British Murals 1920-1960: Book, Exhibition and Conference Reviewed, by Ben Kaufmann

Murals seem to be enjoying something of a Renaissance in popular consciousness at the moment. From our very own Nuclear Dawn Restoration campaign (petition here) or the attempts to save the Chartist Murals in Newport, to the recovery of a Gibbs mural in Nottingham and the unfolding of a new mural campaign in Swansea – newspapers, campaigners and the wider public seem increasingly aware of the importance of, and the difficulties facing, murals in this country.

Newport’s threatened Chartist Mural, by Kenneth Budd, 1978. Photograph by Chris Downer, under Wikipedia Commons License

Last Friday’s conference at Morley College could be seen as part of this wider moment. Organised by the 20th Century Society the conference coincided with an exhibition at the Fine Art Society and the release of an impressive 351 page hardback book, published by Sansom and Company. All three ventures took as their subject British Murals from 1920 – 1960, and taken together they offer some long overdue insights into the historic evolution of mural painting across the early 20th century.

LMPS Nuclear Dawn Restoration Campaign makes the billboards. Photo by Leo Johnson

LMPS Nuclear Dawn Restoration Campaign makes the billboards. Photo by Leo Johnson

Shining through the conference and book, however, was a lingering question – addressed by Alan Power’s catalogue essay under the title of ‘The Mural Problem’. For despite the efforts of the eight speakers and multiple catalogue writers it is perplexing that murals remain so popular with media and public yet so excluded from the realms of Art History. It was interesting to learn that this is a fate that has befallen not only the Community murals (on which the LMPS has focussed much of its attention owing to their public engagement of the London community) but also a great deal of their precursors. If dealt with at all much of these (often institutional) murals have tended to be considered in relation to the wider work of an individual artist – rather than on their own merits.

Paul Peter Rubens, Banqueting House, Whitehall, London. Photograph by Michael Wal, 2008, under Wikipedia Commons license

Yet as Friday’s conference showed, there is an untapped wealth of mural painting in this country. From Medieval churches and the Baroque schemes of Thornhill and Rubens, through the pre-Raphaelite cycles at the Oxford Union and the Manchester Town Hall right through the last century and into our own, the Mural format has provided a rich interaction with architecture, place and the spectator which has marked it out from its more esteemed relative; the panel painting.

Clare Willsdon and Alan Powers introductory speeches did much to flesh out this historic ancestry to the 20th Century Mural, focussing on the faltering civic status of the mural across the 19th century and leading us towards the murals of Rex Whistler, Frank Brangwyn and those of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious at Morley College across the early 20th. (These latter works were unfortunately destroyed by bomb damage in the Second World War – very shortly after their execution). Clare Willsdon’s book on Mural Painting in Britain 1840-1940 will surely make a fascinating read to any interested in this pre-history with the newly published book now taking us through to the 1960s.

Duncan Grant (left) and John Maynard Keynes (right). source Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography (1967), Volume 1, p. 344. under Wikipedia commons.

Moving through the day Jonathan Black moved from the avant-garde mural practice of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant (whose Borough Polytechnic Murals were relocated to the Tate collection in 1931) and Wyndham Lewis, and on through Frank Brangwyn (whose controversial Rockefeller mural was overshadowed by Diego Rivera’s contribution, but is the subject of a fascinating chapter in the new book). Black culminated with reference to the mural scheme devised to brighten the walls of the ‘British Restaurants’, set up across the country to provide affordable meals to the British public during the Second World War. This extensive scheme included hundreds of murals by the likes of John Piper, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant – among others. The work has been largely lost and remains overlooked by historic records.

Visitors to the Festival of Britain in front of the Dome of Discovery. (Southbank Centre Archive/Mrs Holland).

Dr Margaret Garlake ushered us into the post war era, focussing on the mural work of panel painters like Peter Lanyon, John Piper and Victor Pasmore as well as the evolving hand of the Arts Council and other civic bodies in the commissioning process of murals. Her reminder of the fact that the Arts Council was established in 1949 owing to the belief that artistic production was an essential part of civilised society and should thus be supported by the welfare state, seems a timely one in this age of the unflinching fiscal axe. In many senses the highlight of her talk was the focus upon the enormous quantity of murals produced for 1951’s Festival of Britain (well into the hundreds). Whilst John Piper’s contribution has survived and was a highlight of the Fine Art Society’s exhibition, the Festival’s murals remain largely overlooked, and once more most of the work has been lost or destroyed. Alan Powers notes in his catalogue essay that it was one of Winston Churchill’s first acts on the Tory return to power in 1954 to rid London of the ‘three-dimensional Socialist propaganda’ of the festival site. It is unfortunate that much of the historical record seems to have followed suit.

This mural by William Mitchell, is located at the Three Tuns pub, Bull Yard, Coventry. It is designated at Grade II listed building structure. Image source Wikipedia Commons user RobJN

As the afternoon beckoned we moved more firmly into the territory of the LMPS with Lynn Pearson’s fascinating study of the Public Art and Murals since 1950 (largely those across the North of England) and Dr Jeremy Howard’s introduction into his Decorated Schools Project.  Whilst the fantastic Brockley School Murals had been on my radar before, we were presented with a wealth of slides of murals from Huddersfield to Edinburgh, and by artists including William Mitchell, Fred Millet and Patricia Tew.

The day culminated with talks by Henrietta Billings of the 20th Century Society, Dr Roger Bowlder of English Heritage and Andy Ellis of the Public Catalogue Foundation. Through these talks became apparent the extent and importance of the work to be done in preserving, protecting and celebrating murals across London, and throughout the country. Murals –owing to their direct engagement with public and architectural spaces, and their resistance to the commodity principle, which governs so much of our values system – remain consistently under threat, be it from developers, damp or simple neglect. The dangers of the threats are plain to see – murals bridge a gap between the hallowed ranks of art and public consciousness, they enrich our public spaces and institutions and they constitute a rich strand of our historical commonwealth.

Floyd Road Mural, by Greenwich Mural Workshop, 1976. One of London’s first Community Murals

The fate of murals following 1960 would in itself make a fascinating conference: one which would have to include the towering influence of the community mural movement and perhaps move us further into the realm of art historical neglect. Friday’s conference though, gave many positive signs of a growing interest in the fate of Britain’s murals amongst institutions and the Art Historical establishment and this is undoubtedly an important step in the right direction. The Public Catalogue Foundation’s, (as yet loose), plan to document the Murals of Britain would provide a fantastic resource for those seeking to extend their knowledge of murals across the country. In the meantime the newly published book offers a precious record of those produced between 1920 and 1960 – with good historical surveys, many previously unpublished photos and case studies of fifteen mural cycles.

It was wonderful to see the work of the LMPS credited on so many occasions throughout the conference and to perceive the extent to which other organisations and scholars are working along similar lines. As the multiple examples of lost murals across the day emphasised, however, much work remains to be done – extending the case for, and understanding of, Britain’s murals. We look forward to continuing our work along these lines.

Brixton’s Nuclear Dawn, by Brian Barnes, 1981. Help us to save and restore it by following the below link.

In the meantime Paul Liss’s Preface to the new book suggests a wealth of murals in London, which may be of interest to those tracking down the rich history of the mural movement across the early 20th Century. In Central London alone there are murals by Edward Bawden, Jean Cocteau, George Clausen, Edward Halliday, Alfred Kingsley Lawrence, Colin Gill, Charles Sims, William Rothenstein, Rex Whistler, D.Y. Cameron, Hans Feibusch, and Ivon Hitchins. To that list can be added the 50 or so murals that are documented on our website and which have transformed the face of our city and mural history across the last 50 years. These are by artists including Brian Barnes, Dave Binnington, Paul Butler, Jane Gifford, Greenwich Mural Workshop, Mick Harrison, Des Rochfort, Christine Thomas, Caroline Thorp and Ray Walker. There are many more besides! Happy hunting!
And don’t forget to voice your support for the future of the Nuclear Dawn mural here



For More information on London’s murals and our work please visit our website

For more information on the 20th Century Society please click here

For more information on the book ‘British Murals &Decorative Painting 1920 – 1960 see here

For more information on Nuclear Dawn restoration campaign click here

About londonmuralpreservationsociety

The London Mural Preservation Society aims to bring murals created over the last 40 years back into the attention of the people of London and out further afield into the rest of the UK and the world.
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