Betsy Benn - Made in London Prints

October 19, 2017

Betsy Benn - Made in London Prints

Way back in the Seventies, I was born in Whipps Cross hospital in East London, a week before Christmas. And East London was pretty much where I stayed, getting my first Saturday job on a market stall in Walthamstow when I was 13, after lying about my age of course! I worked my way around several market stalls and shops until eventually I found my niche working at the Record Shop in The Arcade between the High Street and Hoe Street, where almost everything was vinyl, but CDs were slowly taking off. No one who lived in Walthamstow in the Nineties could be described as “wealthy”  - there was no trendy village and once you made some money back then, you moved to somewhere that began with a CH – Chingord Mount, Chigwell, Chelmsord, Chiswick even – so I worked hard for a teenager, and had no Saturdays to myself for about five years. I’m not complaining at all, because if Saturdays were when I earnt my pennies, Sundays were when I spent them. And London was just about the greatest stomping ground that a roving teenager with a spare tenner in her back pocket could’ve wished for.

tube map walthamstow  

Here we are - up in the East End of not-very-many-tube-stations. Walthamstow and Woodford look really close here don't they - I went to school in Woodford - it was a two-bus, 50 minute journey - on a good day.

Growing up in any city is, I imagine, a pretty awesome thing. But I’m willing to bet that London is the top of the pile. My love affair with my capital city began with China town excursions with my Mum on weird ingredient shopping trips and hunting for the perfect wok (not too shallow and with a wooden handle if you must know - lid optional), and blossomed once I started to explore the city and the underground on my own. Walthamstow Central is at one end of the Victoria Line, the stops of which I can still recite in order (world’s dullest party trick), and has Brixton at the other end. This was particularly handy when I picked up a uni holiday job flogging t-shirts at Brixton Academy one summer.

Sundays quickly became the day when the family wouldn’t see me from dawn to dusk. Unless I had one of my mad “all the different flavours of xxxxxx, that sounded good” buying sessions at the Selfridges or Harrods’s Food Halls, when of course I’d immediately have to return home for the tasting sessions. One week it was eight different types of bread, the combinations of which blew my 17 year old brain. This was much better than the six different types of cheese week. Although, travelling home on a warm tube with camembert, Stinking Bishop and slowly melting brie did leave with me with more elbow room than usual.


Camden woke up early at the weekends and had a sweet spot in my heart.

One favourite destination for my Sunday rambles was Camden. It was the coolest hang out zone North of the river (hold on – I pretty much never went South of the river – there could’ve been a southern version of Camden that was way trendier, but I was never going to find it). For a start, occasionally I hadn’t actually made it home from Camden the night before. There was an ace indie dance club at The Dome in Tufnell Park on Saturday nights and more than one or two friends that I could crash with if the night was just going too well to end. And then, once I’d passed my driving test, there was a heap load of free parking at the bottom end near Camden Palace. Who doesn’t love free? 

And Camden woke up early at the weekends. I knew of at least one record shop, Rhythm Records, that opened at 8.30. IN THE MORNING. On a SUNDAY! I’m not convinced that was their official opening time, but I was never the first person through the doors so it was obviously a local legend. I made one purchase in that heavenly venue that won me my good husband from the clutches of another – such is the power of well sourced vinyl. The four or five market areas were all buzzing by then too, and if you wanted even a sniff of the good vintage clothes in the covered market, you had to be in and out before 10am, or it was too rammed to try anything on. Oh how I loved the stall that sold bootleg CDs from every European gig that Pearl Jam had ever performed. They kept me so happy in the years they refused to tour the UK because Ticketmaster were evil and charged the fans too much in booking fees. A cheeky half in The World’s End before home time, and yep, Camden had a sweet spot in my heart.


Whilst Camden spoke to the wild child in me, the spiritual side need something a little gentler from time to time. Enter stage right, Covent Garden. Equally early to rise and shine, my first stop on any trip to Covent Garden was the indoor market and the greasy spoon café upstairs. There I had more mugs of hot chocolate than I can count and they made a mean bacon butty too. Just the right amount of griddle grit! The perfect breakfast.

The antiques market opposite had just about everything you could ever hope to find and I regularly lost a good portion of my Saturday job wages to those traders. And as much it was a very commercial venture, I really do miss The General Store for the odd quirky moments of retail therapy. The hippy in me was always inexorably drawn to Neal’s Yard, with the Crystal Shop and the cheese place. It was definitely a time for long flowy, tie-dyed skirts with bells on. In my memory it was a tiny, little tucked away place that you could easily miss, though I think it's bigger than that now. As is everything in town these days! Add a side swipe into Shelley’s shoes and the Bead Shop and a quick stop to see whichever performing artist was on by the Apple Market and that was my Covent Garden experience complete. 


As a teenager, I liked to think I had a certain acceptable level of cool. I mean, compared to most grown-ups that was an automatic assumption anyway right? But if I was in any doubt, or if I needed an instant injection of total hipness, I made a beeline for Carnaby Street. Just being in the vicinity automatically made me three times trendier than I was on any given day. That's actually still true, although maybe with a multiple factor of at least six! One of my most memorable and successful shopping trips involved an Atom Boy lenticular t-shirt from Boy London, the same tee that Stone Gossard had recently worn when Pearl Jam played at Brixton Academy, such was my Seattle geekery of the time. Complete with English translations of the original Japanese text and circuitry diagrams under the manga exterior, I wore that shirt to death over a period of about 18 years, so it really didn't matter that it represented two month’s worth of my weekend job money. Oh, and I suppose I should mention that on the way out, I walked past David Bowie. Ah, Carnaby Street, all the levels of awesome.

So imagine how many points my coolness went up when I found out that the best shop on Carnaby Street was going to be stocking two of my prints. Yes. It's through the roof. Well, it is in my head anyway. 

We Built This City was founded by an incredible woman, Alice Mayor, who recognised that there were some amazing artists in the city and creating representations of the city they loved, that were just so much more beautiful and authentic and funny and real than the general tourist garb that you could find on any concession stand and shop in your typical tourist hotspots. She was spot on. There are thousands of us, dotted around here there and everywhere, but with no dedicated platform to sell together and showcase the best of our creative endeavours. So it was a lucky day if you found even one of us, shining our single spotlight in the darkness! 

On the day that I first wandered past this beauty of a shop, I was revisiting teenage me in my head, possibly lamenting the loss of that Atom Boy t-shirt, and this beacon of colour and cool literally stopped me in my tracks. I lost a good half an hour looking at everything in the place and by the time I left I knew I had to join that curated artist community. 

Thankfully, We Built This City agreed. 


I knew immediately that our ‘Streets of London’ gold artwork would sit brilliantly on their walls. A little bit of inspiration from the saying that the streets of London are paved with gold, and then thinking around the idea of gold coins (the real AND the chocolate kind) and we ended up with a shiny circular map of central London. Its roads, parks and rivers are uniquely engraved on to the golden surface and not foiled or printed in the more traditional ways you might be used to seeing. This allows us to achieve a depth of texture that shows each group of features with a slightly different quality, giving a subtle three dimensional quality to an otherwise flat rendition. And you know, it might be just me, but I think the metallic nature and the round shape, gives this artwork a little hint of the Death Star!

We adore these metallics and have gone on to create a New York and a Paris version, available in the same reflective gold or brushed silver, and with a choice of either black or white mount boards. Then we went one better and created these as individual, completely personalised maps, so now you can request any area in the world to create your own map and add some sparkle to your gallery wall.

We were so proud of our metallic maps that they were the star attraction on our stand when we exhibited at Pulse in May. It was our first trade show and our expectations were set realistically low. But when I saw that Alice Mayor was going to be a speaker on one of the days, I made sure I went and listened and introduced myself to her afterwards. I definitely came over all fan girly, but wouldn’t you – she’s achieved an amazing thing with that shop and team of hers – and initially only had three weeks to build, set up and fill an entire store – most people’s brains would’ve exploded at that. By August I’d been contacted by Katy in the art team to see what we could work out together and we shipped our first order of prints to them just last week! 

So today, as part of my annual shopping visit to the Christmas shop at Liberty (because, hello? Liberty!) I took a little sideways stroll down Carnaby Street to see my Streets of London gold map on the wall. Seventeen year old me would think forty something me was really very cool. 


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