It looks like it’s been there since the Barbican was built, but this long row of 1960s ceramic art only arrived at the Barbican in 2013.
The art was originally commissioned by the Ministry of Works in 1960 from Dorothy Annan to line the front of a very 1960s office block on Farringdon Street which was also London’s largest telephone exchange.
As such, the ceramic murals are all telecoms themed, from the pylons, cables, telegraph poles, radio antennas and generators. They’ve all been done in a rather muted colour scheme which is very much of the time, soft browns and yellows with geometric designs.
The murals were commissioned at a cost of £300 per panel in 1960. Annan visited the Hathernware pottery in Loughborough and hand-scored her designs onto each wet clay tile. If you look closely, her brush marks can also be seen in the fired panels.
The nine panels were titled by Annan as follows (moving from west to east): ‘Radio Communications and Television’, Cables and Communications in Buildings’, ‘Test Frame for Linking Circuits’, ‘Cable Chamber with Cables entering from the Street’, ‘Cross Connection Frame’, ‘Power and Generators’, ‘Impressions Derived from the Patterns Produced in Cathode Ray Oscillographs used in Testing’, ‘Lines over the Countryside’ and ‘Overseas Communication showing Cable Buoys’.
The old Farringdon Street building was bought by Goldman Sachs who wanted to redevelop the site, and attempts to save the murals by listing them was opposed by the bank, although in the end they were given listed protection.
In the end, the City of London took ownership of the murals to save them from being destroyed, and in September 2013 they were moved to their new home on the Cromwell Highwalk in the Barbican, just around the corner from the Art Centre.
They’ve been sensitively backlit, and while nothing to do with the art, do take a look at the ceiling and how backlights are placed in a curved recess away from the art.
The narrowness of the corridor means this is less a work of art that you can stand back and ponder carefully, than a long visage into the distance to be looked at from angles.
It can be argued that far fewer people will now see them in this side corridor of the Barbican, but in a way, that makes them more enjoyable. The adventure of finding them in the Barbican is a task in itself and being the sort of person who can say to a friend… hey, let’s go down here there’s something I want to show you is always a delight.