The Tower Hamlets Arts Project was formed in the 1970s out of a protest.
In 1974, Thames Television launched the ‘Eyesights’ scheme. With money channelled through the Great London Arts Association, the idea was that professional artists would be commissioned to create giant posters for display in the borough — with over half the amount being earmarked for the hire of hoardings!
The scheme was inevitably tagged ‘Eyesore’ by local people already involved in arts and community activities who thought that the money could be put to much better use.
A crowded public meeting in February 1975 called for an alternative, bolder plan, bringing together existing and fledgling arts activities under a coordinating body to be called the Tower Hamlets Arts Project (THAP).
Rather than it being about artists coming into the area, it should be about those coming out of it! And after some initial eye-rolling, Thames Television eventually saw the sense of the argument. The Borough Council assisted by appointing an Arts Officer, Phil Shepherd, to support the new scheme.
THAP was launched at the start of 1976 and celebrated its achievements a year later with a month-long ‘Big Show’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Critics were bemused at finding this international venue, which had presented the works of Picasso and Frida Kahlo, awash with East End poets, Stepney filmmakers, amateur rock groups, truanting schoolkids, improvised theatre shows and messy experiments in silkscreen printing.
Another innovation was a bookstall run by the local Basement Writers group — selling a range of home-made material produced on inky Roneo printers and hi-jacked school photocopiers — which ran for the whole month. Its success strengthened a long-term ambition of creating a permanent bookshop in the borough.
THAP’s arts workers Eamon Duggan and Mandy Berry oversee creative work at a local youth club.
The THAP Bookshop opened in April 1977 in a crumbling, mice-ridden building in Watney Market, and in 1980 relocated to Whitechapel near the London Hospital, where it was renamed Eastside. From here, work continued to flourish.
Painting by Harvey Mildiner of the first bookshop in Watney Street, E1 in 1980.
Various programmes were instigated and launched, sometimes in collaboration with other groups.