Who needs to go to Barcelona when you have Charlton on your doorstep? If you’re not expecting anything more than some rather sweet Victorian terraces when you’re walking along Troughton and Rathmore roads, the first time you see the (still) fabulous Rathmore benches is one of those wonderful experiences that Life gives out for free every so often.
In a style strongly reminiscent of Gaudi’s dazzling Park Guell, this extraordinary structure of concrete benches wrapping its way around an old (1901, if memory serves…) chapel (now Rathmore Youth Centre) winds like a length of colourful satin ribbon gently undulating and forming two long, continuous benches for the Youth of Charlton to enjoy. All along it, in minute detail, are mosaic images – people, flowers, sun rays, crashing waves, boats, motorbikes, cornfields – and what looks suspiciously like a detonator of some sort.
Maybe this is a darker vision than it at first appears. This was made by the excellent Greenwich Mural Workshop (You know the drill, ‘more about them another day’) in the heady days of the 1980s when there was the money around to do that kind of thing. There is some doubt about exactly when it was executed – The Public Monument and Sculpture Association, thinks 1989, but I have found evidence of a publication about it as far back as 1983 (it’s by Greenwich Mural Workshop themselves and just 12 pages long, so I guess it could be a proposal. I am sure one of you long term residents – Inspector Sands, perhaps, can tell me the date?) but this is a period when CND and the Greenham Women were still very much at the forefront of the news. A time when even Tony Blair was still against nuclear weapons. In other words, more politically volatile times.
Sadly the colourful mural that accompanied the project and which may have explained more about the meaning of the remaining benches has been painted over – in battleship grey, of all colours. A more miserable, dampening colour would have been difficult to find, but could have rather symbolic subtext if my theory is correct. I have no idea whether my fancies about these benches having political resonance are anything more than mere whim, but if it is, it might explain the grey paint and general condition of the work…
If you’ve never seen these remarkable constructions, my advice would be to see them for the very first time by night. The sodium streetlamps are far kinder to them than the harsh sunlight which shows just how badly they have worn. By night, they are a magical sight, the colours a little subdued by the lighting, but the general view much more akin, I suspect, to how they were originally conceived.
The money just isn’t around these days to look after exciting sculptures in backstreets in Charlton. The Public Monument and Sculpture Association has recorded them as being “At Risk” – and they’re absolutely right. They are. Flakes and tiles of mosaic are missing almost everywhere you look, and in places the wire mesh that forms the foundations shows through. Even the little flowerbeds carefully integrated into the design are looking distinctly bare. But it is not too late to save this wonderful piece of late 20th Century art. If the will is there, then they can be preserved, perhaps even by their original creators. Listing would even be an option. Sadly I don’t think that grey paint is coming off any time soon…