The Fine Art Society celebrates the lost art of British Twentieth Century Murals

By Richard Moss | 14 February 2013

British Murals and Decorative Painting 1910 - 1970 at The Fine Art Society until March 9 2013.

a large landscape mural with buildings, hills and various design motifs in lozenges
Edward Bawden (1903-1989), The English Pub, 1949-1951.© Private collection
There’s something about the work of Edward Bawden that conjures an image of Britain that is rich in the historic, symbolic and social values that we seem to increasingly hanker for.

His imposing mural The English pub, which until 1970 greeted passengers in the first class lounge of ocean liner SS Oronsay, is a classic example.

Unfolding across eleven panels this paean to the English boozer is populated by country houses, castles, cottages and neat gardens. To these he's added symbols representing the Rose and Crown, the Wheatsheaf, the King’s Head and other classic public house names.

It's one of a trio he painted in the late forties and early fifties, and like much of his work it's a perfect balance of modernity and tradition. The others, English Garden Delights and English Country Life (the latter produced for the Festival of Britain) evoke a similarly comfortable idea of Britain and its historic ideals.

Visitors to the Bond Street gallery of the Fine Art Society whose Modern British Murals exhibition is a welcome re-appraisal of an overlooked form will find these ideals writ large across three floors.

Bawden's mural and the other works on show are however rare survivors. Despite their size and visibility they are an endangered species, over 90% of them have been lost to war, vandalism and the architectural progress of the twentieth century.

John Piper, another great muralist called upon to create a mutli -panel mural for the Festival of Britain, is represented here via his abstract take on the English idyll, The Englishman’s Home.

Four big plywood panels of the original forty that stretched to over 800 square feet depcits his mother's Victorian villa and it's grid pattern recalls David Hockney's recent panel paintings. Unlike Hockney's lauded landscapes the work has been hidden away for years - all of them were discovered recently in a barn.

Next to it is Barbara Jones’ Man at Work which is a kind of giant green man containing a rich assortment of workers, miners and other symbols of industry and empire. Created for the International Labour Exhibition in Turin in 1961, it too was recently discovered hidden behind a stud wall in her studio.

Elsewhere there are designs, studies, sketches and finished murals that offer a rare glimpse into the work of some of the biggest names in British twentieth century painting including Frank Brangwyn, Alan Sorrell, Kenneth Rowntree, Edward Halliday and Eric Ravilious.

The work of Brangwyn, whose bold and outward looking style was well suited to public commissions, can be enjoyed in a series of works that range from his mural study for St Aidan’s in Leeds to an absorbing series of 1930s life-size designs for the murals at the Rockerfeller Centre in New York. 

Downstairs Peter Lanyon’s Porthmeor Mural, a massive abstract work stretching over ten metres, is a stunning, multi-layered experience. Privately commissioned by the American art collector Stanley J Seeger for his home Bois d’Arc in Frenchtown New Jersey, Lanyon evidently relished the opportunity to create a painting that was nearly ten times as wide as it was high.

With its multiple perspectives depicting land and sea from a multitude of viewpoints it must rank as one of his most important paintings.

Other works are of course less abstract. Some even contain trace elements of 1930s Soviet artforms, notably those of Stanley Lewis who appears to have used his Rome Scholarship in Mural Painting to produce a vision of English country life called Allegory, which channels both Botticelli and Socialist Realism. 

Like many pieces here, what it does very well is encapsulate the aesthetics and social concerns of the age. Many reflect great themes like the welfare state, free schools, the NHS, new towns, new councils. It's monumental art with big messages. Equally some are celebratory expressions of simple human pleasures. But whatever the subject matter there is a common idealism that underpins them all.

Perhaps it is this civic and public function that has seen them largely ignored in many accounts of twentieth century British art, but anyone interested in the full story of modern British painting should visit this show.

  • The exhibition coincides with the launch of a new book, British Mural and Decorative Painting by Alan Powers, published by Sansom & Company.

More pictures:

a multi panel mural painting showing a range of English buildings within a landscape
John Piper (1903-1992),The Englishman’s Home, 1951.
a mural painting featuring various figures in landscape including rustic figures and a reclining nude
Colin Gill (1892-1940), Allegro, 1921.© Private collection
a large mural showing various ocean motifs, including a number of sailing boats and an old man with a beard and telescope
Alan Sorrell (1904-1974), Working Boats from Around the British Coast, Mural of The Nelson Bar, HMS Compania (detail), 1951.
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