Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, Wednesday 31 January – Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and IlkleyPosted: January 17, 2018
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 a series of concrete murals in Bradford’s Kirkgate market, built in 1973 to replace a previous Victorian market, by Mitchell or an assistant; 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.
‘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
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.
I was pleased to spot some post-war murals in the entrances to some educational buildings on a recent short break in Reykjavik – a city where the sun rarely breaks through a sky filled with low-hanging clouds, yet which is still full of visual interest and colour in the form of colourful and inventive contemporary street art murals.
There are post-war murals in two separate entrances to the technical school in the centre of Reykjavik, in the shadow of grand lava-inspired church Hallgrímskirkja, which towers over the city – through the windows of the school you can see rooms full of mannequins, wigs and hair dressers’ equipment. You can also just about make out some colourful, painted pop-style murals on the walls of the entrance and staircase.
Dating from 1954, and signed Ferró, I assume the mosaics outside are by the Icelandic pop artist Erró, who studied mosaic technique in Italy in the 1950s and apparently had to change his name while living in France due to ‘Ferró”s similarity to the pronunciation of the name of another artist, Ferraud.
A recent large-scale, comic-strip style mural by Erró can be seen in Keflavik airport, but I much prefer the abstract, textural shapes of the technical school mosaics, and the imagery of many hands at work, although sadly tagged over in places, which brighten the entrance ways to an otherwise grey and unremarkable building.
In suburban Reykjavik, meanwhile – next to this 1950s church (one of many quirky and unusual twentieth century churches in suburban Reykjavik) I found a 1964 mosaic attributed to Valtyr in the foyer of Iceland’s Institute of Education. I assume ‘Valtyr’ is the Icelandic geometric abstractionist painter Valtýr Pétursson who, like Erró, studied mosaic technique abroad.
My latest day trip around the towns, villages and cities of England was to the city of Lincoln, in the north-eastern half of England.
Lincoln is an unusual combination of the hard-edged aesthetics and feel of a northern town (redbrick terraces, austere churches and canals) and the prettiness of a cathedral city (sweeping crescents, cobbles and green spaces), particularly in quaintly named, sloping streets such as the aptly named ‘Steep Hill’. It feels both buzzing and lively – as a market town during the day and a university city by night – and old-fashioned, with an overwhelming sense of geographical and cultural isolation from the rest of the country. It’s simultaneously shabby – a strange array of traders make a sparse impression in a market hall that must once have been very grand – and twee, with a scattering of boutique food and clothing shops between the empty shop units.
Lincoln Cathedral, which stands atop the city, has a scale and grandeur which seems completely out of proportion to the provincial city below. Inside, it’s hard not to feel overawed by its scale and presence. I know cathedrals as a genre of buildings are meant to wow you into hushed reverence and give an impression of something much bigger than you (literally, architecturally and spiritually) but Lincoln Cathedral is particularly jaw-dropping. It has the appearance and atmosphere of a huge space yet its smaller chapels also create an impression of intimacy. I was drawn towards the Russell Chantry and the 1950s murals of Duncan Grant who, along with his companion Vanessa Bell, contributed to Pictures for Schools in the early years of the scheme. Grant’s narrative frescoes depict the patron saint of wool workers – and some blue sheep amid the flat country landscape which surrounds Lincoln – at the same time as envisaging Lincoln’s Mediaeval waterfront as a bustling trade centre, pointing towards both the city’s rural location and its past wealth and significance.
I was disappointed to have missed a display of twentieth century artworks from the Methodist Art Collection in the chapter house, but it was interesting to see sketches from the development of the Russell Chantry murals in an accompanying display at the Collection in Lincoln, and to hear that this mid-twentieth century intervention into an ancient, sacred building was deemed inappropriate due to the personal nature of its content (incorporating lithe young men modelled on Grant’s own lover), and hidden away for four decades.
I also caught a glimpse of another mid-twentieth century intervention into the cathedral, on a smaller scale, by another Pictures for Schools contributor, the renowned and innovative embroiderer and teacher Constance Howard. Both Howard’s own embroideries, and that of students associated with her embroidery course at Goldsmiths, were popular at Pictures for Schools. Howard’s Lincoln work is a subtly glittering, textural Mothers’ Union banner depicting a mother and child in a stylised manner that reminded me of the work of Steven Sykes in Coventry and elsewhere. It is unmistakably of its time yet also seems to fit effortlessly and timelessly with the other religious works around it.
Right at the beginning of my PhD, one of the books that excited me most on the list of reading I was given as a starting point was David Crouch’s Flirting with Space: Journeys and Creativity. The book contains a chapter by my second supervisor, Mark Toogood, on the Cornish abstract artist Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) and the ways he experienced and engaged with landscape.
I was, therefore, excited to discover that Lanyon had exhibited paintings several times at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions – although I’ve not seen any evidence that he actually sold anything to schools through the scheme, being one of the more abstract and unconventional artists involved.
After investigating Lanyon further, I went to see his large-scale 1960 mural ‘The Conflict of Man with the Tides and the Sands’ in Fry and Drew’s Civil Engineering building at the University of Liverpool. Textured, enamelled tiles depict the forces of waves, and a sense of life, power and movement is captured not just through the use of colour and form, but through the physicality of the tiles themselves and the acts of mark-making encapsulated within them. It is one of my favourite ever pieces of public art. I saw more of Lanyon’s work at Tate St Ives, both paintings and 3D constructions of landscapes, when I visited in June 2014, where he was represented alongside other artists who had lived in, worked in and visited the town.
I finished 2015 by going to see an exhibition of Lanyon’s paintings and constructions at the Courtauld Gallery in London. Based on his experiences of gliding over the Cornish coast, they push the notion of landscape towards ‘airscapes’, depicting not just visual scenes but tracking movements through them in rich, dark blues and greens and swirling brush marks, engrossing the viewer in their colours, textures and mood.
Shortly before Christmas I also went to an exhibition of prints, sculptures and book illustrations by Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983) at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. Hermes did sell a lot of work at Pictures for Schools, as well as serving on selection committees to choose artworks, and had a long-term involvement with the scheme. I was keen to find out more about her life and work.
Much of the work in the exhibition took the form of small and very intricate engravings and wood cuts, drawing on Biblical, mythical and natural imagery, and themes of fertility, repetition and reproduction. I found much of it very strange, heavy and unsettling and preferred her less allusive and referential work. Among my favourites were the cascading angles of ‘The Waterfall’; 1924 engraving ‘The Swimmers’, where the supple organic forms of swimmers intermingle with swirls of water; and ‘Through the Wind-Screen’, a 1929 wood engraving which ably uses shading to capture the mood of night-time driving along tree-lined country roads, where branches reach out to create something resembling dense tunnels and the beams of the headlights illuminate each section of the road ahead.
Like much of the work which was popular at Pictures for Schools, the work Hermes sold to schools often depicts animals, including the wintry 1955 linocut ‘Owls’, with its sparse, icy-looking trees; the 1965 linocut ‘Starlings’, which creates delicate pattern from natural forms and activity; and her 1958 linocut ‘The Ram’. Other work sold at Pictures for Schools shows places, such as Stonehenge. In differing versions of Stonehenge shown at the Hepworth, Hermes shows a talent for animating this set of rocks and their surroundings, not just through bringing their surface to life with expressive mark-making, but by creating brooding skies that almost appear to move before the viewer’s eyes. I felt that the power of these works was in the way they surpassed the observer’s expectations. We might think we know Stonehenge, Hermes seems to be saying, as something very English, ancient and static, but in fact it is constantly changing according to not just the light, the weather and the environment around it, but the experiences and perspectives the viewer brings to it and the way in which it is seen when it is really looked at.
I particularly enjoyed those works that incorporate vivid colour, such as her larger-scale linocuts, especially the blues and purples of ‘Ring Net Fishers (1955), in which the small, anonymous figures of the eponymous fishers are rendered almost unnoticeable in comparison with the intricacies of a large net cast over the crests of a tumultuous sea.
I also found Hermes’ sculpture, for which she was less well-known, to be of great interest, particularly that which incorporated elements of the found or makeshift – including sculptures atop bowling balls, or carved from pub skittles. Her design commissions also intrigued me, from a carved lectern for a school to car mascots to a range of doorknockers – particularly one which stylistically incorporated a frog.