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Dorothy Annan’s Murals At The Barbican

November 30, 2013
by the gentle author

Two years ago, I wrote this appreciation of Dorothy Annan’s ceramic murals adorning Fleet House in Farringdon St which was due for demolition and now I am happy to report that these wonderful pieces have been moved to a new location in the Barbican – where they lighten a gloomy passage and bring joy to thousands every day, both residents of the estate and visitors to the arts centre alike.

1. Radio communications and television

Wandering down under Holborn Viaduct two years ago, 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 were vast chasms where entire blocks had disappeared at Snow Hill and beside Farringdon Station, so I was not surprised to discover that the vacant Fleet House was next to go.

Each of the murals was 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 counterbalanced 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 celebrated the wonders of communication as an heroic human endeavour. In 1961, the General Post Office Telephonist Recruitment Centre was housed there at Fleet House 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 a 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, they offered a lively backdrop to the endless passage of pedestrians down Farringdon St.

Once a proud showcase for the future of telecommunications, Fleet House had been empty for years and was the property of Goldman Sachs who won permission this summer to demolish it for the construction of a ‘banking factory.’ I feared that the murals might go the same way as Dorothy Annan’s largest single work entitled ‘Expanding Universe’ at the Bank of England which was destroyed in 1997. Yet although Fleet House itself was not listed, the City of London planning authority earmarked the murals for preservation as a condition of any development. And today, you can visit them at the Barbican where they have found a sympathetic new permanent home, complementing the modernist towers, bringing detail and subtle colour to enliven this massive complex. The age of heroic telephony may have passed but Dorothy Annan’s murals survive as a tribute to it.

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

Dorothy Annan’s murals upon Fleet House, Farringdon St, November 2011

Dorothy Annan’s murals at the Barbican Centre, November 2013

You might also like to take a look at

Philip Lindsay Clark’s Sculptures in Widegate St

Margaret Rope’s East End Saints

The Mosaic Makers of Hoxton

11 Responses leave one →
  1. November 30, 2013

    Making profound poetics and exquisite beauty from the lines of cables, oscillographs and

    circuits … What a prophetic imagination has Dorthy Annan. Gratitude for this story.

    So glad to be introduced to this artist.

  2. November 30, 2013

    Glad they have been rescued, and they look wonderful at their new home in the Barbican Centre. Valerie

  3. November 30, 2013

    I am very glad that this fine Late-Fifties-Art has just survived!

  4. November 30, 2013

    What good news – thank you for showing the re-instated murals – it was so sad watching them deteriorate slowly.

  5. William permalink
    November 30, 2013

    Hurrah, a decent planning decision for once in place of all the destruction we see at the moment

  6. November 30, 2013

    I always wondered the story of these murals… they seemed from another England. People rushing by busy to get someplace and not looking… and the tiles whispering
    remember…I’m so glad to hear this story – with its happy ending.

  7. Martin permalink
    November 30, 2013

    If only those walls could speak, we would have heard many great stories. I had the chance to work in Fleet building in the early 80’s. This is when the demise really started. This building housed so many things in addition to ISD. Private teleprinter circuits to the Fleet St newspapers, an international Telex exchange with circuits to all corners of the globe.

    It was the last Central Telegraph Offices where telegrams would be dispatched all over the world. Imagine for a moment all the good, bad and indifferent messages that went through this building. I am quite sad in a nostalgic way to see it go.

  8. December 2, 2013

    A local treasure. Preserved. Thank goodness.

  9. Chris Thorpe permalink
    December 24, 2013

    I’m a bit late to comment but thanks so much for the good news. It’s wonderful to hear that the murals have been saved and the Barbican is a very appropriate home. I’m looking forward to seeing them there

  10. Andy permalink
    June 20, 2014

    I first noticed these amazing ceramics after cycling past them on my way to work. I then admired them, looked them up on the web and found their history, feared for them as Goldman Sachs wanted to pull the building down, was relieved to find them listed, and now experience renewed relief to find they have a home after seeing that demolition had begun. What a great place to put them, and so in keeping with the design philosophy of that remarkable period. I came here so late because a web-search brought me here when I was trying to find out the fate of the murals.

    Let us celebrate that and try not to dwell too long on the fact that a perfectly serviceable, if undistinguished modern office block, probably with decades more of useful life in front of it, is being demolished for no other reason than to put up another, probably equally if not more undistinguished, concrete and glass cliff-face which will surely accelerate the removal of all architectural character from central London.

  11. Lara permalink
    August 25, 2016

    Hello there!

    I wrote & submitted the Listing Application for this incredible mural series, assisted in it’s relocation and wrote an article on the subject for C20 Magazine (Autumn 2011 edition) during my time working at The Twentieth Century Society back in 2010/2011. I felt it only right that the C20 Society got a ‘shout-out’ in relation to the subject. What a pleasure to be reminded of all the hard work on all sides that went in to saving this masterpiece.

    I would like to thank the ongoing vital work that The Twentieth Century do and especially their Murals Campaign which has seen the preservation of countless Murals around the UK thus far.


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