Nobson Newtown

The first gallery showing of
Nobson Newtown was at Chisenhale Gallery in East London in February and March of 1998. I usually enjoyed the shows at the windowless, cement-floored, bunker-like space in the 90s, but I was particularly intrigued by this exhibition. There were about a dozen drawings divided between the four walls and I remember crisscrossing the room to view and to re-view each tantalising vision: soaking up the detail on the one hand, searching for an overview on the other.


I can’t actually recall the layout of the show, but the above image from Chisenhale Gallery’s archive suggests that
Nobspital and Paul’s Palace were shown against the east wall (on the right). I do seem to recall that Nobslum, one of the drawings that first attracted my attention, one of the earliest drawings to be completed, was on the west wall, out of the above shot.

On the day of my gallery visit, I bought the little book that had been published to coincide with the exhibition, and I have it on my desk in front of me as I type. The long painting in the middle of the north wall is
Quarry. Blocks of stone (nobrock from the Nobhill Downs that surround the seaside town on its non-sea sides) have been made into the block letters A, B, C, D, E, F. Then there is a strip from G to M. Then N stands on its own, standing of course for the all-important Nob. the alphabet is finished via two more strips of letters. I can see now that this is an important drawing, central to the artist’s vision, showing the viewer that the houses of the town are made both from local stone and letters of the alphabet. I haven’t seen the work since. I wonder in which enchanted space it hangs now.

In January 1999, I was able to persuade Keith Patrick at
contemporary visual arts to commission me to write a 2000-word piece on ‘Nobson Newtown’. This is what I had to say about the Chisenhale show, together with relevant illustrations. The paragraph in single quotes, reproduced in grey, contains the words of Paul Noble, taken from near the end of Nobson Newtown, the artist’s book:

‘Chisenhale Gallery. Nobson Newtown is presented in the form of a dozen large-scale pencil drawings - each one a separate fantasy building or buildings in a shared fictional landscape. The first thing about the town - though not necessarily noticed straight away - is that each architectural unit consists of isometric projections of letters of the Nobson font, a block-like font generated by Paul Noble. A terrace of houses consists of a row of seven 3-D letters: NOBSLUM. There’s also a multi-storey hospital - NOBSPITAL - a cemetery - NOBSEND - the architect’s house - PAUL’S PALACE - and an unemployment office - NOBJOBCLUB. Social satire, then, but what else? The output of an adolescent obsessive who had pencil, rubber, ruler and three years to scribble away? An aspiring tyrant with GSOH? A self-portrait via town planning?’


‘The artist’s book produced for the Chisenhale show begins with a map indicating that the centre of the town is a shopping mall surrounded by a puddle-strewn wasteland. Luckily the town is served by Nobgo Travel underground system, not to be confused - as it easily is on the map - with Nobwaste sewage system. The book’s deadpan style is at first reminiscent of Nathan Coley’s Lecture, where the self-congratulatory tone of an architect’s voiceover distracts the viewer from realising that the slides being shown are of unadulterated urban blight.

‘Before the old town was demolished, there was a comprehensive internal survey. The people of Nobson, after years of griping about the sad and sorry state of their town, were offered the chance of a fresh start. They were asked to input their requirements for amenities, leisure areas, work places and types of accommodation for a model new town. Responses were identical; every decision was reached unanimously. The people did not want a place of religious worship of any kind. The people wanted the town centre to be designated a site for wild and scavenging dogs. The people wanted the architect of Newtown to live in a luxury four-storey palace. The people wanted a helicopter landing-pad on top of the hospital in case Paul fell ill and needed urgent medical attention. The people insisted on squalour and depravity for themselves, and a factory with lots of tubes, pipes and general sprawl.’

‘The architects of the slums were very sensitive to accusations of fuddy-duddyism and didn’t want to be seen to be merely repeating tried and tested formulas. What resulted was a very modern slum but with a touch of poverty that perfectly combined the dual directions of the time. On the one hand, the very modernity of these slums suggest a progressive, and positively redemptive aspect to this kind of living. On the other hand, the obvious calculated neglect and creeping seediness could be taken to suggest that despite youthful optimism in the goodness of mankind and that all change is for the better, the truth is that wherever man goes, destruction and sadness aren’t too far behind.’


‘The residents of Nobson Newtown asked for positive redemption and creeping seediness. They got mudflow, avalanche, broken street lights, garbage left to rot in black bin-liners, a pipe pumping industrial effluent from the local factory into the sea, and a bigger pipe pumping raw sewage down on top of one poor sod’s house. They got exactly what they asked for. The architect ignored everyone’s wishes except his own.’

‘No pubs, sports centre, art gallery, cinema or leisure facility of any kind, except a lido. Only within the fenced confines of Paul’s Palace there is a choice of recreational facilities. In clear view is a trampoline, skateboard ramps, a basketball hoop, an easel and a table-tennis table. But what good is a table-tennis table without someone to play? And there is no-one to play with: the town is deserted.


‘No-one is about; the architect is everywhere.....Nob One climbs the ladder that flanks the main vertical cylinder in CLIPON. (The Chemical and Light Industry Plant of Nobson) in order to walk the circular, railed gangplank, survey the polluting chimneys and pipes below, and sniff the poisoned air of his creation....’


‘Nob One peers into the freshly dug grave that is the only space within the railings of cluttered NOBSEND that doesn’t yet have a vain and fatuous monument erected to the deceased.....’


‘Nob One stands in front of Nobslum B onto whose top the sewage is pumping down, wondering if the egg incubating inside is going to hatch into a monster. He remains standing there, wondering if the seed planted in the front garden will emerge from the earth, twirl up the fan-shaped trellis, and provide consoling yellow honeysuckle blooms - pouting and gorgeous - come the summer.’
- contemporary visual arts, issue 23

So that’s what I wrote back in 1999. Pity about the self-indulgent flourish at the end, but I was younger then. What do I think in 2012? A catalogue that the Whitechapel Gallery published in 2004 tells us that Paul Noble was brought up in Whitley Bay on the north east coast of England. There is a building in the seaside town, called the Spanish City whose dome echoes that of Nobjobclub, as the artist points out in a recent interview in the Evening Standard.

Screen shot 2012-11-07 at 16.36.31

Yes, I mustn’t forget that while the
Nobson Newtown project is partly concerned with a critique of society and human nature in general, it’s also an excavation of memory, an exploration of one person’s experience. This aerial shot of the sea front at Whitley Bay brings to mind Lidonob, a drawing made by Paul Noble in 2000.

Screen shot 2012-11-07 at 17.19.58

In the Whitechapel catalogue, the artist includes a page of photographs he’s taken which he refers to as ‘Seafront houses in Whitley Bay’. It’s possible to track these down using Google Earth. The row in question consists of four semi-detached houses. The eight dwellings do not make a slum, not by a long chalk, but the row does bring to mind
Nobslum, with gleaming cars taking the place of bags of garbage.

Screen shot 2012-11-07 at 17.24.26

Below is a map of Whitley Bay. The blue tacks mark, from north to south, the cemetery, the seafront houses, what I take to be an outdoor swimming pool, the Spanish City, the Metro (
Nobgo) and the shopping mall (actually that dates from 2004 so can’t be a direct inspiration for Mall). In addition, North Tyneside Hospital (Nobspital?), West Allotment Country Park (Nobpark?) and Tyne Tunnel Trading Estate (C.L.I.P.O.N.?) can be found just off the south border of this map.

Screen shot 2012-11-08 at 13.34.27

Paul’s Palace? I don’t know where Paul Noble lived when he was growing up in Whitley Bay. Nor do I know about the friendships with Trev, Carl and Jem that may have fed into Villa Jem, Villa Trev and Villa Carl. I don’t feel I need to. The drawings work on various levels. They worked very well for me before this virtual exploration of Whitley Bay. Having said that, sooner or later the more personal links will be investigated and written about by someone. The link between biography and ouevre fascinates many. If one thinks a work of art is inspired and original, one wants to find out what’s behind those unusual qualities. It’s what took me up the Amazon in the footsteps of Evelyn Waugh. Well, no, I confined my research to the author’s British haunts. There are limits.

If I was writing my 1999 article about
Nobson Newtown again now (which in a sense I am), I wouldn’t make so much of the solitary existence of the town’s architect. From 1988 to 1998, Paul Noble was one of five artist friends who ran City Racing near the Oval in south London. City Racing hosted any number of great shows - I remember seeing work by Jemima Stehli and Kerry Stewart there for the first time - but the list of artists associated with the place at an early stage in their careers is truly impressive. Paul Noble: not a tyrant aloof in his palace at all then (not that I ever really thought he was), but an artist constantly communicating with other artists.

One of those artists tells an anecdote on her website. A few weeks after contributing an audio tape to a group show at City Racing in the spring of 1997, Georgina Starr heard that someone at the gallery had made a bootleg copy of the piece. Subsequently, she got a letter from the bootlegger apologising for his action, saying that he wanted to hold on to the tape and to give her a piece of his own work in exchange. A month later Paul Noble arrived at her studio with
The Obscure Temple of the Starr Cult Beyond Nobson Newtown.


Not all the drawings reproduced in the first Nobson Newtown book made it into the Chisenhale show, and vice versa. In particular, the book starts with the Starr drawing. In the book we’re told that Staworm is the name given to the early peoples of the region. A note to the text states: ‘The word Staworm is thought to originally have been Starrworm, although this gives historians no greater insight to the origins of the word.’

In the foreground of
Starr, there is a tree in which a bird is perched, directly above the archaeological STARR. On the trunk of the tree hangs a nest-box. I think if the drawing had been part of the Chisenhale show, this viewer would have been tempted to imagine the bird flying the length of the gallery - as far as the open grave in the drawing, Nobsend. The bird (a robin, perhaps, the only British bird that sings throughout the autumn) could then have happily picked worms from the pile of loose earth by the empty grave, content in the knowledge that its new friend was safely tucked away in the nest-box; still above the ground; still putting together its complex vision of life on earth.

Of course, it’s quite possible I’ve got ‘Staworm’ wrong. Perhaps when Paul Noble wrote the following he was not having a laugh:

‘The etymology of this name remains shrouded in mystery, but there is some evidence that suggests worship of giant worms played a part in the religion. It has been proposed that the giant worms were in fact large sea creatures, possibly whales, although pottery decorations found around the site of the ruined temple of the Staworm cult indicate an anthropomorphosised worm the size of a large snake.’

Strange to think that in the seventeen-odd years since the first Nobson drawings, things have changed so much. There were no personal computers back then, just pencils, typewriters and worms. Now Google and Apple are inundating our senses. But that doesn’t mean the pencils have gone away. Or the worms.

If any copyright holder wants an image altered/removed, or the rights information to be displayed differently, they should get in touch.