The mural’s beginning had come about in the late 1970s, when Dale McCrea met Brian Barnes who was then working on the Seaside Mural in Thessaly road, Wandsworth. On completion of this mural, Dale suggested that Brian paint a mural on the side of the place he lived, a late Victorian building called Carlton Mansions.
In 1981, “Nuclear Dawn” was painted by Brian Barnes with the help of a rickety cradle, some household paints, Dale McCrea and 20 residents of the building.
The 25 square metre mural depicts a large skeletal figure standing astride the city of London as a nuclear bomb goes off behind. Below him safely sheltered in bunkers below the Houses of Parliament sit the Government including leaders of the political parties of the time, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Prince Charles. The skeletal figure is swathed in flags from countries with nuclear weapons; bombs fall out of his hand with one hovering just above Brixton. To the left, a dove flies up and becomes the CND symbol. Behind him the double mushroom cloud shows a map of the world in the main cloud and images of screaming faces in the lower cloud. In the cityscape, Brixton landmarks can be picked out including a mini version of the mural.
This period in history (1979-1985) was known as the Second Cold War when the threat of a nuclear attack was real and prevalent. Due to this climate, it was felt appropriate to highlight the fears and anxieties of nuclear attack amongst the country’s conscious. The composition of the mural was inspired by Felician Rops’ Sower of Death. Brian’s original mural design, painted with water colour and pen, can be viewed in the Print Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Funding for the mural came from the Arts Council, the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Greater London Arts Association. An additional £2,000 grant for the artists came from the Lambeth Council in the form of the Inner City Partnership fund which caused great upset to one of Lambeth’s Tory Councillors who saw it as a waste of money.
The mural is still resident on the side of Carlton Mansions on Coldharbour lane but today a car park and trees obscure the view. Much deteriorated and badly graffitied, not many notice it’s presence. It was restored once in the mid eighties where the politicians were updated to include contemporary figures however it is in much need of restoration again today.
Asides from its slow decline, it’s very existence is at threat as the building it sits on and surrounding area will be up for potential development in the near future. A local landmark and powerful piece of community and political history could be lost forever. Most people theses day don’t see the mural but when they spot it they are in awe of the power of the image, its vibrancy and message. It represents our history of a shared experience and a reminder that war is not something we want. Sometimes when we don’t have a voice and we can’t shout loud enough, the murals speak for us.
UPDATE 2013 The site next to the mural and the building it sits on are part of the planned Somerleyton Road development which will see a new Oval House Theatre built next to the mural. Although current thinking from Lambeth Council is that the mural should be kept, we are not confident that in the long run this part of the plan will definitely remain in place. We have created a petition to show local support for the mural and we also have a facebook page to keep people posted about plans to repair the mural.
We have also placed an application for the mural to be listed with support from the 20th Century Society and the Council for British Archeology.