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Cecil Osborne’s Murals For Sale

September 16, 2019
by the gentle author

The three lost panels by East End artist Cecil Osborne (1909-96) which once hung in St Pancras Town Hall in Euston Rd, and were recently rediscovered, are now up for auction at Roseberys in West Norwood on Tuesday 24th September. Click here for details of the sale

St Pancras & Kings Cross, 1956 (Click to enlarge)

Camden, Highgate & Hampstead, 1958 (Click to enlarge)

Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia, 1965 (Click to enlarge)

David Buckman author of From Bow to Biennale, the history of the East London Group of painters, took me to meet anthropologist Dr Kaori O’Connor at her flat on the top floor of an old mansion block near Bedford Sq.

There was an air of mystery about David’s invitation and I was excited because he promised to show me three important lost murals by East End artist Cecil Osborne illustrating the history of the former London Borough of St Pancras. Let me confess, I was not disappointed to encounter this splendid triptych.

Cecil Osborne was born in Poplar in 1909 and, after studying at a commercial college, sought clerical work. Yet he had artistic talent and educated himself in art by reading books and visiting galleries. After viewing the East London Group exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1928, Cecil presented his work to the leader of the Group, John Cooper, and joined Cooper’s art classes at the Bow & Bromley Institute. As a consequence, Cecil exhibited around thirty of his paintings in East London Group exhibitions from 1929 until 1936, as well as supplying his clerical skills as secretary and treasurer of the Group.

In writing his book, David Buckman spent more that twenty years researching the lost history of the East London Group which had become dispersed after the Second World War. When David corresponded with Cecil in the last years of his life, after he had retired to Spain, David learnt of three murals which Cecil had painted for St Pancras Town Hall in the Euston Rd that had been removed from their original location and subsequently lost.

Cecil’s son Dorian Osborne supplied this description:

“The offer was from my father to supply three pictures painted in oils depicting the history of the Borough on canvases to be hung in the small Assembly Room at St Pancras Town Hall in Euston Rd. The council supplied the materials and father designed and painted the series which are six feet by six feet square.

We were living at 46 Belsize Sq at the time and that is where the first was painted, the work commencing in, I seem to recall, 1956 or thereabouts.  My brother and I were used as artist’s models for some of the children depicted. Also there are two rather ragged children shown in some sections which were based on the Bisto advertisement – for example, in one panel, pushing a hand-cart. The motorcar depicted in the illustration of the Doric Arch at Euston Station is a Triumph Gloria.

In 1958, we moved to 7 Redston Rd, N8, and that is where the second panel was completed and the third executed.  It is the third which shows the Post Office Tower, as it was in progress when Mary and I married in 1965 and she remembers seeing this panel in the house. At a later date, the council moved all three to the public lending library in Brecknock Rd near Kentish Town from where they were moved into storage.”

After David’s book was published, Dr Kaori O’Connor contacted him to say she had the murals, as she explained to me:

“I did not acquire the paintings so much as rescue them. They turned up in a weekly sale at the old Phillips auction rooms in Bayswater in the nineteen-nineties. Not a picture sale, but a general one, thrown in with furniture and oddments.

I saw one of the canvas panels poking out from behind a fridge. The Phillips staff knew nothing about their background and did not know what to make of them. I realised that some of the places featured in the paintings were near to where I live in Bloomsbury and knew I had to save them. If they had failed to sell, they would have been scrapped. As I recall, there were no other bidders.

Once I got them home, I realised they were a unique social history of a part of London that is rapidly changing out of recognition, while also acquiring a new cultural and artistic life today. Only recently, when I met David Buckman, I learned about the artist Cecil Osborne, his life and how the panels came to be painted for the old St Pancras Borough Council which no longer exists.

I have had the panels for some twenty years, and they remain as fresh and fascinating as the day I first saw them. They have a unique presence with a very strong sense of time and place, and tell their many stories eloquently. They are also very good company.

They were painted for a public space, intended to be seen by many people, so I would like them to find a new home where they can be widely appreciated as the remarkable artworks they are. I believe the past they depict can only enrich the present and future.

St Pancras Town Hall, now Camden Town Hall, where Cecil Osborne’s murals originally hung

Paintings photographed by Lucinda Douglas Menzies

You may also like to read about

Dorothy Annan’s Murals at the Barbican

Lucy Kemp Welch’s Mural at the Royal Exchange

Alfred Daniels Murals at Hammersmith Town Hall

At the Painted Hall in Greenwich

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    September 16, 2019

    Reminds me of American WPA murals. Those murals were in post offices or federal buildings painted in the 30s.
    Nice find.

  2. Linda Granfield permalink
    September 16, 2019

    Perhaps one of those ‘Facadism Developers’ could bring some humanity back into a new building by purchasing these murals and giving them a place of honour in the lobby.

    That way the public will have access to the murals again.

  3. September 16, 2019

    How about a crowdfunding campaign, run under your control, with a view to match estimate of £1,050-£2,500, if successful to be displayed at Bishopsgate Institute?

  4. Andy Willoughby permalink
    September 17, 2019

    A remarkable story and how wonderful they were saved!

  5. Bob Davenport permalink
    September 27, 2019

    The current Camden New Journal (26 September 2019) reports that ‘Camden Council has bought back three historic murals lost from the Town Hall almost 30 years ago. Officials successfully bid £1,809 for three six-by-six foot Cecil Osborne artworks at an auction on Tuesday. They were found after a house clearance. The art will hang in the council HQ in Judd Street, King’s Cross, after its refurbishment.’

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