Islington's New River mosaic: little known, but of high artistic quality
An Islington school has a Grade II listed 1964 public artwork by William Mitchell.
Outside the City of London Academy Islington, a secondary school, there is a very unusual mosaic. The artwork celebrates the New River and was created in 1964 by an artist called William Mitchell.
The New River is a conduit built between 1609 and 1613 to bring fresh drinking water from springs at Chadwell and Amwell in Hertfordshire into London.
Tours and events available for booking
On 18 September at 7.30pm, I will be giving an illustrated talk on the history of the area of Islington between Essex Road and the Regent's Canal, which includes the New River Mosaic. To book a ticket for this talk, or for London On The Ground walking tours in September, please click here.
The mosaic depicts a pair of compasses with a circular hinge at the left hand end of the piece, from which a blue and grey face gazes out. The face is surrounded by the words 'James I made a river from Hertfordshire to Islington Pond', and there is a yellow shape resembling a crown above and behind the face.
This is a reference to the Stuart king's sponsorship of the New River project.
A large fish dominates the right hand end of the work, which combines abstract with figurative elements to tell the story of the New River.
William Mitchell was employed as an in-house artist for the London County Council, which was a forerunner of today's Greater London Authority and had responsibility for schools in the capital.
He created the work on a concrete wall from pieces of glass, china, tiles, ceramic tesserae and gold smalti (glass with a thin outer layer of gold leaf).
The mosaic was originally on the outside of the school gym, as part of a redevelopment in the 1960s when the school was transformed from Tudor School to Islington Green School. When it became the City of London Academy Islington in 2008 almost all the older buildings, including the gym, were torn down and replaced.
A second mosaic by William Mitchell was destroyed at that time, but the surviving work was saved through being Grade II listed. Now isolated from any other school buildings, it faces onto Packington Street, a mainly residential street of mid 19th century flat-fronted terraces leading down from Essex Road.
The New River was originally 10ft wide, 4ft deep and 38 miles long and flowed through what was mainly countryside. It emptied into the 'Round Pond', a reservoir around a mile north of the walls of the City of London. The location, still known as New River Head, is next to where Sadlers Wells Theatre stands today off Roseberry Avenue.
On its way through the rural parish of Islington, a tunnel was dug to channel it underneath what is now Essex Road, but was previously known as Lower Street. This tunnel was near the junction of today's Packington Street and Essex Road, only a short distance from the mosaic.
The New River still provides c.8% of London’s annual water supply, but it now ends in a reservoir further upstream off Green Lanes between Manor House and Clissold Park.
The site where the school and Packington Street are today was rural until the 1840s, when the Clothworkers' Company, which owned the land, started to build streets in the area.
The school was established in 1884 as Queen's Head Street School on the street named after the Old Queen's Head pub, which still stands on Essex Road. The name changed to Tudor School in 1947, Islington Green School in 1964 and City of London Academy Islington in 2008.
In 1979 a group of fourth form children from Islington Green School sang on Pink Floyd's chart topping single Another Brick in the Wall (Part II), recorded at the band's nearby studio on Britannia Row (see Wall to wall: Britannia Row, Pink Floyd & the City of London to read more about the history of Britannia Row, including the Pink Floyd connection).
London County Council employed two artists, William Mitchell and Antony Holloway, from 1953 to 1965 to work with architects on schools, housing estates and hospitals.
Other works by Mitchell in London include a mural at Lee Valley Water Works, a series of relief heads at Harlow Civic Centre Water Gardens, panels for the Egyptian Hall and escalator at Harrods in Knightsbridge and the auditorium of the Curzon Cinema in Mayfair.
The Grade II listing by Historic England notes that the mosaic is "a rare-surviving work of 1960s public art produced by one of two London County Council in-house, salaried artists".
It also praises the "high artistic quality of this bold composition of geometrically-patterned multi-coloured circles connected by diagonal lines… and triangular blocks of colour".
I can only agree and consider myself fortunate to walk past it frequently.
Tours available for booking
To book a London On The Ground tour in September, including my illustrated talk for the Islington Proms on 18 September, please click here.