The Jewish Museum is nestled in the heart of Camden Town. Born just a few tube stations away, Amy Winehouse moved to bohemian Camden when she was just 17, staying until her death in 2011. She was nicknamed the ‘Queen of Camden’, but her family origins in North London’s Jewish community are less celebrated.
In the museum foyer is a set of screens depicting images of Amy in her prime. One shows a clip of her pitch-perfect performance of ‘Back to Black’ inside an Irish church, back in 2006. Displayed in a glass case, a familiar gingham baby-doll dress – complemented by a pair of pink ballet pumps – lure us upstairs.
The exhibit opens with a giant, blown-up image of Amy by her mantelpiece in 2004, about a year after her first album, Frank, was released. At the time, her hair was long and straightened – she would not adopt her signature beehive for another two years. Vintage Vogue covers on the wall reveal the inspiration behind her already distinctive style.
Among her pile of VHS tapes is Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’ – the very first video single, banned by MTV in 1991 – and Bus Stop, a Marilyn Monroe film from 1956. She also owned a mirror with Monroe’s image embossed on the glass.
‘All my life I have been loud, to the point of being told to shut up,’ Amy wrote in 1995, then a precocious 12 years old. Further quotes from this essay provide captions for the items on display, alongside commentary from her brother, Alex Winehouse.
The first section looks at Amy’s ancestors, who came to London from Russia in the late 19th century. There is a digital photo album, and an illustrated family tree. Her family were not strongly religious. ‘Being Jewish to me is about being together as a real family,’ Amy said in 2005. ‘It’s not about lighting candles and saying a brocha.’
A hefty, well-worn copy of Claudia Rosen’s Book of Jewish Food is displayed. This is where Amy learned her favourite chicken soup recipe. In later years, Amy would make soup for her many houseguests – sometimes even serving it to the paparazzi, who lurked outside constantly.
Her grandmother, Cynthia, was a major figure in the early lives of Amy and Alex, who remembers her as ‘small in height but tall in stature’ (much like Amy herself.) ‘Nan Cynthie’ lived in the East End. A striking beauty, she once dated the legendary jazz club owner, Ronnie Scott.
She married Alec Winehouse in 1949, and raised their son, Mitch, in a flat above a barber shop on Commercial Street, managed by his grandfather, Ben. In all, the Winehouses lived there for fifty years. ‘The East End was a magical place,’ Alex remembers.
A suitcase of family photos was kept by Amy throughout her life. She was looking through it again in the week before her death, as she told her father in one of their last talks. He had promised to drop by when he returned from a trip to New York, so they could reminisce together. This was not to be – he learned of his daughter’s death from her bodyguard, and flew back home in shock.
Even as a toddler, Amy can be easily picked out from a class photo, taken at the Yavanagh Nursery in 1985-86. She loved the classic children’s books by Dr Seuss (Hop on Pop, Green Eggs and Ham, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas), as well as stories featuring beloved characters like Postman Pat and Snoopy.
A red jumper, labelled with her name, marks Amy’s time at Osidge Primary School in Southgate, where she first met her lifelong friend, Juliette Ashby. Amy was a bright child, but restless in the classroom. She would attend several schools as her parents tried to find somewhere to fit her talents.
‘I’ve been told I was gifted with a lovely voice,’ she wrote, ‘and I guess my dad’s to blame for that.’ A scholarship form for the Sylvia Young Theatre School – cut out from a trade newspaper, The Stage – was completed in Amy’s own hand and posted without her parents’ knowledge. She was accepted, and a video of her singing a solo verse of Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ shows that by her early teens, Amy was already a confident singer.
Her first guitar is on display, with a selection of her vintage record collection, acquired during visits to Camden market. One of them is Remember Marilyn, the first vinyl compilation of Monroe’s music, released in 1972. There is also a silver case filled with CDs, including a homemade disc titled Human Blues, performed by ‘Amy Matt + Felix’.
Amy loved hip-hop, and jazz. Another vinyl album, You Go To My Head, represents one of her idols, Frank Sinatra. She loved Dinah Washington, and once enthused, ‘Sarah Vaughan is an instrument’. Amy also liked film soundtracks, including ‘Lara’s Theme’ from Doctor Zhivago.
Her brother introduced her to the more experimental sounds of Thelonius Monk, and Amy later covered ‘Round Midnight’ as the B-side of her debut single, ‘Take the Box’. By the time she recorded Back to Black, Motown and the girl groups of the 60s were shaping Amy’s music. She also loved reggae and ska.
Selections from a mixtape, compiled by Amy in her teens, are played throughout the exhibition – leaving the listener in no doubt as to how important music was in her short life. She kept her ticket to a Jazzy Jeff gig, and often visited the Jazz Café on Camden Parkway (both to sing, and to listen.)
Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse, is a taxi driver. His map of London is featured, with another map showing her regular haunts. ‘Amy was determined to move to Camden’, Alex recalls. The first flat she owned, in Jeffrey’s Place – bought with her advance pay for Frank, when she was 19 – became a sanctuary.
Alex shared her love of the city, and even tried to follow in his father’s footsteps by studying ‘The Knowledge’ (a rigorous exam for London’s black cab drivers.) ‘I was won over by romantic thoughts of London and its history,’ Alex admits. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm far exceeded his sense of direction.
‘I have this dream to be very famous,’ Amy wrote while at stage school. A strapless blue beaded dress, designed by Luella Bartley, and worn with Christian Louboutin shoes (worn during a performance at Glastonbury in 2008) marks the culmination of that dream.
Her sentimental side shows itself in keepsakes like a flyer for her 2004 UK tour, and a set of black and white photos from a formal session. She even kept wristbands and backstage passes. At home, she collected fridge magnets, with captions like ‘It’s Sinatra’s world, we just live in it’, and souvenirs from trips to South Beach, Miami and Austin, Texas.
Those more familiar with Amy’s tabloid exploits may be surprised to discover that she was a lover of literature. ‘Amy gave off a feeling of being slightly ashamed of how intelligent she was,’ Alex explains. ‘She would have tons of Jackie Collins novels lying around, but hid her Dostoyevskys in a cupboard. She – like our nan – was obsessed with word puzzles, sneakily playing them and keeping them hidden in a chest.’
‘Amy was a lover of all things vintage and retro’, Alex reflects. Her skill for melding nostalgic glamour with contemporary street style is shown by some of her famous outfits, worn both on and offstage.
A pink satin bowling jacket is embossed with her name, ‘Amy Jade’. She once claimed that her true ambition was to be a roller-skating waitress, and this could have been her uniform. A casual black vest, with tiny leopard print shorts, was worn at a festival performance in 2008. A blue T shirt dress by Patricia Field dates from the Frank era.
A black polka dot dress by Betsey Johnson is among Amy’s most iconic garments. She wore it for an appearance on The David Letterman Show in 2007, when the success of Back to Black made her a crossover star in America. She accessorised with a wide range of scarves, shoes and braces.
Like Amy’s life, the exhibition ends abruptly – with a full-size poster of her Rolling Stone cover, and a posthumous Grammy award from 2012. Another wall is decorated with post-it notes from well-wishers. ‘I’ve forgotten my problems,’ read one, signed ‘French girl’; ‘Soundtrack to my youth’, said another. One fan drew a heart, with ‘MISS U AMY’ written inside. And finally, a Caribbean blessing: ’Shalom Mi Sis – Jah Rastafari’.
Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait ends this Sunday, September 15th. To mark what would have been Amy’s 30th birthday this month, the Amy Winehouse Foundation has organised a programme of events, including a further exhibition, Amy Winehouse: For You I Was a Flame, at Proud Camden until October 6th.
‘Growing Up With My Sister, Amy Winehouse’: interview with Alex Winehouse, The Observer, June 2013
‘My Sister Amy: Chicken Soup, Camden and Jackie Collins‘ – article by Alex Winehouse, The Times, June 2013