LONDON  - In March of 1964, a new exhibition opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London. Its title, “The New Generation,” promised youth and excitement, and today the cast of painters – including David Hockney, Bridget Riley, John Hoyland, Paul Huxley and Derek Boshier – sounds like a roll-call of the best and brightest of 1960s London.

Twiggy modelling her first fashion line.

The young satirist, journalist and author Jonathan Miller, reviewing it in the New Statesman, thought the exhibition perfectly captured the essence of the age: the spirit of London at an extraordinary moment in its recent history. “Mod, of course, is the word one is groping for,” he wrote. “There is now a curious cultural community, breathlessly à la Mod, where Lord Snowdon and the other desperadoes of the grainy layout jostle with commercial art-school Mersey stars, window dressers and Carnaby Street pants-peddlers. Style is the thing here—Taste 64—a cool line and the witty insolence of youth. Tradition has little bearing on any of these individual talents and age can go stuff itself.”

A couple hanging around Carnaby Street in pearly king and queen costumes.

London in the 1960s – the London of Mods and mini, Terence Conran and Mary Quant, Carnaby Street, Abbey Road and the 1966 World Cup – has become one of the most mythologised landscapes in recent British history. In reality, a time traveller from the 21st century, having read about it in innumerable breathless accounts, would probably be deeply disappointed if his time machine deposited him at Piccadilly Circus in the age of Harold Wilson. For the most part, Britain’s capital was a tired, shabby city in the mid-1960s, its streets battered and careworn, its skyline disfigured by glass and concrete. The shops closed on Sundays; the pubs closed at eleven o’clock. And yet even at the time, the myths were being written.

In April 1966 the “Swinging City” became an unexpected Time cover star, but the American magazine had actually been slow off the mark. A year earlier, the Telegraph had already hailed London as “the most exciting city in the world,” its journalist John Crosby singling out the West End’s Ad Lib club as the epicentre of this stylish scene. There, he wrote, a visitor would see “models, au pair girls or just ordinary English girls, a gleam of pure joy on their pretty faces, dancing with the young bloods, the scruffy very hotshot photographers like David Bailey or Terence Donovan, or a new pop singer – all vibrating with youth.” But this, he thought, was merely a symptom of a wider change, even a revolution. For in the 1960s, “youth captured this ancient island and took command in a country when youth had always been kept properly in its place. Suddenly, the young own the town.”

Half a century on, those words look mildly ridiculous. Even John Lennon, one of the stars of the supposedly swinging scene, later admitted that nothing changed, “but we all dressed up.” Still, it would be hard to deny that there was something in the water in London in the mid-1960s, even if it was confined to a few square miles of the West End, Chelsea and Kensington.

A small boutique that had just opened in South Kensington.

Most young people were richer, better educated and more mobile than any generation before. Fashion, photography, pop music and film were offering opportunities to those with drive and talent. A good example was a handsome young man called Maurice Micklewhite, who had been born in Rotherhithe to a Billingsgate fish porter and a charlady. Renaming himself Michael Caine, Micklewhite had become one of the most bankable film stars in the world. He too subscribed to the cult of youth. “The only resources we’ve got in this country,” he said, “are the brains of our young people.” And his flatmate, Terence Stamp—another working-class Londoner—went even further. “People like me, we’re the moderns,” he told an interviewer. “We wear elastic-sided boots and smoke Gauloises, we work hard and we play hard. We have no class and no prejudice. We’re the new swinging Englishmen.”

At the time, Caine and Stamp seemed to lead lives of impossible glamour. Stamp’s girlfriend, the stunning Jean Shrimpton, was one of the most recognisable and best-paid models in the world. History remembers her as the model who popularised the mini-skirt at Melbourne Racecourse in 1965 (even though she was actually wearing a white shift dress). Her previous boyfriend had been David Bailey, while her sister Chrissie was going out with Mick Jagger. All appeared in Bailey’s Box of Pin Ups (1965), a photographic collection that cost a princely 63 shillings and seemed the supreme encapsulation of the new mood. Yet as some reviewers commented at the time, there was something off-puttingly solipsistic about it. “The camera, the most characteristic and sinister invention of our time,” wrote the reliably contentious Malcolm Muggeridge in his Observer review, “has ushered in – perhaps, better, crystallized – a religion of narcissism, of which photographers such as Mr Bailey are high priests.”

The Rolling Stones on their way to a television appearance.

To the stars themselves, all of this seemed to herald an extraordinary social and cultural breakthrough, driven by affluence, consumerism and mass education. The Beatles prided themselves on their working-class roots, even though only Ringo Starr came from a genuinely blue-collar background. “I’m terribly pleased to be working-class because it’s the most swinging thing to be now, and so it was all my time at Oxford– a tremendous status symbol really,” gushed the writer Margaret Forster, whose novel Georgy Girl was made into a film starring Alan Bates and Lynn Redgrave. And in his autobiography, the former Micklewhite insisted that “for the first time in British history, the young working class stood up for themselves and said, ‘We are here, this is our society and we are not going away. Join us, stay away, like us, hate us—do as you like. We don’t care about your opinion any more.’”

Yet half a century on, as the glamour of 1960s London fades inevitably into history, all this feels wildly overblown. Only a few years after Time magazine was hailing the Swinging City, public sector strikes saw bin bags pile up on London’s streets. The IRA bombing campaign of the mid-1970s destroyed the West End’s mood of innocent hedonism, while the myth of a new classless society was shattered by the divisive strikes of the years Prime Ministers Heath and Callaghan. To the modern observer, much of the art of 1960s London still fizzes with energy and enthusiasm. But the period no longer looks like a social revolution. Far from smashing the old elite, Jagger wanted nothing more than to join it: as his most famous 1960s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, remembered, he would eagerly turn up to “dinners given by any silly thing with a title and a castle. He was as smitten as any American millionaire in the movies.” As for Stamp, he liked nothing more, he recalled, than “to get into the Saddle Room [nightclub] and dance with the Duchess of Bedford’s daughter… and get taken down to Woburn Abbey to hang out for a long weekend and have dinner in the Canaletto room with the Duke’s sons.” Swinging London, or Regency London? Well, perhaps there was not much to choose between them.

Historian, author and broadcaster, Dominic Sandbrook has written a history of Britain in the 1960s,
White Heat (Little Brown, 2006)

Artworks from the 1960s will be offered in The New Situation, a selling exhibition at Sotheby’s London.

Photography by Philip Townsend