The Cable Street mural was initiated in the late 1970’s by Dave Binnington and finally realised by Ray Walker, Desmond Rochfort and myself in 1981-’83. Ray sadly died back in 1985 at the age of 39, Desmond is working as an academic in Canada and Dave Binnington (now Dave Savage) is a successful furniture maker*.
In about 1980 Dave invited me to do some work on the mural. He had done a heroic job getting the project off the ground and had been working on his own squaring the design up and drawing it in. When I arrived he had started painting the upper parts where the buildings curve inwards, and the figure of Hitler and the gyrocopter.
However before I could even start work the mural was attacked and daubed with racist graffiti across its entire width. I guess this was the last straw for Dave who had already struggled on alone against incredible odds to try to realize the project, and he quit - leaving me holding the baby. I contacted two experienced mural painters, Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort, and we started work together in a small room in the basement of St George’s Town Hall. We divided the wall into three sections and each researched subject-matter and developed designs - Ray working on the left, me in the middle and Desmond on the right.
In 1982, after the lower two thirds of the wall had been grit-blasted and re-primed we started work. It took us nearly a year to paint. We relished the complexity and physical challenge of it. It was demanding, exhausting, stressful - but consuming and fulfilling in a way that, as an artist I have rarely encountered. We got on well and enjoyed working collectively – not a common experience for artists. We also had a very powerful sense that this was a piece of work that would be a monument to the struggle against Fascism.
The process of painting was hugely laborious. The mural is of course very big – approximately 55 by 60 feet (18x20m) – and we worked on the scaffolding in all conditions – wind and rain and cold - at times battling the wind at the top of the scaffolding paint pots being blown off spattering paint for miles.The scaffolding and boards made it very difficult to see what we were doing. To check whether a given diagonal was correct, it was frequently necessary to climb down to the ground and walk some distance away, then climb back up, adjust the diagonal and climb back down again – only to find that it was still wrong!
Developing what was pretty much a new design involved researching subject matter and then transforming it into hugely magnified images which had then to be broken down into zones or shapes in order to be integrated into the overall design. For the white horse in the centre of the mural - which is nearly four metres long from ear to nose - I used a mixture of references: drawings of an old nag at Hackney city farm, photographs of race-horses from the newspaper, Stubbs paintings and Leonardo drawings. A strange synthesis.
The large figure with white shirt and flat cap, above the horse, is derived from a tiny image of a figure - perhaps one centimetre - in the crowd in a fuzzy photograph of the ‘Battle’ taken from a gyrocopter - the Daily Herald report at the time estimated the crowd that jammed the East End at 300,000. This fleeting image of a young man, who clearly would not have known he was being photographed, became a monumental image about twelve foot (4m) high. The photograph contained very little information, it was really a prompt – an idea for a figure. It was hard to see his physical posture or what he was doing and details such as creases in clothing were non-existant. In the end I turned him so that he was facing left instead of right and invented his stance and throwing action by drawing myself in the mirror in order get the dynamic of the pose and details like creases in clothing and how the hand holds the stone. Creases in a shirt may seem an informal detail, but when hugely increased in scale they become significant elements in the design which have to be resolved as a piece of abstract painting - transformed into a series of flat interlocking shapes.
When our respective sections were ready we struggled to reconcile them in one large drawing - now sadly lost - probably battered beyond repair. We almost succeeded. And perhaps as a consequence of that ‘almost’ the mural is a huge dynamic mix of sometimes contradictory elements - I’m ok with that. Certainly when we finally removed the scaffolding and were able to see the mural as a whole for the first time I think we all felt that it succeeds in reconciling the contrasting styles of four different artists remarkably well. We were pleased.
In 1994 the mural was paint-bombed and I was commissioned to clean and repaint it. I worked with my assistant Steve Rushton for several months, laboriously removing the gloss paint with chemicals then abrading and repainting the damaged sections. This involved matching colours and touching in numerous patches and spots as well as repainting entire images, including almost the whole of the central horses head.
Unluckily at that time the BNP were standing in the local elections. One day I went down the road to get some fish and chips and returned to find white gloss paint poured all over my car and all the tyres slashed. An outfit called C18 rang the local paper anonymously and said “we did his tyres, and we would’ve done him if he’d been there”. After that a policeman stood around at the base of our scaffold towers for a while, but after a few days we looked down and he had gone.
As an artist, and as a lifelong socialist, I am very proud of my role in painting the mural. I do not claim ownership of it. It was clearly a collaborative piece of work. But I am honoured to have been part of this huge creative project and to have worked with Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort. We put a year of our lives into the painting of it - and many months repairing it.
In 2011 Linda James and I did a major restoration job on the whole mural, abrading and repainting large areas that had been repainted with acrylic after it was paint-bombed, using the original Keim paint system*. It was an exhausting but immensely fulfilling and pleasurable job – not least because of the interaction we had with local people and the groups and individuals from around the world who come to see this great monument to the ‘Battle of Cable Street’.
* Sadly Dave died in 2021
* We had painted the mural originally using Keim paints which are pure pigments in a water-based silicate solution, but the paint bombs contained spirit-based gloss paint, so as a temporary solution we abraded and over-painted with acrylic. In 2011 we cleaned and abraded the surface and repainted with Soldalit - a new Keim Paint system.