Barnaby Barford Casts the British High Street in Ceramics

Bone china and the High Street: two very British inventions. Ceramist Barnaby Barford’s installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum during London Design Festival, The Tower of Babel, combines ceramics and shopping in a six-meter-high tower of higgledy-piggledy storefronts. 

  • Barnaby Barford’s ‘The Tower of Babel’ installed in the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, 8 September - 1 November 2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Barford, who is represented by David Gill Gallery in London, began by mounting his bike to photograph some 6,000 shops on streets in every postcode in London. As he cycled across town, he captured smart boutiques and galleries as much as kebab shops and greasy-spoon cafes. Each photograph was then treated as a ceramic transfer and fired onto a 10-to-13-centimeter-tall ceramic model of a building at a pottery studio in Stoke-on-Trent—the manufacturing birthplace of bone china in 17th-century U.K. and the home to porcelain companies such as Wedgwood and Royal Doulton. 

  • Barnaby Barford, ‘The Tower of Babel’ bone china buildings. © Barnaby Barford

Most of the façades show the Georgian or Victorian terraced architectural style common to London’s streets, with their red or brown bricks and grey slate roofs. Barford kept a diary of some of the stories behind the shopfronts’ locations on his website, like a sauna and massage parlor with a green-and-gold sign on Eversholt St. in central London, which was featured in Shane Meadows’s film Somer’s Town, as well as in Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers; a long-standing fabric shop in Spitalfields’ Petticoat Lane market, the historic heart of the silk industry in London; or British fashion designer Paul Smith’s store on Floral St., in Covent Garden, where Barford himself held his first solo exhibition.  

  • Barnaby Barford’s ‘The Tower of Babel’ installed in the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, 8 September - 1 November 2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Barford’s rendering of these diverse shops in fine ceramics continues the mixing of high and low signifiers that has run throughout the artist’s practice to date, like his reworkings of valuable antiques into kitsch ornaments. True to the contrasts of the capital, townhouses with fine ironwork railings appear alongside boarded-up, derelict buildings, though the scruffiest shopfronts are relegated to the bottom of the tower, while the most luxurious and exclusive take the top rungs. 

  • Barnaby Barford’s ‘The Tower of Babel’ installed in the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, 8 September - 1 November 2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Alun Graves, senior curator of ceramics and glass at the V&A, commented: “Part-sculpture, part shop display, The Tower of Babel is an act of curated commerce. It’s about retail as a pastime...and where we position ourselves in the extraordinary metropolis that is London.” In a further merging of art and retail, each piece will be available to purchase in the museum’s design shop. Barford’s exhibition presents a very London-specific version of the Tower of Babel, a monument to the city’s hybrid forms of commerce and culture.


—Hannah Gregory


The Tower of Babel is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, Sept. 8–Nov. 1, 2015.


Follow the Victoria & Albert Museum and David Gill Gallery on Artsy.

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