Brian Barnes obituary | Art

My friend Brian Barnes, who died at the age of 77 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was a famous muralist and a leading figure in the community arts movement. Warm, funny, outspoken and an extremely talented artist, he has been creating murals in South London for over 45 years.

He was born in Farnborough, Kent, and raised in the nearby town of St Paul’s Cray, the first child of William Barnes, managing director of electrical components company Mullard, and his wife, Eileen (née Hiley), a seamstress to Morphy Richards. His parents supported him in everything and he had a happy childhood. Brian’s first school was Gray’s Farm Elementary School, then Midfield Boys’ High School.

In addition to painting murals, Brian Barnes designed and printed campaign posters for activists. Photography: Sylvie

He began a course at Ravensbourne College of Art (now Ravensbourne University London) in 1961, leading to a National Diploma in Design. There he met Aileen McKeegan, who was studying fabric design, and they married in 1964. Brian distinguished himself as a determined realist painter and continued his education at the Royal College of Art, where he graduated. in 1969 with beautifully composed and detailed work.

Settling in Battersea, south-west London, the couple found a group of left-wing friends and became activists, campaigning for better social provision in housing, parks and jobs and protesting against the rent increases and the redevelopment of Battersea power station and riverside for the rich.

The need to create art that expresses social concerns gave Brian a new direction and a bolder style for his work. In 1973, he began printing screen-printed posters for campaigns at home. Demand increased and by 1977 his print shop was producing hundreds of posters for the community.

Next come the murals. His first, The good the bad and the ugly, in 1975, was extensive and was painted with 90 volunteers, near Battersea Bridge. On the “good” side were images of socialist goals, in the center a “rainbow” broom swept away the failure of the capitalists. It has become a popular landmark. A year later, the wall was demolished. Protesters arrived in the thousands, Battersea Bridge was closed and the artist arrested.

Other large-scale murals followed; sunny evocations like Day at the Seaside and Battersea in Perspective. Then anti-war murals: Nuclear Dawn in Brixton, with its menacing skeleton, and Riders of the Apocalypse in New Cross, featuring world leaders riding rockets around a besieged world, above a tender rendering of messages to Greenham Common. There were many more murals for nurseries, nurseries, schools, towns, estates and stations.

Detail of a mural by Brian Barnes in Stockwell, South London, celebrating the life of WWII Special Ops Agent Violette Szabo
Detail of a mural by Brian Barnes in Stockwell, South London, celebrating the life of WWII Special Ops Agent Violette Szabo

The Stockwell War Memorial, begun in 1999, was his favorite work. It is a cheerful fresco with many images, dedicated to the dead in the world wars, and celebrating local residents such as Vincent Van Gogh and WWII special ops agent Violette Szabo, as well as the immigrants from Windrush who spent their first night in Brittany in the region.

Brian was appointed MBE in 2005 for service to the community of Battersea. He is survived by Aileen and their children, Eloise and Glenn, and their grandchildren Daniel, Lilya and Natalya.

Dora W. Clawson