformist details. The series is titled according to the house numbers, emphasising uniformity; here the number plate is cute and curly, but Townley Road homeowners personalise within a narrow theme.

Hepher’s images of suburbia capture the 1970s zeitgeist. By then the modernist housing estates built after World War II, often blocks of flats on a dehumanising scale, were being widely condemned as dystopian failures, whereas home ownership was a sign of upward mobility among the ‘baby boomer’ generation. Classic 1930s homes, once regarded as kitsch and downmarket, had a surge in popularity, as Poet Laureate John Betjeman attested in his BBC documentary Metro-land (1973). At the same time, a wave of television comedies transmitted concerns about suburbia into millions of living rooms. These programmes reconstrued the word ‘suburban’, from a geographical term to an adjective describing a banal state of existence, a cultural desert. Both set in south London suburbs, The Good Life (1974–78) and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1975–79) dip into the regiments of middle-aged middle-classes leading facsimile lives. Reggie Perrin’s absurd situation is encapsulated by his address: he lives at 12 Coleridge Close, an estate identical to the rest except it is named after famous poets. In Mike Leigh’s hit play, Abigail’s Party (1977), a cocktail party exposes angst behind the net curtains over emergent class distinctions: were they lower-middle, aspirational-midde or upper-middle class? Hepher turns the scrutiny full frontal. 

Text by Dorothy Feaver