Guest blogger: Rosamund West
This month our focus at the Lansbury Micro Museum is on the role that art plays within the built environment. We’ve asked Rosamund West, our fantastic walking-tour host, to give us an insight into her own research on the subject as well as a glimpse of what to expect on her next Lansbury tour on Saturday 29 April at 2pm.
Public art can divide opinion like few other aspects of our streetscape can. For some, it is a waste of money, a patronising addition forced upon communities. For others, it is a welcome enhancement to the otherwise everyday environment: a way of bringing art out of the gallery or museum and into the street for all to enjoy.
My research looks at a brief but fruitful period after the Second World War when the London County Council installed artworks within people’s everyday environments alongside housing, schools, hospitals and green spaces as part of the re-planning of London after the war. My research focusses on artworks the London County Council installed within residential settings, specifically housing schemes and old people’s homes.
The London County Council were very conscious of the role of architecture, design and the arts in the post-war environment they were creating. W. Eric Jackson, former senior assistant clerk to the London County Council explains in the LCC’s final year, 1965:
“The layout of a public park, the design of furniture in schools and homes, even the typography of an agenda paper, can demonstrate cultural values. Public buildings especially, whether they are imposing municipal offices, large housing estates, or small utilitarian buildings, can be given the enlivening quality that is a feature of good architecture”.
As part of the V&A’s Neighbourhood Number 9 programme at the Lansbury Micro Museum, I have been hosting tours around the Lansbury Estate in Poplar. The first tour complimented the Museum’s first exhibition, New Beginnings, which explored the London County Council’s plans for the wider Stepney Poplar Reconstruction Area and particularly the Lansbury Estate, designated as ‘Neighbourhood number 9’. The exhibition also looked at the important role the Lansbury Estate played as a model neighbourhood for the 1951 Live Architecture Exhibition as part of the Festival of Britain. Between May and September 1951, visitors came to the Lansbury estate to learn how post-war Britain would be rebuilt.
On these tours, I take my original copy of the 1951 Exhibition of Architecture catalogue. Visitors purchased this at the time of the 1951 Festival of Britain for 2 shillings and it contained a map of the route around the site, as well as information on the exhibition’s buildings. I bring this catalogue along to every tour and anyone is welcome to look through it as a visitor to the Lansbury estate in 1951 would.
The second tour, to complient the current exhibition at the Lansbury Micro Museum (New Horizons: 1950s to 1980s) looked at change in the area during this period. For this tour, I looked at the changing architecture of this period on the Lansbury Estate and discussed the huge impact the loss of industry along the Thames caused, the role of the LDDC (London Docklands Development Corporation) and community tensions around this time of rapid change.
On Saturday 29th April, I shall be leading a further walking tour to go alongside the third Neighbourhood Number 9 panel discussion and the launch of a new audio-visual artwork by Walls on Walls at the Micro Museum. This tour will focus on the works of art found in and around the Lansbury estate, from those of municipal patronage to those born of community activism.
Some public artworks aim to reflect the community in which they are sited, and the London County Council did this often with the choice of artworks they installed. The Dockers by Sydney Harpley which was installed in Trinity Gardens on the Lansbury Estate, is one such example. The artist, Sydney Harpley, spent hours in the docks sketching dockers unloading cargo. Dock leader Jack Dash, quoted in the Stratford Express on 14th September 1962, said of the sculpture:
“It’s nice to know there’s a tribute to our physical labours. I’m pleased our services to the community are being recognised”.
However, as with all public artwork, not everybody liked it. Vandalism is a common problem with publicly-sited artworks and this work provides a noteable example. It was installed in 1962, but today- as we will see on the walk- only an empty plinth remains. On the walk, I shall discuss other local views of this sculpture, and its subsequent fate.
Poplar has a long history of political activism. The Lansbury Estate itself has two radical politicians associated with it: George Lansbury (1859-1940) and Susan Lawrence (1871-1947). Susan Lawrence lends her name to the school, now the Lansbury Lawrence school. She was one of the first female Labour MPs and a contemporary of George Lansbury: both went to prison for their role in the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921. On Hale Street is a mural commemorating this event. George Lansbury had been Mayor of Poplar and led the rebellion. He is depicted, below, in the centre of the mural. Names of his fellow rebel councillors are listed around him.
The mural, however, appeared nearly seventy years after the event. Painted straight onto the brickwork, it was produced by local artist Mark Francis. It references contemporary radical events in Thatcher’s London such as the 1985 rate-capping rebellion and the 1990 poll tax riot.
Whether installed as protest, commemoration or decoration, this walk shall look at various examples of art in the public realm at Lansbury. It will also engage with the more controversial aspects of public art and community art practices, from vandalism to art’s role in gentrification and redevelopment. At the end of the tour there will be a chance to meet artists Laurie Nouchka and Tullis Rennie of Walls On Walls and hear more about their brand new art and sound installation in Chrisp Street Market, as co-produced with local residents.
So, do join me at the Lansbury Micro Museum for this special arts-focused walking tour of the estate, 2pm til 3pm on Saturday 29 April. For more information visit www.lansburymicromuseum.com
Rosamund West is a PhD candidate at Kingston University carrying out research into London County Council housing schemes and public art between 1943 to 1965. Her research focuses on how the London County Council, beginning with the 1943 County of London Plan, planned the communities and neighbourhoods of London and the role that works of art played in this. She is particularly interested in the role that residents played in choosing artworks to be installed in their residential settings. Rosamund has worked for a number of museums, and is currently Documentation Officer at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.
 LCC Parks Department Press Office, “The Dockers” come to Dockland, 10th September 1962. Tower Hamlets Archive, 712.2 folder 1, 1864-2008
 Stratford Express, 14th September 1962. Tower Hamlets Archive, 712.2 folder 1, 1864-2008
 Drew, B., Hart, E., Jenkins, D., Kenning, D., & Till, C. Reclaim the Mural: The Politics of London Murals, Whitechapel Gallery, 2013