As part of London Design Festival’s tenth year in 2012, we were commissioned to take part in the ‘7 Designers for Seven Dials’ project. Alongside six other designers (Faye Toogood, Vic Lee, Paul Cocksedge, Philippe Malouin, Gitta Gschwendtner and Dominic Wilcox), our individual structures were installed above the streets of the atmospheric Seven Dials area of Covent Garden, London.
Our design for the project harked back to the days when the area was a hotspot for the strange practices of “The Quacks of Old London”. These notorious fraudsters – such as Dr James Tilbury, who sold the herb ‘spoonwart’ supposedly mingled with gold – were bogus practitioners whose skill, knowledge or qualifications were entirely made up. They used early forms of advertising to promote what were essentially quite humble or even useless products. One famous quack living in the area installed an advertisement above his door, which made grandiose claims and promised to reveal the inner workings of ‘Sulphur and Mercury’. Another one we found proclaimed: “near the Seven Dials in St Giles, Liveth a Gentlewoman, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter’ who could divine the result of pregnancies and lawsuits: ‘SHE ALSO INTERPRETS DREAMS”.
We also drew inspiration from another local past resident, James Catnach, the first producer and promoter of the broadsides, songs and pamphlets which circulated through the streets of 18th-century London. These cost a penny each, hence the term ‘catchpenny’. However, Catnach had a problem – no-one would touch his coppers for fear of catching an infection from the metal coins. His ingenious solution was to boil the pennies in potash and vinegar so that they became bright once more.
Our installation, Catchpenny Quackery, consisted of 18 large metal pennies suspended individually within a larger frame. The metallic coins featured unique symbols that were used to advertise the ‘quack’ products and services while simultaneously reflecting the surrounding light and movement of the area. A key at ground level enabled passers-by to decipher the symbols and learn more about these strange and extraordinary practices that were once so common in the area.
I-AM Beyond / Dezeen
2m x 4m
Seven Dials, Covent Garden, London.