In a month that has seen much thought cast on the pre-Thatcher state of affairs it seems worth paying a visit to two of the most forceful and controversial murals of the 1970s. Tucked away beneath the Westway, just to the North of Royal Oak tube station, David Binnington and Desmond Rochfort’s Royal Oak murals were completed in 1976-77 and stand as testaments to a not so distant (but rather short lived) age of large scale, ideologically charged, political murals. Heralded by Richard Cork as ‘an object lesson in how publicly sited murals can gain great resonance in their surroundings’ and by William Feaver as ‘a large dose of social realism [that] has done wonders for the grey desert of Royal Oak’, they were dismissed equally vehemently. Sarah Kent saw them as pathetic examples of pseudo-Socialist Realisms and Peter Fuller as a ‘montage book of art clichés’. Shrouded in controversy from the off, therefore, the murals provide a microcosm of the ideological dissonance of their time, and reveal the extent to which murals once played a forceful role in these wider polemics.
Arriving at the murals today you might be forgiven for missing their once iconic status. Buried in graffiti to a height of six feet or so, and now partially obscured by the hoardings of a Crossrail generator site, they – like the debates they touch upon – have not escaped the hands of time. With this said, above the height of eight feet they remain in remarkably good condition – no doubt owing to the fact that they were some of the first murals in London to be executed in the laborious but highly durable Keim silicate paint.
On approaching the murals from Royal Oak station (a right out the station and a swift left under the shadows of the Westway) the first thing one notes is a giant cog, which looms illusionistically over the Crossrail hoardings. It is only with the sight of the eagle which perches to its left, however, that you notice that the cog is in fact a part of Binnington’s cycle – stretching across the concrete pier of the motorway. Whilst the upper portion of the mural reveals something of the overall statement – the driving mechanisms of the Capitalist system, the strange offering made to the glass enclosed emperor figure, and the media workers dissolving into the apparatus of their trade – the current obscuring of the lower section hides the long benches of office workers – passively awaiting missives from above – who lie at the heart of the mechanical system. We can only hope that the completion of the Crossrail construction will reveal them once more to the public gaze.
As we move round the pier to the right Des Rochfort’s homage to construction workers hovers above. Stretching out across the diagonal slant of the pier it is as impressive and engulfing as it is difficult to photograph. It was Rochfort’s panel that seemed to draw the more favourable comments in its time – and has survived the best. It portrays what William Feaver described at the time as ‘Herculean’ figures at work upon giant scaffolds and cranes. Utilising the multiple perspective schemes pioneered by David Alfaro Siqueiros it commands the space below – our attentions shooting off into the blue skies via the monumental figures of the workers. Sitting, as it does, on one of the largest scale urban constructions of its time (and, indeed, right next to a present day one) it seems a fitting tribute to the human labour which is, after all, the engine of such projects.
Funded by Abbey Harris the murals were, at the time of their completion, the largest exterior murals in England. They followed from extensive consultation with the local community (which had been torn in half by the construction of the Westway some half decade previously), and were intended to offer a focus to their thoughts and concerns and to animate the desolate wasteland created by the Westway’s construction. It is difficult to gauge the extent to which the murals succeeded in the first regard – for the raw cut of the Westway through the area continues to obscure any overt signs of community embrace. To this day, however, they offer a focus of contemplation and symbol of conviction amidst the concrete expanses of the underpass.
More concrete is the influence the mural scheme had upon other projects – serving as a rallying point and mark of ambition for a new generation of mural artists who were coming to the fore. Most specifically, in their wake Dave Binnington became involved in the planning of the Cable Street Mural. Whilst Binnington eventually desisted from work on Cable Street, Paul Butler – who had contacted him and Rochfort during their work on Royal Oak soon became involved – and encouraged Rochfort (and Ray Walker) to help him see Cable Street to completion. Des Rochfort was to go on, in the 1980s, to write two seminal studies on the Mexican muralists whose influence is so discernable in both Royal Oak and Cable Street.
The murals remain a startling reminder of the ideological convictions of the 1970s mural movement, and their message resonates strongly to the present day. It seems unlikely that Crossrail or the Mayor of London could be tempted to see the murals restored to their former glory as a compensation to a community once more disturbed by a heavy development project which will do little for local residents. It is to be hoped, however, that in dismantling their hoardings the murals will at least be left in as good a condition as they were found. They remain some of the iconic works of the era.
For more Murals of the Month see here
For a set of photographs of the Royal Oak Murals (before the Crossrail hoardings) please see our set on Flickr