Thursday, 14 February 2013

A Lost World Rediscovered: 20th Century Murals at the Fine Art Society

Colin Gill, Allegro, 1921 (FAS London/Liss Fine Art)
Around 90% of the murals painted in Britain in the last century have been lost; the work of some artists, notably Eric Ravilious, has suffered so badly from neglect, bomb damage and what have you that only photographs and studies survive. The remaining murals, meanwhile, languish in obscurity. I had no idea, despite living in Bristol, that there's a fabulous painted ceiling by Thomas Monnington in our post-war Council House. Murals tend, by their very nature, to be fixed to a particular place, and if you never visit that place you're unlikely to see the painting.

So how, I wondered when I heard about the Fine Art Society's new exhibition of 20th century British Murals and Decorative Painting (in association with Liss Fine Art), do you go about putting on a mural show? In 1969 the Hayward Gallery held an exhibition of frescoes rescued from damp and crumbling buildings in Florence; these pictures were removed in ingenious ways from the walls on which Renaissance artists had painted them and transported around the world. Would something similar happen here?

Mary Adshead, An English Holiday: The Village Inn (detail), 1928 (FAS London/Liss Fine Art)
The short answer, judging from the exuberant catalogue, is no. The works on display are either studies for wall paintings - which vary from small watercolours to large-scale oil paintings - or murals painted on canvas or wooden panels. So, for example, we have two beautiful pictures painted by Mary Adshead in 1928 for Lord Beaverbrook, part of a series called 'An English Holiday'; these large-scale oils were designed to fill the walls of the press tycoon's dining room, but in the end he cancelled the commission, supposedly because a friend persuaded him that he was bound to fall out with the various grandees who had modelled for the paintings, and then be stuck with them every night at dinner.

There are some well known pieces here, including John Piper's 42-panel epic 'An Englishman's Home', which he painted for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and Edward Bawden's 'The English Pub' (1949-50), which spent a quarter century adorning the First Class Lounge of the SS Oronsay. But you'll also find plenty of delightful surprises. I'm looking forward to seeing John Armstrong's design for the Telecinema Mural (also painted for the Festival) and Barbara Jones' astonishing 3-panel picture 'Out in the Hall', which features a giant bear standing in a hallway the walls of which are bright yellow with a design of large white polka dots.

Alan Sorrell, Working Boats, 1951 (FAS London/Liss Fine Art)
This is one of the murals discussed in depth in a new book published by Sansom & Company to coincide with the exhibition: 'British Murals and Decorative Painting, 1920-1970'. I haven't seen it yet, but it sounds wonderful, with an array of experts each focusing on a particular piece: Ruth Artmonsky on Barbara Jones, David Fraser Jenkins on Piper and so on. I'm interested to read what Alan Powers has to say about Alan Sorrell's delightful mural 'Working Boats from Around the British Coast' (1951), which includes the Norfolk Wherry but not, I was sad to see, the Severn Trow. With Stanley Spencer and Rex Whistler also featured, this book sounds like a must-have.


1 comment:

  1. I'm swooning! All this sounds like must-have and must-see. Thanks so much -- I might not have spotted it otherwise.