‘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


Reykjavik school murals

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.


Exhibition visit: Picturing Faith: An Exhibition of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, the Beaney, Canterbury

Unsurprisingly for a collection of twentieth century artworks developed in the 1960s, there is some overlap in the artists represented in the Methodist Modern Art collection and Pictures for Schools. At a time when much was being down to improve the appearance of both public and corporate spaces, and attempts were being made to introduce art to a wider section of the population, the collection was developed to enhance the visual environments of Methodist churches, and to increase the church’s visual appeal. Today it tours to venues in different towns and cities, from churches to art galleries to libraries, to ensure many people can see and access it.

Much of the work in the collection isn’t exactly to my taste, being slightly intimidating to the casual viewer not overly familiar with the stories, histories and teachings depicted. Much of it is literal and narrative, depicting scenes from the Bible, although it incorporates developments in modern art.

The freer, busy shapes and spliced up watercolour imagery of Norman Adams, whose colourful Stations of the Cross are a modernist intervention into the ornate overdecoration of catholic church St Mary’s the Hidden Gem in Manchester, is interesting, but the work that engaged me most is that which steers away from storytelling to depict emotion and expression. Among the most powerful works in the collection are Elisabeth Frink’s 1956 drawing Pieta, which presents a face full of knowledge in her signature big-nosed style, framed with a subtle crown of thorns, statuesque and suffering yet stoical. In a similar way a sombre and still oil painting by Philip Le Bas, who sold work including a painting of The Last Supper at Pictures for Schools, The Stripping of Our Lord (1962) is cracked as if betraying the experiences behind its creation.

Another highlight is Theyre Lee-Elliott’s Crucified Tree Form – the Agony (1959), in a sickly, ghastly end-of-the-world yellow and black that almost has the quality of surrealist painting or a black and white photographic documentary print. The anthropomorphic tree of the title teems with the barbs created both by humans and by nature.

A more recent highlight is Maggi Hambling’s Good Friday: Walking on Water 2006, which is dominated by the churned tumult of the waves; Christ’s small, ghostly figure floats across the water, barely perceptible in contrast to natural forces.

Some of the most significant British artists of the twentieth century are represented in the collection, including the wonky perspective of Patrick Heron’s Crucifix and Candles: Night 1950, Ceri Richards’ caricature-esque The Supper at Emmaus (1958), Graham Sutherland’s skeletal, entombed Christ in the Deposition (1947) and Craigie Aicheson’s starkly floating yet pop figure on a cross, Pink Crucifixion (2004).

One artist who sold artworks at Pictures for Schools is Dennis Hawkins, long-serving art teacher at Repton School, who transforms the lid of a school desk into Pentecost I (1962) with the deceptively simple depiction of a large circle and block lines, suggesting the intervention of Christ into everyday life. Hawkins’ paintings and reliefs, inspired by subjects such as the moon landings and space travel, were among the most modern in form and subject matter sold at Pictures for Schools, making their way into educational collections in Oxford, Carlisle, Southampton and Wales in the mid to late 1960s as well as various schools and teacher training colleges; his print Blue Night Flower still hangs in Manchester Grammar School.

However my favourite work on display is The Cross Over the City (1962), a tactile relief by the architect and artist Michael Edmunds, who worked for the Greater London Council. Reminiscent of an aerial view, the piece incorporates mosaic, repetition and pattern, suggesting rooftops in its materials and dusty colours yet remaining abstract and inviting contemplation close-up and from afar. Apparently Edmunds did an exterior relief for a church in Stockport; there are several Methodist churches in Stockport so it’s going to be a challenge to track it down!

Picturing Faith is at the Beaney, Canterbury, until Sunday 23 April.

To find out more about the collection visit www.methodist.org.uk/prayer-and-worship/mmac.


UMIST: A formative educational environment

umistMy 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.”


Holiday reading: Long Live Great Bardfield (Tirzah Garwood’s autobiography)

Artist Tirzah Garwood’s autobiography Long Live Great Bardfield, republished by Persephone Books in 2016 more than 60 years after her death with a new introduction by her daughter Anne Ullmann and illustrated with photographs and engravings, is a weighty and satisfying read. Born in 1908 and brought up in an upper-middle-class family in genteel Eastbourne, it’s a glimpse into a different time, when middle-class women’s main role was to marry well.

Often snobbish in her descriptions of those she meets, and strange and apparently naïve in some of the ways she looked at the world – for example, Garwood was keen to have children in order to stop the monthly inconveniences of menstruation – at other times Garwood writes about sex and relationships with a surprising frankness, even going as far as to liken the birth of her third child to orgasm. She also writes honestly and maturely about her husband, Eric Ravilious’ love affairs. The book is made poignant not just by Ravilious’ loss in a plane over Iceland in 1942, but by Garwood’s documentation of operations for recurrent breast cancer, from which she eventually died at the age of 43, leaving behind three young children.

Though Garwood writes little about her practice as an artist in her own right – she was too busy being a wife, mother and lover – her autobiography places her at the heart of an artistic circle that included the Great Bardfield group of artists in Essex, as well as the friendship group based around Peggy Angus’ country cottage the Furlongs in East Sussex.

Ullman makes a brief reference at the end to her mother’s contributions to Pictures for Schools towards the end of her life; she took up painting and collaging, creating 3D works in boxes inspired by houses in Essex villages. These works were popular at Pictures for Schools, and the 1952 exhibition paid tribute to her with a special display of her work.

To buy Long Live Great Bardfield visit www.persephonebooks.co.uk/long-live-great-bardfield.html.


William Mitchell in Harlow: chapter in Modern Futures book

modern-futuresI’ve written a shortish reflection on my pilgrimage to the ‘sculpture town’ of Harlow, a mid-twentieth century new town in Essex, earlier this year, focusing on the redeveloped Water Gardens in the town centre and the architectural sculptor William Mitchell‘s gargoyle fountains, as a chapter for the new Modern Futures book.

Modern Futures, which is published by Uniformbooks, is edited by Hannah Neate (my Director of Studies) and Ruth Craggs and is an outcome of the Modern Futures research network, which brought together academics, writers, artists, photographers and practitioners for a series of events and workshops around the country exploring questions around changing perceptions of the experience, appreciation and preservation of modern architecture. The book brings together contributions prompted, explored and developed through these events, as well as reflections from a few familiar projects from Manchester such as Angela Connelly and Matthew Steele’s Sacred Suburbs survey and Manchester Modernist Society.

The book can be purchased online for £12 at www.colinsackett.co.uk/modernfutures.php.


Exhibition visit: John Piper and John Bratby, Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

12977242_1777600372461474_7170271131356876250_oThe beachfront Jerwood Gallery, which sits among black-painted, newly renovated fishing huts in the rapidly gentrifying seaside town of Hastings, is currently showing two very different exhibitions by two twentieth century artists. Both are called John, but the contrast between John Bratby and John Piper couldn’t be greater.

The starting points for John Piper’s paintings, prints and ceramics are often British places, imagery and customs, from country churches and seaside buildings and occupations to the folky Green Man and the strange foliate style of church decoration. His work presents not so much representations of things as an exploration and juxtaposition of forms, colours and sensations through effects such as collage, mosaic and marbling.

Despite his abstraction of experiences and environments and the avant-garde circles in which he moved, the exhibition shows that Piper’s work was firmly part of the establishment of twentieth century British publishing, art and music. On display are his sketchy nautical nursery prints for Contemporary Lithographs, his drawings and paintings for Recording Britain and as a war artist, Shell book designs, and a Benjamin Britten record cover, as well as collaborations with Heal’s, a book on the installation of electricity on churches (produced with John Betjeman) and stained glass commissions for churches in Harlow and Coventry. Ranging from the 1930s to the post-war decades, it’s notable that despite his popularity in private and public commissions little in way of Piper’s style of modernism made it into Pictures for Schools.

By contrast, the paintings of the other artist on show at the Jerwood, John Bratby, fit seamlessly into the type of Britain and the representations of it which predominated at Pictures for Schools; indeed, Bratby, as well as other ‘Kitchen Sink school’ artists, regularly exhibited and sold portraits and still lifes at the exhibitions.

Whereas Piper made ordinary places and images mysterious, Bratby’s paintings appear to magnify the normal, intensifying the banality of everyday life and routines through dark outlines and thick brushmarks. His paintings, in a manner reminiscent of pop-art, incorporate and highlight brand names and throwaway packaging, from cereal packets to washing up bottles, and celebrate icons of popular culture such as Paul McCartney. His subjects suggest familiarity and intimacy, from flower arrangements to family life. Lounging nudes, the bathroom sink, a muddled collection of tools, are rendered unremarkable and unnoteworthy.

Bratby’s paintings make us contemplate vantage points and perspectives, both literal and metaphorical. They invite us to look in, at the now and the past, at the domestic and comforting, and outwards, to imagine a possible future and transformation of our lives. This is Britain viewed tentatively, through net curtains and decaying window frames, from a homely setting of wooden floorboards and kitchen tables. He portrays a country which is still drab, grey and brown, poised somewhere between post-war austerity and the promise of the cultural and social freedoms of a new consumer age. Hastings, too, where Bratby spent the last years of his life living and painting (and where it is still possible to imagine him working, amid the entropy of buildings and industries that still somehow cling on despite decades of decline), is a town on the verge of becoming something very different from the rundown resort it was formerly. The Jerwood, with its £9 entry fee, is a symbol of coastal regeneration, mimicking in its appearance yet irrevocably distanced from the traditional fishing huts and occupations it overlooks.

‘John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink Including the Kitchen Sink’ is at the Jerwood Gallery until Sunday 17 April.

‘John Piper: An Eye for the Modern’ is at the Jerwood Gallery until Sunday 8 May.