George & Dragon Mural (Stockton-on-Tees, Zak Newton, 1994)

The George & Dragon mural in Green Dragon Yard, 1994 (copyright Helen Reeder, reproduced by Teesside Archives with permission)

Status: Damaged / Protected and covered by a new mural

The late Zak Newton is an important artist in the history of Stockton-on-Tees, producing three prominent (and very different) public murals during his time in the town. However, there’s a notable lack of information about Newton to be found.

After scouring online for anything I could find, I finally managed to make contact with his son John and, through him, Zak’s ex-partner Helen Reeder, who were both incredibly helpful and forthcoming about Zak and his work. As well as answering countless questions and providing useful information, Helen has been kind enough to offer us Zak’s sizeable portfolio of work, and the wonderful folks at Teesside Archives leapt at the opportunity to digitise it (thanks to Lara Moon and our own Grace Redpath for all their work on this).

Because of these developments, we can now share the first of three articles about Zak and his public murals in Stockton – I hope they can deepen the appreciation of a man whose art many of you will have frequently passed by on your way through the town. We’ll start with the one you can see above, the George and Dragon mural in Green Dragon Yard.

Crime and Opportunity

Crime provided the opportunity for the first Stockton mural. The window of Steven Bighi’s clothes shop in Green Dragon Yard had been bricked up after a burglary, and Zak (who – in true artistic fashion – was having a pint in the pub next door) took note.

“I like to kill two birds with one stone”, he told the Evening Gazette on 21st November 1994. “and when I saw the bricked up window, I thought it was an ideal site for a painting”.

Zak – originally born in Northampton – had recently moved north to Fishburn with his family and was looking to establish himself as a freelance signwriter in the area. The opportunity to demonstrate his skills in public was too good to pass up, especially as Zak was being pressurised by the government to accept a job that was below a living wage.

And so Zak pitched up to Green Dragon Yard with his paints (£30 worth, as it turned out), and no permission except – as Helen told us – “general approval from Joe Public as he was doing it”.

A Study of Icons

Research and sketches for the mural (copyright Helen Reeder, reproduced by Teesside Archives with permission)

Zak had studied religious icons during a foundation year at Hartlepool Art College in 1993, and it was here – along with the name of the yard itself – that he found his inspiration for the artwork: the myth of Saint George slaying the dragon. As he wrote in a 1994 press release about the work:

“I am still uncertain to what extent George’s battle to overcome evil is representative of Everyman’s individual struggle and to what extent his struggle is one of social liberation. I suppose Art, like killing dragons, must be largely a social function. In any case I hope it will be as liberating to behold as it was to paint it.”

Images from the Zak Newton portfolio, including Zak with his daughters and a newspaper clipping from the mural’s presentation (copyright Helen Reeder, reproduced by Teesside Archives with permission)

The mural was presented to the town – and Stockton Mayor Keith Dobinson – in November 1994. Zak was phlegmatic about the work at its unveiling, declaring himself, “reasonably satisfied” and adding, “What’s that quote? ‘A painting is never finished, merely abandoned’.”

Lost to Time

Murals fade and decay. Around ten years later, Zak was commissioned by the local council to restore the work. He made some alterations to Saint George’s face and the dragon’s tongue and tail, as well as adding an olive tree which can be seen in the photos below.

Images from the Zak newton portfolio (copyright Helen Reeder, reproduced by Teesside Archives with permission)

But the fight against the elements never ends. By 2019 the work was heavily damaged and in danger of disappearing completely. The decision was made to both preserve and replace it. A new version of the mural – completed by local designer Abby Taylor – was installed over the original (which remains underneath), ensuring that Zak’s work remains – in spirit – within the walls of Green Dragon Yard.

The old mural is protected from further damage under the new version by Abby Taylor (Courtesy of Abby+Owen)

I’d like to say a massive thank you to Helen Reeder and Zak’s son John Newton for kindly allowing us to work with Zak’s portfolio; it’s been an honour and a pleasure. Grace and I would also like to thank Lara Moon and her team at the amazing Teesside Archives for digitising the work. We’ll have entries on Zak’s other artworks within the next year.

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