“England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies and humors.” – George Santayana
“England My England” by Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins is a profoundly captivating portrayal of English identity.
The question of what it truly means to be English is one that many have asked, for England is, in some respects, a concept shrouded in ambiguity.
It largely lacks the deep-rooted Celtic traditions that define the cultural heritage of its neighbours, instead shaped by a multitude of conquerors over centuries, along with waves of immigration from across the globe. Chris Steele-Perkins has assembled a captivating collection of images that embarks on a quest to answer this somewhat enigmatic question.
Since joining Magnum Photos in 1979, Chris Steele-Perkins has traveled extensively, capturing penetrating images of life in Japan, Africa, Afghanistan, and his birthland Myanmar. Yet he has always been drawn back to the United Kingdom, the country where his father was born and which has shaped his identity, as it was here where he was raised from a young age. Over the years he has captured English society, creating some of his most iconic work on subcultures, poverty, and community.
England, or rather the essence of Englishness, encompasses many facets. There are the stereotypical elements—the royal family, fish and chips, the full English breakfast, pints in gloomy pubs.
Yet, it also represents the rich Caribbean culture of the Notting Hill Carnival or the multicultural tapestry woven into the fabric of cities across the nation—a reflection of its expansive colonial past.
Spanning almost the entirety of his five-decade-long career, Steele-Perkins’ images, some of which were taken from previous projects and books on the country, such as “Northern Exposures”, which portrayed life in the rural areas of the northeast, depict moments of everyday life, together providing a nuanced yet strong sense of what it means to be English.
The images are candid and authentic, yet rendered with the perceptivity and skill for which he has become renowned, perhaps enhanced by Steele-Perkins’ perspective as an Englishman of mixed heritage.
Amidst the moments of humor, relaxation, and joy—cricket matches and seaside scenes—there are more serious offerings, such as snapshots of race riots, whilst the striking contrast between the often gritty depictions of life for the country’s ordinary denizens and those on the opposite end of the scale highlights the stark inequality and deep-rooted class dynamics that still endure.
This perhaps speaks to the sometimes fractious nature of England—a country that often feels torn between its past as a global colonial power, ruled by an all-powerful monarchy, and its modern identity as a progressive, multicultural nation.
So, I ask again, what does it mean to be English? The answer is of course, complex, holding different meanings for different individuals. However, what Chris Steele-Perkins has created, whether these images strike a personal chord or not, is a profoundly intriguing portrait of a nation—eccentric, captivating, and inherently flawed. Yet, as the title suggests, one that occupies a special place in the hearts of millions.