Art and Austerity: The Lyons Teashop Lithographs at Towner art gallery, Eastbourne

By Richard Moss | 13 August 2013 | Updated: 13 August 0213

The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity 1946-1955, The Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, until September 22 2013

a painting of people picking apples
John Minton, Apple Orchard, Kent. Second Series© Towner Collection. Courtesy Neville Lyons
Edward Bawden, Duncan Grant, LS Lowry, John Nash, John Piper, William Scott. The roll call of artists who produced lithographs to jolly up the faded Lyons Teashops of post-war Britain is both eclectic and impressive.

More than 40 British artists eventually contributed to the scheme, which today seems so much more than an expedient approach to interior design. 

The project, which ran from 1946 to 1955, was overseen by Jack Beddington, the advertising executive and impresario who had managed the development of the Shell posters of the 1930s by utilising the talents of artists like Paul Nash, John Piper and Graham Sutherland among others.

He was also responsible for the Shell Film Unit, an association which led to him heading up the Ministry of Information Films Division during the war.  

When called upon by Lyons, Beddington’s experience and contacts allowed him to draw up a hit-list that also included Henry Moore, Matthew Smith and Stanley Spencer among a stellar cast which drew heavily from the roster of Official War Artists. Moore’s abstraction didn’t make the final cut but it was an interesting statement of intent. 

All the artists were asked to produce lithographs - or paintings which could be printed by the craftsmen lithographers at Chromoworks Ltd. The results, which were displayed in teashop interiors the length and breadth of Britain, now seem emblematic of a world we have lost.

On show is the complete collection of all 40 lithographs - at the time available to the public to buy for about 11 shillings - as well as a number of sketches and original paintings that reveal their journey from studio canvas to shop wall posters. 

There were three phases of the project. The first, launched in 1946, included arty still lifes such as William Scott’s Bird Cage and Duncan Grant’s Still Life, interspersed with characteristically British topographical views such as Carel Weight’s Albert Bridge, a Lowry-esque aspect of ration-era London in winter, and the bleak nostalgia of Lowry’s own Industrial Scene (one of the most popular paintings with the public).

By the time the series got into its second phase, between 1949 and 1951, the Lyons Teashop interiors were offering a kind of Festival of Britain-era view of British art that today seems perfectly of its time. This is the Britain of village cricket matches, schoolboys in caps and mackintoshes and pipe smoking fishermen saturated in green contentment.

A final, third phase introduced the impressionistic exoticism of Edward Ardizzone’s Shopping in Mysore and John Piper’s Elizabethan Dance into a mix which included paintings such as Edward La Dell’s Punting at Oxford and David Gentlemen’s Cornish Pilchard Boat.

Towner’s association with the scheme goes back to John Lake, who was commissioned to produce a painting in 1947, the same year he became Curator of the Gallery. As a result, a number of the lithographs came into the collection and were hung in the corridors of the gallery’s old building at Gildredge Manor.

The intervening years and Towner’s move to new premises saw the collection disappear from view while a proportionate nostalgic interest in them grew. A small but popular exhibition was mounted in 2004 and Charlie Batchelor, the gallery’s erstwhile exhibitions officer, produced the popular book Tea and a Slice of Art in 2007.

Today they chime perfectly with a renewed interest in the art and design of the period. But the fascination also lies in the very idea of this bold social experiment.

Much like the School Prints scheme of the same time, the idea behind it all is that art is good for you - a notion born in an era of austerity that is very different to the one we are experiencing today.

  • Open 10am-6pm (closed Monday except bank holidays). Admission £5.50/£4 (free for under-16s. Book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @Townergallery.

More pictures:

a painting of a small harbour with wooden piers and a town in the background
Clifford Frith, The River Rother at Rye. Third Series© Towner Collection. Courtesy Neville Lyons

a painting of a hotle lobby interior
George Hooper, Hotel Entrance, First Series© Towner Collection. Courtesy Neville Lyons

a painting of the interior of a dolls' house with doll figures
Edward Bawden, The Dolls at Home. Second Series© Towner Collection Courtesy The Estate of Edward Bawden

a print of an Indian shop interior with women looking at fabrics
Edward Ardizzone, Shopping in Mysore. Third Series© Towner Collection. Courtesy Neville Lyons

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