13 November 2015 -
Alison Rees, Graduate of MA Ceramics and Glass, Royal College of Art
Going for a walk can have unexpected consequences. One snow-covered winter’s day in January 2013 I set off with a friend to trace the hidden underground course of the River Fleet in London by walking the streets above. As we approached the end of the walk I realised that we would pass by a series of ceramic murals situated on Farringdon Street. I described the scene ahead excitedly to my companion: I said – postwar, 1960s perhaps, muted tones, futuristic, sensitively painted, abstract, sitting quietly unnoticed at the foot of a disused building. I was both anxious and delighted to be able to share these murals with my appreciative friend.
We arrived at the site.
I looked again.
But the murals had gone.
It was the presence, then absence, of these murals that prompted me to find and trace the story of why they were commissioned and located on Farringdon Street; of who made them; of why they came to disappear from view and to consider how we might read such murals today.
I had first become interested in the ceramic panels some years previously. As a ceramicist I had admired their scale and confidence. I appreciated their composition and the artist’s ability to tell a story, although its narrative was initially unknown to me. My interest was also that of the ordinary passer-by, content not knowing anything about the artist or how the mural came to be where it was. I simply enjoyed it as part of the varied fabric of my city environment, a memory, a remembrance, a statement from a stylistically different period, a physical reminder. I admired its sheer tenacity. It was a survivor. But now it was gone.
The missing mural, consisting of nine ceramic panels, was Impressions of Telecommunications, a monumental Ministry of Works commission made in 1960 by the now little known artist and maker, Dorothy Annan. Each panel, approximately two by three metres, was composed of forty tiles set into the street-frontage of a postwar telephone exchange built on a bombsite in the heart of the City of London.
My essay drew parallels between the mural and the tradition of street parades, of storytelling in the City. The mural’s gigantic panels told a story, mostly in abstract form, of the hidden function of the building where it was located, of telephone wires, test frames, of cables and communications. It articulated the postwar story of renewal to the passer-by on the street. But by 2013 the Fleet Building’s construction and associated technology was long outdated. Its ownership had changed from public to private and demolition posed a serious threat to Impressions of Telecommunications.
The conundrum of murals attached to life-expired host buildings is extremely relevant today; there are no outdoor galleries for unloved postwar examples. My research examined murals whose symbiotic relationship with their host buildings had come to an end and explored how we might deal with such challenges alongside how we might read and understand murals stripped of their original context. Impressions of Telecommunications was fortunate. It received a Grade II listing and found a new home in the Barbican Estate, but many murals have been lost: demolished, disappeared or buried.
When, in 2013, Alan Powers said ‘Murals are a problem and that is how we understand them’, he succinctly summed up the attitude that has developed towards postwar specimens. It is certainly the case that murals separated from their host buildings throw up particular conservation challenges but this shouldn’t mean that our understanding of them should be diminished. A mural stripped of its original context can still be read as a memorial, as a carrier of memory with or without a badge of heritage. They are part of our porous environment, part of the city’s patchwork of physical reminders that, in their storytelling, enrich us and take us momentarily to another time and another place.