“It’s a celebration of doing stuff on your own doorstep. Of overcoming cynicism.”Nicky Peacock
In 2017, around the time that Middlesbrough’s Baker & Bedford Streets were being regenerated, a series of literary murals started to spring up around the town. Artist Nicky Peacock – who was working with the council to rejuvenate the rundown area – had been inspired by poems she’d seen handpainted on the walls of Leiden in South Holland. The regeneration work provided the perfect opportunity to bring the idea over to the North East.
For the first mural – on Baker Street itself – the council asked for a link to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes (bars with names like The Twisted Lip and Sherlocks were already appearing, strengthening this imagined Holmesian connection).
Peacock chose a page from her favourite story in the series: The Five Orange Pips (a name that would lend itself to the fantastic Orange Pip street markets that would come later).
Choosing to preserve the page formatting of the story (meaning that a window chopped out some of the text), Peacock asked painter Phil Anderson to execute her designs. “He’s an old school wall painter,” says Nicky. “No online advertising, no social media. An amazing painter. And he was the only one who answered the phone.”
After this first design, Peacock had the freedom to choose the location and content of the other murals. She chose walls that would be viewed the right way, wanting people to be surprised when they turned a corner, as with the “enormous yes” Philip Larkin quote on the corner of Whin and Gilkes Street. “When I see gable ends I do a little dance in my mind,” she says. “I wanted a great canvas for that because the words smack you round the face”.
Other murals followed, with Peacock choosing more walls and passages for Anderson to paint. “He doesn’t know until he puts his hands on the wall how it’s going to go,” she explains. According to Anderson, the worst wall to paint on was the Julia Darling passage on the newer Victoria House building on Bedford Street, with its spiky, artex bricks, in contrast to the smoother surfaces of the older buildings.
For the Miranda July piece on Bedford Street, Peacock also commissioned illustrator Alan Vest to add a portrait of the American polymath.
Peacock was definite in her choice of texts. Some – like the Larkin quote – were “full-hearted and vulnerable and dramatic,” while others were location specific: the Shakespeare quote on the back of The Empire alludes not only to the building’s history as a theatre, but its references to the journey of life connect to the nearby registry office, where births, marriages and deaths are logged.
Unless the quotes were out of copyright, each mural required a £100 license from the artist. Simon Armitage (whose mural is on a wall at King Edward’s Square) waived his fee, while the late writer Julia Darling’s fee went towards a fellowship in her name.
Another location specific work is the Ali Brownlee mural on the approach to the Riverside Stadium, which immortalises the late, beloved commentator’s famous words as Boro reached the UEFA Cup final (including the classic “Everybody round my house for a parmo” line).
One regret Nicky has is the mural which was not completed: a quote from Warsan Shire in her work ‘Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)’:
When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. Allah Ceebta, I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.
“They got cold feet about that one. They thought it would be a target for vandalism.”
For Nicky Peacock, the key to the project was the idea of conquering pessimism. She was asked “Why are you bothering?” in meetings with stakeholders, and told that the murals would be quickly vandalised (five years later they remain almost completely unblemished). “It’s a celebration of doing stuff on your own doorstep. Of overcoming cynicism,” she says. “Like the Orange Pip market. I didn’t want to settle for good enough. We wanted to do something special.”
All photos provided by Nicky Peacock.