Images that shine a light on what Britain is really like

Pigeon cream tea in Bath
Pigeon cream tea in Bath
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A new book from travelling art project the Caravan Gallery takes a warts-and-all look at British life. RACHEL JONES reports.

The second-hand car yard in industrial Essex wouldn’t have struck most people as an image for a book cover.

Jan and Chris say: 'We spent the day going round royal wedding street parties in Portsmouth and found these people at Gunwharf.They really made us laugh'

Jan and Chris say: 'We spent the day going round royal wedding street parties in Portsmouth and found these people at Gunwharf.They really made us laugh'

But as artist photographers Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale drove past, they knew they had struck gold.

Not only did it have a Union Jack on the gates, but it perfectly summed up the theme of their new photographic book Is Britain Great? 3.

Experts in not dressing it up and telling it like it is, Jan and Chris are drawn to anything quirky or starkly realistic for their books about Britain.

‘We once saw a mural that said ‘‘What you see depends on where you stand’’, says Jan.

‘I think that sums it up for us. A lot of areas seems a bit sanitised to us. We quite like places that are a bit rough around the edges, we find them more interesting.’

The couple have used flag images on the front cover of all three of their books which show the funny, eccentric and authentic sides of British life – a world away from the polished promotional images in tourist information brochures.

And they carry out their mission to snap the real Britain with the help of that humble holiday tradition – the caravan.

The Portsmouth artists set up the Caravan Gallery in 2000 and now travel the UK using their 1969 vehicle as an art gallery on wheels.

They’ll head to an area, spend some time exploring and taking pictures and then return with the caravan exhibition so the locals can see the results.

‘We love bizarre and ridiculous things but also things that are quite ordinary and examples of people making the best of a bad job,’ says Jan.

‘What we’re really into is that yawning chasm between the dream and reality. The sort of things you don’t see in the tourist information guides.’

For the latest in their series of Is Britain Great? books they have snapped pigeons ‘enjoying a cream tea’, amusing scrawls on billboards and funny business names and adverts.

The partners in art, business and life love to find beauty and charm in run-down places and have perfectly captured this in some of their images. But they also like to be provocative and get people wondering if Britain is great.

The Caravan Gallery – a mustard coloured vehicle which they brought for £250 from a lady in Hayling Island – has become well known in Portsmouth and throughout the UK.

Chris and Jan turned the inside into a proper art gallery, although they kept the brown curtains and floral upholstery for that vintage caravan feel, and ran their first exhibition at Southsea seafront.

The artists had no idea how far the old holiday home would take them in 11 years.

Not only have they taken it all over the UK and even overseas to Tokyo, but the mobile display has reached many more people than would normally visit an art gallery.

‘We take it to places galleries can’t reach and get all kinds of visitors,’ says Jan.

‘If we’re at an art event we’ll have artists and curators coming in, but we might also be at shopping centres or festivals.

‘A lot of people come in out of curiosity and end up staying. Some come in just because they like caravans.’

The fashion designer Paul Smith saw the artists’ work and loved the idea so much he had the caravan shipped to Japan to display outside his store. And of course the artists went too.

‘That was pretty spectacular,’ laughs Jan.

‘People really enjoyed it. It showed them a different side to Britain than Buckingham Palace and thatched cottages.’

The couple have also been to Belgium where they encouraged people to bring photographs and souvenirs to represent places in a large outline of a map – an exhibition idea they first created at the Space gallery in Portsmouth.

They also produce alternative postcards, showing everything from dogs to wheelie bins, and slightly subversive tourist information guides.

The couple are invited by organisations to visit places around the country with their exhibition and although they’re surprised by the success, they say they have worked hard.

‘We have made the most of opportunities and created them for ourselves,’ says Jan. ‘Still, we’ve invented for ourselves quite a bizarre job.’