27 February 2016

A bit of a dark horse

Walk into Blackhorse Road these days and you are faced with two contrasting impressions: some recent work to improve things a little, and overall dirt and deterioration. The most striking thing is the new bright blue mural, made of steel panels with the design fired into a shiny enamel coating. It's bold and contemporary, but the contrast with the Black Horse is unfortunate: suddenly the horse looks tired and dusty, the mosaic colours washed-out next to the strident blue and yellow. Although its condition is stable, it would be good to see some restoration: it should be jet black, and the mosaic need a rethink, either brighter colours or even more muted tones. Peeling mosaics around the roof and dirt encrusted on the ceiling don't help with the impression of neglect, but I suppose the station has to jockey for position in the Transport for London station refurbishment programme. The whole place needs a facelift.

The horse was modelled in clay by sculptor David McFall in 1968. It was cast in fibreglass before being installed at the station, and the mosaics were added in situ. McFall was a colourful character, conforming to the cliche of the bohemian artist with his mane of floppy hair and goatee beard, and 'artistic' dress sense - on occasion, he would wear a tartan shirt and sandals when evening dress was expected. Some of his sculpture is good, some verges on kitsch, but it would be hard to improve upon his horse.

There's a fascinating exhibition at Somerset House at the moment (which I realise about two people reading this will want to go to) about post-war public art. After WWII the government thought the new town centre buildings that were going up needed some art to lighten the severe modernist style, and they sponsored artists to create sculptures and murals for public places, often only temporarily. Some were made of bronze or stone, but others were cast in cheaper modern materials, concrete or fibreglass resin. On the whole, the public hated them and many were vandalised or even stolen - for their raw materials, not for their artistic merit. Which is a pity because we are now perhaps beginning to appreciate modernism and see something gratifyingly audacious about the raw, tortured forms that the artists of the 1950s and 60s came up with. The exhibition lists many works of art which have ended up in an enthusiast's back garden, or are known to have been stolen. Some simply disappeared. The Black Horse comes at the tail end of that period, installed as an integral part of the new station.
David McFall working on the clay relief panel. Image: davidmcfall.co.uk