Fascinating exhibition shines a spotlight on the Lewes High Street of yesteryear

Never before seen archive pictures from 1860 to 1960 – showing a time when high streets were thriving and shopping was sustainable – are set to be unearthed in a new exhibition this September.

The images in forthcoming exhibition ‘Lewes High Street: Retail Retold’ document Lewes high street from 1860 to 1960, and come from the Edward Reeves Archive – the collection of historic images from the world’s oldest surviving photography studio.

They reveal a bustling high street at a time where shoppers bought products in reusable glass bottles and brought their own jugs and baskets, and when people were more likely to repair broken belongings rather than simply replace them.

The exhibition – initiated and organised by the Photography and Archive Research Centre at London College of Communication, UAL – consists of 80 photos taken in the East Sussex town between 1860 and 1960, and will be displayed in shop windows as lightboxes on various locations along Lewes High Street.

Brigitte Lardinois, Senior Research Fellow at London College of Communication, UAL and a curator of the exhibition, said: “Lewes High Street: Retail Retold focuses on the importance of the high street, which is central to the social and economic life of our community.

“The exhibition gives special emphasis to the more sustainable way in which previous generations traded and shopped, and highlights ever-changing lifestyles. London College of Communication has taken ‘sustainability ‘as one of its key research points and I feel that using this archive to promote reflection on our current way of life is extremely timely.

“We want the photographs to give the viewers pause for thought. For so many years it was normal to shop locally, to mend what was broken, and to use the high street for socialising. Losing these places is a serious threat to the life of small towns.”

“By photographing the original glass negatives we are able to digitally blow them up much bigger, revealing details in the picture that even the photographer could not have seen at the time.

“This exhibition, for the first time, shows these details – revealing scenes not normally deemed important enough to capture at the time, but fascinating for us now.”

Trevor Beattie, Chief Executive of the South Downs National Park Authority, attended the opening of the exhibition.

He said: “These pictures show that our ancestors loved their high streets and we badly need to learn to love them again.

“The Victorians knew how to create lively, vibrant shops that people went out of their way to visit and the light boxes capture this.

“So this exhibition brilliantly unites the future of our high streets with the quintessence of the National Park.

“It unites past, present and future in a single glance through a shop window.

“The National Park and Lewes are lucky to have such a powerful living archive.”

Lewes High Street: Retail Retold’ will run from 5 to 29 September 2019 in various locations in Lewes Town Centre. The exhibition is curated by Brigitte Lardinois, Tania Osband and Tom Reeves.

Picture: Mr Watson, Boy and Trade Cycle. 1934. Copyright: Edward Reeves Photography, Lewes