TACS Postwar Murals Study Day 2007

Report on the Postwar Mural Study Day: 20th November 2007. Alan Swale

This was a highly successful event, attracting some sixty delegates representing a wide range of bodies and individuals with an interest in postwar mural design and conservation. English Heritage; the Decorative Arts Society; and the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association were among the organisations present. Perhaps appropriately, in line with the aim of the Study Day to reach a wider public, only a handful of TACS members numbered among the delegates.

During the morning session chaired by Denis Gahagan, Lynn Pearson presented a stimulating overview of the amazingly diverse and powerful range of works commissioned and executed during the postwar period. Although this writer is familiar with a number of the murals featured, reviewed collectively, the effect was an overwhelming surprise and Lynn’s description of the period as one ‘of extraordinary fecundity’ was entirely justified. Although the intention of the study day was to consider all postwar murals irrespective of materials or techniques, it was nonetheless interesting to note that ceramics figured in a conspicuous proportion of these. Overall, Lynn’s excellent contribution provided an effective context for the subsequent presentations and discussion.
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Lynn Pearson’s A Field Guide to Post War Murals is available for purchase on Blurb.

Next was a detailed study of John Piper’s postwar murals presented by the architectural historian Frances Spalding. Piper’s surprisingly numerous painted mural output included work at ‘Highpoint’; on a range of British Restaurants; a church; the Gas Board; Television Centre and for the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. Ivor Kamlish discussed his entrée to mural design while at college and work for Carter’s in ‘From 6 inches to 60 feet’. The 6 inches in question relating to patterns for Carter’s standard screen printed tile range and the 60 feet one of a large number of murals based on ceramic tiles. The wide range of inexpensive murals commissioned by London County Council (LCC) during the period 1957 to 1965 was discussed by Dawn Pereira. She described the absurdly miniscule budgets the mural design consultants and patronage artists had to work with in producing murals and sculptures for new schools, playgrounds and community centres in London. The speed the artists were required to work at and the low fee level based on square footage very much conditioned their approach to the designs and their eventual appearance. The morning session was brought to a conclusion with a lively and entertaining description by that doyen of muralists, Bill Mitchell. His presentation fascinatingly concentrated on the techniques he employed and expedients required to meet the demands for large expanses of wall at minimum cost. Indeed, part of his training ground was provided by the LCC as he had been one of those commissioned by the LCC to produce low cost murals. The lessons learned here stood him in good stead for the eventual huge concrete sculptural murals seen in towns and cities far and wide.

The afternoon session chaired by Ian Leith commenced with a presentation by Oliver Budd on the mosaic murals produced by his late father, Kenneth, and his own designs from when he joined the business. Kenneth first began to work in the mosaic medium in the 1960’s, his first experience of constructing a mural directly on an outside wall in wet and windy weather inspiring his subsequent method of prefabricating the panels in sections in his studio. Oliver placed some emphasis on the techniques required to not only produce large panels using smalti and cut tiles but transport them to the site and securely fix them. The range of subject matter ranged from bold semiabstract to highly figurative designs on both a modest and quite massive scale. An example of the massive was the 370 x 10 metre wall at Sned’s Hill on the A442/M54 link road. More recent work such as the bas-relief on the Pontypool by-pass meant a departure into cast concrete utilising carved polystyrene moulds. However, the family tradition of mosaic has not  been forgotten as the concrete relief is enlivened with mosaic inserts.

Roger Bowdler, Head of Designation, Heritage Protection: English Heritage, outlined the criteria employed in selecting buildings to be protected by listing. These severely restricted the number of structures that could be listed each year leading to concerns. Roger highlighted the difficulties in listing a significant sculptural feature or mural when this was the only meritorious aspect of its parent building or structure. At present, the final arbiter in the listing process is the Minister of State for the Environment although currently there are moves afoot to transfer this responsibility to an independent panel.

The remaining speakers provided ample material for the debate which concluded the event. As part of the input to the study day by the Twentieth Century Society, Catherine Toft pointed to the loss of so many postwar murals and sculptures which was a matter of real concern. She spoke of the forthcoming murals campaign to be mounted by that organisation which sought to determine those worthy of preservation and to increase public awareness of their value. Alan Powers, Reader in Architecture and Cultural History, University of Greenwich provided a perspective on the changing attitudes to murals in the latter part of the 20th century. The practical issues of listing monuments, sculptures and murals and the measures that might be employed to eliminate their loss and ensure their maintenance were discussed by Ian Leith, Deputy Chairman of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association.

In the final debate, it became abundantly clear that a concerted and urgent effort was required to identify and list the remaining murals and sculptures. The advantages of co-operation in this undertaking were readily apparent. Apart from avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort, by combining their energies, interested bodies could increase the power of their argument and have a far greater impact. Perhaps the first move would be to engage in dialogue with the various interested associations and societies on the best way forward.

Overall, the study day successfully achieved its objective of raising awareness of not only the amazingly diverse and frequently quite stunning works of art, but their vulnerability and the threats posed by the rapidly increasing changes to the built environment. The event also usefully increased awareness of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society’s efforts in this direction: the great value of the Gazetteer was frequently raised during the day. Thanks are due to Lynn Pearson whose initiative the study day was. Her programme was well considered and balanced. Penny Beckett and Elaine Godina are also due thanks for their front of house activities on the day and the essential administrative and logistical support they provided before the event. Incidentally, the choice of venue, The Gallery, Cowcross Street should be applauded for its comfort, convenience and level of catering.