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 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.