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The Curious Cabinets of EC1 & SE1

April 22, 2011
by the gentle author

Rumours reached me of the curious cabinets that have appeared in the streets, so I set out to search one sunny afternoon to see how many I could find. Even before my investigation, I was aware of the painted cabinets in the fringes of my vision and, as more impinged upon my consciousness, I realised that something was going on – in fact, the telephone company has granted artists a certain period of creative licence to decorate exchange junction boxes, before grey uniformity is restored later. These colourful designs are insects of a single season, bringing some agreeable surprises to familiar streets and so I was eager to celebrate the transient urban poetry of these curious cabinets while it lasts.

Whitecross St is the focus for a set of cabinets in EC1, with many in the streets leading off from the market, that catch your eye as you weave your way through the stalls. You will find images of the children in the school, and in the playground, and of a market stall, and of the YMCA, and of the weathervane upon St Luke’s Church and of the bicycles that stream endlessly down Old St. Recreating these local sights with such care and affection draws together the disparate elements that collectively define the character of this appealing locality bounded by the Barbican to the South and Old St to the North. All of these paintings are at a child’s eye level and as brightly coloured as toys, and I suspect they have become landmarks for school children, humanising the busy streets through the introduction of a playful imaginative element.

Street Art takes flight when it plays upon the drama of its location, enlivening the environment by its presence, and there is an innate surrealism to these cabinets that appear to have been removed from a house and dumped outside – defining the term “street furniture.” Yet many of the artists have chosen to look at them as architecture in miniature – a quality emphasised by their shallow pitched roofs – painting them as dolls’ house versions of buildings in the vicinity.  And there is a desperate comedy in the tiny YMCA, painted upon two cabinets, that I found in a dull little street just round the corner from the real thing, while the blue house with the grotesque face on Whitecross St itself proposes a dreamlike fairytale fantasy. But it is the spirited painting of a terrace of derelict shops in the market, painted onto a cabinet at the South end of the street that spoke to me most eloquently, emphasising the isolation of these old buildings, built to a human scale, that were once the standard in the neighbourhood, now overshadowed by the Barbican towers looming overhead.

Down in the Borough High St, Southwark, I found a different school of cabinet painting at work, producing more highly wrought creations than North of the river, in which the drama of the location has been exploited to powerful effect. The vista of Little Dorrit park painted onto a cabinet beneath the real thing pulls off a neat trick out of Magritte’s repertoire, but the masterpiece is the one with the paintings of St George the Martyr Church located outside the church. There is a painting of the church, by day and by night, on either side of this cabinet across the road from its subject, and looking from one to the other is a strange experience – you compare your vision of the real thing and the squint perspective of the painted representation, while switching your perception in scale between the church towering over you and the painting you look down upon. And you walk away with an image of the church in your mind that is multi-dimensional.

Pradoxically, these cabinets draw attention to themselves in order to reflect attention onto the surrounding cityscape, functioning as catalysts which inspire us to look afresh at what we already know. Wittily contrived and lovingly painted by many different artists, this is the magic of the curious cabinets of EC1 & SE1.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. AnKa permalink
    April 22, 2011

    Fantastic Photos!

  2. Alan permalink
    April 22, 2011

    I love the generocity of these artists, silently, secretly working to make the everyday and commonplace special for us all.

  3. jo watts permalink
    April 22, 2011

    these are fantastic, love this kind of stuff 🙂

  4. April 23, 2011

    beautiful, priceless – we often think of london and other northern european cities as places with grey dull skies and rainy weather, but i find that few northern european cities lack brightness – colour is created in the everyday objects that people come across in their daily life, and these boxes are like a rainbow splashing the pavement

  5. May 5, 2011

    What a great project – I wish I were in London to be able to track them all down!

  6. April 6, 2013

    I saw one of these cabinets on a visit to the new Barbican cinemas. I wanted to find out more so I did a little Googling.

    Your comments and photos are great. Together with the other positive comments on this page, I felt inspired not only to take a look at the other boxes, and street art elsewhere, but to think more about how art can bring this sort of sparkle to Tottenham where we live.

  7. David Ball permalink
    May 17, 2015

    artists, steve ball, se1 cabinets

  8. November 3, 2023

    2023 and they STILL LIVE ON!
    Do we know who painted them, and who managed the project?
    I am making a documentary and desperate for more information.
    Please get in touch?!

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