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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The destruction of the Battersea Bridge Road mural and its aftermath: why property developers love 'Art', but hate art….

Nuclear Dawn - an inadequate photo of Brian Barnes'
amazing Brixton mural, which gives you a taste of what
we have all lost in the destruction of his biggest work,
The Good, the bad and the ugly on Battersea Bridge
Road, back at the dawn of Thatcherism (1979)
Since visiting Embassy Gardens, with its blingy public art and its splendid new Waitrose - I've had this nagging feeling, a sort of sense of mismatch and angst.

Can't get the strange sight of former Young British Artist Sarah Lucas's sculpture gracing the granite paving slabs of property developer Ballymore's crowning glory,  slap bang in the middle of the monstrous Battersea-Nine Elms-Vauxhall killing fields, out of this tiny mind.

We all know how much property developers love Art. Like a dog approaching fox shit, they want to roll in the stuff so that some of its magic rubs off on them, and onto the properties they are busily promoting. If they could just get a whiff of Bacon or Lucien Freud, just a dab of  Hirst or the essence of Emin, or best of  all….a little sprinkling of Bxxkxy….they would be so thrilled.

But look: they build a pug-ugly block on reclaimed brownfield marshland, or redevelop a former school or hospital or prison,  and sell their luxury apartments for £1,500 per square foot.

What rank amateurs!

Just think how much a square foot of a Banksy or a Basquiat or a Rothko would be worth.

No wonder they are so keen to get these names into their brochures.

A bit of the right sort of 'Art' in the right place - that is, not impeding their schemes to make billions out of millions. But it does have to be the right sort of art, in the right place. Art with a big fat "A" for asset, the sort dealers and auctioneers thrive on. Art with the capital F: we are rich and clever, you are  nothing: Fuck right off! And leave us here to appreciate this 'Art'.

It hasn't always been this way.  Or maybe it has.

Back in the 1970s, during the first phase of Battersea's gentrification, real community art came up against property and lost out in a big way.

It happened about a mile to the west of the current mega-development. The factory of one of Battersea's biggest employers,  Morgan Crucible, was on the south-west corner of  Battersea Bridge, and it fronted the river most of the way down Battersea Church Street.

It was a big piece of prime riverside property, and after the company relocated in the early 70s the factory was left empty. Local residents launched a campaign to keep this space for the community, and the Wandsworth Mural Group, run by local RCA-trained muralist Brian Barnes, got to work on  London's biggest ever mural.

There's an excellent interview with Brian Barnes  by Julian Vigo on her Endoplasm site, in which Barnes explains how he asked locals what they'd like to see in place of the factory - and it was this dream landscape of an open-air swimming pool,  human-scale housing, factories to work in, car-free streets for kids to play in, and plenty of buses,  that went into the mural.

Against this utopian vision, Barnes and his fellow muralists knew about the forces they were up against - bent politicians and town-planners, the press, greedy developers, cynical capitalists - and these went into the painting as well, along with their henchmen, the cops. Hence the title, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

This mural, as I remember it, stretched all along the factory's boundary wall from the foot of the bridge all the way down to the junction with Battersea Church Street. It took Barnes and about 60 volunteers two years to paint. It was completed in late 1978, and at 276 feet long by up to 18 foot high, was one of the biggest murals in the UK.

Despite its satire and sharp political message, the mural gained praise from high quarters, and was apparently on the way to getting legal protection when, in the middle of the night of June 6 1979, the entire wall was demolished by Morgan Crucible's contractors.

This underhand behaviour by the owners, who knew they'd face a big public protest if they'd attempted this in the daylight,  set the scene for age of Thatcherism and all that followed.

Go there now and you see what looks like a smart housing estate from the outer suburbs, nicely planned and nicely maintained and nicely private. Perfectly bland residential architecture with one of the best views on the Thames, across to Chelsea Reach.

Sadly I have no photos of that great lost mural. You can get some idea of its scale and ambition from the always excellent London Mural Preservation Site, which also features many of the artist's other works. There's also an excellent 53-minute Arts Council funded  film, Morgan's Wall,  made in 1978, which you can buy or watch online from Concorde Media. The film looks at some of the other contemporary murals around the country and shows clearly why so many artists at that time chose to paint on exterior walls in public places rather than on canvas for private collectors.

Also worth a look is another interview: The man behind South London's murals - Brian Barnes, (Londoner #96) for the 1000 Londoners project.

Here's what the public got in compensation for the destruction of that
magnificent and utopian mural: the bland housing development of
Morgan's Walk and this even blander piece of sculpture
Well, at least we can now walk  along the riverside public path. Oh, and the developers even left a bit of art to cheer us up. Unfortunately it's a piece of sculpture so anodyne and so happy-families cheerful you wonder if it's deliberately, ironically so: it's called In Town and it's by the late John Ravera.

Looking to illustrate this piece, I went to the site of one of Brain Barnes' many later murals - the Stockwell Deep Shelter War Memorial.

This famous piece of public art is currently almost totally obscured by those ubiquitous orange and green barriers and plastic fencing, as Lambeth 
undertakes another of its local prettification schemes - you know, wider pavements, a few sad trees in pots, those single-seater benches our co-operative council has fallen in love with. Theu are always set at slightly odd, suggestive angles, as if the planner had seen one too many 1940s npoir movies where cops and narks exchange information in a public place.

Anyway, Stockwell is all set to follow Clapham Old Town into this utopian vision of public space.

Laugh! Cry!

The upshot being I took no photos. SO you can make do with a much earlier shot of an earlier photo of  what I think is this artist's best work - the Brixton Nuclear Apocalypse. HArd to photograph, and suffering from neglect, this piece has some of the cinematic power that the old BAttersea murals had in buckets. LOve it while you can.

The sad fate of Brian Barnes' Battersea Bridghe mural is only too well known, and we must never gorget it either. The massive mural, reckoned to be the biggest in London if not the world, was painted on the wall of the former

Only too aware that while talking about the "art" at EMbassy Gardens in the not-beating-heart of the Nine Elms development, a much earlier case of

Brian Barnes, the Battersea Bridge muralist, is still very much alive and still kicking.

As recently as 2010 he hit the headlines again for adding a portrait of Jean Charles de Menezes to his famous War Memorial mural in Stockwell.

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