Darker Arts | Farringdon Street

Three little-known facts about Clerkenwell, all on an arty theme…


It’s not often that art can stand in the way of banking, but recently, in Clerkenwell, it did. US financial giant Goldman Sachs was forced to delay its plans to convert the derelict Fleet Building, at 70 Farringdon Street, into a one million square foot “ground-scraper banking factory” (eugh) because of a set of ceramic murals on its exterior.

The nine Modernist, abstract panels, by British painter-potter Dorothy Annan, were commissioned by the Ministry of Works in 1960 and reflect the building’s former use as the largest telephone exchange in London. It was there that the first ever international direct dial call was made, from the Mayor of London to France’s communications minister, in March 1963. The murals show, via textured patterns and muted colours, the wonders of telecommunications and television. Annan manages to interpret cables, circuits, radio waves and generators as beautiful patterns, revealing the real excitement behind the era’s technological advances. Gee, she even took inspiration from cathode ray oscilligraphs, whatever those are.

In 2011, the government granted the murals Grade II Listed status, which gave Goldman Sachs a bit of a headache – how do you demolish a building without damaging the tiles on the front? The solution was to rehouse the murals, and there couldn’t have been a more appropriate place found for them. Since September, they have lined a passageway near Speed House on the Barbican’s Highwalk. There, they fit in with the Modernist surroundings, are well lit and have a sympathetic audience.

When she hand-scored her tiles for the murals back in 1960, Annan was already making a feminist statement with her technological subject matter. But she would never have foreseen the power they’d still have today. Annan versus Goldman Sachs. Go girl.


Though principally known as an Islington man, the famous painter Walter Sickert can also be said to be a Clerkenwell claim to fame. Actually, he was born in Munich, in 1860. His family moved to England when he was eight years old, settling at first in Bedford. Aged about 20, he took up acting and came to Clerkenwell, lodging at an address in Claremont Square, at the top of Amwell Street. He worked from time to time as a ”utility player” at the nearby Sadler’s Wells.

It didn’t take him long, however, to quit the stage and head to the Slade school of art. From then it was a meteoric rise – after just four months at the Slade he was taken on as an apprentice by Whistler. Sadler’s remained in his blood, though. During his career he was often seen there, soaking up the vibe and gaining inspiration for his work. Despite living abroad (Paris, Dieppe, Venice) for chunks of his life, Sickert spent a decade, from 1924 to 1934, dotted around Islington, living at 26 Noel Street (later 54 Noel Road), 15 Quadrant Road, 1 Highbury Place and 14 (now number 12) Barnsbury Park.

At Highbury Place, he ran an art school and painted a work, The Raising of Lazarus, for Sadler’s to auction off for funds. At Quadrant Road, he did something less illustrious: he replaced the conventional loos with the squatting sort, because he wanted to shock his visitors. Better known about him, but no less surprising, are the facts that he was born with a penile fistula, he has been accused of being Jack the Ripper, and he was Winston Churchill’s personal art tutor.

The drawings, photos and papers that were found in Sickert’s studio when he died (by then he lived near Bath) are kept in Clerkenwell (so there!), at the Islington Local History Centre in St John Street. For more information, visit www.islington.gov.uk.


In this issue, on the previous pages, we pay tribute to William Caslon, the man who revolutionised the look and the legibility of the printed word through his type foundry in Clerkenwell’s Chiswell Street. Thanks to an engraving from 1750 showing the foundry’s interior, it is known that it owned an Act of Parliament clock.

An Act of Parliament clock is a large, 18th century wall-mounted timepiece with a big dial and, typically, a black lacquer case decorated with gilt Chinoiserie. It’s basically a pretty grandfather clock that hangs on the wall and doesn’t stand in its own cabinet. In shape, it’s like an upside down nurse’s watch. Why the strange name? In 1797, Pitt the Younger introduced an Act that taxed clocks and watches. Clocks were taxed at five shillings a year, gold watches at 10 shillings, and silver and metal watches at ten shillings and sixpence. There were some exemptions made: timepieces owned by the royal family (of course), and wall clocks in institutions of public service, for example schools, hospitals and churches. Such exempt clocks became known, therefore, as Act of Parliament clocks.

Naturally, the levy was a hugely unpopular one – and mad. How could the country run efficiently if everyone threw away their clocks and watches and no-one could tell the time? Within a year the Act was revoked. In the meantime, however, many canny innkeepers had installed Act of Parliament clocks in their bars so they could call time without penalty – for this reason, they are more popularly known as tavern clocks.

With thanks to Antiquarian Horology magazine and Spitalfields Life, www.spitalfieldslife.com.