LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Three adults, one child -
Philippa Mackenzie -Thorndike,
Carl Thorndike and Alfie
Date of photography: 12 November 2016
An unconventional arrangement nowadays, perhaps, but not one so uncommon in years gone by: Alfie’s mother, father and aunt have created a loving, supportive home that would have been that much harder to achieve for two working parents on their own. Life is not easy: the pressures and demands of modern life on working people in London are great indeed, but whilst Yvonne, Philippa and Carl maintain their own space and independence, they are also able to share some of the burdens, offering essential support to one another through the difficult times and sharing the joy that comes from the love of all the fine and beautiful things this world has to offer. The three of them are nurturing Alfie into a fine boy - soon to be a young man - a task that would have been much harder to accomplish for a conventional working couple.
In our society, the 20th century saw the extended family largely superseded, and living as a couple has now become the social norm. While it is often represented as the ideal ménage, it can often create almost hermetically sealed domestic units, where habits and eccentricities go unchallenged simply because everyone else is excluded. This is definitely not the case in the household where Philippa Mackenzie-Thorndike, her husband, Carl Thorndike, and their son, Alfie, share their lives with Philippa’s sister, Yvonne Mackenzie. Recently retired from her career as a senior executive in a succession of famous-name fashion retail businesses, Yvonne was at one time described as being amongst that small band of people who dressed the women of Britain. Like both their grandmothers, who also shared households with their sisters, Yvonne and Philippa have always been close and, while they are undoubtedly very different personalities, they have always had much in common. After Philippa met her future husband, Carl, at art college, they first lived together with Yvonne in West Yorkshire, creating an unusual and enduring family circle that was finally completed over twelve years ago with the arrival of their son, Alfie.
Having originally interviewed and photographed the Mackenzie-Thorndike family at quite an early stage in the project, I returned a year later to extend this article and to take the liberty of asking Yvonne, Philippa and Carl to tell me a bit more about themselves. I started with Yvonne.
“Though I was actually born in Manchester, my parents lived at that time in Ashton-under-Lyne which, though a part of Greater Manchester, is a distinct market town situated on the north bank of the River Tame, in the foothills of the Pennines. We then moved to Royton, also a part of Greater Manchester, but close to the source of the River Irk and very much a part of historical Lancashire. My father was a draughtsman by profession so you could say we were sort of ‘upper-working class’, although prior to that, the family had been solidly working class, for they had mostly worked in the cotton mills. My mother had trained as a secretary and for one part of her working life, she worked in the War Office, so she was a Civil Servant. I have one older and one younger brother and Philippa is my younger sister. I have no hesitation in saying that we had a happy childhood.”
Yvonne went to the local primary school at Royton, where she did well, well enough to pass the ‘11Plus’ examination, following which she was awarded a place at Chadderton Grammar School for Girls, in Oldham. Yvonne continued: “I did well at Grammar School and, although I was being pushed to go to university and to study an academic subject, it didn’t excite me. I had been interested in fashion from an early age, drawing designs or making clothes for my ‘Tressy’ doll (an iconic 1960’s fashion doll) and then for myself and my family. I loved making things. Encouraged by my fantastic needlework teacher, Mrs Evers, I developed a lifelong fascination for garment and textile design and construction. Thus, the instant I came across an article in a magazine about fashion buying, I immediately knew it was something I wanted to explore. I have always been very independent and determined so, much to the consternation of my headmistress, I opted to go to a college in Manchester where I had found a Marketing course with a strong emphasis on Fashion, and specifically aimed at a career in Fashion Buying.”
From there, Yvonne went straight into her first job in the buying office of Marks and Spencer at their headquarters in London’s Baker St, probably then the most significant retailer of textiles in Britain. Her career progressed, leading to senior buying roles with many of the best-known high street retailers, including Next, BHS, Accessorize, Asos, White Stuff and others. She has travelled all over the world, researching and sourcing products and, as a result, has developed a keen interest in the art and history of other cultures.
Having got Yvonne safely launched on to her career, I turned next to Philippa, asking her something more about herself. “ Milan, just like Yvonne, I was born in Manchester, but by that time the family had settled in Royton. And yes, I would also say that I had a happy childhood. Being the youngest, I don’t think I was actually spoiled, but I did probably get away with things more than my older siblings.” Laughing, Philippa continues: “Both of our parents had been only children, so we didn’t have any vast, extended family around us, but I was the one who was always interested in the past and in our family roots - it is the bit of the social historian in me and has informed the sort of work I do now within museums. My education was quite standard: Lancashire County Council primary and secondary schools but, as I failed my ’11 Plus’ - I was then and I still am fairly rubbish at Maths - I had no option but to go to the local comprehensive, where I did OK. I enjoyed my teenage years but they somehow felt a bit split up because, when I was 16, our family moved to Northwich, a historic town lying in the heart of the Cheshire Plain. At a stroke, I was disconnected from all my friends, which was a challenge. As you know from Yvonne, our father was a professional draughtsman and I’d always been good at drawing too so, logically enough, I went off to Northwich College of Art and Design, where I did an Art Foundation Course, had a great time, and made lifelong friends. After that, I went on to take my degree at what was then the North Staffordshire Polytechnic, in Stoke-on-Trent. I completed the course there in Fine Art (Sculpture) and that was also where I met Carl, and here we are, still together more than 36 years later.”
Carl graduated in 1983, with Philippa graduating the following year, at which point they were launched into the grim reality of mass unemployment in recession-blighted, Thatcherite Britain. There were hardly any jobs at all in their part of the world and, arguably, there could hardly have been a worse time to look for work armed with a degree in Fine Art. Eventually, they managed to get on to an Enterprise Allowance Scheme for business start-ups: using this, they opened a small shop in the famous Halifax Piece Hall where they sold their own artworks as well as work by other local and international artists. But demand for the luxury of art during the long years of recession and unemployment was low and the shop was finally forced to close. Philippa then worked as a volunteer at a local museum in order to gain experience to secure a place at Leicester University to study for an MA in Museum Studies, and this she duly completed. By that time, Philippa was 30 and, armed with her new qualification, she secured an appointment as Collections Manager at Bankfield Museum in Halifax. During her eight years there, working with fantastic collections and inspiring colleagues, she gained a breadth of invaluable experience, enabling her to progress to a senior post in one of London’s premier museums, for Philippa is now Head of Collections Management at the National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich.
Next, I asked Carl to tell me something of his story: “I was born in Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, to a working class family. My father was the manager of a number of betting office chains. Before she married, at the age of 21, my mother was an acrobat, dancer and singer and she used to appear on the stage, but all that ended with the birth of three children who all needed to be looked after. Later on, though she did return to work, she joined my father in the betting industry.” In response to my asking Carl what kind of childhood he had had, he continued: “Milan, I was the youngest of three children. My oldest brother suffered severely from Down’s Syndrome and had to be institutionalised; my middle brother was himself six years older than me; so, to be quite honest, though I was one of three brothers, I often felt like an only child and didn’t particularly enjoy my childhood. I went to the local school where I didn’t do particularly well. I went on to the local secondary school, and didn’t do very well there either. I don’t think the learning environment in those places suited me - sitting in large groups, being talked at all the time, was not for me, and a lot of the time, I just found it difficult to concentrate.”
Carl had a couple of false starts with Arts-based courses but these did at least allow him to catch up with some of the basic qualifications he had failed to get at secondary school - these were essential for him to make any progress towards higher education.
“I was 19 when I enrolled on an Arts Foundation Course in Wakefield and from there, I progressed to take a three-year degree in Fine Art at North Staffordshire Polytechnic, in Stoke-on-Trent. My specialism was silk-screen printing but once I’d graduated, I found that it was difficult to get access to the necessary facilities in order to practise in the field. After my enterprise with Philippa in Halifax’s Piece Hall came to an end, I eventually managed an art gallery in Leeds and helped to run a public arts consultancy. Since Philippa got her job at the National Maritime Museum and we moved from Halifax to London, I’ve been working continuously as the Customer Services & Sales Manager at the National Centre for Circus Arts, with most of my spare time being spent actively involved in raising our son, Alfie, who also finds it rather difficult to cope with the conventional mode of education.”
Yvonne, Philippa, Carl and Alfie all now live in a fine period townhouse in South East London and their home reflects what are their broad but largely shared aesthetic values. They all live and breathe art, in its multifarious guises, and this passion is reflected in the appealing home they have created together. Delightfully unpretentious, it is certainly eclectic, full of fine artworks, paintings, and ethnic art from all over the world. The interest they share in fashion and the arts places them almost always amongst the most casually stylish people I ever meet.
While the dynamics of such a household are not perhaps as complex as obtain amongst those who live in extended families or communes, the strong personalities of these three adults create an atmosphere where no view remains unchallenged, yet where shared passions and values are allowed to flourish. Young Alfie is certainly growing up in an environment where nothing is ever taken for granted; his horizons will thus be unusually broad and his aesthetic sense will no doubt develop fine-tuned to what is classical as much as to what is avant-garde, not forgetting, of course, his burgeoning talent and enthusiasm for sport.
Life is not easy: the pressures and demands of modern life on working people in London are very great indeed, but whilst Yvonne, Philippa and Carl maintain their own space and independence, they are also able to share some of the burdens, offering essential support to one another through the difficult times and sharing the joy that comes from the love of all the fine and beautiful things this world has to offer. The three of them are nurturing Alfie into a fine boy - soon to be a young man - a task that would have been much harder to accomplish for a conventional working couple. It was an honour and a pleasure to photograph them together in their splendid home.
Text finalised: 20 November 2016
Re-edited: 14th March 2018
Page modified: 6th April 2019