Dorothy Annan’s Murals in Farringdon St
1. Radio communications and television
Wandering down under Holborn Viaduct yesterday, I was halted in my tracks by the beauty of a series of nine large ceramic murals upon the frontage of Eric Bedford’s elegant modernist Fleet House of 1960 at 70 Farringdon St. Their subtle lichen and slate tones suited the occluded November afternoon and my mood. Yet even as I savoured their austere grace, I raised my eyes to discover that the edifice was boarded up and I wondered if next time I came by it should be gone. Just up from here, there are vast chasms where entire blocks have disappeared at Snow Hill and beside Farringdon Station, so I would not be surprised if the vacant Fleet House went next.
Each of the murals is constructed of forty bulky stoneware panels and it was their texture that first drew my attention, emphasising the presence of the maker. Framed in steel and set in bays defined by pieces of sandstone, this handcrafted modernism counterbalances the austere geometry of the building to sympathetic effect. Appropriately for the telephone exchange where the first international direct-dialled call was made - by Lord Mayor of London Sir Ralph Perring to Monsieur Jacques Marette, the French Minister of Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones in Paris at 11am on 8th March 1963 - these reliefs celebrate the wonders of communication as an heroic human endeavour. In 1961, the General Post Office Telephonist Recruitment Centre was housed here and they paid telephonists £11 week, plus a special operating allowance of six shillings and threepence for those employed on the international exchange.
These appealing works, enriching the streetscape with complex visual poetry, were created by Dorothy Annan (1908-1983) a painter and ceramicist with a bohemian reputation who, earlier in the century, produced pictures in a loose post-impressionist style and was married to the sculptor Trevor Tennant. Although her work is unapologetic in declaring the influence of Ben Nicholson and Paul Klee, she succeeded in constructing a personal visual language which is distinctive and speaks across time, successfully tempering modernism with organic forms and a natural palette.
It was the abstract qualities of these murals that first caught my eye, even though on closer examination many contain figurative elements, illustrating aspects of communication technology – motifs of aerials and wires which are subsumed to the rhythmic play of texture and tone, offering a lively backdrop to the endless passage of pedestrians down Farringdon St.
Once a proud showcase for the future of telecommunications, Fleet House has been empty for years and is now the property of Goldman Sachs who have their own plans for the site. Yet although the building is not listed, the City of Londoners planning authority have earmarked the murals for preservation as a condition of any future development. But if you want to see them as Dorothy Annan intended them, you would be advised to take stroll down under the Holborn Viaduct soon – because this could be your last chance.
2. Cables and communication in buildings
3. Test frame for linking circuits
4. Cable chamber with cables entering from street
5. Cross connection frame
6. Power and generators
7. Impressions derived from the patterns produced in cathode ray oscilligraphs used in testing
8. Lines over the countryside
9. Overseas communication showing cable buoys
You can see two paintings by Dorothy Annan here
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