The independent London newspaper

Wanton vandalism of art for the people

01 March, 2019 — By John Gulliver

George Sharp and Diana Foster

STEVE McCarthy was walking through the yard of an old block of flats when he realised that all around him was a shocking scene of sheer vandalism – littering the concrete floor and tiled steps were smashed sculpted works of art that had once decorated the estate.

The sculpted figures had been lovingly created by a leading artist in the last century, Gilbert Bayes, of the William Morris school of art who believed beautiful objects should be part of our daily lives.

Mr McCarthy, a local resident, photographed this trail of destruction as well as a delightful ceramic of a Madonna and Child, also by Bayes, which featured on the wall of St Christopher’s nursery in the process of demolition to make way for a block of flats.

What happened to it? It was hoped that such a work of art would be saved but Origin, a housing association, presumably involved in the nursery’s demolition, admitted in a letter to Mr McCarthy that it fell into pieces when the wall was removed.

The Madonna and Child, now destroyed

The value of the Madonna, for instance, is neither here nor there. The loss of a perfect ceramic by a well known artist is. How did all this come about?

The block of flats are part of the historic estate built by the charitable St Pancras Housing Association and Bayes joined them, only too pleased to put into practice his “art for the people” ideas and create emblematic figures on washing posts. Some have survived. Many have vanished.

Steve McCarthy found one lying on tiled steps about to thrown away, it seems.

Finial of a bird designed by Gilbert Bayes

Diana Foster with several local residents in Somers Town is holding a special event on March 9 to showcase the works of Bayes.

Diana, a passionate conservationist, along with Mr McCarthy, wants to set up a local museum in this neglected corner of the borough.

She described Bayes as a “socialist” – his works were a “passion, not simply a commission,” she said.

One of the finials lying shattered on the tiled steps

She added that he believed “art in everyday life” should be enjoyed by working people.

When Steve McCarthy showed Diana the pictures of the vandalism she wrote to the housing association, Origin, who took over St Pancras Housing Association. Copies of her emails bear this out.

These were sent on April 4 last year. At a meeting Origin officials told her they would “replace” the destroyed artefacts. But so far they have not formally replied to her email.

But this Somers Town estate isn’t the only one in the borough to suffer from such a trail of destruction. Mr McCarthy tells me that the York Rise estate in Tufnell Park has also lost an estimated 69 “finial heads”. Imagine, a well-known artist, driven by the highest of motives, lovingly creates such works as these finials – and they are allowed to be treated with disdain by those in power. What does that say of local governance?

The washing posts minus their finials

The other week I described how similar works of art appear to have been destroyed in the demolition of the Maria Fidelis school which was listed.

Cynically, I am not surprised by the scene of destruction stumbled on by Steve McCarthy.

Somers Town has been, traditionally, the most neglected part of Camden ever since the Irish navvies settled there while they built famous railway stations, Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross in the 19th century.

I cannot imagine this trail of waste being tolerated in the leafier parts of Camden. Amenity organisations would not allow it.

Some of the post with finials intact in Tufnell Park

The answer would not appear to be the creation of a Heritage Champion which the council set about a few years ago. If it were, the exposure of such vandalism in this column with the help of Diana Foster and Steve McCarthy would not be necessary.

Isn’t it time the council invested a committee – part of the environment department, perhaps – with powers and authority to preserve our landscape? Amenity organisations do a splendid job but it should not be left to them alone.

Councillors should not be simply responsible for schools, emptying bins, keeping traffic flowing – they have a duty of care, a civic responsibility – what is citizenship about if not that? – to protect, as in this case, the works of painters, sculptors and ceramists who want to beautify the building around us

It struck me that if you deface a wall with graffiti or a political slogan you can be charged with a criminal offence – but if you steal, smash or just throw away a work of art the world walks by.

• The exhibition and film about Gilbert Bayes, can be seen at: Ground Floor Living Centre, Ossulston Street NW1, on March 9, 2pm


Share this story

Post a comment