Public Art on the Brandon

This was written by Owen Hopkins, a Brandon resident for many years.

When it was completed in 1960, the Brandon Estate was home to a number of public artworks. These were intended by the estate’s designers to help foster a sense of community among residents and embed the new development in the history of the area. Most notable was the sculpture by Henry Moore – Two Piece Reclining Figure No.3 (1961) – which remains in situ in the open space between the six towers at the estate’s southern edge.

But there were a number of other, less formal works made by the artists Anthony Holloway and William Mitchell. These included a 14-foot high ‘totem’ in the children’s playground decorated with animals, foliage, fruit, and human figures; several large-scale murals, including one by Holloway that commemorated the Chartists meeting on Kennington Common in 1848; an illuminated sign above the Canterbury Arms pub; and most intriguingly a ‘hairy mammoth’ sign, lit by neon, on the wall of the library overlooking Maddock Way.

Sadly, the pub sign and, with one exception, the murals have all gone. The ‘hairy mammoth’, which had been created to mark the ‘discovery of a fossilised tooth of the  creature during the estate’s construction, has survived but stopped working long ago – that is, until recently.

As a resident of the estate, I’d always hoped we might be able to get the sign working again. It remained just a dream until I relayed the idea to Jeremy Leach of the Walworth Society. He suggested we speak to Dan Taylor at Southwark Council, one of the project mangers in the regeneration team. Dan was enthusiastic about the idea and asked Southwark’s lighting engineers to cost up a proposal so that we could apply for funding through Southwark’s ‘Cleaner Green Safer’ scheme. We submitted the application in October 2017.

We were delighted to hear in early 2018 that the project had been funded in full and the mammoth eventually came down in August 2018. Once we able to inspect it up close, it became apparent that it would not be possible to restore the original. Sixty years of being exposed to the elements had take their toll on the cheap, everyday materials from which it was constructed.

We looked into possibilities for re-creation. In the intervening years, lighting technology has obviously moved on considerably. There were now far more robust and energy efficient alternatives to neon – notably LED. Holloway had used off-the-shelf technology – the original was likely made by a commercial neon sign-maker – so we felt doing the same in our time remained in the spirit of the original. The new LED sign was finally installed in early June 2019, bringing to a close a project that had taken the best part of two years.

I had always wondered about the story of the discovery of the mammoth’s tooth. Had woolly mammoths really wandered the plains of prehistoric south London?! Alas, no. The tooth was not from a mammoth, but actually belonged to one of the elephants from the Royal Surrey Zoological gardens, which stood on what is now Pasley Park during the mid-nineteenth century. When the elephant died it was buried on what was then still open land – now the site of the Brandon Estate.

Although the real story perhaps lacks the romance of the original, for me it’s much more interesting. Far from wiping the slate clean and trying to remake the world anew, as so many post-war estates are accused – and which local authorities seem intent on doing again – it points to the ways the Brandon Estate is embedded in the history and character of the area, which is, for me, one of the reasons it’s such a good place to live.