Paolozzi Losses prompt Call for 'Cultural Domesday Book'

An ideal patron, he was supportive, interested, there if needed, but never interfering. A decade or so before he became PMSA Patron Paolozzi had embarked on a new swathe of public commissions, which had suggested him as a particularly appropriate patron. Among these commissions was his important mural mosaic scheme for the underground station at Tottenham Court Road (1980-84).

This mural mosaic installation was commissioned by London Regional Transport in 1979 and Paolozzi, a prolific artist, produced numerous preliminary designs. The mosaic scheme he chose reflected the colours which denote the separate lines, so red became the predominant colour in his vibrant designs for the Central line, while black, the colour of the Northern line was key in that line’s designs and was complemented with a more muted palette of greys, greens, blues and reds.

Mosaics in areas where passengers pass through quickly were simple in design, but those in places such as platforms, where passengers wait for trains were more complex. The forms he included in the latter were semi-abstract and based on the activities of the area around Tottenham Court Road; photographic, music and electronic equipment; cameras, televisions and saxophones were represented alongside references to the British Museum, the Architectural Association and even the Turkish bath which was once graced the Russell Hotel. Passengers were represented too, along with Heath-Robinson type machines and parts such as cogs and wheels. The Rotunda, a disused lift shaft which the passengers pass through, featured images suggesting movement and haste such as a running commuter, fast-food, and cogs and pistons. The last stage of Paolozzi’s design was the entrance on the south-east corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, which was a combination of his imagery elsewhere in the scheme and has been described as the ‘overture’ to his designs below ground.

1. Eduardo Paolozzi, Mosaic mural Tottenham Court Underground Station (photo: courtesy of The Twentieth Century Society)

Initially Paolozzi planned to use ceramic tiles for these designs, he was tutor in ceramics at the Royal College of Art at the time, but this was changed to mosaic made from vitreous, smalti and piastrelle. Three firms created and installed the mosaics according to Paolozzi’s colourful designs, Italmosaic of Spilimbergo were responsible for the Central Line, Carter Contracting of London for the Northern Line and Art Pavements for the Rotunda, the Oxford Street entrance and the ‘watch-strap’ mosaics over the escalators. Paolozzi adopted two styles of mosaic work, opus regulatum for his geometric style compositions such as the ‘watch-straps’ designs over the escalators, which is created by using regular patterns of small pieces of mosaic, known as tesserae, while opus palladianum , a labour intensive technique in which the tesserae are cut into irregular shapes, like crazy paving, was used for the more complex images and contributes towards their modern look.

2. Eduardo Paolozzi, Mosaic mural Tottenham Court Underground Station (photo: courtesy of The Twentieth Century Society)

The artistic importance of Paolozzi’s installation was acknowledged in 1986 when the Royal Academy of Arts mounted a dedicated exhibition to the work, Eduardo Paolozzi Underground. Today papers relating to the mural scheme for Tottenham Court Road underground are held in the Tate archive and it is frequently listed among the sculptor’s most notable public commissions, as for example in The Grove Dictionary of Art. Incredibly, however, this highly important and culturally valuable mural scheme has recently fallen victim to a blatant act of destruction.

The murals became subject to Transport for London’s major redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road underground station, the rebuilding of which is due to be completed in 2016. It was initially mooted that two elements of Paolozzi’s original mosaic scheme would have to be removed in order to accommodate the Crossrail link and Art on the Underground’s new commission for the station, a permanent art installation by French artist, Daniel Buren.

TfL describe Buren’s new work as ‘ a colourful series of large scale diamond and circle shapes … fixed to the station’s internal glass walls. Designed in his trademark striped vinyl, the shapes will allow light to pass through to keep the public areas bright. A cabinet containing the ‘parents’ of the forms that are transforming the station’s surfaces – a set of Buren’s shapes in sculptural, 3D form – will be installed in the ticket hall.’ Claiming the two decorative schemes would be integrated, TfL stated reassuringly, ‘The majority of the Paolozzi mosaics are being preserved in the upgraded station, whilst some smaller sections will be carefully removed and displayed elsewhere.’

The two Paolozzi elements under threat were the double set of opus regulatum mosaic-clad arches above the escalators in the main concourse and the large ‘overture’, decorative panel at the entrance to the south side of Oxford Street. These two works, as we have seen, were not disparate pieces of art but were integral to Paolozzi’s overall artistic scheme for the decoration of the station.

To their credit The Twentieth Century Society mounted a vigorous campaign to save the murals and there was burgeoning support. An online petition gathered 7,500 signatures. On 21 January, Henrietta Billings, Senior Conservation Adviser at the Twentieth Century Society voiced concern about the two areas of mosaic under threat, which she warned, ‘were set to be demolished imminently under the current Hawkins Brown plans.’ She added: ‘We appreciate that TfL has worked hard to retain as much of the murals at platform level as possible and that integrating Crossrail is immensely complex. But both of these pieces are of very high quality and we believe they could be successfully retained within the new station – or relocated. To destroy them would be a tragic loss and London deserves better.’

In spite of this intervention and The Twentieth Century Society having been assured that no action would be taken precipitously, it has been confirmed that three of the four arches have been destroyed. TfL justified this dubious act of destruction with the following statement:

‘In some areas affected by station works, sections of the original mosaics have been removed and are being replicated to the original designs. We reused the original tiles where possible or commissioned new tiles of the same colour, and made using the same process as the originals…

Despite extensive research, we could not find a way to safely remove the escalator arches and keep the attached mosaics. Removing the arch tiles individually would cause extensive damage because they’re set in particularly rich mortar. The decision to remove the arches was agreed with the Paolozzi Foundation in 2012.

The mosaics that we have been able to remove are being stored.’

There was public outcry as this news broke in the media. Art-historian Benedict Read, Deputy Chairman of the PMSA reacted angrily to what he called TfL’s , ‘weasel words of attempted justification’ declaring: ‘It is outrageous they think they can get away with it by saying they are only proposing to destroy some of them. It is like saying “Oh well, at least we are preserving half our Titian”!’

Catherine Croft, Director of The Twentieth Century Society reported their sadness that the arches over the escalators have been lost. She added that, ‘There has also been a sizeable amount of replication of the murals on the platforms, rather than retention of the original works, which we would have preferred. We were given assurances when the station upgrade plans were first mooted that the mosaics would be safe, and because of this we held off putting them in for listing. With hindsight we feel these mosaics would have been better protected through the listing process. We would have then been more involved in the decision making process from the beginning, and the outcome may have different.’

What is particularly inexplicable is that Christopher Smith, the expert who worked alongside Paolozzi on the mosaics and was largely responsible for their installation having worked both with Carter Contracting and his own firm, Art Pavements, has not been consulted in spite of his approaches to advise and help. On 30 January this year Smith commented on the online Architects Journal:
‘I made these mosaics originally, and they could most probably have been saved using conservation techniques I was using in the 70s and 80s. Replicas could also be made using the same materials in large part, as I still have the stock. Although the contractors are aware of this, no-one has consulted me about possible ways forward.’
Smith’s expertise and knowledge is invaluable. He has revealed, for example, that the ‘rich mortar’ which has baffled the contractors is almost certainly a form of adhesive which he used.

Despite paying lip-service to Paolozzi’s ‘iconic’ designs, by removing some of the mosaics TfL have shown apparent ignorance of the importance of Paolozzi’s unique overall decorative scheme, naivety in failing to properly research what was possible (and also undoubtedly costly), in terms of relocating the actual mosaics and incredible arrogance in their wanton destruction of the arches.

TfL has now confirmed that it will not destroy the large ‘overture’ entrance panel at the former Oxford Street entrance and have confirmed that they will consult The Twentieth Century Society about the methodology for removal of the mosaic and its relocation. It is to be hoped that this time TfL will act with more probity.

It is, of course, good news that this large panel is to be preserved, but it highlights far-reaching questions over the way in which the artistic scheme has been compromised. The arches have been pulled down and now the Oxford Street panel will be relocated, an ‘overture’ no longer, but an ‘incidental’ in a fragmented opus – Paolozzi’s original design scheme ripped apart.

Listing works of art in their location is essential to protect our heritage. Sometimes, however, pieces are not listed, or considered for listing, until they are under imminent threat and even then attempts are made to circumvent the listings system, such as TfL’s empty assurances about the safety of the Tottenham Court Road mosaics. The Twentieth Century Society is rightly calling for a thematic nationwide survey of twentieth-century public art, a kind of cultural Domesday Book, and English Heritage is working to support this. A national register is crucial to protect our public cultural heritage and the work which the PMSA has done on the National Recording Project and is currently undertaking with the PCF on ‘Your Sculpture’ will play an important role in such a register. Those of us interested in preserving and protecting public art in the UK must work together in a joined up way to ensure the sort of destruction witnessed at Tottenham Court Road cannot happen.

Aurora Corio