Esoteric London

No. 240: Farringdon Street, EC4

Posted in Markets, Public Art by esotericlondon on January 28, 2011

Farringdon Street, London, EC4. Photo © Roger Dean 2009

This is a photograph of one of the nine hand-painted ceramic panels adorning the facade of Fleet Building, 70, Farringdon Street, EC4. All the panels have a communications theme, as Fleet Building was built for the General Post Office, which eventually morphed into British Telecom. In its time the building was an expression of progressive thinking in design and technology, but the creep of obsolescence has left the building vacant and derelict, another relic of mid-century modernism and the period’s quaint faith in the future. As it is, the building is now in a state of decay and its future is ‘uncertain’ (i.e. it is doomed).

The panels are the work of Dorothy Annan, a largely unknown ceramic artist whose work on Fleet Building constituted her biggest public commission. Little is known about the artist: her work was clearly influenced by Ben Nicolson, she was married to the sculptor Trevor Tennant, with whom she lived in a bus for a while (this last item is the most quoted biographical detail, a cruel twist on the priorities of posterity). She is described as being ‘prolific’ but it is unclear how much of her work has survived.

It would be nice to assume that Annan’s panels would be snapped up by the 20th Century Society or the V&A or some other ‘heritage’ concern – but that’s probably an assumption too far. Mid-20th century furnishings may have acquired considerable cachet in the last few years, but public expressions of the period are as vulnerable to the rapacity of the developer as much as Art Deco architecture was thirty years ago (remember the Firestone Building?). Perhaps the best one can hope for is that the panels will end up in LASSCO’s warehouse, waiting to be snapped up by some rich collector of large-scale post-Festival of Britain ceramics.

It is also worth noting that – as far as I have been able to ascertain – Fleet Building sits on the site of the notorious Farringdon Market, famed for its numerous and desperate watercress sellers. R.D.

8 Responses

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  1. Peter Marquis-Kyle said, on January 29, 2011 at 4:20 am

    Come on Roger, tell us more about those ‘numerous and desperate watercress sellers’ — they sound like something from Henry Mayhew.

    • esotericlondon said, on January 29, 2011 at 10:22 am

      Hi Peter, More on the watercress sellers to come I promise

    • George Mercer said, on October 1, 2014 at 5:10 pm

      I was the deputy resident engineer on the building of Fleet Building by the then Ministry of Works in the late 1950’s, It has a very deep basement, at one end being about 50ft deep, The concrete walls were between 6ft and 9ft thick, built with 20% Flyash replacing part of the normal cement, to reduce temperature rises and the possibility of cracking during the curing phase, as there was no external waterproofing system. That proved to be very successful as only one very small seepage of groundwater occurred along a construction joint line.

      When excavating the basement we came across two large mass burial pits of which there was no known record. Just a jumble of human skeleton remains which had to be boxed up and cremated.

      Alongside the Farringdon Road, we came across the original brick built, arched roofed, wharf buildings which it was thought merchants/traders had used alongside a tributary of the the River Fleet before it was covered over.

      I don’t know about watercress sellers but we did come across heaps of mussel shells and remains of white long stemmed broken clay pipes.

      A circular shaft was built from the basement to the Post Office underground communications tunnel.

      The commemorative foundation stone immediately inside the main entrance was laid by Ernest Marples, the responsible government Minister for the GPO in 1958. It has a tube beneath the stone with a sample of the available telephonic equipment in daily use at that time.

      Hope that might be helpful to any reseacher.
      George Mercer, C.Eng., FICE, FIStructE.

      • esotericlondon said, on October 6, 2014 at 10:51 am

        Hello George,
        Thanks for taking the time to write to me about Fleet Building – fascinating stuff. I would have loved to have got a look at those remains of the old wharf buildings.

  2. Richard said, on January 29, 2011 at 9:05 am

    I think the building’s future is secure. You never know when you’ll need a great big telephone exchange…

    • esotericlondon said, on January 29, 2011 at 10:25 am

      Hi Richard, Since the post went up yesterday I have had some interesting news. I should be able to put up some information next week on the Facebook page.

  3. Mark Hudson said, on January 30, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Thanks for posting that. i’ve noticed those panels many times on passing, and finally got round to taking snaps, for my own interest, this weekend. Did a search and came to you. Very interesting. Though in a way its sometimes better not to know who the person was. Stimulates the imagination! Though I was grateful to be informed. Please ket me know if you find out more. (also curious about the watercress sellers).

    • esotericlondon said, on January 30, 2011 at 8:18 pm

      Hi Mark, very nice to know that you too had an interest in these ceramic panels and have, through them, stumbled across our blog. There will certainly be more on the blog about the watercress sellers in the next few weeks but more immediately we have received some exciting news about the panels since our post and we will let you know more about that next week on the Facebook page.

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