The Battersea Mural: Digging Into The Details

By M@

Last Updated 28 June 2024

The Battersea Mural: Digging Into The Details
Battersea in Perspective mural
Image: Matt Brown

Looking in detail at one of London's most potent murals.

Just south of Battersea Park on Dagnall Street stands one of the best murals by the late, great Brian Barnes. Battersea in Perspective, as it's officially called, offers a bird's eye view of the area around the park. It also includes a series of portraits of local heroes.

Barnes, a local resident, painted the mural in 1988 onto the side of the old Haberdasher's Arms pub. Considering it's over a third of a century old, the wall painting is in excellent condition. Here, we take a closer look at some of the details. We've split the article in two, covering the main mural in the first section and the portraits in the second.

Also in this series: The Battle of Cable Street mural.

The main section of the Battersea Mural

The battersea mural with numbers on features
Click/tap for high resolution

1. Venus: The panorama is overseen by the Goddess of Love herself, Venus. The deity is a copy from Evening Star over the Sea, by local artist Evelyn De Morgan. (See portraits below.)

2. Balloon flights: Secular objects also decorate the sky. The balloon here is a reference to the Short Brothers, who established a balloon workshop under the Battersea rail arches in 1903. Their balloons were made buoyant with coal gas, which could conveniently be acquired from the neighbouring gas works (see below). Balloons were also a common sight from Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens a short way downriver. The whole mural is painted as though we're gazing down from one of the Short Brothers' baskets.

3. Triplane: The Short Brothers also moved into aircraft manufacture from 1909. However, the plane seen here seems to be the Avro No. 1 triplane designed and built by A.V. Roe. Although there's a myth that Roe built his early plane in the Battersea rail arches, his base was actually over on West Hill in nearby Wandsworth.

4. The Battersea Shield: During construction of Chelsea Bridge (shown to the bottom left of the mural) workmen found an Iron Age shield in the Thames. Its elegant, hammered-in swirls, known as repoussé, are shown in the sky above Battersea. The real shield has a more down-to-earth home at the British Museum.

The Battersea Shield
The Battersea Shield. Image: Matt Brown

5. Carey Gardens Estate: The curving housing estate is Carey Gardens. Brian Barnes lived here for many years, and created another mural for one of its walls.

6. Westbury Estate: The mural depicts several other estates. Here we see the distinctive towers of the Westbury Estate, near Wandsworth Road station.

7. Battersea gas works: The distinctive cyan gasholder and its smaller neighbours were dismantled around 2015. The site is now housing.

8. Mural within a mural: Look closely and you can see that Barnes has painted his own mural within the mural — what today we might call "a bit meta", but actually an old conceit beloved of model villages.

Detail of the Battersea in Perspective mural by Brian Barnes (1988)
A closeup of the mural within a mural. Image: Matt Brown

9. Battersea Power Station: The most famous building in the mural. Giles Gilbert Scott's masterpiece had been closed for five years when Barnes painted the mural. It still possessed its roof in 1988, and hadn't yet slipped into the degraded state of later years. Even so, it's been optimistically painted to look its best. Barnes was a founder of the Battersea Power Station Community Group, which lobbied for the preservation of the building after its closure.  

10. Marco Polo House: One of London's most striking postmodern buildings, Marco Polo House would have been brand new when the mural was painted in 1988. It was used as offices and television studios (notably for QVC), but was scandalously demolished in 2014. Luxury flats now haunt the site.

Demolition of postmodern Marco Polo House
Demolition of Marco Polo House in 2014, with the doomed gasholder behind. Image: Matt Brown

11. Chelsea Bridge

12. The Peace Pagoda: Barnes structured his panorama with Battersea Park's Peace Pagoda front and centre, and much larger than in real life. It doesn't take a genius of metaphor to work out that he's saying peace should be central.

13. Albert Bridge: Just north of the bridge, another mural can be seen depicting a giant sunflower. I can't find any further information about this feature, so do speak up in the comments if you know what it was.

The portraits beneath the Battersea mural

Closeup of the portraits beneath the Battersea mural
Click or tap for high resolution. Image: Matt Brown

Nine portraits of local individuals can be found at the foot of the mural, superimposed on the Chelsea streetscape. Sadly, these are often hidden by a parked car, hence the slightly awkward angle of the photograph above. The portraits are (left to right):

John Archer (1863-1932): Mayor of Battersea, and Britain’s first elected black mayor. A plaque, just around the corner on Battersea Park Road, marks his photography studio.

John Burns (1858-1943): Trade unionist, champion of the 1888 London Dock Strike, and MP for Battersea. He later became an historian and coined the cliche about the Thames being "Liquid history". One of the Woolwich ferries was named after him, until recently.

Shapurji Saklatvala (1874-1936): Communist MP, and first British MP of Indian heritage, representing Battersea North.

Charlotte Despard (1844-1939): Leading suffragist, pacifist and active member of the Battersea Labour Party.

Hilda Hewlett (1864-1943) Pioneering aviator who was born and raised in nearby Vauxhall, and would later live in Battersea near Clapham Junction. See Londonist: Time Machine for a profile.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919): Pre-Raphaelite painter whose study of Venus appears in the top-right of the mural. She and her husband, the ceramicist William De Morgan, lived and worked nearby.

AV Roe (1877-1958): Another aviation pioneer, who worked in the Wandsworth area. He's depicted holding a model plane.

Douglas Jay (1907-1996): An MP who held Battersea North from 1946 until 1983. He would unveil the mural on 10 August 1988.

Alf Dubs (1932-): Former MP for Battersea South, and later a Life Peer. He had recently lost his seat when the mural was painted. He is the only living person (at the time of writing) depicted on the mural.