Lorraine Stoker: London Life – Beatniks and Barefoot Girls in Trafalgar Square

As a child, growing up in a socialist household with a trade union activist as a parent, the 1960s were full of London marches and meetings. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and anti-Vietnam War causes were high on the list of mid-week and weekend activities – along with visiting art galleries, although a football match came before art! On reflection, it was a fascinating, innovative, fast-moving time, albeit an ominous and frightening decade overall.

In 1962, the US and the USSR had engaged in a 13-day political and military stand-off, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and Robert Kennedy would also be assassinated in 1968. The Vietnam war raged on, the British government pursued a Cold War nuclear policy, which saw squadrons of V- bombers armed with nuclear warheads. The government also continued with a commercial nuclear reactor programme – Sellafield and Dungeness, for example.

CND marches were held annually from 1959 to 1963 when the International Test Ban Treaty was signed, which partially banned nuclear tests. The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston was always the destination for the CND annual march, starting at Trafalgar Square. These Aldermaston Marches, the CND symbol and their slogan “Ban the Bomb” became icons and part of the youth culture of the 1960s.

This photograph by Anthony Kersting bears the inscription “London Life – Beatniks and Barefoot Girls in Trafalgar Square” and seemingly captures the youth culture of the 1960s.  Are we seeing the aftermath of a political demonstration, students waiting for the end of march speeches? Deep-political discussion after listening to Joan Baez and Donovan play and address the crowds at an anti-Vietnam protest?

“London Life – Beatniks and Barefoot Girls in Trafalgar Square”, image by Anthony Kersting. KER_PNT_U02, The Courtauld, CC-BY-0.4.

And what did Kersting mean to evoke by his caption, ‘Beatniks and Barefoot Girls’? The media sold a stereotypical description of the Beatnik that consisted of dark clothing, turtleneck sweaters, berets and glasses – and women would go barefoot. Free love and drug-taking were also associated with the Beatnik style. Even Kersting appears to have bought into the stereotype. Yet it was always more a state of mind than a way of dressing.

But when were these beatniks in Trafalgar Square and why? It took some time, and several fruitless attempts to find the date of the photograph, but eventually the year 1965 was identified from another image held within the Collection Archive for Art and History, Berlin. This image captures the moment just seconds before the photograph held in The Courtauld library was taken.

You can imagine Anthony Kersting, armed with his camera, hanging over the concrete balustrades in front of the National Gallery, trying to capture the “perfect image”. Whereas the first photograph is far “too loose” and poorly composed, the one Kersting captures seconds later is strikingly composed, divided into two almost equal sections by a strong diagonal yet linked by engaged and connected figures. The heavily textured and rather dark top half is beautifully balanced by the lighter bottom half with its horizontal shadows and the out of focus balustrade. The image reveals a range of tones full of blacks and whites, with dark shadows and bright highlights. The high viewpoint is a creative way to enhance composition, giving the photographer an aesthetic advantage. Such subtle changes in viewpoint can add a deeper meaning or feeling to an image.

It is the physical connection seen within the line of people that draws the eye from one side of the photograph to the other side, weaving in and out of both the seated and standing figures. It is easy to become immersed in their conversations, eavesdrop on their political discussions or their thoughts of the key speakers at the demonstration.

There is a real possibility that the Anthony Kersting photograph was taken during the anti-war in Vietnam demonstration rally in Trafalgar Square where American folk singer Joan Baez, a political activist as well as a singer/songwriter, performed. Joan Baez was a fixture at marches and protests, especially in the Sixties, preaching a philosophy of nonviolence. In fact, she was everywhere – in the Village with Bob Dylan, Mississippi with Martin Luther King Jr. and Palo Alto with Steve Jobs. Both Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs were her lovers at various times. She also famously often went barefoot – although at this particular rally she was wearing shoes.

At the Trafalgar Square demonstration, Baez sang Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing. The 5th verse captures the rejection of the more conventional society:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changing

If we make a reasonable assumption that the Kersting photograph in the Conway Library was taken on the 29th May 1965, it does indeed encapsulate the period itself. In the early 1960s, the Beatles’ Help premiered in the London Pavilion, National Service/Conscription was ended, and comprehensive education was introduced. Feminism became a more influential ideology, while recreational drugs became more commonly used. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Anti-Apartheid picketing continued outside South Africa House and 1968 saw the Ford Dagenham women’s strike for equal pay, while Barbara Castle became the first woman to hold the position of First Secretary of State. In March 1968, a crowd of 10,000 demonstrated against US involvement in the Vietnam War before marching to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, yet a year later in 1969 we saw the first men on the moon. It was a period of rising living standards in the UK but still dire poverty for many. A decade which was so full of promise but also disappointment and frustration.

It is also ironic that Trafalgar Square, built to separate the rich from the poor and, years later, modified to prevent public gatherings (the fountains were built solely for this purpose) would become the focus of protest, rebellion, demonstration and celebratory social gatherings.

The general public sees Trafalgar Square as a place to express freedom of speech and the ability to create change in the space. Scholars argue that change takes place when public space is used for strong protests and the historic presence of protests taken place in Trafalgar Square make it a significant area for the public.

From experience, the “space” does become a rallying point, a resting place, an enveloping space, offering comfort and safety… for the most part. Some academics have labelled the square as a “liminal space”, but introspective as opposed to uncomfortable, a place holding one on the threshold of new experiences. As a beatnik in 1965, having listened to Joan Baez in Trafalgar Square, and now talking to friends, this would indeed become a reflective, introspective space.

If Trafalgar Square is this in-between space, it is often these days geographically half-way between the start and end of a demonstration. Sometimes, one rests in the square before moving on to Parliament Square, or Whitehall. It is the space when you are “on the verge” of something new: you are between “what was” and “what will be”. A transitional space, a transformative space – as was and still is.


Lorraine Stoker
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer