Report from ‘Murals in Britain 1920-1970: Revisions, revelations and risks’ conference

This one-day conference brought together academics, writers and representatives of bodies including the Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage to discuss the issues surrounding the discovery, rescue, restoration and future of twentieth century murals, from recognising their value as artworks and analysing their subject matter to giving them protection by applying for listed status. It also outlined some of the difficulties facing murals, such as what to do with them in cases where they have been saved but their ‘host building’ has been demolished.

The conference was introduced by Nick Rampley, Vice-Principal of Morley College, who introduced the various murals at Morley College and described the difficulties faced during in their existence, from artworks being destroyed by enemy bombing during the second world war to the Arts Council giving meagre funds for their replacement

Professor Claire Willsdon from the University of Glasgow then gave some context to mural painting in Britain, arguing that there is no continuous tradition of mural-painting in the country. She did, however, identify several nineteenth century examples, such as murals in Westminster Cathedral, Oxford Union and Manchester town hall, as key antecedents to the twentieth century mural and suggested that there was a trend in mural painting towards making meaning out of the past and ‘inventing tradition’ to reinforce and justify the present. Dr Alan Powers went on to ask why murals are so neglected in art history, describing the problem of gaps in knowledge left by lost and forgotten murals and acknowledging that art historians can’t write about art that isn’t there. It was suggested that after the war art represented everyday life – perhaps as a soothing effect.

Later, Dr Margaret Garlake explained that murals were reinvented post-1945 as part of the extensive reconstruction programme, asking ‘what were murals for in reconstructing society?’ She suggested that murals ‘decorate buildings and describe what they are for’, and defined their primary purpose as being to ‘take you into another space beyond where you are standing’. She referenced artist Victor Pasmore, who in a 1951 article for the Listener, talked of a new language and form of art appropriate for a reconstructed society. By the 1950s, she said, modernism had been ‘naturalised’. Garlake focused on several murals, from Francis Carr’s textured mural for a school, which was designed to be touched, to murals for London County Council schools by Robert Adams and Robyn Denus, as well as those by artists such as Victor Pasmore, who saw murals as ‘an extension of their private practice’, doing away with earlier emphasis on narrative. She also discussed the role of patrons, who ‘acknowledged art as fundamental to civilisation’, and identified that bodies such as the LCC tended to commission younger artists, who were both cheaper and often more inventive.

Dr Lynn Pearson, who has extensively researched and documented public art, meanwhile, spoke about the problems facing the future of murals, asking ‘what are we going to do with all these old murals?’, even when they can be saved. Dr Jeremy Howard from the Decorated School network, likewise, touched on the issues surrounding the restoration of old murals, suggesting that restoring artworks in schools can create a museum-style atmosphere or a ‘temple of art’. Henriette Billings, Conservation Advisor for the Twentieth Century Society, and Dr Roger Bowdler, Head of Designation for English Heritage, then shared examples of recent attempts – both successful and unsuccessful – by the two organisations to save twentieth century murals, by artists including William Mitchell, often in collaboration. They shared some characteristics that make murals unique and interesting, even if they are on otherwise ordinary buildings.

Andy Ellis from the Public Catalogue Foundation wrapped up the day by sharing the Your Paintings project, which has photographed and created an online catalogue of all the nation’s thousands of publicly owned works in oil and acrylic. He said that 80 per cent of the paintings are in store, and that around two thirds have never been photographed before. The project has uncovered new information about many of the paintings which was not previously known. Members of the public are invited to tag paintings in the collection, share favourite paintings through social media networks, and contribute any special knowledge they have about a particular painting. It is hoped that this can eventually be expanded into a form of ‘citizen curating’ where members can rate paintings and say which paintings they would like to come out of store. Ellis also said that in future, funding permitting, the project would like to expand into other art forms such as sculpture and, potentially, murals. Another plan is to create a ‘Masterpieces in Schools’ programme, which would lend schools an artwork from the catalogue for the day, together with a curator.

Questions from the audience included the role of networks such as the Artists International Association which, it was suggested, gave help to refugee artists arriving in Britain, as well as the status of artworks such as graffiti (there was some debate over this, however a distinction was made between murals and graffiti that murals are commissioned and expected to remain in situ, whereas graffiti is by its nature ephemeral and temporary). In the audience was Brian Whitton, who shared his memories of working with Nan Youngman on the Pictures for Schools exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in 1952-53, for a nominal sum. He was a schoolboy in Wimbledon at the time and was introduced to Youngman through a schoolfriend who was living with a good friend of hers named Mrs Baker (Mrs Baker died around 2005, ten years after Youngman). Whitton recalled that artists dropped their work off at the gallery over a period of 2-3 days, for selection by a committee including Youngman, and thinks some of them were famous although he can’t remember their names. He also suggested that there are some holdings of Betty Rea, a friend of Youngman’s, in Cambridge.

The conference was valuable because it introduced several high-profile writers and researchers on public art and murals in Britain, who discussed the social role played by public artworks in the twentieth century as well as how they fitted into the post-war reconstruction process, from being included in high-profile exhibitions such as the Festival of Britain to their incorporation into everyday buildings such as schools. Murals were also linked to ideas such as modernity and citizenship. In addition, the conference highlighted some of the issues facing researchers looking at artworks of the period, in particular the lack of status often conferred on these types of artworks, and shared what is being done to preserve these artworks for the future. Of particular interest was the paper on the Your Paintings website, as it introduced the idea of ‘citizen curating’, as opposed to relying on ‘expert’ knowledge; the project allows people to interact with publicly-owned paintings. Also of interest was the ‘Masterpieces for Schools’ scheme being proposed as an extension of the Your Paintings project, which would allow children to experience artworks first-hand. It was interesting that Pictures for Schools was brought up during the question and answers session by Pauline Lucas, who has written on associated artists Nan Youngman and Evelyn Gibbs, and a useful opportunity to meet someone (Brian Whitton) who was involved in administering the scheme – if only in a very small way.