Arts contributor Tom O’Neill interviewed Brian Barnes, the man behind the legendary ‘Nuclear Dawn’ mural on Coldharbour Lane. You can read more of Tom’s work over at his blog.
As Brian and I flick through some old newspaper clippings in his studio in Battersea he comes across an article featuring a picture of him scuffling with some well-dressed looking gents.
“Well it was a long while ago now, but it was the Dorchester Hotel and we just wanted the yuppies out.”
It’s just a small snippet from our hour-long chat but it tells you a lot about who Brian is. He’s a natural dissenter, a bit of a cynic and a great laugh. His voice itself also gives a few clues. It’s quiet, with a gentle Kentish accent that’s occasionally punctuated by a chesty two-stroke cough. It sounds like the downside to a 40-a-day habit but in fact it comes from the paint and solvents Brian has exposed himself to over his 40 years as an artist.
Brian Barnes is the man behind the towering figure of Nuclear Dawn – the skeletal anti-heroine which sits on the side of Carlton Mansions on Coldharbour Lane and currently watches over the beating heart of Brixton’s gentrification. It’s a visceral, slightly intimidating artwork – full of menace and foreboding – something Brian obviously relishes.
“It is quite scary I suppose. In fact, when I first did the painting you could see the mural from a lot further away as the trees and the car park didn’t obscure it. We had complaints from mothers and the like who said it was scaring their children!”
Created in 1981, with the help of Dale McCrea and 15 volunteers, it’s a mural which is truly representative of a time when the threat of the bomb felt very present and real. I ask Brian if he feels that the message is still relevant today.
“I think it is. What you have to remember is that at the time we really thought that nuclear war was going to happen so it’s a reminder of the Zeitgeist. I remember Heseltine assuring everyone that M.A.D. [Mutually Assured Destruction] would prevent that but no one believed him. You have to remember that the nuclear threat hasn’t necessarily gone away either. Countries like North Korea and Israel are worrying and I think that Iran probably has the bomb.”
The piece celebrated its 30th birthday in 2011 but its future currently seems uncertain with the redevelopment of the Somerleyton Road area. The plans put forward by Future Brixton have the mural outside the entrance to the proposed new location for the Ovalhouse Theatre but Brian seems unsure whether or not the idea will come to fruition.
“Well I have heard that the plan is to keep it and I’ve seen the plans with the theatre and all that but you can never be sure with Lambeth council. I can just see them saying ‘oh we need a little more space’ or something and then… well, you know.”
The London Mural Preservation Society share Brian’s pessimism about the future of the piece: “Without any written confirmation that the mural is to stay, it is hard not to be concerned that in the long run it will end up being destroyed. If we lose that mural, then an important piece of history is gone.”
When contacted, Lambeth council said that “Nuclear Dawn is very much being considered and the draft plans hope to make a feature of it by including it as part of the open space leading to the entrance [of the theatre].”
When we meet again a few days later to take a photograph of Brian with Nuclear Dawn he discusses his plans for any renovation the piece might get.
“I’d like to do the skeleton’s head and legs in fluorescent paint. That would frighten a few more people!”