London is perfect territory for murals. Wartime destruction, postwar estate development, and the occasional over-ambitious road project all conspired to leave a lot of Victorian terraces sliced in two, with large messy-looking blank walls – occasionally with the odd chimney or fireplace alcove remaining in place. And in the 1980s and 1990s, several talented artists duly stepped in to the breach, equipped with skill, vision and a large amount of paint, and created what became a rich south London tradition of murals, surprisingly many of which have a nature theme. The biggest concentration of murals is in and around Brixton – but we have several of our own here in Battersea, which we’ll be writing a short series of posts on.
Starting, of course, with the one closest to home directly facing Lavender Hill. Hidden away at the end of Elspeth Green, the small park at the junction of Lavender Hill and Elspeth Road, a large mural covers the entire side of a house, called Tapestry of Life.
Sadly it’s not had the easiest of rides over the years – as the rich colours have become detached from the undercoat (which seems to be a layer of standard emulsion house paint), and some rainwater damage is visible at the top as well – meaning the overall picture has become hard to piece together from a distance. But looking more closely there’s still plenty of charm and character, as our photos show – and which give a feel for just how special this mural was when it was first painted. It’s based on the big greenhouse in Kew Gardens – hence the abundance of tropical plants and exotic wildlife, as well as the spiral staircase leading to the upper walkway – with an Adam and Eve sculpture at the centre.
The mural was painted in 1983 by Christine Thomas, who we understand was artistic director at Wandsworth Arts at the time. It was painted with support from the Wandsworth Arts Resource Project, and partly funded by the Greater London Council. This wasn’t Christine’s first local mural – she also painted the Battersea Puzzle just off Plough Road in 1981, which was lost in 2012 when the church hall it was painted on (and several neighbouring buildings) were demolished to make way for the new St Peter’s church and a large block of flats.
In addition to Lavender Hill’s mural and the now-lost Battersea Puzzle Christine painted five other murals in London, and fortunately some of them are in a much better condition. Christine painted Big Splash on Glenelg Road in Brixton – pictured below – two years after her Lavender Hill mural. It’s in excellent condition, and featured in Time Out’s top ten London murals.
Big Splash notably includes a self portrait, and we do wonder if Tapestry of Life also includes a self portrait, at the bottom right corner:
She’s just above Christine’s signature, which is in the concrete along the base of the mural, and inset with several sea shells –
The mural took several months to paint, and when it was complete David Bellamy formally opened it. It’s never suffered graffiti or damage, but the flaking of the paint means its days may nevertheless be numbered – but if you look closely there’s still plenty to see including a peacock, a tree frog, a cockerel, a snake and a monkey.
Christine later opened a studio at Lyminge in Kent, where she runs a variety of art courses including silk painting, as well as continuing to paint a wide range of other murals, banners and mosaics for schools and community groups, as well as several privately commissioned murals.
We haven’t been able to find a photo of the mural when it was new, but this 2011 article by the London Mural Preservation Society (who also have a handy map of many of London’s murals) shows it in slightly better condition – if you have one we can publish here please get in touch! As to what the future holds for our mural – who knows – maybe it can be restored to some of its former glory. But for the time being, enjoy it as a change from the usual plain gable ends and do keep an eye out for the many animals…