The March of Murals 2013: 'British Murals and Decorative Painting 1910 to 1970'

By Jones, Tom Devonshire | British Art Journal, Spring-Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The March of Murals 2013: 'British Murals and Decorative Painting 1910 to 1970'


Jones, Tom Devonshire, British Art Journal


The March of Murals 2013

'British Murals and Decorative Painting 1910 to 1970'

Fine Art Society/Thomas Williams Fine Art, London

14 February-9 March 2013

Alan Powers

British Murals & Decorative Painting 1920-1960

Sansom & Co, 352pp, 978-1908326232, 40

The impressive conjunction of an exhibition with a catalogue, a publication and a conference, all three concerned with British murals and decorative painting 1910-1970, greatly enlivened London's famously cold month of March 2013. There follows some account of these three, followed by a reflection on their impact on various aspects of art in Britain.

The exhibition, organised on the occasion of the book's publication, was of the quality now expected from the numerous collaborations of Liss Fine Art with the Fine Art Society and other museums and institutions in the United Kingdom and abroad. Thus the urbane interior of 148 New Bond Street appeared to have undergone some stretching process; never had it appeared so capacious! Murals assembled from many decades, together with drawings and other related material, were now comfortably at home in the spaces required to show off their qualities--classical dignity, spacious landscape, or jokey, rustic fun as the case might be. Even John Piper's The Englishman's House 1951, over 800 sq ft with its 42 panels, was accommodated when a neighbouring dealer in Old Bond Street, Thomas Williams Fine Art at No. 22, came to the rescue, with a cool, uncluttered viewing space for at least part of this masterpiece.

Judicious curating brought together an informative mix of the variety of mural painting: the high achievers of the Institute of Civil Engineers' Study for Ceiling Painting 1919 of their Great Hall by Charles Sims formed a nice contrast to Colin Gill's Allegro 1921, with its accordion music hanging in the cloud-laden Italian landscape. Loosely built on the mood of Milton's L'Allegro, this composition is one of the most spectacular of those coming from the succession of painters awarded the Prix de Rome, entitling them to residence in the British School in Rome. This body of work has been identified and studied with a scholar's diligence by Paul Liss and published by Man Powers.

Mary Adshead and Charles Mahoney are two more Liss artists whose identities have benefited from their researches, supplying in the case of Adshead the contexts of her connections with wealthy home owners, and with Mahoney giving us more information on his brush with the Jesuit circles of Father D'Arcy. The exhibition projected many works not seen in public for over a generation, and in most cases never before illustrated in colour. Richard Upstone contributed a fine introduction to the publication, Modern British Murals. As a present Director of the Fine Art Society, with long experience as a senior curator at the Tate and curatorial experience elsewhere, Upstone, like his fellow (former) FAS Director, Peyton Skipwith, writes with a rare blend of academia and fine art dealing.

Certain of the artists shown have been the subject of Liss exhibitions and catalogues, both published or in prospect, and these take their place in the exhibition with special authority--Thomas Monnington is a good example--but the tone of the volume is to place the murals, the artists, the commissions, their reception and afterlife in the broadest possible context. Is there a new generous cultured writing about art now abroad? Frances Spalding's John Piper Myfanwy Piper Lives in Art is a leading example.

British Murals & Decorative Painting 1920-1960 by Man Powers gives rise to similarly appreciative reflections. Here twelve scholars contribute essays of varying length. 'The Mural Problem' is the initial and substantial essay (following a Preface by Paul Liss) by Powers, now an independent scholar following many years teaching at the University of Greenwich School of Architecture. …

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