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Art review: Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story

Gayna Rose Madder looks at Stephen King's evocative images focusing on the store that will soon be gone for good

Published on March 4th 2010.


Art review: Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story

STEPHEN King's pictures are filled with a sense of sadness and loss at a disappearing world – a world populated by high standards, reverence of the public and of caring about the experience of customers.

The now-nostalgic images on the walls, the knife and fork and plant-pot tiling in the Mersey Room, were cutting-edge in more ways than one

Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story is made much more poignant by the news, announced days before the exhibition opened, that Liverpool's oldest department store is to close its doors for good.

Whole generations of families worked at the huge operation known as Lewis's. Members of staff met their life partners there, and introduced their offspring into its bustling, service-oriented world.

Shirley Ruth (née Mason) is one of those featured, together with her mother, Dorothy, who worked on the shop floor before becoming a manager and then moving to the buying office in London (though the first store was founded in Liverpool, several more then opened in Britain). This is the key to the ethos and atmosphere of Lewis's. School-leavers could start there, learn a trade and then make their way up to the very top of a very competitive profession if they were good enough at their job and worked hard.

The show revolves around the lost fifth floor, closed off in the 1980s and uses since as a storage space. Dorothy worked up there from 1950-1966. Shirley herself worked as a hairdresser from 1959-1965 in the cavernous styling room with its rows of vinyl seats, Diplomat full-head hairdryers, and its six private (double!) cubicles for those who had the money to be shielded from the public eye. This included manageresses of tough pubs on Scotland Road, who came in to have their beehives backcombed midweek, to such luminaries as songstress Shirley Bassey and actress Beryl Reid.

Lewis's became a huge organisation with expansionist tendencies which foreshadowed that of today's supermarket chains; for instance, having its own bank. Shirley's daughter, Anne (by her husband who she met as he also worked in Lewis's) continued the tradition by working for the store's financial dept.

In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s and 1970s the Ranelagh Street building was the absolute epitome of fashion and style.

The now-nostalgic images on the walls (see the knife and fork and 'plant-pot' tiling in the 'Mersey Room') were cutting-edge in more ways than one (think Clarice Cliff, Queensberry, Missoni or Woolworth's 'Homemaker' crockery range). There was a full-time tiler on hand , (Reginald Goodall - also pictured) to deal with everything from the wide corridors which linked this café with its more exclusive sister, the Red Rose Restaurant, and the needs of the other pampering rooms offered by the store's top-floor. Imagine a time when the top floor 'Powder Room' employed full-time cleaners, working all day)

Stephen King, who spent months taking the photographs says: "One of the main aspects that I try to concentrate into my work is the inclusion of details, it is these details that tell a story. It is what essentially makes my work documentary work even though it is undertaken with a studio or still life approach."

"I have a few favourite pieces - some for no reason other than that I love how they look - like the pink Christmas trees. I like the kitchen images as a whole, the way that the decorations that have been dumped there for the last 30 years appear to be over growing the space is very strange."

Being from a generation who met under the statue of Dickie Lewis as a teenager, it is hard not to be aware of how much Lewis's will be missed. Don't forget it's still open for a few more weeks.

Until August 30: Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story, National Conservation Centre Whitechapel, Liverpool. FREE. Open 10am-5pm every day. 0151 478 4999

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