William Mitchell: Murals at Islington Green School, Islington, London. 1963. Now Listed Grade II

Art On The Street

27th March 2009

Post-war murals are the cinderellas of the world of art and design, and excluded from most art reference books. A new campaign by the Twentieth Century Society shows, though, that they are date from an age that was a lot more creative than it is currently given credit for, and that they occupy a unique place in art history…

Jack Watkins explains.

John Betjeman took up the baton on behalf of Victorian architecture when it was widely held in contempt in the mid 20th century. But who speaks up today for post-War architecture and design of the 1945-80 period, at a time when its deep unfashionability carries echoes of past attitudes to Victoriana?

It is the Twentieth Century Society that has taken on the role, and it often feels as if it is a lone voice in the wind, according to its senior caseworker, Jon Wright. In championing the case for saving many an unloved Modern building, in the teeth of local opposition and a frequently hostile media, it is not very often that it finds itself “flavour of the day,” he laughs, somewhat wryly. In a new campaign to raise the profile of Post-War Murals, though, it seems to have hit upon something more in tune with the public mood. Perhaps it could be a means by which people gain a better appreciation of what, architecturally and planning-wise, has been a much maligned era.

“I think art and design of, say, the 1960s, is more accessible than its architecture”, says Wright, pondering on the rather encouraging response to an appeal launched just before Christmas for the public to send the Society details and images of potentially ‘lost’ or unknown murals in their local areas.

“It occupies a different place in the public psyche, whereas architecture seems to be tarred with ideas of a failed kind of Modernism,” Wright adds. “The very materiality of concrete seems to put peoples’ backs up, and images of dull grey housing estates come to mind. Although architecture is for everybody, it is often in the hands of someone constrained by briefs, structural issues, or money. The design artist is given a freer rein, and the outcome is often more colourful.”

The great age of mural art ran from the period immediately after the War to the early 1980s. The Twentieth Century Society believes that around one thousand murals were created during this time, although a definitive record has never been compiled. In this boom period for public building and planning reconstruction of major cities, they were commissioned for both the interiors and exteriors of anything from new universities, schools, council buildings and churches, to restaurants, shopping centres and subways.

Enthusiasm for their design soared after the 1951 Festival of Britain. In succeeding years, muralists – including some of the big names of the day, such as Bridget Riley, John Piper and Ben Nicholson – worked in an astonishingly wide range of materials… wood and ceramics, naturally, but also plastics, fibreglass and concrete. Encouraged by the opportunities afforded by the nature of modern architecture – enormous tower blocks and large expanses of blank surface – over 600 large scale murals were installed between 1945 and 1980, according to the leading authority on the subject, Dr Lynn Pearson. Although many survive, they are conspicuous by their absence from most art historical publications.

William Mitchell: Hockley Circus, Birmingham. 1968.

Jon Wright cites weather, vandalism, changing fashion and the pressures of commercial development as the reasons for the endangered situation of many murals today. He hopes that the current campaign will enable the Society to create a ‘rolling archive’, from which the best can be selected and proposed for some form of protection, either through listing, or local authority planning agreements.

“This was art for everyone,” explains Wright, “but it has been lost for all kinds of reasons. If this campaign has taught us anything so far, it is that people do value these things, but that they had become part of the streetscape…”. People needed to be reminded that they were there.

A major boost for the Society’s efforts in this area was the decision taken last December by English Heritage to grant listed status, for the first time ever, to a post-War stand-alone mural, designed by William Mitchell in 1963 at Islington Green School [pictured above]. It was a very significant breakthrough in that the citation made it clear that the listing applied to the mural in itself, rather than as part of an attendant structure.

The triumph was tarnished slightly by the fact that the companion mural was destroyed by the developer while the listing application was still under consideration, despite a protection clause in the planning agreement. If Islington Council does not take enforcement action, such clauses will have been shown to be worthless, says Wright. Today, the surviving mural, on the corner of Packington Road, looks rather lost next to development hoardings in an environment that mixes typical Islington terraces and more recent blocks of flats.

A semi-abstract evocation of the course of the Fleet River as it runs through the borough, the mural is in a mosaic form, an assemblage of tesserae and ceramic tiles, from which you can make out the outline of a fish. It is a solitary burst of colour in a drab urban setting.

It is easy to see why Wright is fearful for the future of many other murals. After a recent trip to see the Islington mural, I walked south to Farringdon Road, which follows the line of the long culverted Fleet River, and sweeps on into Farringdon Street. There, beyond the ornate Holborn Viaduct, is the forlorn prospect of Fleet House, a former telephone exchange. The economic crisis has halted plans to pull down the deserted building, whose dirt blackened, concrete exterior would be unremarkable but for a series of hand-painted ceramic panels at ground level. Executed in 1961 by Dorothy Annan (an artist with bohemian tendencies, who for a time lived on a double-decker bus with her husband), they depict the apparatus of the telecommunications industry. Jon Wright says: “What’s interesting is that although the rest of the building is in a terrible state, the murals survive relatively well and are free from the surrounding graffiti and bill posters. One has to see that as some kind of respect.”

Post-War murals such as Dorothy Annan’s and William Mitchell’s were assuredly street art before this existed as an accepted concept. They represented art for free, art for the community, before such idealistic concepts were bulldozed by the ‘Blatcherite’ consensus of the last twenty five years.

You’d have to be particularly contrary, I think, to argue that the likes of Fleet House represent any kind of beauty, though as the era that created it recedes, one can see its plainness as symptomatic of a more austere time, less awash with the cash, credit and excess that followed it. The murals of the time, though, were brightly original. Wright, who counts William Mitchell an overlooked master, says: “A lot of councils would never have the guts to put up a William Mitchell mural today, whereas in the 1960s, they were doing these extraordinary things and taking risks

From cinemas to chapels, leisure centres to libraries, phone boxes to factories, The Twentieth Century Society campaigns for the preservation of Britain's architectural heritage from 1914 onwards. If there is a mural near you that you think the Society may not be aware of, Jon Wright would like to hear from you.

For more details on this and other campaigns, visit
www.c20society.org.uk or telephone 020 7250 3857.

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