The following article was discussed and written by Alex Abel during the Halifax Arts Podcast 25/05/2020:
The artist that created ‘British Pond Life’ is Kenneth Barden and the murals are specifically 2 imposing designs that are in the diving area of Halifax pool. They are floor to ceiling height. The whole pool is tiled throughout but it is the 2 designs have captured the imagination as they are striking in brown, green, blue and white and depict strong shapes and block forms based on nature.
I loved these images from the first time I saw. I have swum in the pool since I was 24 years old and moved to Halifax to work. I would swim lengths each week at the pool and marvel at the images as they cross tiles and form a backdrop to the activity of the pool. I also watched my sons swimming lessons from 2009 as a spectator and that gave me an even better vantage point to fully appreciate the designs. As an ex-Art student, I love them and am glad that they are getting some attention online.
The swimming pool itself dates from1964-1966 and has become part of a recent online conversation on Twitter as Dr Otto Saumarez Smith raised the question of what would happen to the distinctive mural and garnered many responses and conversations.
Lots of people clearly were unaware that within the grey, drab building there was housed such artwork. There remains a question about whether the whole building is now too run down and expensive to keep, but a beautiful set of pictures of the mural do raise the question “why was the artwork not considered important enough to save?”.
Kenneth Barden – the artist has created other artworks of interest and was part of a movement that included an explosion of murals in the 1950’s and 1960’s in civic buildings. The majority of mural designs featured stylised images relating to the commissioning body, with restaurants, cafeterias and bars being popular locations; abstract works were relatively rare so what we have unique to Halifax.
Kenneth Barden himself was born in 1924 and passed away in 1988, he was primarily inspired creatively by the 1930’s designs and that is demonstrated in the shapes and colours on the wall in ‘British Pond Life’.
Other artists of this period worked in concrete, mosaic and mixed media include Alan Boyson whose mural (1962) at Cromwell Secondary School in Salford (Greater Manchester) was listed Grade II in 2009, before the rest of the school was demolished – its quite interesting that Calderdale Council have not considered this as an option in relation to Pond Life.
Crucially, mural artists of this era who frequently worked with developers were very flexible; they could be relied upon to solve design problems and were capable of working in almost any medium.
Barden has other artworks that demonstrate this in the UK– mainly the Seaward and Harbour Towers in Gosport, Hampshire. The pair of 16-storey tower blocks overlooking the harbour were clad with abstract unglazed mosaic murals made by Carter’s of Poole and running the whole 135 feet height. Hugely impressive due to their scale.
While plans have been put on hold during the Corona Virus Pandemic – Calderdale Council did plan to demolish the whole building and create a bigger sports complex at North Bridge that would include a swimming pool. At the time I write, the decision is on hold but as comments grew online this has culminated in the Twentieth Century Society (who campaign to save outstanding buildings and design) announcing that it is applying for listed status for the building effectively to save the artwork. [ED: sadly it was turned down, find out why at https://c20society.org.uk/news/disappointment-over-refusal-to-list-halifax-swimming-pool-and-murals]
This all brings to mind questions of the value of art/culture and the societal and commercial value of art in our home town.
I am personally pleased that someone has taken the time online to argue the case for the artwork – it reminds me of the struggle’s councils face with Banksy artworks appearing on buildings scheduled for demolition that have greater significance once they are part of a wider conversation. Councils often find to their cost that demolishing artwork results in bad press and can be very costly when delays are factored in.
British Pond Life can still be seen through the side windows of the swimming pool if you look. The artwork deserves to be celebrated and given recognition.