A mural restored
I’ve posted before about the architectural illustrator and writer Gordon Cullen, whose books Townscape and The Concise Townscape had a big impact on me when I discovered them in the 1970s and have helped to educate probably hundreds of thousands of architects and planners. In the 1950s and 1960s, Cullen was very influential, not just because of the Townscape books but also because his drawings were everywhere – in the architectural press, in advertisements, in books. At the weekend I had the chance to experience another aspect of Cullen’s work, when I went to Greenside School in West London to see the mural he did for the building unveiled after restoration.
Greenside School is itself an interesting building of the early 1950s, designed with great flair by Ernö Goldfinger and opened in 1952. Goldfinger had designed a structural system for schools, with a reinforced concrete frame, that was intended to be rolled out widely, but only Greenside and one other school were built using the system. When the architect wanted a mural for the school’s entrance hall, he turned to Cullen, with whom he’d worked on a number of exhibitions that had been sent to the troops during World War II. Cullen wrote in a notebook a sentence that seemed to mark a starting point and a challenge: 'Mural. To undulate and intrigue. How?' His response to the challenge was brilliant: a series of colourful vignettes on a range of subjects: history (a medieval castle), the sea (an ocean liner), geography (a world map), the solar system (with a sun like a vast egg yolk), railways, and natural history (a composition of leaves and birds). Brightly coloured, simple, but full of interesting detail, they were clearly designed to appeal to young people and to inspire. Entering the foyer is a bit like stepping into a Picture Puffin book, and one can imagine children responding enthusiastically and teachers incorporating the images into lesson plans.
But the mural wasn’t always popular with the staff. I suppose it began to seem old-fashioned, with its images of the de Havilland Comet airliner (the first commercial jet) and the Britannia steam locomotive that was commissioned by the British Railways Board, both of which came into service in 1951. The current staff, however, are enthusiastic, and see the potential of the mural – as an inspiration in lessons, as an uplifting sight when you enter the school, as something to be proud of.
So a group of parents, staff, and school governors got together to ‘rehabilitate, restore, appreciate, protect and celebrate the Gordon Cullen Mural in the context of the Ernö Goldfinger building to the benefit of the whole school community and enrich the Learning Environment’. Or, as a spokesperson said at the unveiling, ‘simply to love it again’. Now the restoration is complete and colours sing once more, illuminated by natural light coming down from Goldfinger’s cunningly concealed clerestory window above. Warm applause as Jacqueline Cullen, the artist’s widow (top photograph), cut the ribbon to mark the mural’s unveiling, confirmed the project’s success, as well as the appreciation and love that people have for this very unusual* work of art.
Appreciation was also I think, typified by the reaction of one young child looking at the mural afterwards with a small group of us. ‘Which part do you like the best”?’ asked one of the adults. ‘Oh, I like the Fried Egg,’ she replied, with emphasis, looking at the image of the solar system. The knowing expression on her face suggested that she was very well aware of the painting’s real subject.
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*Although unusual, the Gordon Cullen mural is part of a bigger picture, which is that quite a number of schools built in post-war Britain had distinguished decorative artwork of various kinds, much of which has now either vanished or is under threat. A research project under the title The Decorated School has led to greater awareness of these works, and one of the fruits of this project is a book, Catherine Burke, Jeremy Howard, and Peter Cunningham (eds), The Decorated School (Black Dog Publishing, 2013). I hope to return to this fascinating book when it reaches the top of my ‘to read’ heap.