Peony Gent’s six-month documentation of Kings Cross examines how layered connections, associations and memories make a place
The project features comics, poems, and observational drawings that Peony created during a residency with the House of Illustration. She details her considered approach to documenting a location and what she learned through that process.
- Ruby Boddington
- 17 September 2021
- Reading Time
- 5 minute read
Kings Cross is an area of London that has undergone rapid change. Anyone who knew the area five years ago, let alone 30 years ago, will tell you it’s almost unrecognisable. Once an unofficial red-light district and go-to spot for underground raves is now a cultural hub; the home of renowned art school Central Saint Martins, Google, Universal Music Group and many other businesses, as well as a swanky shopping centre full of high-end brands. What the impact of these changes is, both geographically but also emotionally for its inhabitants, became the focus of a six-month project for London-based illustrator Peony Gent.
We’re long-term fans of Peony here at It’s Nice That, having featured her work again and again since she was a Graduate back in 2016, so we were thrilled when she was awarded the House of Illustration’s Illustrator in Residence back in 2019. Overlay, a selection of comics, poems, and observational illustrations, is the result of that residency and is now on show for free in and around Kings Cross, through a collaboration with The Outside Art Project.
Peony is the sixth illustrator to take on the residency, and she applied with a proposal so “broad” she was sure it would never get selected. “I just knew I wanted to use those six months to explore Kings Cross as a site, documenting tiny everyday moments that I came across and creating a snapshot of a very specific place in a very specific time, with no agenda and no preconceptions,” she explains. They went for it though, and the illustrator began to roam the streets of Kings Cross “writing down things I overheard, doing drawings, getting into random conversations with strangers, collecting bits of rubbish I found on the floor, that kind of thing.” Far from what you’d call a planner, instead, Peony approached the project with open ears and eyes, waiting for small quotidian occurrences to strike emotionally in some way. “Too much pre-planning kills any kind of documentary or observational work, for me anyway,” she adds.
Her intentions from the offset were to create something incredibly subjective, and she’s keen to impress the notion that “this was always a body of work that would be a documentation of my experience of a place, not an objective documentation of all that Kings Cross is and has been. It would be disingenuous and disrespectful to those who’ve lived there for generations to pretend I could ever create a realistic portrayal of such a complex site in six months.” Wandering the streets, Peony replicated this “flaneur-type meandering” online, visiting message boards and speaking to people about their memories of the area. “I’d also visit the British Archives and see what I came across,” she tells us. “These random interventions would normally spark seemingly unrelated paths of research (for one week I remember doing intense research into the poet Rimbaud who lived in Kings Cross in the 1800s, another week I’d be frantically trying to find one particular house mentioned in a random interview from 2005 with a support worker who went in foster care in Kings Cross).” Rather than complicating the work, this overlap of tangential information became the work. Peony continues: “everything that forms a place lies layered up on top of each other like silt, all present for you to sift through until you find something that resonates with you personally.”
From this concept, she produced a hefty portfolio of work. There’s a 12-page comic titled Nottingham to London, for example, which documents Peony’s conversation with an elderly man playing one of the public pianos in St Pancras station. “He told me that for a while he’d been visiting London from Nottingham, where he lives in an assisted living centre. He said he missed playing for an audience so much that it was worth the journey just to play for the travellers and see them enjoy his music,” she outlines. “He had to rush off to get his train and I never even got his name. I look for him every time I go through St Pancras nowadays, but so far I haven’t seen him again.” This story exists alongside comics detailing other serendipitous events. Besides that, there are a plethora of poetry pieces; the art form making up a large portion of Peony’s practice. And observational drawings – one of the first things she started doing during the residency. “These drawings became something like the connecting points on a spiders web; I like that put together, they form something of a map of transitional moments in Kings Cross over a number of months,” she says.
Once the pandemic hit, Peony’s process, of course, had to change. After a brief (or not so brief) stint of worrying how a project documenting a place can go ahead when you can’t actually go to that place, she realised it could actually be a good thing. “Instead of changing track completely I was just being forced to sit down and look at my work and the site from a new perspective,” she explains. And all that looking paid off, for she realised several things about Kings Cross and what the work was saying about how places like it can exist. “They exist only partly in the physical ‘now’, the hard-fast-concrete present. In all other ways they exist in the set of connections, associations and memories we individually blanket them with,” Peony says. “All this history and all these old lives and new lives layer and intertwine, and during our ordinary day-to-day, we only let in a portion of that. Every place exists in a different world for each person, in a way. What for me is a thorough-fare, for her is a spot of respite, for him a holy ground.” That ability, for a place to be so many different things to so many different people – a kind of “invisible layering”– is what Peony began to focus on: “Something that begun as purely responding to a site turned into an act of remembering and reconstructing that place the best way I, as a visitor and voyeur, could.”
Overlay is available to visit until 27 September.
Peony Gent: I’m Here from Overlay (Copyright © Peony Gent, 2021)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.