Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Painting's on the Wall; A New Mural Captures the Colourful Past of a Dagenham Estate but Also the Area's Hopeful Future, Its Artist Chad McCail Tells Ben Luke

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Painting's on the Wall; A New Mural Captures the Colourful Past of a Dagenham Estate but Also the Area's Hopeful Future, Its Artist Chad McCail Tells Ben Luke

Article excerpt

Byline: Ben Luke

IT'S A blustery afternoon in Valence Park at the heart of the Becontree estate in Dagenham. Chad McCail stands on a scaffold, putting the finishing touches to a mural that will enshrine the history of this estate the largest in Europe in art.

It's a colourful history, with appearances from Gandhi and the Hitler Youth, the famous Dagenham Ford factory, the town's globetrotting girl pipers, and the BNP. McCail has drawn extensively on conversations with local people and, as in the heyday of mural painting in London in the Seventies and Eighties, his new work has a distinctly social aim: it was commissioned by Create, which brings artists together with local communities, and is funded by the Barbican and by Creative Barking and Dagenham, a union of the Arts Council and the local council.

McCail, 53, steps off the scaffold to explain his work-in-progress, which will be completed and unveiled on Saturday. Smoking a rollie and dressed in dark blue overalls, he's quietly spoken but drily funny. Born in Manchester and raised in Edinburgh, he now lives with his wife and two young sons in Thankerton, a small village in rural Lanarkshire. With its colourful, slightly retro style reminiscent of public information booklets, his work has already occupied billboards and poster sites, but this is his first mural.

Despite that clean and bright style, McCail's paintings are often subversively political. And they clearly appealed to Becontree residents, who selected him from a shortlist of three artists to take on the commission.

"I'm a populist anyway. My work's fairly literal and straightforward," he says. "That's probably why they picked me it's clear, and it's a storytelling kind of work."

The mural snakes across the wall of Becontree's archives and local studies centre and begins in 1921, with the building of the first of the estate's 27,000 red-brick houses. Becontree's earliest residents ended up there after East End slum clearances, many of them soldiers, and the houses were intended to be "homes fit for heroes to live in". In the earliest part of the mural, McCail explains, "there are a lot of soldiers with missing legs".

Key figures in the estate's life are depicted, including Muriel Lester, the philanthropist who provided much of the early social support for residents (initially, McCail tells me, it gained a reputation as "the town of feral children"). It was Lester, a pacifist, who invited Mahatma Gandhi to Becontree in 1931 and members of the Hitler Youth in 1938 one goosesteps through the mural. Lester wanted "to show them that you could have an estate or a community that functioned well without being fascist", McCail says. "She invited them in a spirit of reconciliation rather than support."

A more recent far-Right episode is also reflected the 2010 defeat of the BNP on the local council (who were voted in after 2006 elections) following a concerted effort by local people, politicians and community leaders, a campaign regarded locally as "a great victory", McCail says.

The mural shows the hapless BNP candidate Richard Barnbrook, who during the 2010 election campaign rode around the area on a white horse, dressed as St George. McCail presents the party's defeat symbolically. "I've drawn people chasing him and then his horse throwing him into a pond," he says, with a laugh. …

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