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Modern British Murals

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To coincide with the publication of an important new study of British Murals in the Twentieth Century, The Fine Art Society in London has staged a major exhibition of these important works. Robert Upstone, Head of Modern British Art, discusses some of the works in the show and the aims of the artists who made them.

The murals that were produced in this country in the twentieth century remain as one of the great inventive achievements in modern British art. Highly original in their approach to design, balancing varying degrees of modernity or tradition, they demonstrate the creative drive of their makers and contain singular expressions of the aesthetic, personal and social concerns that typify the ages from which they come. Some are celebrations of simple human pleasures, perhaps to decorate a refreshment room, an ocean liner or a dining room. Others are intended to be the highest expressions of their art, ambitious allegorical or decorative compositions that like the frescoes of the Renaissance would speak through the ages to later generations. The individuals and committees who commissioned them similarly believed they would both represent the best that Britain had to offer and mark the high accomplishment of contemporary society, elevating the public and private spaces they occupied and inspiring moral purpose. There was some institutional encouragement with the foundation of the British School at Rome in 1901 to study Renaissance decorations, and from 1912 a specific scholarship in Decorative Painting. The Slade School's approach to complex figure compositions and its annual Composition Prize, which encouraged students to work on a large scale, gave further impetus to the revival of mural painting, and the first Rome Scholars all came from the Slade. The first was Colin Gill (1913), who painted Allegro (no.xx) there in 1921, Winifred Knights (1920) and then Thomas Monnington (1922), whose exposure to Italian decorative cycles inspired his art forever after.

But despite the counter-intuitive evidence of their size, murals have unjustly constituted an almost hidden history in many accounts of twentieth-century British art. It seems only now, from the perspective of a new century, that we can look again and take in how important they are for an understanding of the age in which they were made and the idealism that underpinned it. And more than this, we can appreciate the sheer quality and skill of their composition and draughtsmanship, carried out on such a demandingly large scale.

There is a distinction that must be considered between murals and what can usually be termed decorative paintings. Murals might be made in fresco or more commonly painted in distemper on to large sections of canvas, sometimes fitted to a specific architectural space such as a lunette but installed as a direct covering of the wall. 'Decorative' paintings served the same purpose but were hung or installed on the wall itself, essentially as large-scale pictures. A greater layer of complexity was the way such works were sometimes planned to be presented as an ensemble, such as the unrealised Hall of Remembrance to commemorate the Great War, which was to be hung with a sequence of identically sized large paintings to create a powerful overall effect. Similarly Stanley Spencer planned a chapel-like setting in which to group his paintings which he dubbed Church House, a scheme that was to demonstrate visually the link between the flesh and the spirit and in which his famous Resurrection, Cookham (1924-7, Tate) was to be a centre-piece. In the event it was Spencer who created what is undoubtedly the greatest masterpiece of twentieth-century decoration, the moving memorial to the dead of the First World War at Burghclere (1927-32), which affectingly and poignantly mixed biography with symbolism in an act of commemoration by a survivor to the lost.

When on the eve of the First World War the Whitechapel Art Gallery mounted its survey exhibition Twentieth-Century Art - A Review of Modern Movements in 1914 the catalogue identified four key avant-garde groupings operating in London. These were the C├ęzanne-inspired painting of Bloomsbury; the urban Post-Impressionism of Sickert and the Camden Town Group; the abstraction of the Vorticists; and lastly, those makers of 'imposing' decorative designs, which relied for their impact on 'the creation of commanding human types and appropriate attitudes and gestures'. This influential text located the makers of murals alongside the most advanced forces in contemporary British art, and identified that their inspiration came from Puvis de Chavannes. Puvis was greatly admired in Britain, not least for the seriousness of his decorative schemes. But for a younger group of artists - that included Augustus John and Frederick Cayley Robinson - it was Puvis's subtle invocation of mood and atmosphere that inspired them the most, the intangible elusiveness of his subjects, which somehow combined lyricism with gentle melancholy. They copied Puvis's soft chalky palette and the hieratic rigour of his composition. Sometime before 1910, Augustus John was commissioned by Hugh Lane to make a sequence of three ambitious large decorations for his Cheyne Walk house - Lyric Fantasy (Tate), The Mumpers (Detroit Institute of Arts) and Forzeed Amore (subsequently overpainted as The Flute of Pan, private collection). They marked an important new beginning for large-scale painting in Britain, although ultimately the scheme remained unfinished, partly because of John's endless refinement of the panels and partly because of Hugh Lane's death on the 'Lusitania' in 1915. During the First World War Cayley Robinson set to work on the extraordinary set of four decorations for the foyer of Middlesex Hospital, collectively entitled Acts of Mercy. This public, philanthropic project, funded by Sir Edmund Davis, further helped renew the potential of decorative painting. It demonstrated the way in which the expressive set of the figures alone could transmit emotion, in this case notably the panel of recovering soldiers and sailors who silently stare far away, as if reliving the traumas they have witnessed, and contrasted with the redemptive human kindness of the nursing staff.

Following the prototypes of the Renaissance and Puvis, this approach is found vividly in the studies Charles Mahoney made for the decoration of Campion Hall in the early 1940s, of which the tender meeting between Mary and the Angel Gabriel in 'The Visitation' or the preparations for 'The Birth of the Virgin' are such subtly expressive and beautiful examples. Mahoney was on the staff of the Royal College of Art, appointed by its Principal, William Rothenstein, who was himself an ardent devotee of Puvis. The College played an instrumental part in the revival of mural painting in Britain in the early modern period. Mahoney ran what was categorised as the Mural Department, which was essentially the heading under which the craft of painting was taught, and successfully linked art with design as one of the key principals for the College's existence. Rothenstein believed passionately in the application of art to enhance everyday life, specifically through public art projects and he furthered the aims of the College and the experience and careers of his students by encouraging their involvement in these schemes. Mahoney was appointed to carry out a large-scale mural for Morley College for Working Men and Women which depicted The Pleasures of Life, located in the concert hall, and funded with money secured for the project from Lord Duveen. He was joined in the Morley project by two recent graduates from the Royal College's design course, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, who decorated the Refectory with Shakespearian scenes. Completed in 1930 the decorations were unveiled by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who noted 'the one thing he felt was that the works were conceived in happiness and in joy, and the execution gave real pleasure to the artists. It was only in that spirit that any creative work could be done that was going to give pleasure to other people.' Tragically the decorations were completely destroyed by bombing during the war. Bawden remains one of the most inventive designers of the century, and subsequently he went on to complete a number of mural projects. He completed the sequence of eleven panels titled 'The English Pub' that decorated the First Class lounge of the P&O liner Oronsay. Bawden successfully combined stylisation of forms and flat colour with the repeated rhythm of pure pattern in a tour de force of design, full of wit and flair in which English pub names are represented in purely visual forms - The Rose and Crown, The Cock, The Wheatsheaf - and becoming themselves emblems of our national history and culture.

It was Bawden who was appointed to execute the entrance mural for the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The Festival was a key event for the patronage and encouragement of mural painting in Britain. Some of Britain's most famous artists were commissioned by the Arts Council to create large-scale works with which to decorate the South Bank and its structures. Notable among these was John Piper's epic The Englishman's Home (no.xx) made up of forty-two plywood panels which blended together homes modest or noble, castle or cottage in an act of visual unification of the different social layers of post-War Britain. Piper's mural was displayed outdoors, under a narrow constructed porch, but making it one of the key back drops to the South Bank. The Festival also staged a major exhibition of large-scale works titled '60 Paintings for '51' for which specially selected painters were invited to submit works painted on an ambitious scale for which the Arts Council supplied the canvas, which was in the era of post-War austerity still difficult to come by or afford. The intention was that these should be purchased to decorate the institutions of the new Welfare State - schools, hospitals, civic buildings and new towns. Included in the show was Gilbert Spencer's elegiac recollection of his time on Canna, 'Hebridean Memory', a lyrical summation of life on the island. A fisherman hauls in nature's harvest, at his side a calf that seems to bless the sea with new life, and Spencer put himself and his brother Stanley into the composition, sitting side by side on the beach. Other works in the Festival exhibition included the beautiful design and serene draughtsmanship of Charles Mahoney's 'The Garden', and John Armstrong's 'Storm', which presented an allegory of the futility of war and man's vulnerability. The complex rhythm of bodies recall the battle subjects of the Renaissance that Armstrong so admired, of which Uccello's Rout of San Romano (National Gallery, London) held the greatest fascination. But the meaning was explicitly modern, warning of the destructive horror of allowing the Cold War to turn hot, the men's pierrot costumes and wooden swords symbols of childishness, their umbrellas not up to the job of protecting them from the gathering storm. Armstrong's decorations in 1960-1 for the Royal Marsden Hospital were of a quite different flavour. These images of events in 'The Fantastic Park' were full of light-hearted warmth and wit. Sadly the finished mural was destroyed, but a record remains in the sequence of fully realised gouache studies. Such vernacular subject matter and playful character had a great tradition within twentieth-century British mural painting. It underpinned the work of Rex Whistler, and formed the basis of the supremely witty and sophisticated decorations Mary Adshead made in 1928 for Lord Beaverbrook's dining room, collectively titled 'An English Holiday'. In Village Inn a gentleman cyclist flirts with a country maid straight from the pages of Precious Bane or Cold Comfort Farm, while in The Puncture there is further flirtation as the gamely self-reliant Lady Louise Mountbatten is offered assistance by a swaggering, bearded character who looks very much like the predatory Augustus John. Lady Diana Cooper - who elsewhere appeared in one of them herself - persuaded Beaverbrook not to install the murals as she believed the people depicted would all quarrel with him, and instead they were displayed at Peter Jones department store.

The continuing importance of twentieth-century murals was marked by a major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum - Mural Art Today - in 1962 which gathered some of the principal artists then working in that discipline. Barbara Jones was asked to show 'Out in the Hall' - a witty study of a stuffed bear - and her status as a key figure was further reinforced by the creation of her vast 'Man at Work' in 1961 for Turin's International Labour Exhibition. Private patronage continued with Stanley Seeger's commissioning of Peter Lanyon to paint his thirty-one feet long 'Porthmeor Mural' (1962). Lanyon created an extraordinary work, a vast allusive, semi-abstract, expressive rumination on the primal relation between man, myth and landscape in Cornwall that is one of the grandest achievements of St Ives art and which sought to portray the sea in all its moods - 'a fast-moving sea with cross-shore drift and counter drift' as Lanyon concisely described it. He saw the work consciously as part of a great tradition, working from a position in the contemporary world but taking account of all that had gone before - 'a very big tradition of English painting that had the nerve to be itself' - and in the process created a masterpiece of modern art and modern mural painting.

British Murals and Decorative Painting 1910-1970, The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1S 2JT 020 7619 5116 www.faslondon.com ru@faslondon.com