“Walter’s been!”: Britain’s first street artist?

Before Phlegm… before Banksy… there was….


Walter Kershaw, to give him his full, zippy ‘handle’.
(What is it about the name ‘Walter’?
Ancient British readers may, like me, picture the dithering, imbecilic character in that ‘much-missed’ (i.e. egregious) archaic northern sitcom Nearest and Dearestin which most of the dialogue centred around concern for the functioning of said Walter’s dodgy bladder, hence lots of ” ‘Ave yer been, Walter?”, ” ‘As ‘e been?”
So far, so ‘street’.
But I digress.)

Kershaw (K-Walt? Waltsy? Wal-Ee Bah Gum?) was born in 1940 in Rochdale, one of the many once-great cotton and wool mill towns of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire which fuelled Imperial prosperity. To house the mill-workers, row upon row of back-to-back terraced houses were built, as close to the mills as possible; I myself (in Yorkshirese, ‘me’sen’) was born in just such a house:

“Everything was so grim and black and white in those days…”

Indeed it was, Walter.
Mucky, filthy from the continuous belch of smoke and soot. That’s not to say outside walls were left entirely to their own devices:

Bile Beans??
Apparently, some heinous quack laxative. (Sorry. Again already with the ‘internal plumbing’; but the importance of being ‘regular’ was something of an obsession in those days. Trust me.)

“… so I asked this chap if I could paint some big flowers on his wall…”

BIG flowers.
Do not underestimate the radical nature of this work. Hardly ‘political’ on the scale of, say, the Northern Ireland murals, it caused no end of fuss and mithering amongst the petty Jobsworths at the Town Hall; furthermore, they’re not just ‘flowers’, they’re pansies, ‘pansy’, in those halcyon, taste-free days of the mid-70s when these works were created, being the demotic for what the papers liked to refer to as ‘a confirmed bachelor’.
Go Walter!

The following is perhaps my favourite.
The plan was to paint Elvis –  you know, an actual icon – but someone had forgotten to bring the picture to paint from, or something, so they had to make do with Alvin Stardust. Alvin bloody Stardust!! A leather-clad, be-gloved and be-quiffed, slightly-too-old-looking popster, who pointed suggestively at the camera while intoning such deathless classics as My Coo Ca Choo:

(Please, watch this video: a master-class in half-assed miming and audience indifference.)
But you know what? The People LOVED Kershaw’s works, (the Alvin not so much, maybe; word is, he felt obliged to ‘leg it sharpish’ on completion), not least the rather marvellous ‘inside-out’ house:

Kershaw became quite famous, got Big in Brazil, won prestigious public commissions (Trafford Park), and continues as a practising artist to this day. (You can read his Wiki bio here, and visit his website here.)

But his later successes don’t interest me half as much as these earlier efforts with their “shock value of… technicolour guerilla work…” (Bob Stanley, in a Guardian article on Kershaw. Well worth a read.)
Aren’t they what street art is all about?
To be democratic, and to not give a flying feck about ‘officialdom’?
To make something extraordinary out of the horribly mundane?
To make people sit up and/or smile? Pay attention?
To actually, literally, change our world, if only for a passing moment?

These paintings – and, with their traditional drawing and use of perspective, they are paintings, not ‘graffiti’, Mr Stanley – are long gone, what with the decline of the textiles industry and the demolition and clearance of swathes of ‘industrial’ slum housing.
That’s the other thing about street art: it’s essentially ephemeral.
All the more reason, then, to treasure it and its makers while we can.
Here’s to you, Walter Kershaw.
You rock.

6 thoughts on ““Walter’s been!”: Britain’s first street artist?

    • Apparently not. Last seen providing musical accompaniment to the Complimentary Pea ‘n’ Pie Supper at last Tuesday evening’s Bingo Session for Over-85s Only in Cleckheaton.
      I may have made that up.

      • He turned up as a barman/owner in Hollyoaks – I must have been flicking through the channels when I spotted him you understand! – in the nineties I think and last I saw of him!

        I love the works of Walter Kershaw you featured here. Great post.

  1. Another great post. That is one of the many things I love about you, we get some great stuff to look at, a history/cultural lesson, and a GREAT read. Bile Beans and regularity – oh you are a cheeky one. You have such a way with things. much love. Beth

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