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Faculty granted to remove mural with ‘unfortunate connotations’ of Grenfell Tower fire

09 August 2022

Susannah Ireland

The Mural on the west front of St Peter’s, St Helier, in south London

The Mural on the west front of St Peter’s, St Helier, in south London

AN APOCALYPTIC mural over the entrance to St Peter’s, St Helier, in south London, which has “acquired unfortunate connotations” since the Grenfell Tower fire, is to be removed, after a faculty to do so was granted by the Consistory Court of the diocese of Southwark.

The brick church, situated within a large housing estate in Morden, was designed by Sir Charles Nicholson, and was built and consecrated in 1932. It is not listed. The large mural of the Last Judgement over the door, which depicts a city in flames, was commissioned in 1977 by the then Vicar, the Revd Donald Reeves, and his PCC, alongside a series of Stations of the Cross. These were painted in garish colours by a local artist, Peter Pelz.

The Vicar since 2021, the Revd Tracy Marlow, and the churchwardens, Karen Eyenon and Emmanuel Dada, filed a petition for its removal earlier this year, which was supported by the diocesan advisory committee and was unopposed.

In his judgment, the Diocesan Chancellor, the Worshipful Philip Petchey, writes that the paintings “were never universally popular”, and that an application to remove them in 1991 — on the basis that they were “off-putting” to the church’s mission — had been opposed.

The Chancellor at the time, the Worshipful Robert Gray QC, had ruled: “Once gone, it is gone for ever. It is already a landmark, and in this part of London, landmarks of such interest and artistic distinction are too rare for the Court to sanction the removal of one as striking and as significant as this one.”

Chancellor Petchey writes in his judgment that the mural had since faded, making it difficult to see the Christ-like figure, and that the image of tower blocks in flames had “now acquired unfortunate connotations” with the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017, when 72 people lost their lives (News, 16 June 2017).

The current situation “represents the worst of all worlds” — a diminished artwork that will not be improved by restoration, and which is preventing the brickwork of the church from being restored. The artistic merit of the work is not high enough to prevent its removal, he writes.

A faculty was granted on condition that steps were carried out to minimise damage to the building when removing the paintwork: for example, cleaning a sample panel using a specialist contractor rather than grit-blasting. “It is also appropriate that a good photographic record of the mural should be made before the commencement of the works, to be kept as part of the records of the church.”

Chancellor Petchey concludes: “The buildings of the Church of England do significantly assist its mission, for all that they are sometimes a burden; and the grant of a faculty in this case will remove an impediment to mission.”

It would be unfortunate, however, if churches were put off commissioning artwork based on the judgment, he adds. “On the other hand, a recognition at the time of installation of potential issues of the kind that arose here may be a useful corrective to over-enthusiasm.”

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