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 PhD concerns not just the changing experience of post-war education, but the changing places in which it took place and the significance of educational environments, including the incorporation of examples of original and contemporary works of art and design into school buildings. This week I’ve been thinking about an educational environment that has been significant to me, the University of Manchester’s former UMIST campus in Manchester, where I lived as an undergraduate. UMIST is currently subject to a Manchester City Council consultation around a proposed Strategic Regeneration Framework, which would see a loss of the campus’ modernist heritage as well as areas of green space. Manchester Modernist Society is currently encouraging interested parties to comment on and object to the proposals that have suggested in the SRF. Here the comments I submitted:
“I would like to comment on the North Campus as a longstanding-resident and user of the city centre, including as a student, and a visitor to the city centre. As an undergraduate student at the University of Manchester (2005-2008) I spent three years living in Fairfield Hall, part of North Campus, and found it a very attractive and pleasant place to live, and also to undertake student activities. For example, I played in the University of Manchester Fellows Orchestra, which rehearsed in the Renold Building, and performed in the Sackville Building, and as a student and alumni of Manchester University I have also made use of the Joule Library, also based in Sackville Building. I found North Campus a very pleasant place to live as a student, well-connected but peaceful due to the lack of road traffic and used in the summer for outdoor activities, particularly in Vimto Gardens, a well-known landmark and meeting place. I found it to have a strong sense of place, both due to the campus architecture and sense of coherence of the campus plan and landscaping, and due to the use of public art referencing the area’s history and the way in which the university had shaped it. Its identity is both strong and distinct from other areas in Manchester City Centre. I consider those formative years spent living on North Campus to have piqued an interest in twentieth century art and design that stay with me to this today – I am now undertaking a PhD on the subject at the University of Central Lancashire (co-supervised by Dr Hannah Neate of Manchester Metropolitan University), and write regularly on public art, planning, landscaping, education and design, including for the modernist magazine.
Immediately following graduation I spent five years living in M1 (in the vicinity of Piccadilly Station), followed by eighteen months living in Castlefield, and continued to visit UMIST, particularly in the summer, as a quiet and green place to sit, read and have picnics. I also used UMIST regularly (and continue to do so) as a traffic-free pedestrian and cyclist route from the Piccadilly area to Oxford Road. I have also visited on a number of occasions as part of Manchester Modernist Society tours and events, and learnt about the significance of the architecture and the campus plan; I myself used to take visitors to show them Hans Tisdall’s mosaics in the Faraday Building, and they have been featured in my magazine the Shrieking Violet: https://issuu.com/natalieroseviolet/docs/the_shrieking_violet_issue_3
I no longer live in the city centre, but I work there and continue to visit UMIST, both as a green space and as a traffic-free pedestrian and cycle route heading out of the city centre for South Manchester.
I am concerned that the North Campus SRF focuses on the heritage of Sackville Building (and rightly so) but fails to take into account the architectural significance of a number of the mid-twentieth century ‘modernist’ buildings, which have both architectural significance (particularly the Renold Building) and as a cluster of buildings developed at a time of scientific, educational and technological expansion, which represents a significant shift towards modernity for Manchester’s cityscape. This demonstration of modernity and innovation is reinforced by North Campus’s proximity to the Mancunian Way, itself an innovative and high-profile example of Manchester’s post-war planning.
I am concerned about the removal of Hans Tisdall’s the Elements mosaics and I am particularly concerned that the mural in the Renold Building is not highlighted as a heritage asset, despite the fact that it is by one of Britain’s most important mid-twentieth century abstract artists, Victor Pasmore, who also contributed significantly to the development of British post-war art education through the Basic Design movement. Pasmore’s Renold Building mural is a rare example of a publicly accessible and viewable work by an artist by that stature in Manchester – indeed, his most celebrated work, the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, County Durham, has been the subject of extensive restoration and renewed interest in recent years. The mural is particularly significant, I feel, due to the post-war historical context in which it was commissioned, when educational and state bodies (including a number of universities) assumed responsibilities for patronage of contemporary art.
At a time when English Heritage is promoting the listing and retaining of post-war public artworks, I am also concerned that Anthony Hollaway’s Hollaway Wall is underlooked in the report, and that there are suggestions to shorten or move this Grade II listed structure, which acts as both an artwork and as a sound buffer. I consider the Hollaway Wall to be a rare and significant example of an architectural sculpture in Manchester, by an artist who built up a considerable reputation for his work across the country in the post-war period, particularly as an in-house design consultant for the London County Council. Along with William Mitchell, he was innovative in his experimentation and exploration of the use of materials for artworks in public places, including concrete, and was versatile in his media (for example, he designed a modern stained glass window for Manchester Cathedral). Hollaway’s work in Manchester, including the Hollaway Wall, commissioned with the local architects Fairhurst and Sons, is also a good example of a post-war emphasis on collaboration between architects, artists, designers and builders.
Finally, as alluded to previously, as a longstanding user of the space, I am concerned about any loss of green space in the North Campus area, including a reduction of space in Vimto Gardens, particularly in a city where parks and green spaces are in short supply. Although Sackville Gardens is nearby, it attracts a considerably different demographic and has a different atmosphere, due to its proximity to the clubbing area of Canal Street, where outdoor drinking is much more established. I consider the area’s landscaping, including mature cherry trees, to be one of the most successful aspects of the campus, which gives it a strong sense of place.
I would welcome a reuse of existing buildings, including railway arches and Sackville Building, and feel that an increase in the number of people living, working in and visiting the area would justify the retaining of significant areas of green space and make it an attractive place in which to live, work and visit.
I am also extremely concerned about any proposal to add roads through North Campus, and to increase the flow of vehicle through it, as I have appreciated and regularly used it as a quiet, traffic-free route as a pedestrian and cyclist. I am concerned that a road would both damage the atmosphere and landscaping of the campus, as well as leading to increased traffic, noise and pollution. The area is already bounded by several major roads, from the A6 to the Mancunian Way.”
I’ve written an appreciation of two sacred and secular 1960s murals by Pictures for Schools contributing artist Steven Sykes, in Coventry Cathedral and New Century Hall in Manchester, for the latest issue of the modernist magazine, which is themed ‘Faith’.
To purchase the magazine (which has inexplicably renamed Steven Sykes ‘David’ in the title) visit www.the-modernist.org/faith.
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.