The mural created by David Binnington Savage, Paul Butler, Desmond Rochford and Ray Walker, celebrates the battle remembered throughout the East End when in 1936 the people rose in their thousands to repel Moseley’s fascists from marching through their heartland.
The Royal Oak murals had drawn a lot of attention in the media and among artists and activists. David was invited to a meeting to see the site of a potential mural being planned for St George’s Town Hall. The wall’s size shocked him, sixty-three feet wide by fifty-four high and “Scared the life out of me! and a real mess.”
a politically necessary mural
David was commissioned to design and paint the mural by the Tower Hamlets Arts Committee. “We are having a proper artist coming in to paint the Cable Street mural, to remind people of the ‘Battle Of Cable Street’,” said the Chair, “because it is happening again – the Bangladeshi community is being firebombed by the National Front.’’ David set up the project, working from a studio in the Basement Project of the Town Hall, the building on which the mural was to be painted. It was in need of repair, and preparation with the same special render for the Keim paints which David had used at Royal Oak. There were constant delays, so it was two years before he could begin to work on the mural. “I was negotiating and fund raising for two assistants and waiting for the wall to be rendered – it didn’t happen – we just got on with it!”
While he waited, he researched records and historical accounts of the event and developed his design. “It was all about energy, and about violence, and about movement. About human beings caught up and scared. Put yourself near a police horse and feel how scared you are when it starts to move. They are big terrifying animals. That was what I wanted to convey, all these people in a narrow space and a lot happening.” As well as interviews with and making drawings of surviving veterans, David studied books, photographs and films of the event, incorporating the “dramatic uniforms of the BUF (British Union of Fascists), the eggs, milk bottles and chamber pots coming from upper windows, the mounted police ‘Cossacks’ with their weighted clubs, the overturned lorry, furniture and junk forming the barricade, and the newfangled police autogiro circling overhead.
“The design was a vortex in which this event happened – circular whirling structure that pulled everything in and around the image – that gave the image its movement and power.” He found too, that no political party could claim credit for the uprising. It was a spontaneous thing. “What happened was something in the ether – the strapline from the Spanish Civil War – ‘No pasaran!’ was in the crowd, heroic and wonderful and very special!”
drawing the design on the wall
In 1980 the wall was prepared for the mural to be painted with Keim, scaffolding was erected and from a projected image of the line drawing – at night from a tower – David drew up the mural. “I put the bones of it up there and then began putting flesh on the bones, – shinning up and down the ladders – knitting the parts together – started to put on the paint – then it starts to come alive – and dangerous – exhilarating. I was aware of racism – threatened on a daily basis. It was after probably a year, the colour was halfway down and finished at the top and imagery developing at the bottom – looking interesting. But I was getting more and more drained physically, fell down twice – falling down ladders. I was working from eight am till it got dark, six days a week.
When the mural was vandalised I crashed and burned – there was a big vinyl application right across the whole of the centre.” He was utterly exhausted. He said to himself, “David if you go back up this wall, its going to kill you.’ I turned away – I’d had enough.” He left. Not to return. “Then they get three artists in to do the bloody job, whilst they’ve been quite happy to leave me on a hook year after year.”
re-starting the mural
Paul Butler who had been taken on by David to paint predella scenes on board at the foot of the wall was left “holding the baby”, the only artist on site. He called up Desmond Rochford and Ray Walker and together they took over the project. The committee found more funds, the wall was grit blasted to remove the damage, then re-primed and squared up again. The artists then set about negotiating and designing collectively from David’s work, retaining his vertiginous perspective, it’s forms, incidents and twisting movement but increasing the size of the figures. “Dave had set the agenda.” said Paul, “We made the images interlock, tight to the picture plane.” Ray took the left side, Paul the centre and Desmond the right side. Each artist did their own research and they continually talked through how to bring their designs together. For Paul the key was the figure throwing a stone that he found in a tiny image in a photograph of the actual battle-scene. He took elements from David’s design, re-drew and formalised them, locked in diagonals. “It was a tight learning curve for all of us,” he says. He was in awe of Ray’s ability and describes Desmond’s side as, “arabesque, dynamic, like a Sequierous.”
working on Cable Street
As individual artists they were each astonished by how inspiring and fruitful their collaboration became. The mural had a great reception when it was opened in 1983.
a Moseley bodyguard
Since then the mural has been attacked three times by racists, and Paul has repainted it each time, in a vulnerable position working off scaffold towers thirty feet high. In 1996 his car was doused in paint, tyres were slashed and he received death threats by militant fascists.
The mural is well known, testimony to the determination and skill of all the artists. David, who started it said, “I have come to see it as an effective piece of work – doing the job it was there for – well-regarded. My son went down there and his girlfriend took a photo of him standing in front of it and puts this thing on instagram ‘Dad the old socialist!’ and I thought, Yeah, don’t mind that!”
Over the next few years he began to develop his skills in his other great interest – working with wood. He started designing and making furniture; setting up first in Fulham, later moving to Devon, where his designs, his workshop and atelier are famous, and where he also teaches art. On the way he changed his surname – losing the plosive B of Binnington, for the fricative S of Savage, he lost the stammer. Desmond in a few years became an influential lecturer and writer on the Mexican muralists.
Descriptions of Ray and Paul continue on their own pages.