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Thousands join bid to save Hull’s Three Ships mural from demolition

Shutterstock hull england 12 may 2019 british home store bhs three ships historic mural
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More than 7,000 people, including comedian Al Murray, TV presenter Kevin McCloud as well as architects and writers have signed an open letter in a bid to save the Three Ships mural in Hull

Earlier this month Hull City Council announced that the post-war mosaic-mural by Alan Boyson would not be retained when the building it adorns is demolished to make way for the £130 million Albion Square redevelopment.

The council said ‘dangerously high’ levels of asbestos in the former BHS/Co-op building meant the huge 20m by 19m mural could not be removed prior to demolition as had been originally planned.

Boyson was an influential figure in post-war public art and a lecturer at the School of Ceramics in Wolverhampton College of Art. Three Ships contains more than a million cubes of Italian glass and when it was installed in 1963 it was believed to be the biggest mural in Britain.

An application by the Twentieth Century Society to have the mural listed was turned down by Historic England in 2016

The open letter states: ’‘Boyson created just 49 works of public art, only 11 of which survive intact. Two of the surviving works are an integral part of Hull’s former Co-op building. These works are unique and irreplaceable.’

The letter urges Hull City Council to halt the proposed demolition of the building and ‘give Boyson’s mosaic-mural the listed status it deserves’.

It argues: ‘The possibilities of facçade retention, refurbishment, and asbestos removal require independent investigation and time to analyse, but the current proposal for imminent demolition does not allow for this.’

Losing the ‘mega-mural’ would be ‘a tragedy for Hull, a City of Culture, and for the United Kingdom,’ the letter reads.

The last-ditch attempt to stop the demolition has been signed by actor Tom Courtenay, the writer Kate Fox, musicians John Grant and Bob Stanley, as well as the architectural historian Barnabas Calder, Twentieth Century Society director Catherine Croft, and Matthew Riley, director of local outfit Studio Six Architects.

The council said it had intended to save the mural but that its latest tests showed this was not possible. The hope was that the mural could be separated before demolition and then retained.

But because asbestos had been discovered in the core structure of the building, including the beams and blocks attached to the mural, as well as in the cement, HSE legislation would not allow the mural to be separated from the building prior to demolition, a council spokesperson said.

Councillor Daren Hale, who holds the regeneration portfolio, said: ‘I’m desperately disappointed that the findings of this asbestos survey have discovered the council cannot retain the Three Ships mural as part of the Albion Square development.

‘It was always the council’s intention to retain the mural as part of the development, with specialist consultants brought on to the project at an early stage to explore ways in which it could have been retained. A detailed report was due to go to cabinet, which would have presented how the mural could have been temporally removed and replaced, but this latest survey has revealed that those options are no longer possible.

‘We’ve only just received the findings of this survey and have had to act quickly in the interests of public safety.’

Three fish mosaic hull

Three Ships mosaic on BHS building, Hull

Source: Stephen Craven

Three Ships mosaic on BHS building, Hull in 2016

The survey, from The Testing Lab, reads: ‘Sprayed coating residues have been identified within the hollow cavities of the block and beam floor structure. At present it is not possible to remove or access these blocks to remediate the asbestos material without disturbing the structural integrity of the building.”

The report continues: ‘The City of Hull has planned to remove and preserve the murals from the BHS building however at present we cannot confirm that cavities around these structures are or will be asbestos free to the extent that the murals can be removed without risk of asbestos fibre release.”

However, the council says it wants to create ‘a version’ of the Boyson design in the new city centre development. ‘We will be working with artists to explore ways in which the Three Ships design can be reproduced, and remain an iconic feature of the city centre,’ Hale said.

The Albion Square development is due to be completed in spring 2023.

The Twentieth Century Society has failed in a bid to have three murals listed on now-closed branches of collapsed retailer British Home Stores (BHS). 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Surely rather surprising that asbestos was found present in so much of the structure - the concrete beams, concrete blocks and the cement?

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  • Without sight of the report it's hard to be sure of the conclusions drawn by the councillor - how does asbestos safely buried in the structure present a public safety threat that needs actioming so quicly they suddenly have no time to prepare a plan to save the mural? Reminds me of TfL's refusal to discuss the Paolozzi murals lost at Tottenham Ct Rd station until conveniently they'd already gone.

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