Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Set in concrete
Egged on by my reading of the recent Historic England book on Coventry,* I wanted to use my visit to the city to have a look at something I’d missed before, the concrete mural (actually an entire structural wall playing the additional role of public sculpture) outside the former Three Tuns pub in the city centre. I came away glad I’d done so, and full of admiration for its creator, the sculptor William Mitchell.
Mitchell was in the forefront of finding new ways of casting concrete for sculptures, including the use of polystyrene and polyurethane moulds. He worked widely and closely with architects, notably in new town developments such as Harlow, for the London County Council, and on new buildings in places such as the Barbican in London. For this mural in Coventry, Mitchell employed polystyrene sheet cut with hot wire set against the shuttering before the concrete was poured. The concrete incorporates pebble aggregate and was cast in one piece, with rectangular spaces left for the window openings.
The forms Mitchell created in the Coventry mural (made in 1966) are bold and abstract – and I think they work well as a succession of engaging abstract forms. But they also suggest all kinds of possible visual interpretations. People have seen in them the sun and its rays, mechanical components such as gear wheels, or bits of a city viewed from above. The mural’s listing refers to the sculpture as an example of Mitchell’s Aztec style and it certainly does have a Meso-American feel to it, although I don’t know whether the artist saw it in those terms.
Looking at it took me back to an evening years ago at an exhibition of mostly abstract paintings by an artist friend. Standing next to me was a middle-aged woman with a small girl, perhaps her granddaughter or niece. Together they were imagining the trees, rivers, and animals that they could imagine in these works of art. I quickly dismissed from my mind any thought that this was a rather naive way of looking at abstract painting – these things were there sure enough, if one applied a little thought to them. I feel rather the same about these William Mitchell murals – you can look at them on more than one level, and that’s a sign the artist is on to something, especially when it’s public art, and bound to be seen by anyone and everyone.
I know some people look down on work like this, done in concrete, a substance that they find dull and grey. If there were a hierarchy of sculptural materials,† concrete would be near the bottom, well below marble, bronze, and wood. And it’s true that a concrete work, in strong relief like this one, ideally needs some strong light to set off the forms with defining shadows. As it is, the front of the pub is in a shady spot, though perhaps the sun would have moved around later in the day to give it some welcome sideways illumination. But there’s still something to see here, and something, I’d say, to celebrate – the artful arrangement of shapes, the way the linear quality of the relief encourages your eye to follow the design across the wall, the texture of the material. I’m glad this relief is listed and unlikely to go the way of so many other William Mitchell pieces,¶ cut down and chucked away, because nobody wants to look at concrete art.§
*Jeremy and Caroline Gould, Coventry: The Making of a Modern City 1939–73
Published by Historic England; see my review here.
†I’ve mentioned this idea of hierarchy in terms of building materials a few times in blog posts; the notion won’t go away.
¶Mitchell continued to make concrete works into the 1970s, and helped develop a special formula, called Faircrete, that would hold relief patterns drawn into it while also setting very hard. However, by the mid-1970s British architects had turned away from his style and he worked increasingly abroad. The 1990s saw him involved with various projects for Harrods owner Mohammed Al Fayed.
§Those still not convinced might prefer to look at my recent post about a Georgian building in Coventry, here.