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Art & artists

The painting’s on the wall

— June 2013

Article read level: Art lover

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The English Pub, 1949-1951, oil on 11 panels, 176 x 539 cm (69 3/8 x 212 1/4 in.), private collection

British Murals and Decorative Painting 1920–1960

By Alan Powers and others

Murals are a strange type of art, for the artists who create them are invariably working to commission, on panels or on walls in premises that might well undergo future changes of use, or might be affected by damp, decay or destruction. There is no guarantee that anyone will be looking at their work in years to come, or that the owners – especially of private homes – may even keep the work, subjecting it instead to a whitewash when fashion or ownership changes.

A really important element of British Murals & Decorative Painting 1920–1960is the photography. There are new photographs of many murals previously reproduced less clearly, or only in black and white. Then there are known but hitherto unpublished murals, and many re-discovered examples of both finished work and preliminary studies. 

The works discussed demonstrate the huge variety of locations for mural painting: schools, colleges, churches, ships, shops and other buildings both temporary and permanent. Many of the subjects are powerful and dramatic: serious in intent rather than attractive or decorative. Yet many are playful and humorous too, displaying the British tendency for whimsical humour at its best.

Numerous murals have been lost, and many that were painted in private homes suffered public invisibility from the very start. In institutions, changes of use have covered up walls with furniture, or rendered rooms out of bounds to visitors; and managing committees and agencies have lost any notion of how culturally valuable their murals might be. Many works have deteriorated badly through damp or neglect, often quite soon after completion. The murals at the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, painted in 1933 by Eric Ravilious and his wife Tirzah Garwood, started to decay within months because the wall on which they were painted was unfit as a support for their work.

Ravilious and his murals combine for a particularly tragic tale. Those he painted with Edward Bawden for Morley College in London were destroyed by bombing in 1940, and Ravilious himself died on active service as a war artist in 1942. A full-page photograph shows us the rubble remaining of Morley College soon after its destruction, an image that might seem rather superfluous – the facts are clear enough – but it packs a real punch and serves to emphasize just how easily mural painting can be lost. While portable works of art are apparently flimsy, murals are in fact more fragile, for they can never be rescued from a building on fire, or one that decays or collapses.

Re-assessment of mural work within each artist’s oeuvre is timely. Art historians tend to focus on easel paintings in their assessment of an artist’s career, yet the size and scale of mural commissions often constituted ambitious and lengthy projects. And to date, a handful of murals tend to have been reproduced repeatedly, thus by omission leading to a neglect of other work. Charles Mahoney’s lost murals for Morley College, for example, have been overshadowed by the frequently published photographs of those by Ravilious and Bawden; here Mahoney’s work receives due attention.

Until recently, murals and decorative painting in Britain were rather neglected by art historians. But in the past few years several major studies have been published, such as Clare Willsdon’s excellent Mural Painting in Britain, 1840–1940 (Clarendon, 2000), and monographs such as Hugh and Mirabel Cecil’s In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and Work (Frances Lincoln 2102). At last, murals and decorative painting are receiving due attention, and Powers’ book is another, very wide-ranging, study. It examines in detail a particularly rich period of mural production.  

The book is organized into two parts. The first section, by Alan Powers, is entitled ‘Murals & Decorative Painting in Britain: The Mural Problem’, which sets the development of the genre in historical context, detailing the events and periods that prompted a mural revival in the 20th century, and the influence and patronage of both individuals and institutions.

The second section comprises a series of essays by various authors, providing in-depth case studies of individual artists and their work. Here we see more of the lesser-known murals, and many new images of studies for, and photographs of, important murals no longer in existence, and others recently re-discovered (at least by the world of art history).

All in all, this book shows just how much mural and decorative painting was undertaken during the 40 years it covers. It is also a plea for the nation to value them, and for owners of further hidden treasures to bring them to public attention. Who knows? Enough may come to light to merit a supplement to this book in a few years time…

British Murals & Decorative Painting 1920–1960  by Alan Powers and others is published by Sansom & Company 2013. 352pp., well over 200 colour illus. ISBN 978-1-908326-23-2


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

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