David Binnington Savage and Desmond Rochfort created these murals between 1974 and 1977. They had met while studying at the Royal Academy Schools, both arriving in 1971.
David was born in 1949 in Bridlington, the only child of middle-class parents – his father had his own business, his mother was a hairdresser. A bright inquisitive boy, his interests were always in drawing and creating things from wood. Despite having a bad stammer, which curtailed his ease of speaking and for which he was bullied, he had many friends and sailed through his primary years, then went on to Bridlington High School, where despite his real enthusiasms being only for woodwork and art, he did well enough at formal subjects and passed his leaving exams. Aiming then to go to art school and away from his dull hometown, he visited several of them.
choosing an art school
“I saw places where the instruction led you to be creative and playful and do stuff that hadn’t been done – I thought, yes I could go for all of that, but I want some skills, to learn my craft, learn about colour and drawing.” He chose The Ruskin School in Oxford, because of its reputation for precise observational drawing. For the first term he drew only casts, before being allowed into the life class.
the Ashmolean Museum
He studied there for three years delighting in the old masters’ drawings and the Greek sculptures of the Ashmolean Museum. Towards the end a large red diptych he had painted, attracted such serious attention that he was recommended for a place at the Royal Academy Schools (RA), where he arrived in 1971.
selling a full painting
“I was very aware of the benevolence of the Academy,” he says, “they all saw to it that everyone was treated fair and right. I was good at what I did, without being particularly conscious of it. For example: I did a full-size painting of a student who was an ardent fan of West Brom, standing outside in the back yard with weeds growing up the wall, that I set in a clear encasement. It had the quality of a museum item and I called it ‘Homo West Brom.’ When I sold it for £4,000. I could see other students going around thinking, what’s this guy got who’s shut himself off from the world and can’t speak? And I thought well if someone’s prepared to give me £4K for this it can’t be bad! If Hockney can do it so can I!”
Desmond was born in Southern Rhodesia, also in 1949, where his father – half Irish – was an RAF pilot – his mother was half French. The family soon moved back to England, to Devon where he grew up. After prep school he went to All Hallows where his first art teacher encouraged him to draw. He developed such a talent, drawing and painting figuratively, that he decided to become an artist. He did a foundation course at Yeovil Technical College, from there went to the degree course at Byam Shaw Art School in London, and after that was accepted for a three-year course also at the Royal Academy.
In their last year at the RA, both artists were introduced to socialism by another student, a charismatic Scottish communist called Andrew Turner. This proved a turning point for Desmond, who joined the Party. David said their conversion, “combined with my repugnance of the idea of providing a commodity for the Cork Street gallery mob – working for a gallery I find repulsive – I didn’t want to do that – get involved in the commoditization of what you made. Question was: what was I going to do? And then two Australians passing through, spent some time with Des and me and had some photos of what was being painted in Mexico and muralists working in communities in Chicago, and of these one particularly affected me, Bill Walker. I thought he was great! And this lit an idea that we could paint murals.” Seeing the Mexican murals for the first time had, if anything, an even greater effect on Desmond. “Most of the period I was at Art School my art was fairly mundane and ordinary, i.e. still-lifes, landscapes, life paintings etc. Then when I became more politically motivated my paintings changed radically to reflect my more political leanings!”
Inspired, they decided to set up Public Art Workshop. For their first project Desmond found a location at Royal Oak, near Notting Hill where he was living; two vast walls on a support under Westway, the elevated motorway into the city. Several months were spent getting permissions, publicising the work and raising funds. These were eventually given from The Edwin Austen and Abbey Foundations of the Royal Academy, The Arts Council and other donors, and totalled about £11,000.
setting up the mural
“There was a main road going past but no houses, so no constituency, no-one we could talk to about it, so we decided just to plough on. We publicised the project as best we could with leafleting and posters.” David made a large scale three dimensional model of the scheme with our designs on it, encouraging passers by to stop to comment and make suggestions.”
The artists spent a year physically at work, abrading the smooth surface to a suitable roughness and then rendering – all this off absurdly insecure towers – and a further year painting the walls.
“We both had a background in the craft of painting, and distrusted emulsion paints. After some research we discovered and secured a deal with a German company, Keim Farben, to use their new material – having extreme longevity – for the first time in the United Kingdom. Keim Silicate paint. Its earth-based colours, mixed in distilled water are applied onto an absorbent render, and fixed with a silicate spray which crystallises the pigment into the surface.”
painting the mural
The murals were of major significance. Far larger than any before in Britain, they were designed by artists who had an understanding of architecture and scale and who had immense energy and determination; and they conveyed serious political intent that other muralists admired. Desmond wrote forcefully against movements in Western art that, preoccupied with formal problems, deny social content. Artists, he said, “must introduce into their work social content drawn from, rooted in and communicating with the working class.” His mural celebrates building the structure; “My idea for my Royal Oak mural was to represent “workers, in this case the energy and vitality of the ones who built the huge buttresses that supported the motorway above.” His workers soar with power tools against cranes, buildings and the sky.
David’s mural is a dystopian satire. “I wanted an image that was much more about office work, bureaucracy, the way my partner told me she was treated at work.” His mural carves the flat wall into three dimensions, creating a new architecture on the space, forms move up and around as people are forced to do repetitive tasks. As well as the disturbing theme, the shapes, colours and balance of the design bring the area to life. Both of the murals were completed in 1977 and opened with bands playing and a party. “We had put down a marker for public art, and for a very long time it was not vandalised.”
Afterwards David began work on the Cable Street mural, whilst Desmond went to Mexico for two years, and returned to teach at Chelsea School of Art and study for a PhD about ‘Los Tres Grandes Muralistas Mexicanos’ at the Royal College of Art.