Why I draw buildings..... Hull's BHS mosaic

Why I draw buildings...........


Hull's BHS Mosaic

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Some Buildings are pure Marmite....

Some people see and feel positivity, beauty and functionality when they look at a building, others disgust, confusion and indifference. Often you will hear terms like 'iconic' or 'carbuncle' thrown around like confetti as architecture polarises opinion.

One building that cannot help but generate interest (both positive and negative) is Hull's former CoOp and BHS store and more particularly it's fascinating 66 x 64 ft 'Three Ships' mosaic by Wolverhampton artist Alan Boyson. 

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The Mosaic was commissioned (along with a smaller but equally pleasing fish mural housed inside) back in the early 60's as part of The Cooperative Society's new store, the original succumbing to one of the many Luftwaffe bombs that made Hull one of the UK's most bombed cities outside London during WW2. Boyson's mosaic instilling a sense of optimism during the city's post-war rebuilding period whilst at the same time doffing it's cap to Hull's famous maritime history. The building on which it sits would later house a BHS store along with Romeo & Juliette's nightclub)

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Made up of 4,224 panels which in turn contain 225 cubes of Italian glass (that's a lot of glass cubes) the Three Ships rose above Hull's skyline in 1963 it's stylised design proudly spelling out 'Hull' in it's masts. The mosaic quickly became part of the Hull landscape and provided the backdrop to thousands of shopping trips and nights on the town. 

However fashion, especially architectural is a shallow beast......


Urban Decay, Threat and Fight.....

Architecture tends to have a period, normally 20 to 75 years after construction, when it falls mercilessly from fashion. Add to that the city's economic misfortunes, the much publicised downfall of the store it housed and not forgetting the nightclub's infamous police raid (when everyone 'claimed' to escape by the gents toilet window!) and quickly the site became an image of neglect and urban decomposition.


However, speaking in purely artistic and illustrative terms, this decay does have a subtle and perverse charm......

Back in 1995 I remember purchasing Leftfield's 'Leftism" album with It's famous shark jaw and speaker cover. What gripped me most about that cover was it's use of turquoise and rusty browns. I loved the faded and decayed look this provided and since that moment have always found a strange beauty when these colours are combined. Look at any weathered building and these colours are very much in evidence, and when combined with the powerful, bold edges of modernist (especially brutalist) architecture, help to give an amazing rich composition. Take a good look at the former BHS building and mosaic and this is pretty much your colour palette!

So artistically that is what drew me to the building, however like a lot of things, when you really start to look at something you notice the subtle details that help you truly appreciate it. Behind the wear of 50 years of British climate, you'll notice entrance pillars covered in blue, tiny glass mosaic tiles, modernist window ledges, entranceways so angular that they look like a black and white Mondrian piece. These layers of unfussy lines and angular detail create a real joy to sketch. 

All these properties are like gold when illustrating modernist architecture and have helped revive the popularity of Brutalism within the creative industry.  Similar style buildings such as Norfolk House on Birmingham's Smallbrook Queensway are also finding renewed admiration. 

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In the real world though, buildings aren't constructed or saved purely to please artists, designers and historians. Town planning is a ruthless world and one in which decaying, empty, concrete hulks are low down the food chain. The problem the BHS mosaic faces is that it's connected to such a large disused building in such a prominent city centre location ripe for redevelopment. Fears are that if the building goes, this glorious piece of public art will disappear  along with it.

Public support however is gathering pace for this part of the Hull landscape. Backed up by a well educated, realistic, sympathetic movement to campaign for the mosaic's grade 2 listing (surprisingly not granted despite Historic England's commitment to public art), there is optimism for The Three Ship's future. 

I had the pleasure of speaking to one of the campaigns leading voices, Leigh Bird of Hull Heritage Action Group, an online organisation committed to preserving Hull's rich and varied past. A native to the city, Leigh talks about the mosaic like a family relative that's always been there, casting a friendly eye over the city's activity.

"Honestly, it's always been there, It would be like the city losing a front tooth if we lost the Three Ships. I remember being in awe of it as a child when I went into town. As a teenager it was a meeting place before heading off to Spiders (Hull's legendary sub culture night club). Having left Hull, it's now even more amazing when I come home to visit."

Unlike some preservation campaigners, Leigh is realistic when it comes to the future of the building as a whole, but believes the mosaic would be an exciting addition to any redevelopment plans. "It would be wonderful to see it remain as a focus for the new development- whether it's as a freestanding sculpture or an integrated into a new building if the store itself can't be saved."


Despite describing herself as an 'architectural and design hussy', Leigh comments on her admiration of Modernism and the way it is finding it's way back into our lives through brands such as Ercol. "I think that we are looking at the design and architecture of what feels like a fairly recent past with new eyes and embracing it because many of the people making those designs and buying choices grew up with it."

Modern Futures

So what does the future hold in store for the BHS mosaic, the building and countless other post war structures in Hull?

It's year in the spotlight as 2017 UK City of Culture has generated and instilled a new found sense of civic pride amongst the city's inhabitants. After losing it's primary fishing trade and feeling left off the nations radar, Hull is starting to shout from the roof tops again and many feel the Alan Boyson mosaic does this in a loud, proud voice. People in Hull are starting to look up at the buildings around them which are woven deep into the city's DNA and develop a passionate voice to save them. Obviously economic climate plays a major role in decisions and there are some people who don't fully appreciate the cost involved in renovation, but it appears a new architectural appreciation is creeping through the city.  Already more people can be seen with cameras, photographing less obvious landmarks, more and more artists can be seen finding aesthetic quality in Hull's abandoned spaces. And just recently several pieces of the city's architecture won listed status including Grade 1 for the Humber Bridge.

I'll leave it to Leigh to have the final word....

"I think in many ways 2017 has given us all a renewed sense of civic pride and we're looking at our city through fresh eyes. Though it's up to the DCMS to decide whether the mural will be listed, Hull City Council are on record as saying they'd like to preserve it. On a related note the Council has also been successful in securing funding to preserve and promote our maritime heritage, lets hope that both those factors bode well for the mural specifically. As for education and our growing love of art and architecture,I feel really positive that it will be a natural legacy of Hull's City of Culture year - and that is a credit to the City of Culture team, Hull City Council and the people of Hull."

If you want to know more about the campaign to save Hull's Three Ships mural, follow @BhsMuralHull on Twitter. There you will find more information on the history of the mural as well as a link to the campaign's petition.  NC



All Illustrations, sketches and photographs Nick Coupland.