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Comings and goings: Paolozzi and public art

6 February 2015

The furore surrounding the covert removal (to storage in Norfolk!) of some sections of Paolozzi’s 1984 ceramic murals at Tottenham Court Road underground station has been a wake-up call for those concerned about displaced or threatened public art.

Over the years I often wondered what had happened to Meridian, the large freestanding Hepworth piece that stood in the forecourt of State House, Holborn before it was demolished in 1990. Happily, it survived to stand in the sculpture garden at PepsiCo’s headquarters in Purchase, New York State. But a freestanding sculpture, by an illustrious named artist, is unlikely to vanish altogether – unless it falls into the hands of scrap dealers in the night.

Ceramics and murals are altogether more vulnerable (and a great deal less valuable, unless by Banksy). Gordon Cullen’s cheerful set of murals for Greenside, the west London primary school designed by Ernő Goldfinger in the early 1950s, were only revived after an energetic local campaign to restore it. Now the school shows them off proudly, including on Open House weekend. Cullen’s ceramic murals in the city centre of Coventry fared less well, but at least they survived and have been reinstated elsewhere in the city. On the edge of the City of London, Dorothy Annan’s ceramic murals – evocations of telecommunications in an age of technological optimism – were commissioned in 1960 for an immense new telephone exchange on Farringdon Street. As the undistinguished building faced demolition, the murals were quickly listed and are now well housed, under cover, in the Barbican.

No such redemption was offered for Kenneth Budd’s 1978 mosaic mural in a pedestrian underpass in Newport, south Wales. It commemorated deaths in a major Chartist uprising but was destroyed by the City Council in 2013 despite objection from many quarters. A year later, protesters marched, banners aloft reading ‘Where’s our Wall’ and ‘NCC you’re a Disgrace’, and laid their wreaths marking both the Chartists and the loss of the commemorative piece. At the time, the council said they’d had enough of the past, and historical events, and it was time for the future.

So, bearing the scars of these various tussles, the Twentieth Century Society – in which I must declare an interest having become President last year – suggests that English Heritage (EH) fund a public catalogue of such items. The new Chief Executive of Historic England (HE) has just been announced and will be at the helm of his organisation from 1 April, I’m inviting him to commission it. Please, Mr Wilson?

Related Articles:

Iconoclasm Today: the destruction of The Chartist Mural (Martin Oldham)

Arch Enemies: rebuild the Euston Arch (Gavin Stamp)

The Art of Digital: Your Paintings, Art Detective and the PCF (Andrew Ellis)

How not to remove a Banksy (Maggie Gray)

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 3.0)