Few realise that England has some of the largest annual carnivals in the world. Notting Hill in London is reputedly Europe and possibly the world’s largest, and the Bridgewater Carnival in Somerset the largest illuminated carnival in Europe.
Although it is fairly certain that carnival celebrations date back to the pre-Christian era, modern carnivals come to us from Roman Catholic (and to a lesser extent Eastern Orthodox) traditions. Most of Catholic Europe and South America still has a strong carnival tradition, and the best known of all is held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a holiday during the Christian fast of Lent.
Carnival virtually disappeared in this country with the Reformation, although we still celebrate Shrove Tuesday as Pancake Day and some Shrovetide football matches are still played. As in most Protestant countries, it became a footnote in our history, although a few towns such as Devizes in Wiltshire have parade charters that go back hundreds of years.
Carnivals have sometimes evolved from fairs, but more often from religious events such as Saint’s Day celebrations, Parish Feasts, Wakes and Whitsuntide processions, and also pagan celebrations such as May Day. Some emerged from anti-Catholic Guy Fawkes celebrations and others from miner’s Galas. Modern carnivals started in their present form late nineteenth century, but most date from the twentieth, with the hey-day of the carnival being in the years immediately following the Second World War.
A survey in 2002 identified 220 traditional English carnivals occurring in that year, but more were thought to exist. The main feature that these had in common is that they received no core public funding. Many were almost entirely organised by volunteers; most also raised money for charities.
Carnival in England has been enlivened over the last forty or so years by the Caribbean influence, and West-Indian style carnivals have received considerable funding and become a popular celebration of our multi-cultural society within the larger metropolitan areas of the country, joined in recent years by Latin American, Asian and Central European communities.
In London, some boroughs still hold summer carnivals, usually involving street parades of floats and individuals in fancy dress costumes, and similar events take place in cities, towns, villages and hamlets throughout England, sometimes at places that barely appear on the map.
The West Country illuminated carnivals go on into late November and have well organised societies who build and run floats; like many other carnival societies they raise funds throughout the year. Events such as those in Tideswell, Derbyshire and Tichfield in Hampshire help to maintain the individuality and traditions of their areas.
The pictures in English Carnival reflect our society and mirror our present and past cultural values. They illuminate an aspect of our culture that makes a real contribution to the identity and social cohesion of communities throughout England.
Paul Baldesare, Peter Marshall, Dave Trainer and Bob Watkins have previously exhibited their work in numerous shows, and have been published in a wider range of books and magazines.
Baldesare and Watkins have made a long study of English Carnivals, and received Arts Council funding for their work, which has also been shown in a number of group exhibitions. Marshall's pictures from the Notting Hill Carnival have also appeared in various shows, and a portfolio of 20 images was published in an American magazine with an essay on carnival. Other work by him has been shown at the FotoArtFestival 2005 in Poland and at FotoArte 2007 in Brazil. Trainer's work has also been widely shown and featured in the recent exhibition "How We Are: Photographing Britain" at the Tate Britain. All four have all lived and worked in London for many years.
29 Sept- 31 Oct, 2008 The Juggler, 5 Hoxton Market, N1 6HG