Hidden in South London is a mural which pays homage to the history of the area. In the middle of the Carey Gardens estate, the mural from local artist and activist Brian Barnes is a pictorial memory. It’s a place he knows well having lived in the area for years.
Brian Barnes can easily be considered one of the UK’s first and finest muralists. His brand of large scale painted activism has stood the test of time. One of his most famous murals, Nuclear Dawn, was protected so iconic had it become. Painted on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton it remembers a time full of fear when nuclear holocaust was thought to be a realistic possibility. That was in 1981, the mural is now badly damaged from weather and tagging, but it will be restored.
Activism and Art in Battersea
His activism and his art have gone hand in hand for years. In 1983 he set up the Battersea Power Station Community Group and in 2005 he was made an MBE. His work has had a lasting impact on the area, feeding into development plans and championing local peoples interests. Most recently taking part in Radio Local it’s an initiative to remember and celebrate iconic people of the area.
The mural on the Carey Gardens estate is one of his most recent works and possibly one of his most autobiographical. Working alongside the artists Morganico and LeSpleen it references stories from the area over the years. Called ‘A Brief History of Time’ it’s on a wall and in a community which he knows well. It even features a homage to Stephen Hawking. Not because of any particular link to the area but because he lifted the title from his great work. Hawking is shown floating in his chair against a cosmic background.
Carey Gardens Estate Mural
The core component of the piece is a giant hour glass, the sands of which are running out. The image of Battersea Power Station, so close by, is contained within. In the background, the emerald city. A reference to the gleaming towers of luxury housing which are being built down the road. A perhaps tongue in cheek Dorothy, the tin man, the lion and scarecrow are shown hopping towards it. The whole area of Nine Elms is a massive development area but of developments which local people are unlikely to be able to afford. According to Barnes it’s a reference to the time running out for the local community.
Elsewhere the mural pays homage to the Carey Gardens Estate architect Nick Wood. Built in the early 70’s the initial plan had been for four high rise tower blocks. Wood had shown that another plan was possible going no higher than four stories and was given the job at only 32 years old. In the mural he stands holding a template to the estate which also appears to double as a CND symbol. He wanted to make “council estates that don’t look like council estates”.
Symbolism of Battersea and Nine Elms
Other references on the Carey Gardens Mural include the Bald Eagle of America. A reference to the new embassy built nearby. The Sopwith Camel also gets a nod, a part of aviation history. It remembers a time when the railway arches running down the western side of the power station were at the heart of British Aviation. The first aircraft manufacturer in the world run by the Short Brothers was based there and a nearby field was once a major launching field for hot air balloons. Another mural in Vauxhall from the artist Nerone remembers some more of this aeronautic tradition.
The band The Who are shown too. Their old recording studio was once on Thessaly Road nearby. Called the Ramport Studios it was Brian Barnes who campaigned for a green plaque to commemorate the historic location. The album was recorded there. The drummer Keith Moon is also shown as a lolly pop man on a zebra crossing. In 1973 he campaigned to have a pedestrian crossing installed to help children safely across the road following a number of accidents. Taking on the role of the lollipop man he stopped traffic and along with local schoolchildren carried out a protest.
The history of the area is a rich one though one which has developed rapidly over the last few centuries. The lavender in the mural also pays testament to that. Even now place names such as Lavender Hill and Lavender Place remember the time that the area was cultivated for the aromatic herb. The whole area was agricultural at a time when the area was collectively known as Battersea Fields. Low lying marshland with good drainage, much of the land was used to grow produce for the hungry growing city. At least that was until this too got swallowed up with the development of factories which sprung up along the Thames.
Barnes work can be seen all over South London. His Battersea in Perspective wall on Dagnell Street joined Nuclear Dawn is achieving listed status. It’s quite an achievement to have one listed mural never mind two. Certainly it won’t have been what he originally envisaged when they first went up. His work is a true homage to community building. Murals that have stood the test of time they reference the areas they are in. Areas that Brian Barnes knows so well.
Brian Barnes was interviewed on 8 September 2020 as part of our Inspiring Interview series. He has been taking part in Radio Local an initiative with the Battersea Arts Centre to celebrate local people. All photos unless otherwise marked were taken on 7 September 2020. The Carey Gardens Mural can be found at 182 Carey Gardens on the corner of Condell Road.
Video Interview with Brian Barnes
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