Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, Wednesday 31 January – Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley

I’ll be returning to Bradford School of Art on Wednesday 31 January to do another lecture in its Random Lecture series. The lectures take place at 12 noon; all welcome.

Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley

Born in 1925, the artist and industrial designer William Mitchell’s work can be seen in towns and cities around the world. However, it does not hang on the wall of art galleries, but is an integral part of the buildings in which it is found. These range from everyday places such as schools, libraries, pubs, subway underpasses and the foyers of post-war towerblocks, to flagship buildings like Harrods and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool.

The talk will give an overview of Mitchell’s work and career, focusing in particular on three artworks by William Mitchell in the Bradford area which demonstrate his post-war work in municipal and civic contexts as well as for corporate and commercial clients. Using innovative techniques and working in media such as moulded concrete and fibreglass, all three murals are distinctively of Mitchell’s style, yet take different stylistic approaches, from abstracted pattern-making to incorporating elements of the history of the area in which they are located.

It will explore Mitchell’s concrete murals for Bradford’s Kirkgate market, built in 1973 to replace a previous Victorian market; thirteen fibreglass panels, commissioned for the former Bradford and Bingley Building Society headquarters in Bingley in the early 1970s and depicting the architectural and engineering landmarks of the area; and a large mural for the Ilkley Wool Secretariat, completed in 1968, which explores the history of wool manufacture locally.

These case studies will be used to highlight wider changes in attitudes towards post-war architecture, and the ways in which these types of artworks are regarded: whilst a new home has been sought in recent years for the Bingley murals, which were removed as the highly unpopular building in which they were situated was demolished, Mitchell’s Ilkley relief has been widely feted and was celebrated with Grade II listing by Historic England in 2015.

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‘The Lost Art of Churches’: Radio 4 Extra programme on modernist and modern art in churches

‘The Lost Art of Churches’, an excellent short documentary on Radio 4 Extra, which explores the challenges of maintaining and restoring twentieth century commissions by artists in churches (and also visits the Methodist Art Collection), is well worth a listen: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01hl41c


Interesting event in Liverpool next week: Conversation and Exchange: Talking with Children

I’m looking forward to attending a discussion about creating art and gallery experiences for children, which takes place at the Bluecoat in Liverpool next Thursday (18 January, 6pm, free). It’s the second in a series of panel discussions entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Work’, bringing together UK and international artists, curators and other practitioners.

For more information and to book visit www.thebluecoat.org.uk/events/view/events/3798.


Ten things I wish I’d thought about more before I applied for my PhD

I recently submitted my PhD thesis, nearly five years after I started my studies. To say it was a challenge to reach this point – and that, frankly, it was a point I often thought I would never reach – is an understatement. Whilst I’ve loved my research, and spending a considerable amount of time immersed in my subject, it’s made me realise how unprepared I was in many ways to start a PhD. This is something I’ve thought about a lot and, as the 31 January deadline approaches for applications from prospective PhD candidates, I’ve written a list of reflections on my experiences for anyone who is currently considering applying for a PhD.

  1. Choose your university carefully

Think very carefully about the university and department you are applying for. Is it an environment where you feel comfortable, both academically and socially? Is it somewhere you can imagine spending a considerable amount of time over the next few years? Is there a strong research culture, and postgraduate support network, and are there students working in similar areas to you? Don’t get into the situation I did; I lived in a different city, and spent the train journey to each supervisory meeting trying to ward off feelings of having a panic attack, as everything about visiting the university, department and city in question filled me with such dread.

  1. Be aware of the financial commitment

Make sure you are fully aware of the financial commitment a PhD involves, and think very carefully about accepting a studentship that is only partially funded, or funded below the levels granted by research councils. My studentship was just £4,000 a year, meaning I felt obliged to continue working alongside my studies (outside of academia, in an unrelated field). Ultimately, spending three years working for an amount that represented less than minimum wage didn’t just present a financial challenge but a psychological one, as it made me doubt the value of my work.

  1. Be clear about why you are doing a PhD

A PhD is not something to be entered into lightly. Like any other kind of study, never embark on one just because you don’t know what else to do, or want to defer looking for a job.

  1. Make sure you are prepared academically

Having a Masters degree isn’t necessarily a requirement for being accepted for a PhD. I didn’t have one and spent the first year catching up – getting my brain back into the mode of reading academic articles, and producing academic writing.

  1. Don’t expect to finish in three years

Make sure you plan for the possibility of failing to complete your PhD in three years (mine took nearly five years, for various reasons). Although this varies from university to university, you could get hit by fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds per term.

  1. Understand the conditions of your studentship offer

Make sure any promises of financial support are set out in writing at the start. When I accepted my studentship I was told I would have a £1,000 annual allowance to travel to conferences, undertake fieldwork and pay for training. Once I started my PhD I was informed it was in fact £500 per year, and that only £250 of this was guaranteed – the other £250 came from elsewhere in the university and was discretionary. Although this might sound like a lot, all of these activities are expensive, particularly when conference fees and accommodation are factored in.

  1. Ask about extra-curricular opportunities

Make sure there is encouragement and support for the other academic activities that go alongside your research – will you have opportunities for teaching, to present at conferences and to submit to journals? All of these are essential for finding a job afterwards.

  1. Understand your limitations

Be realistic about your expectations of yourself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to finish in three years, at the same time as working and undergoing several major life changes. The result was that I burned out and had to take a year out to get my life back on track – supported by my university. It made me realise that I needed to go at my own pace, both for the sake of my research and the sake of my health.

  1. Most people won’t understand what you are doing

Most people outside of academia don’t understand what a PhD is or what it entails. Get used to deflecting questions about how your ‘course’ is going and when you will be finishing (I used to confuse people by answering ‘how long is a piece of string?’).

  1. Love your subject

You are in a PhD for the long haul. Believe in what you are doing, and that you will get there eventually if it is worth doing. At the same time, don’t be offended when you find that very few other people are really interested in your research – family and friends are usually more concerned about what you’ll do afterwards, if they ask anything at all!


Back to school

Sam Thorne – School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education (Sternberg Press 2017)

Sam Thorne’s School is not just, as its subtitle suggests, a ‘recent history of self-organized art education’, surveying the ‘sudden density’ of alternative of art schools that have emerged since the early 2000s. It’s also a timely contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of higher education, who should bear the costs – and the expected and desired outcomes for those who participate.

Implicit is the conundrum of the role an art school might usefully be expected to fulfil, given that somebody cannot be taught to ‘be’ an artist. Josef Beuys’ famous saying ‘everyone is an artist’ recurs again and again in the book. If everyone is an artist, then, the purpose of art schools is not to create artists, but to provide an environment in which artists might develop and realise their…

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‘Edward Bawden at Home’ at the Fry Art Gallery

One of the most popular artists at Pictures for Schools who, along with his wife Charlotte, had a longstanding involvement in the exhibitions.

The Fry Art Gallery Blog

For the first time, the Fry Art Gallery is to dedicate a full season and all of its gallery space to a single exhibition: Edward Bawden at Home. Opening on the 1st of April 2018 and running until the 28th of October 2018, the show will include around 200 artworks and other items. These will be displayed in the Gallery which Bawden helped to establish and which is just a short walk from the home in Saffron Walden in which he spent his last nineteen years.

Edward Bawden CBE RA (1903-89) is recognised as one of Britain’s foremost artists and designers of the twentieth century. His precise, linear watercolours of the 1930s attracted the notice of modernist art critics, whilst he went on to be probably the most important exponent of the linocut to work in Britain.

Detail from ‘Autumn’ 1950

Bawden moved unselfconsciously between fine art…

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A London public art trip: Peter Peri, Willi Soukop and the Royal Festival Hall

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to spend a day in London in the expert company of Dr Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West, two researchers with backgrounds and ongoing research interests in public art and the London County Council (LCC): Dawn’s PhD work on William Mitchell and Anthony Hollaway as design consultants for the LCC was a major catalyst for my interest in post-war public art as a subject for academic study, and Rosamund is currently undertaking a PhD at Kingston University about public art commissions on post-war LCC housing estates.

We started at the Royal Festival Hall, where we saw the collaborative ‘festival quilt’. This large (although easy to miss – I’d never seen it before, despite visiting the Festival Hall on a number of occasions) artwork is composed of squares contributed by women’s groups from across the country commemorating landmark events, figures, inventions and developments in British history, from the 1851 Great Exhibition (the Festival of Britain, for which the quilt was commissioned, followed 100 years later) to the invention of the sewing machine, to cultural phenomena such as jazz and cinema, in a variety of styles. It’s full of detail and visual appeal and has aged well; it’s one of the quirkier aspects of this landmark building, which is well worth a look as a cultural document of the interests and values of a time and as a participatory, collaborative piece of art created by ‘ordinary people’. We also saw ‘Sunbathers’, a work by the Hungarian artist Peter Peri from the Festival of Britain which, after years of being lost and neglected, has been recently restored and resited high-up in the Festival Hall following a public awareness and funding campaign. Its athletic, interlinked figures now gleam pristinely in the nude, yet are strangely anonymous in their terracotta-coloured concrete.

Although sculpture was less popular among buyers at Pictures for Schools than paintings, prints and embroideries (mainly, probably, because it was more expensive and less easy to site in the school), Peter Peri was a regular exhibitor at Pictures for Schools. His work was, in its realism and everyday subject matter, such as small-scale sculptural depictions of children at play and leisure, characteristic of the mood and style of the exhibitions.

Peri’s work was part of a wider context of realist art promoted by critics such as John Berger for its accessibility and humanism; it emerged out of a context of politicised networks of artists such as the Artists’ International Association, founded in the 1930s, which worked to promote the status of the artist in society, provide employment for artists, raise public appreciation and increase opportunities to enjoy the arts, and to create social change through art. Peri was prolific in his public commissions for patrons such as schools and local authorities; writing in the New Statesman in the 1950s, Berger argued that, far from fitting into the fashionable London art world, his work came into its own when situated in workaday settings such as the school.For me, the most effective work we saw by Peter Peri on the tour was that which was still part of the fabric of the places where it was first situated. The best work of his we saw was ‘Following the Leader’ (1949), a relief on the exterior of a central stairwell of an otherwise nondescript earlier block of flats in a now-gentrified area of Vauxhall. Utilising coloured concrete, it depicts a ring of children ascending the brickwork hand-in-hand, tendons stretched and hair and skirts blowing in the wind. Although apparently simple, the feeling with which Peri has moulded the faces of the children, and the sense of play, movement, youth and vitality, he creates, gives it a quality which is touching and timeless. His real skill was to communicate a sense of relatability and humanity in these figures, despite their scale and necessarily being viewed from a distance.Although commemorating a sombre subject, children lost in the Blitz, it has less of the naivety and idealisation of motherhood, youth and childhood that characterised much of the work of the social realist genre, and which can be seen in his ‘Children Playing’ (1951-2) and in the exaggeratedly healthy, muscular figures of ‘Boys Playing Football’ (1951-2), two exterior murals on the nearby South Lambeth Estate.

We were fortunate to be able to see all these works in situ; the significance of all these artworks, and the social, historical and political context in which they were commissioned, has now been recognised by their listing, as part of a wider drive by Historic England to recognise and promote the public art of the period. However, the scale of gentrification of the once working-class areas of south London we visited was stark – like many across London, several of the estates were awaiting or had already undergone a process of redevelopment, with former council developments replaced with housing aimed at a far wealthier demographic, and now largely removed from the social purpose for which it was intended, and the democratic and inclusive spirit in which the artworks were commissioned.

One victim of this process of rebuilding was a 1956 concrete mural by Willi Soukop (another European emigre who exhibited at Pictures for Schools), inspired by the story of the Pied Piper yet noticeably more abstract in its shapes and style than the work of Peri, previously situated on a community hall on the Elmington estate in Camberwell. Although its value had been recognised enough for it to be retained and incorporated into a new development once the hall was demolished, it had been hidden behind foliage in a new nature garden, surrounded by modern flats, where its visual impact was considerably lessened.