Rathmore Benches Revisited

I’ve had a fascinating email from Carol of Greenwich Mural Workshop and thought it was so interesting that I would post it in its entirety.
Carol writes:
Rathmore murals were painted in 1979 called ” Charlton, Past, Present andFuture”. The benches were constructed in 1980.

They were commissioned by Irena McFarland, then senior Youth Worker at thecentre. Paul Stephens( not Paul Simmons), also involved in the Centre,worked with us on the benches.
The theme for the murals and benches were agreed with local residents andyouth centre workers and users, and yes in response to a point you made Ithink, they were deliberately socio-political to reflect the aspirations ofthe local residents, also because that was the genre of GMW.

Each section of the walls reflected the theme of the benches. So from westto east – the first section showed portraits of local people debating /accosting national politicians, the second, people printing leaflets andposters, above the benches of faces; the next above the flames showed imagesof people welding and repairing parts of barges / boats, reflecting localinterest in re-establishing a working economy linked to the river Thames;the fourth section showed people growing food using wind, solar and waterenergy – way before the current interest in climate change etc.

This was linked to a wish to establish allotments on the corner of Rathmore Road andCharlton Church Lane, then a derelict site which was subsequently developedby the GLC for housing.
The doorway had a Mexican image of life – an eagleholding a snake in its beak, an artistic reference to Los Tres Grandes -Siqueiros, Rivera and Orozco – all muralists in the 1930′s working on anational programme of mural painting within an education programme teachinga mainly illiterate indigenous population their history and education, andartistic mentors for GMW muralists. The pillars boasted images of the Rowantree – also a symbol of life.
The water bench was to remind us that Charlton lay on the river Thames andhistorically relied heavily upon it for work. The gable – the centralsection showed modern day Charlton-supermarket shopping, moderntransport-buses, motorcycles, computers, skateboarders. Either side werehistorical references including the Bottle Kiln once sited at the end ofRathmore Road – I believe, but certainly locally, market sellers, chairrepairers, the first train, Woolwich ferry, horse-drawn trams etc.
Throughout portraits of local people figured as characters in the mural andduring the painting of the mural we had a “portrait chair” where peoplepassing by were invited to sit and had their portrait drawn and subsequentlytransferred to the wall.
Sounds a bit worthy, visually I don’t think it was and it was certainly wellreceived then. So it is particularly uplifting to find that people still think the benches are worth comment.
The benches were repaired about ten, possibly longer ago, but then no money has been forthcoming to do it a second time, plus it is a lengthy anddifficult job. However your site and people’s comments have inspired us tolook into finding funds to repair them again.
For us it was an interesting project as we had to pioneer thebench construction and eventually took advice from a boat-builder, using theconstruction method adapted from making the hulls of concrete boats.
The Phantom adds:
Just a thought – but how easy would it be when you get a new commission, to add in a ‘trust fund’ contingency for upkeep? Presumably the amount wouldn’t need to be huge and could be ring-fenced, the interest earned keeping it in line with inflation. I am always saddened by things that were once ‘projects’ loved by the locals, opened with great pomp by dignitaries and then abandoned to vandals, weeds and Time.
The first time I saw Rathmore Benches was at night, lit by sodium streetlamps and it was an almost magical sight. By day, they are still lovely but would be even more wondrous with a bit of a spruce-up…
No matter. They continue to delight passers-by such as myself 27 years on from their construction and I for one thank you, GMW…

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