Every so often a colourful post-war mural – often deployed to liven up a drab concrete building – catches your eye. But the Chartist mural in Newport, which lines a pedestrian tunnel in the city centre, stood heads and shoulders above the rest. The 35m long mural is beautifully executed and extraordinarily detailed, depicting the 1839 Chartist uprising with life-size figures made from 200,000 pieces of ceramic tile and glass mosaic.
The mosaic is so intricately designed that you can see subtle variations in skin tone and expression in the faces of the protesters, and the surface has projecting elements like spears and weapons which provide an added layer of three-dimensional detail. The walkway links Kingsway Shopping Centre with John Frost Square, named after the Welsh political hero portrayed in the mural.
We recently put the work forward for listing to Cadw, the Welsh heritage protection body, to try to save it from being flattened as part of re-development plans for the centre which have planning permission. There was strong local support – we were alerted by a Newport based campaign group – and over 2,000 people signed an online petition to save it. Other supporters included the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association and the Society for the Study of Labour History. Despite this, Cadw unexpectedly turned down our request, and the mural is now being demolished.
The mural was constructed in 1979 by Kenneth Budd, a renowned figure in post war mosaics who produced a wide number of important public art commissions across Wales and the West Midlands. Budd started his career with William Mitchell, one of the best known English post-war public artists – several of Mitchell’s works from the 1960s have been listed on our recommendation.
The Chartist mural was one of several works by Budd commissioned by Newport City Council after 1974 to promote public art, by applying them to highway and other major council developments in and around the city. At this time Newport had a reputation as perhaps the leading public authority in Wales for promoting public art, not only to enhance the city but also to enlighten its inhabitants about its history of struggle for social improvement. Its significance thus lies not only in its artistic quality and craftsmanship, but also in its historical importance as a record of nineteenth century working-class protest. Professor Keith Laybourn from the University of Sheffield is President of the Society for the Study of Labour History. ‘The true measure of a nation is not only how its treats its people but also how it honours, and preserves, its past,’ he says. ‘It is just as important, then, to preserve the record and memorialisation of, essentially working-class movements such as Chartism as it is to preserve stately homes. The preservation of the Newport Chartist mural is vital to the preservation of the record of nineteenth-century working-class protest.’
The mural was deliberately placed next to John Frost Square to commemorate the events of 4 November 1839 and serve as a memorial to the twenty Chartists killed by the army outside the nearby Westgate Hotel, as depicted in the mural. John Frost, later Mayor of Newport, was one of the Chartists who marched that day from the Monmouthshire valleys in support of their demands for parliamentary reform. Their demands were for secret ballots, a vote for everyone 21 and over, annual elections to Parliament, all constituencies to have equal numbers of voters, abolition of the property qualification for MPs, and payment of MPs.
The Society is deeply disappointed by Cadw’s decision. We are surprised that it placed so much emphasis on the building to which it is fixed and its context – which they cited as their main reason for not listing the work. We have been involved in several cases in England where murals have been listed independently from their host building, and either retained in situ or successfully re-located. Cadw said: ‘We fully recognise the significance of the mural as a major piece of public art providing an important connection to the city’s heritage, but… have to take into account… the integration of the mosaic and its setting. We have concluded that this relationship is not strong enough to warrant listing at the national level.’