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Landmark mural by genius city artist in need of repair

PUBLISHED: 20:10 13 October 2018 | UPDATED: 20:10 13 October 2018

The old Ber Street gate illustrating the days when Norwich was a walled city

The old Ber Street gate illustrating the days when Norwich was a walled city

Archant

He was one of the most eccentric, mysterious and talented artists ever to have worked in East Anglia...and now a campaign has been launched to restore one of his landmark murals. Derek James takes up the story.

Berstrete Gates free house.Berstrete Gates free house.

A genius died 60 years ago but his wonderful and unique work is timeless. It must be preserved and now an appeal is on to raise money to restore a striking landmark in desperate need of a new lease of life.

The artist was John Moray-Smith and it will cost around £5,000 to restore his mural on the Berstrete Gate public house on historic Ber Street in Norwich which now looks very sad.

The panel is there for all to see from the approach to the city from Bracondale and Queens Road and it must be preserved and not allow to fall to pieces.

Without restoration it will be lost and in Norwich we are fortunate to have the talented conservator Tom Humphrey of the Fairhurst Gallery who has been responsible for restoring other works by the great man.

As the city continues to change shape with the arrival of new developments it is important we don’t forget our past and one
great way of doing just that to be cherish the work by the brilliant Moray-Smith.

He wasn’t the kind of men who sought publicity or attention. He didn’t pose for photographs. John was a one-off. The kind of chap Norfolk and Suffolk people takes to their hearts...he had an edge.

And the only known image of John and his wife Catherine was drawn by Mrs Chamberlin, a neighbour, when they lived at Costessey.

We have much to thank the Norwich Society and Paul Burall who published a booklet about John last year which shed more light on the man and his work last year.

He is the best £3 you can spend and is in the shops. Also thanks to Alec Hartley and Bink and Marjorie Trett.

It illustrates how vital it is that the restoration work is carried out at the Berstrete Gates and the appeal for the money to pay for it has been launched by the Bracondale Residents Association in co-operation with The Norwich Society.

As they say: “The Ber Street panel is important both historically and artistically. It is now badly faded, in poor condition and without treatment will deteriorate further and be lost.

“Now the Bracondale Residents Association, working with the Norwich Society, hope to commission the necessary restoration works. The owner and the landlord of the Berstrete Gates are helpfully co-operating to support this important work,” added the association.

So who was this mysterious Moray-Smith who died in the West Norwich Hospital in 1958?

Until recently it was said and recorded that he was an Italian gipsy who arrived in England as a prisoner during the First World War and ended up marrying a girl from Costessey whose name he adopted. That, as Keith Skipper would say, is squit.

Paul Burall discovered he was born in Scotland during 1889 and his family moved to London. He married Catherine in London in 1925 and they came to Norwich in the early 30s, possibly after a spell in Brandon.

It is thought he was engaged to repair plaster work at Laxham Hall in Norfolk and for Norwich Union before Sir Robert Bignold, chairman of both the Union and Morgans Brewery, invited him to work for the brewery.

John and Catherine were both left-wing activists. They had been jailed in 1926 after being found guilty of sedition during the General Strike and during the Second World War he was a conscientious objector Catherine was reported as being a feisty character who told John what she thought of his work. They had flaming rows and she would often knock pieces off his panels with a bar if she was angry. Wonderful!

There are memories from people seeing him work on his murals across Norwich. Putting a leg over a pole and hanging his paint pot over his foot.

He was spotted working on the fantastic panels outside the Coachmakers Arms by what is now the St Stephen’s roundabout wearing jodhpurs and bright red shoes. Not a sight you tend to forget.

In a way it is good that so much mystery surrounds his life. His work is not locked away in private collections...it is there for us all to admire and care for.

Can you help in any way? A crowdfunding site has been set up at: https://www.gofundme.com/restore-the-berstrete-gates-panel and you can also get in touch with Keri Williams, the project leader
at Bracondale Residents Association. Call him on 01603 630310, email keriwilliams9@icloud.com or send a cheque, made out to Bracondale Residents Association, 80 Bracondale, Norwich, NR1 2BE.

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