Back before the clocks had shifted and we had all resigned ourselves to the persistent greys of the London winter, muralist Brian Barnes was kind enough to give a talk for the London Mural Preservation Society. Delivered with his characteristic blend of humour (self-effacing wit interspersed with feigned bravado: ‘Who did that Michelangelo think he was anyway! Rubbish!’), the talk took us on a tour of Barnes’ career to date, culminating with a walk to his latest work in progress at Chesterton School playground, Battersea. Accompanied by a dizzying array of slides, tea & sandwiches, some liberal prompting and near constant heckling, it was, to one still piecing together the history of London’s murals, nothing short of a revelation.
Having studied at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design from 1961 – 1966 and The Royal College of Art from 1966-69 Brian Barnes’ career as a muralist began with aplomb back in 1976 with a large-scale mural on the side of the recently closed Morgan Crucible Factory. Some two years in the making the mural became known as Battersea: the Good the Bad and the Ugly, involved 60 local people in its painting and measured in at an impressive 276 x 18 ft. It was described by the Director of the Tate Gallery at the time as, ‘perhaps the most outstanding mural in the south of England’.
Coinciding with Greenwich Mural Workshop’s Floyd Road Mural in Deptford, the wall heralded the beginning of a new era in the history of mural painting in this country – confirming the arrival of the Community Mural Movement which had started in the United States a decade previously. Having all but died out as a live tradition in the UK, by the end of the decade there were over 50 murals in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets alone, with more in Covent Garden, Royal Oak and as far afield as Glasgow.
Working with the local community to create the Battersea mural and a large pocket park in front of it, the Battersea Redevelopment Action Group and Wandsworth Mural Workshop sought to extract some benefit from the Government funded relocation of the Morgan Crucible Factory to Wales. Against the loss of 300 local jobs and the sale of the land to private developers they hoped to have some voice in the future of the land. The image itself was central to this ambition commemorating the watershed moment in Battersea’s history, with ‘a huge broom sweeping away the “rubbish” of Battersea old’. From Bus Garages to swimming pools, local factories to surrealist cows, the mural surveyed the dreams and fears of the local community. Local figures including bus drivers and politicians were set against the commercial property speculators and Tory councillors, whose ideas Barnes felt would ‘create a wasteland of the Borough as far as working people are concerned’.
Unfortunately despite relentless campaigning, high profile support and two years of work on the mural, the strength of the speculators held forth. At 3am on 6th June 1979 wrecking balls moved in and knocked down a substantial portion of the wall. It was the anniversary of World War Two’s D Day, Derby Day and for the park – Demolition Day. Barnes soon arrived on the scene to protect the remaining fragments – clambering atop the ruins to greet the media flashes. But it was too late and the collection of the bricks Barnes guards in his studio to this day (‘should anyone have an interest’), do little to bring back the scale and power of the original. With humour giving way to exasperation Barnes explained that the demolished site went on to remain vacant for a further three years before any use was made of it (luxury flats!).
Barnes’ next major mural survived longer. Commenced in 1979 it was, once again, the outcome of a community project. Located at a junction of Thessaly road and Wandsworth road, the project once again saw the local community involved in its making and the conversion of wasteland before the mural into a park. In preparation for the mural Barnes organised a day-trip to the seaside for local residents – the photos taken on that trip becoming the studies for the final image.
Rising above the parkland, the brightly coloured wall presented the figures of the local community wading into the sea. Amidst the surrounding urban landscape there is a surreal otherworldliness about surviving photographs of the wall, an effect that must have been much enhanced in the flesh by Barnes’ characteristic shifts between fine detail and bold block colouring (though he rarely uses a brush larger than a one inch Fitch, and often works with sables!). The mural remained in situ until its destruction at the hands of developers in 1992. By way of compensation Barnes pointed out that the park remains to this day.
Moving us into the 1980s Barnes recalled the CND peace year murals of which he completed two of a total of six across London. Fortunately, both remain with us to this day and will be familiar to followers of the London Mural Preservation Society, as Brixton’s Nuclear Dawn and New Cross’ Riders of the Apocalypse. As someone who grew up around Brixton, Nuclear Dawn holds a privileged place in my memory – etched amidst my weekend trips through Brixton with my father. As I looked at the slides that autumn day I recalled how it revealed itself to me across my childhood – the conversations it prompted and its significance in forging my political consciousness. Over the past years I have begun to see that it is one of the works of art that has affected me most and is a shining testament to the power of what art can be.
In a recent interview Barnes described New Cross’ Riders of the Apocalypse as his last political mural. In it he depicted Ronald Reagan, Michael Hesseltine, Margaret Thatcher and Yuri Andrapov riding about the world on cruise missiles with a sinister, demented madness reminiscent of the concluding scene of Dr Strangelove. From their exhausts permeate fumes of money and greed whilst trees and landscapes trail from the forces of peace riding to meet them in the opposite direction. Executed in Keim paint (which Barnes recalls the laborious difficulty of working with) the work remains as fresh to this day as it ever was.
As we moved through recent decades Barnes’ work seemed to reflect the wider alterations to commissioning practice felt across the mural community. Gone are the grandiose political statements of the Riders and Nuclear Dawn but remaining is the fastidious commitment to community (a ‘magic word’ Barnes cannot help poke fun at himself for repeating, but which remains so central to his work). As such, guiding us through a series of highly researched murals from Tunbridge Wells to Bromley, Barnes presented a body of work that time and again explored wealth of locally resonant themes. Whilst Hesseltine and Thatcher may took a back seat, therefore, it seems clear that Barnes’ murals have remained resolutely political – reinforcing the power of place and history in our lives.
As we shook ourselves from our reverie and cleared up our tea we had two more treats in store. Catching the last of the afternoon light we decamped around the corner to see Barnes’ historic work Battersea in Perspective, of 1988, and his latest piece at the Chesterton School playground. Whilst the playground mural remains in progress it follows the lead of Battersea in Perspective in exploring iconic figures and landmarks from Battersea’s history. Combining workshops, school trips and history lessons it is clear that, as with Barnes’ very first mural, it is emerging as a force at the heart of the Battersea community. One can only hope that it will survive as well as Battersea in Perspective – whose stunning aerial vista dazzles to this day.
Throughout Barnes’ career he has fought with a hope, determination and grit which have made him a thorn in the side of politicians and developers alike. In doing so he has produced an extensive body of work which continues to illuminate our city. Whether they are considered political, decorative or historical (and most often they are a combination of all three), his murals force us to look deeper into our local surroundings and shared history. To my mind a higher calling is hard to find.
For information on the current campaign to restore Nuclear Dawn please visit the facebook page