Saturday, 2 November 2013

Let's Preserve the Last Ravilious Mural!

A glimpse of the past: Mary Adshead mural at Victoria Pier
Vast numbers of murals were painted by British artists between the wars, but few survive today. Indeed, you get the impression that someone like Rex Whistler was unusual in his predilection for this kind of work, whereas it's really the survival of his murals that is extraordinary. The fate of Eric Ravilious's wall paintings is more typical: one set, his most famous, was destroyed by enemy action during World War II; another fell apart as a badly-prepared wall deteriorated; and another disappeared beneath a layer of plaster.

Rex Whistler: mural at Plas Newydd
Rav's friend Peggy Angus (1904-93) also painted numerous murals in the 1930s, with one surviving at the North London Collegiate School. Post-war she created tile murals based on the repetition, with variations, of tiles designed with elegant simplicity, but even these have succumbed to changing tastes and the clumsiness of demolition crews. I spoke to one artistically-minded college employee who had begged such a crew to save one of Peggy's murals when they knocked down the building it was housed in, but to no avail. 'It's gone,' he said to me sadly, 'Like so much else.'

Peggy Angus tiles at Lansbury Lawrence School
Murals that have survived are a source of tremendous joy and pride, as I found when I visited the Lansbury Lawrence School in Poplar; built for the Festival of Britain in 1951, the school came complete with Peggy Angus tiles, which are as vibrant today as they were then; a framed notice draws parents' and children's attention to 'our special tiles'. A similar pride is shown by children and staff at Greenside Primary School in Hammersmith, where a campaign to restore a Gordon Cullen mural has drawn a range of speakers to the Erno Goldfinger-designed school.

The Greenside Mural, by Gordon Cullen
For years it has been rumoured that the murals painted by Ravilious in the Pavilion of Colwyn Bay's magnificent Victoria Pier might have survived beneath layers of paint and plaster, and recent investigations have shown that this is the case. Ravilious had been commissioned by architect Stanley Adshead, whose 1934 Pavilion replaced an earlier structure that had been destroyed by fire; the architect's artist daughter Mary also painted murals in the Pavilion and told Rav's biographer Helen Binyon:

Not a particularly good photo of Rav's Colwyn Bay murals
Eric painted all around the stage with marine subjects, shells, seaweed, etc. I know that my Father was very pleased with his design, he said that Eric had understood what was wanted and had an architectural sensitivity.

The programme accompanying the opening of the Pavilion announced:

Mr. Eric Ravilious strikes an original note in the decoration of the Tea Room. The theme represents a scene on the bed of the ocean. Pink and green seaweeds float through the ruins of a submerged palace. A bright red anchor suggests a connection with the world above.

To restore this delightful vision would apparently cost £65,000, a lot of money perhaps but an investment that would give the seaside town a unique artistic tourist attraction.

Rav & Tirzah at work in Morecambe.
Another lost Ravilious mural is in the process of being not restored but recreated, or sort-of recreated. In 1933 the artist travelled with his wife (and fellow artist) Tirzah to Morecambe, where they decorated the tea room of the brand new Midland Hotel with bright, breezy wall paintings. These succumbed almost immediately to damp in the walls, but eighty years later artist Jonquil Cook is about to paint what she describes as 'a tribute to' the Ravilious murals; she and assistant Isa Clee-Cadman start work on Monday.

In Colwyn Bay, meanwhile, there is a marvellous opportunity to bring a historic artwork back to life. If anyone out there has a few thousand quid to spare and wants to be persuaded that this is a cause worth contributing to, please get in touch. I'll be happy to convince you.

There's a great article on the 1934 Pavilion and its decoration here. For more information on the campaign to restore Victoria Pier visit the campaign website.


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