Whether it’s painting stunning 1940s London sets for the new Amma Asante film, A United Kingdom, or creating eye-catching murals closer to home, Brockley’s Lionel Stanhope likes to do things on a large scale

Words: Nikki Spencer

‘When it comes to painting, it’s the bigger the better as far as I am concerned,’ declares the scenic artist. ‘I have never been one to go down the canvas and gallery route. I like big, bold walls. I originally trained as a sign writer when I left school, but the idea of doing an A3 sized menu board now would fill me with dread!’

His colourful street art can be seen across the area and ranges from giant funky signage on shop shutters, gates and hoardings in Brockley, to huge traditional railway signs under bridges in Herne Hill and Hither Green.

Stanhope’s work can also be seen on the big screen this month in the critically acclaimed A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. The film, by the director of Belle, tells the story of the inter-racial relationship between an African king and the English office worker he married in 1947.

For the London filming, A United Kingdom’s designer Simon Bowles hired Cineco, the Brentford-based TV and film set building company Stanhope works for, and the artist headed up a team of painters who worked on locations across the capital including the Rivoli Ballroom in Brockley and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

‘The Rivoli was used for a nightclub scene where the couple go dancing one evening and you can see snatches of this, and the distinctive red ballroom, at the beginning of the trailer for the film,’ says Stanhope. ‘We spent a couple of days making it look perfect for the era, covering up any modern day signage and fittings, plus we built a BBC recording studio at the rear of the building, which was used for another scene.

‘There were lots of extras dressed in 40s costumes so it looked fabulous and was fun. It was also the easiest journey to and from work I have ever had,’ he adds with a laugh. ‘Most studios are in west London so I often spend a long time travelling, but this time I was home in 10 minutes and for everyone else it was over an hour!’

Scenes for A United Kingdom were also filmed in the Painted Hall in Greenwich, where they staged a boxing match, and at a house near Waterloo Station where Pike’s character lived. ‘It was a not-very-nice boarding house so we created some peeling wallpaper and damp,’ Stanhope recalls.

They also filmed at Shoreham’s Art Deco airport in West Sussex, where they covered up more modern lighting and signage and installed some 1940s arrival barriers, and at numerous buildings in the city, which they transformed into government offices.

For over a decade, Stanhope worked on painting sets and backdrops for London’s major theatres and he says it has been a great training ground for film. ‘You learn to think your way around any problem and it also teaches you to do things quickly, as in theatre the show has to open on time,’ he explains.

Stanhope has also worked on the sets of a number of theme park rides including the new Ratatouille ride in Disneyland Paris in 2012. ‘We created most of it here in the UK, but then went out to Disneyland to install everything. It’s a big thing when they open a new ride so they had a huge party and my wife, Clare, and daughter, Ruby, got to come too.’

Stanhope met his wife when she was working as a scenic artist too and they moved to a flat on the edge of Hilly Fields 15 years ago. Clare is now Head of Art at a school in Dulwich, and their daughter has just started secondary school at nearby Prendergast.

They love being part of the local community and Stanhope jumped at the chance to contribute to Brockley’s burgeoning street art scene. ‘It’s been great to do stuff on my doorstep,’ he says. ‘I started by painting some shop shutters and then someone asked me to do some gates and a hoarding and it has all snowballed from there. This year fellow artists BamboPink, Butch Attai and I crowdfunded to create another 13 artworks and there now are plans for a Brockley Street Art Trail. The response from people has been so positive.’

A United Kingdom is released on 25 November. See for more of Lionel Stanhope’s work


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