WE Essex dwellers are all too aware that those outside the county think we're a white stiletto wearing, orange fake tan covered TOWIE-loving unsophisticated lot. Although we might shun these assumptions, knowing we live in a darn cool, thriving arts and culture scene - a world away from the typical stereotypes - how many of us were aware that Essex has long been a region bursting with forward-thinking modernists?

Championing this fact, and hoping to bring it to the attention of Essex, the rest of the nation and perhaps beyond, is the Focal Point Gallery in Southend, who in partnership with Visit Essex and Firstsite in Colchester, are leading the launch of a brand new county-wide umbrella project called Radical Essex.

Radical Essex intends to celebrate Essex's role in the history of utopian ideologies, pioneering thought, lifestyle, art, politics and architecture, through a series of exhibitions, commissions, events and festivals. These will include an Essex Architecture weekend, Alfred Hitchcock Festival, a floating commission on the Thames Estuary, a major artistic commission at Bradwell, the Radical National Trust of South Essex and a touring exhibition called The Peculiar People, which opens at the Focal Point gallery on April 16.

Funding of £293,000 has been awarded to the project by the Arts Council, as part of the country-wide Cultural Destinations programme in partnership with VisitEngland, which supports arts organisations to work with the tourism sector to maximise the impact culture has on local economies. Radical Essex will last through 2016 and 2017. It welcomes input from the public and intends to set up working groups, inviting contributors to the sessions, with the possibility of financial support being given from the budget.

Joe Hill, director of Focal Point, said: "Essex was a county where utopia was imagined, traditional ways of living were challenged and revolutionary politics, art, architecture and literature were born.

"We wanted to do a project which was unique to Essex. We could have said, 'oh we've got galleries and the seaside', but everyone could say that. So we decided to focus the project on the radical history of the county.

"It’s going to be great… loads of art, punks, anarchists, nudists, modernist architecture and Hitchcock films!"


THE Radical Essex project is being kicked off with an exhibition called The Peculiar People at the Focal Point gallery, opening on April 16 until July 2.

"The Peculiar People is a really exciting exhibition and examines and traces a history of radical, ideological and social-political communal living experiments throughout 20th Century Essex, extending to the present day and beyond" explained Joe Hill, Focal Point director.

The exhibition takes its title from one of the alternative communities featured in it, who were called the Peculiar People. They were an ideological colony, founded in 1838 in Rochford, Essex. They practised a lively form of worship, rejected modern medicine and instead chose faith healing, and considered themselves bound by the literal interpretation of the King James Bible.

Another community featured in the exhibition, is the Tolstoyan colony, who established themselves in Purleigh in 1896. A 29 acre Wickford colony, which was linked to it, followed in 1898. It was during this time that this alternative thinking society began to branch out. During this late 19th century period the phrase 'anarchist naturism' appeared - the union of anarchist and naturist philosophies. Anarcho-naturism advocated vegetarianism, free love, nudism and an ecological world view within anarchist groups and outside them. Anarcho-naturism promoted an ecological world view, small eco villages, and most prominently nudism as a way to avoid the artificiality of the mass society of modernity.

The Peculiar People and Tolstoyan colonies will be included in a display speculating on alternative living experiments from the late 1800’s to the 1980’s in the gallery’s main exhibition space, alongside visual art, architecture, design and literature that relate to these counter-cultural histories.

In Gallery two of Focal Point, artist Christian Nyampeta’s installation "gives framework to an evolving radical library and programme of performances, permaculture experiments, readings and public discussions, which extend, question and re-examine modes of non-conformity within a wider cultural and political context".

Joe Hill, said: "The exhibition will culminate with a shift from socialist agricultural developments, to looking at the growth of the financial sector in the East End of London, with Britain’s first credit card company establishing itself in Southend.

"This shifting landscape is also explored through the inclusion of modernist architect Cedric Price's idea proposed in 1972, to have a lightweight pneumatic roof - kind of inflatable looking - over the pedestrian shopping area of Southend's Hight Street. It never happened of course, but can you imagine? We have managed to get hold of the model for the exhibition. It's amazing... although I'm not sure would have been very practical!"

The exhibition will also feature a newly commissioned work for The Big Screen Southend by Hannah Black.

The Peculiar People

Opening night: Saturday April 16

Focal Point Gallery

Elmer Square