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Features | Who Cares About Murals? We Do!

Barbara Jones’ mural Adam Naming the Animals (detail) at Yew Lane School, Sheffield, 1959

Barbara Jones’ mural Adam Naming the Animals (detail) at Yew Lane School, Sheffield, 1959 , photographed during demolition © Roger Bowdler at English Heritage (photo credit)

Among the paintings listed by the PCF, a number are murals – site-specific works in schools and other public buildings. This is a category of painting to which a great deal of artistic energy and talent was devoted from the Victorian period onwards, with some wonderful results and some strange ones. Apart from their artistic value, murals tell us a lot about the way that buildings were used or understood, and about how artists and patrons wanted to communicate with the public. The work covers all styles, from heroic history paintings to everyday scenes, religious subjects, abstract decorations, trompe l’oeil pastiches and frivolous high society décor.

Apart from a few famous examples such as Stanley Spencer’s Chapel at Burghclere, murals in Britain remain a largely unknown subject, and the work has often been at risk and lost, even when a building remains. Some can be recovered, like the two murals by Fred Millett in a 1950s school at Wokingham that were painted over and had almost been forgotten. Others, like a jungle scene by Barbara Jones in a Sheffield school were in the wrong place when the building was demolished and the mural wall found itself in the new car park site. Sometimes the listing of a building protects a mural, and some buildings have even been listed because of the presence of one (the great Ivon Hitchens mural at the English Folk Dance and Song Society near Regents Park for example). Otherwise, there is nothing to prevent their loss, and often no record has been made. Art history has sidelined them, preferring to study more easily accessible works in gallery collections.

Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art has long been an enthusiast for the painters of the early twentieth century who devoted their lives to murals and the associated genre of ‘Decorative Painting’ that engaged many of the best artists of the time and formed a largely forgotten strand in art education. In partnership with The Fine Art Society, he is mounting a major exhibition, British Murals and Decorative Painting 1910–1970 in London, 13th February to 9th March 2013, showing mural panels by John Piper and Alan Sorrell and studies for murals by John Armstrong, Frank Brangwyn, Charles Mahoney and Tom Monnington. This is the first exhibition to attempt a historical survey of the subject, and a substantial book of the same title (British Murals and Decorative Painting 1920–1960, Sansom & Co., £40) including many specially commissioned photographs of previously unpublished works.

In addition, there is a day conference on Friday 8th March with a line-up of art historians and others with a passion for the subject, including Andy Ellis of the PCF among the speakers. It will be held at Morley College near Waterloo Station, where Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious created famous murals in 1930 that were destroyed by bombing, but where later murals by Bawden, John Piper, Bridget Riley and others can still be seen. Details of the programme and booking are available from The Twentieth Century Society.

One of the aims of the conference is to draw attention to the need for more protection from English Heritage and more knowledge about where the existing murals can be found, with images to show them to the world.

Dr Alan Powers
Lecturer, curator, author and trustee and former Chairman of the Twentieth Century Society. Dr Powers is the main contributor to the new aforementioned book on murals, and author of many other books on modern British art, architecture and design.

Editor's Note: You can find out more about the Ivon Hitchens mural here. The PCF has only included murals that technically were on a support that could be moved. Have a look at some more murals on the Your Paintings website here.