Tag Archives: Manresa Road

The Children’s Library murals: 1947 and afterwards

Today’s post requires another story about the archive life. Sometime in the late 1990s I found myself, with a couple of companions piloting a large trolley (with pneumatic tires, bought for transporting paintings) down the King’s Road, carrying some large metal sheets from a basement in Manresa Road, the home of the first Chelsea Library to the second Chelsea Library in Chelsea Old Town Hall, where they would be stored in the Print Room. Why? Well , here goes. And this is just the short version.

 

In 1947 a group of students from the Royal College of Art designed and painted a set of murals for the Children’s Library in Chelsea Library as part of their course. The murals were installed with some fanfare and written about in the Studio magazine in 1950.  A few generations of children and librarians lived with them. In 1978 the Library moved to larger premises at Chelsea Old Town Hall on the King’s Road but apparently no-one  thought to bring the murals along. The Manresa Road building was taken over by Chelsea College / King’s College. The ground and first floors carried on as a library, and the basement became a student refectory.  Possibly straight away, possibly a little later, the murals were deemed surplus to requirements and were painted over with emulsion, in  the usual dull colour. Time passed by. But not much time. In 1981 when some electrical work was under way the murals were noticed and some interested parties took them down and removed some of the paint. There was a little bit of interest in the local press (some of it inaccurate) and one of the original artists was brought in to see his old work. The murals were stored in a back room. More time passed, until I got a call at a point when it looked like the building was about to be rented out. Would I like to retrieve the murals? Like a proper archivist I said yes definitely and organised an expedition to remove them and transport them by trolley to the Library. At that point more time passed, and the murals remained preserved in temperature controlled conditions until they were moved to this building. Finally I was recently asked if someone could view them and three of us took them out and pieced them together like a jigsaw.

Naturally, one of the first things I thought was: there’s a blog post in this.

 

 

The three artists were Malcolm Hughes, who went on the become head of the Slade School of Art,  Neville Dear and George Ball.  That’s George Ball in the picture above doing some touching up while balancing on a shelf, a picture almost certainly posed for the benefit of the photographer. (The pictures were painted at the College and brought in when completed).

Below, Neville Dear. Possibly. The picture is by Dear but that guy looks a little like George Ball again to me. I wonder if the photographer is using a bit of artistic licence.

 

 

It’s definite though that the man below is Malcolm Hughes.

 

 

And here is Hughes with one of the others pausing from their labour and looking artistic.

 

In this picture they look a bit visionary. Matter of life and death?

 

 

Some credit should be given to the photographer, John Vickers for setting up some excellent pictures of children.

Some of them are awed.

 

 

(Although the girl in the beret got distracted by a book, which as a librarian I can only approve of)

Let’s have another try.

 

No, she’s still thinking of what she’ll take home.

All right then, pretend it’s a library. Get a girl to stand under the arch and pretend to read a book.

 

 

The girl in the beret had her book stamped and has gone home to read it. When she grows up she writes about fairies and vampires and in the later stages of her career writes a series of crime novels which are ultimately turned into a television series by Netflix starring Natalie Dormer.  Or not.

There is an actual mystery.

 

The murals in the entrance hall, depicting a lively mob of children tumbling down some stairs.

 

 

And another group in the corridor leading to the library.

The whole set of murals has not survived but  we have 18 panels, most of the ones in the two rooms of the Children’s Library. The Malcolm Hughes panels from the entrance hall are now gone. I’ve heard it suggested that they were destroyed during building work but we do know that Hughes was consulted about the panels in 1981 and may have visited the site so I have no idea why they were not in the basement when we collected the panels we have now. Perhaps someone took them away but we don’t know who.

What you want to know now I expect is how do they look now?

Well considering they’ve been covered in emulsion and had it scraped  off and some damage was sustained installing and removing them they’re mostly not in bad condition.

 

Here you see a couple of panels from Neville Dear’s series about the seasons of the year set on an imaginary farm, and below the two that went next to them.

 

 

There were also some isolated panels we couldn’t quite join together.

 

Some of the figures are a bit odd.

The next ones are from  George Ball’s series about childhood activities and these also join up

 

 

Many of the panels still have sections of emulsion on them.

This side panel which obviously went over a doorway still has plenty of paint on it.

 

 

I rather liked the slightly weird soft toy.

This one also had paint on, but I was intrigued by the continuing image so I did some careful but amateur restoration work on it and revealed the faces of the girl with the drum and the boy next to her. You can see them in one of the photographs above.

 

I should add that the unfortunate mark on her chin was already there and not due to any carelessness on my part.

Why a rural setting in a city library? Well all I can say is that it was intended by the artists “to offset the town background of the actual library” according to the Studio magazine. When I casually referred to the Powell and Pressberger film “A matter of life and death” earlier perhaps I was picking up on the atmosphere of their films which combined nostalgia for a rural past with the notion of a clean optimistic future of garden cities. It seems to fit with the pictures.

At the end I suppose you have to ask about artistic merit and it must be admitted that the surviving panels are not the greatest things ever put on a wall. But they have a certain atmosphere about them, a feeling of the post war period, and a naive charm. From the photographs it looks like the Hughes panels were the most accomplished so it’s a shame that those are the ones we don’t have. But that’s the unlikely story of the Children’s Library murals. I sometimes call myself a professional hoarder  because I have the instinct to collect things for the collection that other people might have thrown away. Sometimes this pays off.

Postscript

The Royal College of Arts is said to have a full set of slides of the murals, presumably taken in the days when they were new and hadn’t been through years of alternating careless and considerate treatment. I hope so anyway. As I said above we got them out because someone expressed an interest in seeing them and although I can’t leave them laid out in our archive rooms for a long period if anyone’s interested in the next couple of weeks, email me.


The Chelsea Murders: fiction in Kensington and Chelsea 2

Lionel Davidson was a famous writer in his day, although not much mentioned these days. Many of his books are still in print though. He was big in the 60s. He wrote what you might call international thrillers -The Night of Wenceslas (1960) set in cold war Czechoslovakia, The Rose of Tibet (1962) set in India and Tibet and A long way to Shiloh (1966) set in Israel and Jordan. They were all bestsellers. The paperbacks were published by Penguin which made them look serious, like Len Deighton novels. (People sometimes forget now how innovative and influential Deighton was with books such as the Ipcress File and Billion Dollar Brain). Davidson himself is a literary ancestor of the modern authors of spy novels and techo-thrillers.

Chelsea Murders 01 - Copy (2)

The covers of his books from the 60s and 70s tell their own story:

LionelDavidson covers

In the centre a classic Penguin crime cover – green for crime. On the left a later Penguin edition typical of the early 70s – the arty but somewhat gratuitous notion of a map projected on a naked body was used on a series of Davidson novels. On the right the semi-surreal hardback cover for the Sun Chemist also typical of books from Jonathan Cape

In 1978 Cape published another Davidson crime thriller (with a tasteful cover ) in another exotic setting – The Chelsea Murders.

Chelsea Murders 01 - Copy - Copy

The novel begins with a lone woman who is surprised by a grotesquely masked man and killed. But she is not the first victim.

Unknown woman from JB2 02

Previously another woman was murdered in Jubilee Place, and a man in Bywater Street.

Jubilee Place 17817 23

The police begin to wonder if  a maniac is killing people in Chelsea.

I have read that Davidson never visited Chelsea before writing the book and employed researchers to get the local colour. He lived in Israel by this time so his own knowledge of London may be a little out of date – for example there’s no mention in the book of the punk scene which would have been well established by 1978.

There are some scenes set in Chelsea Library. In the book it’s the reference library at the old Chelsea Library in Manresa Road (well before my time although I have been in the old reference libary with its dark curving shelves and balcony). Here it is in a picture from the 50s 0r early 60s:

Manresa Road- ref - Copy

Several characters visit the library where Brenda the library assistant supplies information about famous local residents to a police detective. Mason notices her shelving – “Very nice bird,(he) thought. Victorian looking, yellow hair, parted in the middle; something a bit classical happened to it at the back.” Artie Johnson who will become one of the suspects notices Brenda in the first few pages of the and notes that she had “the look of a Pre-Raphaelite chick.”

Unfortunately for the police Brenda also tells Mary Mooney, an ambitious young reporter following the case (and are there any other kinds of journalists in thrillers?), and some of the suspects. One of those two women ends up in the killer’s sights but I won’t give away which one.

The exterior of the 1890s building, which you can still see today in Manresa Road:

Library exterior - Copy

When ITV did an adaptation of the book, those scenes were filmed in the new Chelsea Library at Chelsea Old Town Hall. I was already working for the Libraries then, and several years later I was reference librarian there, so whatever Davidson’s personal experience of Chelsea was, I feel like this is a book set more or less  in my own habitat.

There are some characters familiar from the 60s and 70s:

Filming under Battersea Bridge 1970 jb63b - Copy

A group of former art students who are making a film. Two of them and their mentor, a sleazy academic become the main suspects in the series of murders in which it seems that the killer is choosing his victims by their initials which match the names of some of those famous residents.

Rossetti VAW

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (hence the painting on the cover of the book) is the first of the series which also features James McNeill Whistler, Algernon Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, AA Milne, W S Gilbert and even Oscar Wilde.

DGR was a woman murdered and dumped in the river. Ogden Wu, the owner of a slightly seedy shop selling denim in all its forms like in this market off the King’s Road is one of the later victims:

Chelsea Village Market 1970 - Copy

One of the desperate film makers works for Wu and finds himself even more deeply embroiled in the investigation after his boss’s death.

The police fixate on the suspects fairly early on. They trail them around, create a card index for the case (no mention of a computer in the book), even consult a reference book at the library to trace the provenance of a poem.

As you might expect they spend some time in one of the famous Chelsea pubs of thr era.

Chelsea Potter

Some of the language in the book has dated in a way which modern readers might find distasteful. The character Artie Johnson, the producer of the film is described (by a tabloid journalist ) as “a spade..a real one, all black” and Mooney thinks of him as “a long black cat, his golliwog smile in place under his beehive” (afro, presumably). That’s a phrase you couldn’t use (and wouldn’t want to) these days, but in 1978 casual racism was still prevalent in life as well as literature. The author was not of course necessarily endorsing the attitudes of his characters. Thrillers from previous eras exhibit many archaic attutudes whether it’s the off putting right wing opinions of Dennis Wheatley or the less offensive 1930s mannerisms of Michael Innes. The modern reader has to tread carefully when reading and the modern blogger when recommending books.

In fact I’m not sure whether I’d actually recommend the Chelsea Murders to anyone who wasn’t interested in the Chelsea setting. The local colour is the thing. It’s not quite the 1978 I remember, but then Chelsea in those days probably still contained pockets of previous eras.

Also, the serial killer genre has moved on since 1978 for better or worse. Davidson’s book is also a traditional whodunnit and the two genres don’t work very well together. The motivation of the killer is rather perfunctory and  you get the impression that he is simply play acting.

Although, like the Chelsea Murders, that can sometimes be effective:

Satan triumphant 1958 - Copy

And there is a decent twist at the end.

Postscript

The last picture is unmistakeably one of John Bignell’s arty but playful images, called Satan triumphant (1958). As with many of his pictures there’s no hint as to why it was taken. Some of the other pictures in this post are also by Bignell.

I’ve been tinkering with this post for weeks and reading the book in installments (I hate being obliged to read a book even when it was my own idea) so I’m glad to finally put it to bed. I hope it was worth the effort.


The kids are alright – playing out in Chelsea

Everyone’s childhood should be a golden age of wonder and exploration. But as adults we often seem to think that our own young days were the truly magical times and that the current crop of kids aren’t having as good a time as we did. You often hear it said that today’s children lead circumscribed lives either in their bedrooms in front of a screen or being ferried from one organised activity to another. Perhaps it’s nostalgia but I do remember long afternoons going off with friends across fields, or along the canal, sometimes ending up in places my parents wouldn’t have liked. I was reminded of those days a few weeks ago when I included this John Bignell picture in a post.

002 Bignell Chelsea Reach 1965

A couple of boys in a precarious position on a half sunken wrecked barge at high tide with the river waters rising around them. Wouldn’t you have wanted to be with them? The Thames riverbed would have been a magnet for adventurous kids. This picture was taken nearly ten years before but the fun was much the same.

Chelsea Bridge - Battersea Bridge c1956 jb197 (2)

My childhood was largely spent in rural places, but post-war London, still full of bomb sites and damaged buildings had plenty of empty urban spaces ripe for exploration.

Boys playing at the back of Wentworth Studios (2)

A trio of boys playing at the back of Wentworth Studios in Manresa Road. Are they constructing a den underneath a fallen tree? Even quite young looking children got in on the act.

Children playing on Dovehouse Green demolition site 2398 jb_69

These kids from the 1950s and early 60s look exactly like you imagine they did in those Children’s Film Foundation films that were made for the Saturday morning pictures. Each one a future Dennis Waterman.

Children playing on Dovehouse Green demolition site 1950 jb_96

This group posed for Bignell during demolition at Dovehouse Green.

If a demolition site wasn’t available you could still find plenty to do in the street in those days when traffic was lighter, playing football.

world's end c1956 jb82

Or just hanging around.

world's end 1960s jb201

A couple of teenagers in the background anticipating future pleasures with grown-up toys.

Some of the grown up toys got discarded like this abandoned car.

car sabateurs c1960 jb50

Or these unattended roadworks.

balletic pause jb212

This picture looks a little later than the other and the kids a little more middle class. Don’t imagine playing in the street was an activity confined to Chelsea’s mean streets as this classic Bignell view of Tite Street shows.

baseball in tite street 1955 jb79

You’ve mostly seen gangs of boys so far. But the girsl knew how to have fun too. This group have crashed a jumble sale.

jumble sale 43a

Note the Tip Top Annual held by one girl. This group were actively taking the mickey out of adult life.

Jumble sale a2

Of course everyone grows up and starts to rehearse for adult life. The fun goes indoors.

Victor Sylvester's - girls dancing

The girls are usually in the lead when it comes to dancing. But the boys get there in the end.

Youth Club World's End JB135a

Postscript

The photographs are by John Bignell of course. Like all great photographers part of his talent is the ability to be in the right place at the right time to catch those moments. Not to mention the ability to make people want to have their picture taken. This process used to be a lot easier than it is today when a random image can make its way round the world before the photographer even gets home and people are wary of a camera being pointed at them. I’m not complaining about the ease of digital photography. But the old processes of developing and printing film gave photographers like Bignell the time to think about their work and select the best.

Bignell didn’t always date his pictures so I can’t give you dates on most of these, but they span a period from about 1955 to 1965, a good  time to be young in Chelsea.1965 was the year the first album by the Who was released, including the song The Kids are alright. If anyone reading this recognizes themselves or someone they know please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.


Forgotten Chelsea: scenes you’ll never see

More photographs of old Chelsea this week but these are quite different from the Hedderly pictures. In Hedderly’s day Chelsea was still a suburb. The market gardens and nurseries were still there, some of the big houses and grounds survived, and Cremorne Gardens was still going strong. Thirty years or so later Chelsea was part of the city, only a few of the nurseries were left and Cremorne was already erased, the Gardens covered with housing. The open spaces have been filled in.

You can still see many of the places in Hedderly’s pictures, Rossetti’s house, Belle Vue House, the embankment, a reasonable facsimile of the Old Church. But the remarkable thing about these pictures is that almost everything you see in them is now gone.

You will never look at the north side of the King’s Road from Paultons Square and see houses and gardens like these or take a walk towards Beaufort Street and see the King’s Road Forage Stores with its intriguing Steam Chaff Cutting and Crushing Mill.

Or Osborn and Shearman’s paperhanging manufactory at numbers 332-336. Light industry was cheek by jowl with housing – turn around and look at the south side of the street

These pleasant and permanent looking dwellings on the corner of the King’s Road and Beaufort Street are also gone.

The block below looks familiar.

The buildings look a little like parts of the Fulham Road today but this is the corner of King’s Road and Edith Grove which looks quite different now. That woman striding along with an air of determination is walking past a missing piece of London.

This was Camera Square, off the northern section of Beaufort Street.

It was thought to be a bit of a slum at the time and after the Great War it was demolished and replaced by the rather more upmarket dwellings in the garden suburb style Chelsea Park Gardens.

Here is another side street off the King’s Road:

I think this is the eastern side of Manresa Road showing Wentworth Villa and Studios where several artists worked undisturbed through a large part of the 20th century. This is a view a little further down the road:

These buildings were opposite the first Chelsea Library which has survived through the years although it is no longer a library.

Moving eastwards you come to Sydney Street.

The Wilkinson Sword Company had their Oakley Works here. Just beyond it is this row of buildings:

The street on the right is Upper Manor Street. Later there was a Post Office on this site.

Turn back to the south side again. This is the south section of Manor Street in 1901:

Demolition is under way. The whole street has an air of impermanence as if it hadn’t yet decided what sort of street it was going to be.

There is more than a hint of what is to come at the Sloane Square end of the road.

This picture from October 1900 shows the previous incarnation of the Peter Jones store, a building gone but definitely not forgotten.

One final place for you to go, up Sloane Street and into Sloane Terrace.

The Wesleyan Chapel, replaced by the grander Christian Science church which is now Cadogan Hall. But don’t linger, there’s something I want to show you round the corner.

This is D’Oyley Street, and that is the Woodman Tavern. As I promised you at the start almost everything in these pictures is gone. But do you see that hanging sign? That is still with us in a library archive room, a survivor against the odds.

One of these days I’ll show you a close up of it as it is today.


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