Town Hall murals ‘lost’ for decades found behind a fridge
Anthropologist did not realise history behind paintings she picked up at auction in 1990s
02 March, 2018 — By Tom Foot
OIL paintings that once hung in the Town Hall have been found, decades after going missing.
Artist Cecil Osborne had feared the ornate panels depicting the history of Camden had been destroyed, relaying his fears about their whereabouts to an art historian before his death.
It has now been revealed that the murals had been sitting in the Bloomsbury home of anthropologist Dr Kaori O’Connor, who had no idea of their history.
She had bought the paintings – which were on display in the council’s headquarters in King’s Cross during the 1960s – at a household clearance auction in the 1990s.
“I spotted something peculiar poking out from behind a fridge – a corner of a canvas six feet high, with small painted vignettes of people and places surrounded by lettering,” she told the New Journal. “I realised that two of the vignettes were familiar, showing locations in Camden where I live. I wanted to see more, but couldn’t move the canvas – and then saw that there were two more panels wedged in behind it.”
Dr O’Connor added: “They were unframed, and it was a miracle that someone hadn’t put a foot through them, in the clutter of the showroom. Once I got them home, I realised they were a unique social history.”
Mr Osborne was part of a celebrated group of artists headed by John Cooper in the late 1920s and 30s. He was living in Belsize Square when he was asked to paint the murals for the former St Pancras Council. They were on display between 1956 and 1965.
The panels show scenes from Camden – from Hampstead to Bloomsbury – and are furnished with charming captions.
For example: “Cumberland Market – where hay was once sold and now tall flats appear and a gay steam roller is seen”. Another says: “The Royal Free Hospital – the first to admit that women may become doctors.”
Dr O’Connor only became aware of their history when she researched Mr Osborne’s work and was put in touch with David Buckman, who published From Bow to Biennale, and a friend who writes an anonymous blog called Spitalfields Life.
Mr Buckman had been exchanging letters with Mr Osborne in the final years of his life and the artist had mentioned how the St Pancras borough council murals had been lost – and were feared destroyed. It is believed the council moved all three to a building in Brecknock Road and that they were later moved into storage, before disappearing.
Now Dr O’Connor wants to see them back on public display. Dr O’Connor said: “The panels are a unique fusion of history, heritage and art – an essential part of the identity of a borough which is rapidly renewing itself and becoming a cultural and artistic hub. No other London borough has anything quite like them. They were painted to be seen, and now that they have been found again and identified, they should be on display.”
Dr O’Connor is urging anyone interested in the panels to email firstname.lastname@example.org