Friday, December 5, 2014

Book of revelations

The next in my series of reviews is of a 2013 book that I didn't get around to reviewing last year. It covers an aspect of English buildings that's often overlooked...

Alan Powers (ed), British Murals and Decorative Painting 1920–1960
Published by Sansom & Company

Murals are among the largest of paintings, but, attached to the walls of country houses, schools, little known chapels, even ocean liners, they are also some of the least well known. This book showcases some of the most interesting British murals from a period that saw a revival in the art of decorative painting. It is a revelation.

The book begins with an extended essay by Alan Powers on the art of mural painting between 1920 and 1960, showing how various factors – the way fine art was taught, the importance of scholarships at the British School at Rome, the existence of enthusiastic patrons – came together with a generation of highly talented artists to produce many remarkable works. Powers also introduces and discusses a wide variety of mural artists, from Duncan Grant to Gordon Cullen, who deserve our attention. And in extending the common idea of what constituted British art in the early to mid-20th century he sets the stage for what follows: a group of 15 shorter essays by different art historians on key artists and decorative schemes. These too are fascinating and include artists who will be familiar to readers of this blog and others who will be only faintly remembered names, if that.

They include: Winifred Knights, whose mural The Deluge features a highly dynamic composition of running figures; Colin Gill, whose Allegro, a kind of sun-soaked Italian fête champetre, features his beloved Winifred Knights; and Thomas Monnington, who was married to Knights, and whose Allegory, compelling but somewhat mysterious, is in sharp contrast to his later, little known abstract works. Then there are: Mary Adshead, whose An English Holiday sequence was commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook, who then rejected it sight unseen because he was concerned about its light-hearted portrayal of his friends; Edward Halliday, who was influenced in his decorative work by Greek myth, but who later was better known as a portrait artist; Frank Brangwyn, with his monochromatic murals for the Rockefeller Center, New York City; and John Armstrong, who could do a kind of advanced Art Deco, as in his work for the London South Bank Telecinema, and something more fresh, individualistic, and pastoral, as in his work for the Royal Marsden Hospital.

An outstanding artist among these painters is Charles Mahoney, who reflected in his Morley College murals the classical turn in European art of the 1920s and 1930s, contrasting with the medieval, dreamlike quality off his outstanding Brockley school murals based on Aesop and similar fables, and with his murals for Campion Hall, Oxford, which work well with Lutyens' architecture and, to some, recall Piero della Francesca.

I was pleased too to read more about several of my own favourite artists of the period, including Edward Bawden (notably his works for the Festival of Britain and for ocean liners); Alan Sorrell (whose murals, interesting their its own right, also show a natural progression towards his more famous reconstructions of historical scenes); John Piper (the enormous Festival of Britain mural The Englishman's Home that was such a revelation at the V&A's British Design exhibition in 2012); and Barbara Jones (always interesting, always reinventing herself).

This all amounts to a rich visual feast, the more so because many of the murals, rarely if ever seen by the public, are reproduced in excellent colour photographs specially taken for the book. I am sure I will return both to the essays, and to these memorable images, again and again.

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The book's cover, above, shows a detail of Allegro by Colin Gill, 1921

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