Monday, 4 March 2013

Wanted: Good Home for John Piper Mural

John Piper, An Englishman's Home (section), 1951 (Liss Fine Art) 
Before street art there were murals, and in 20th century Britain numerous public and corporate buildings were decorated inside and out. From Rex Whistler's wall paintings in the dining room at Tate Britain to the Gordon Cullen mural at Greenside Primary School in Hammersmith, murals were a significant feature of our everyday cultural life; there's an evocative piece by Ben Pentreath on the subject here.

At the more humdrum end of the scale we have a mural at the end of our road in Bristol, a massive picture of a balloon floating over the landscape; it's painted on the side of a pub overlooking a green and, like murals everywhere, it is gradually fading. The Twentieth Century Society is currently campaigning to preserve what it can of the thousand-plus murals painted in the decades after World War Two.

An Englishman's Home fills one wall of the gallery at 22 Old Bond St
Given our climate and the upheavals of the past century it isn't surprising that so many murals have disappeared, but some have survived. Among the stunning pictures on show at the Fine Art Society are several large works commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain and painted on panels rather than directly onto walls. There were no doubt good practical reasons for this, but one perhaps unforeseen result is that the murals have been preserved.

There are dramatic pieces by Peter Lanyon, Edward Bawden, Barbara Jones and Alan Sorrell, but the mural that really steals the show is John Piper's epic architectural painting, 'An Englishman's Home'. As you can see from my rather poor photos, this is a fabulously huge picture, painted in oils on 42 panels. Exhibited in 1951 it subsequently languished in an Essex barn for years before being displayed for the Festival of Britain anniversary in 2011.

Right hand end with Brighton-Aquatints-style rooftops, chair included for scale
As the archetypal Romantic Modern, Piper has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity in recent years. But although good paintings from the first half of his career are hard to come by and expensive, no institution has yet come forward to buy 'An Englishman's Home'. This seems rather odd to me. Given the quality of the mural, its historical significance, its beauty and the standing of the artist who made it, I'd have imagined that art museums would be desperate to get their hands on those 42 panels.

Why has nobody come running, chequebook in hand? And how, if no major institution gets behind modern British murals, are the rest of us to be persuaded that it's worth preserving those pictures that still adorn the walls of schools, hospitals, restaurants and village halls around the country?

FFI: Fine Art Society
Twentieth Century Society


  1. If only I had a wall big enough to place it on (and the cash to purchase!). Take your point indeed about the preservation of such an item - if it were a Piper painting I doubt it would remain 'ownerless' for long.

  2. Your link to Ben Pentreath reminded me of the evocative Paul Sandby single mural saved from Drakelowe Hall at the V&A - I think it's still in the Costume Gallery - and thanks for focus on this exhibition which unfortunately I cannot get to London to see. Let's hope there's negotiation going on behind the scenes to find locations and cash for these amazing paintings.