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Dorothy Annan’s Murals

July 21, 2022
by the gentle author

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1. Radio communications and television

Wandering down under Holborn Viaduct 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 lichen and slate tones suited the occluded afternoon and my mood. Yet even as I savoured their austere grace, I raised my eyes to discover that the edifice was boarded up prior to demolition.

Thankfully, the murals were 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.

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 urban landscape 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.

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 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 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

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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. paul loften permalink
    July 21, 2022

    I am familiar with these ceramic tiles . My father worked in Fleet Building as an Overseas Telegraphist and then supervisor from its opening in 1960 until his retirement in 1980. When I worked in the city I would often meet him directly outside the building and saw them close up. Sometimes I would go inside to the canteen and meet his friends .Indeed the tiles are remarkable as they do tell a heroic story, which is long forgotten.
    He was transferred to the newly built Fleet Building along with most of the staff based in the very old and crumbling King Edward Building opposite St Pauls Station which was the General Headquarters of all Post Office operations . In the early 1950’s telecommunications was under the auspices of Cable & Wireless it was then taken over by the government and became part of the Post Office. Around 1960,it may have been just a bit later, when he was sent to Fleet Building, he was then employed by BT who took over telecommunications from the Post Office .
    The tiles show images of the equipment used . Indeed the inside was quite awesome although the exterior was typically bland 1960s façade. I remember corridors and rooms full of telex machines and rows of electronic equipment with the cathodes depicted on the outside wall . There were machines which printed out streams of white tapes with tiny dots. These were fed into the telex machines and the messages were then sent at high speed. In those days telex machines throughout the UK had to be connected by routing through Fleet Building Here was state of the art technology of the 1950 and 60’s which was soon to made totally redundant by the coming of computers and emails .
    As for the heroic story. In the early days after the war the staff at Cable and Wireless were largely recruited from those who learned their trade through the armed forces . Mostly old soldiers from the Royal Corp of Signals . They also had to learn the morse code , all the ins and outs of radio communications , lamp signals, and any other means of transmitting messages . Then later on towards the end of the war came Telex communications and typing also became part of their expertise.
    Indeed the staff recruited from this generation had many stories to tell from the D Day landings to commando raid at Dieppe . I once met one of his friends Jerzy Bublik a Czech paratrooper whose brother was parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia and died in a battle under the crypt of a church in Prague . The story was told in the 1976 film Operation Daybreak
    My father served as a radio operator and signalman from 1940-5 sometimes in freezing trenches manning a wireless set . Other times in more comfortable surroundings at SHAEF . In 1945 on May 8th he was at Brith Army HQ at Lunenberg Heath where the Germans walked in and surrendered and as the signalman on duty sent the message to Reuters News Agency that the war was at and end .

  2. July 21, 2022

    The new location of the murals is more than adequate for their quality. Beautiful pieces of Midcentury modern!

    Love & Peace

  3. Linda Granfield permalink
    July 21, 2022

    Thank you, Paul Loften, for adding your story to today’s SL entry.
    Personal history such as that of you and your father bring the past to life, show us ‘snapshots’ we would not see otherwise.

    Your last paragraph made me utter “Imagine!” What a message to send out!

  4. gkbowood permalink
    July 21, 2022

    What wonderful murals! I wish I could see them in person to appreciate their textures. I think she did a fabulous job of interpreting the physical tools of telecommunication combined with an appealing abstract design. I wonder if there is an image on the web of her lost work ” Expanding Universe”…

  5. paul loften permalink
    July 21, 2022

    Thank you Linda . He kept an original copy of that message that was torn from the machine that sent it . I think the last time I must have seen it was aged about 8 or 9 in the late 50’s. It disapeared in the many chaotic house moves that we had in a post war East London . I do have a memory of its dramatic wording. I seem to recall a faded green form with an oficial crown in the corner and it was in the form of a old fashioned telelegram with wording printed onto a white tape. My fathers initials JL was in a the sender box
    It began Flash ! Flash ! Flash ! Flash! From the Headquarters of General Bernard Montgomery Lunenberg Heath Germany. I cant recall the precise wording for the rest of the text but it described the German High Command entering SHAEF HQ under a white flag and it announced their formal surrender and the end of the war in Europe . It was an historic message . I wonder where it is now, if it is still in existance

  6. Linda Granfield permalink
    July 23, 2022

    Paul Loften–may that wonderful, memorable, piece of pale green paper show up when you’re sifting through a long-forgotten box marked with the ‘wrong’ label. It’s happened to me–box in storage marked ‘kids’ toys’, opened six years later– not full of toys but stuffed with family albums we thought lost.
    May you have the same luck!

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