For 35 years, anyone entering Exeter city center from the end of Fore Street was greeted by a large, bright and cheerful tableau of a bustling festival scene. The unique and much-loved mural once covered an entire end terrace wall at the bottom of New Bridge Street, catching the eye of drivers, cyclists and walkers heading towards Exe Bridges.
Repainted when the building’s cracked rendering required essential repairs in 2014, the cherished work of art – 60ft high and 40ft wide – may be long gone, but townspeople and visitors still have great memories of this creative monument that made them smile every time they spent.
Unveiled in 1979, the mural was commissioned by Exeter City Council and painted by Andrew Stacey, a former art professor at Exeter College, to celebrate the Westgate Festival. He captured the city in carnival mode, with people of all ages taking to the streets to enjoy the spectacle of fire eaters, jugglers, clowns, a Punch and Judy puppet show, Morris dancing and musical instruments. music played from the windows of neighboring houses. And above their heads, with the cathedral in the background, colorful balloons soared into a sunny blue sky.
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Local characters from the past and present were featured in the scene, including the legendary Artful Thomas in his top form playmaker guise. A very well-known figure in the city in the first part of the 20th century, Artful attended all the fairs and carnivals, flamboyantly dressed in tailcoats, top hats and spats, and dancing to raise funds. for local charities. His particular trick for making money at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital was to pose as a target while people threw balls at him to try and knock his hat off.
During the life of the mural, as its colors faded, the council paid three times to have it restored to its former glory, but in 2014 major work needed to deal with a damp problem in the apartment building at 21-22b New Bridge Street meant all the old plaster had to be removed from the wall, which meant that the paint would be destroyed. Richard and Sylvia Turpin, who had owned the property since 1984, said they would be truly sorry to see it go and supported a community campaign to have it repainted after repairs.
The Twentieth Century Society, a charity working to preserve modern architectural features and artwork, suggested the mural be listed, but this never happened. Original artist Andrew Stacey said he would be happy to oversee the painting of the scene, but the city council said it was unable to raise the cost of the project.
There was new hope when shopkeepers and local residents came together to organize a campaign to pay for a new mural. Unfortunately, they were unable to secure any major arts grants or private funding and a crowdfunding appeal for £30,000 hit a wall at just £3,000 and had to be dropped.
The saving grace is that part of the mural has been preserved – the lower part which was painted over a more sealed area on the ground floor of the building. It depicts two boys fishing on a red brick staircase with their feet in the water and a beautiful swan swimming on the opposite bank. It’s fairly well hidden by overgrown bushes, but you can spot it from above when you walk by the blue railings at the bottom of New Bridge Street, or if you walk on the small lawn at the bottom of Frog Street .
Another of Mr Stacey’s murals, rather faded these days, can be seen on the side of the Globe Backpackers Hostel on Holloway Street, titled South Gate Mural – Festival of Architecture and completed in 1985.
Did you love the New Bridge Street fresco? Are there any other lost monuments in Exeter that you would like to bring back? Let us know in the comments below.
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