This post is slightly different to my usual ones as it is more related to my mainstream research! I normally use this blog for material that I didn’t get to use in my phd studies (the things that would come back with the comment ‘is this really necessary?’). Well, this section actually is related to my research project, but some of it might still get the chop!
I realised that there is something exciting about mural painting in interior design while I was exploring leisure buildings in the era of 1920-1950. They interest me because at first they struck me as a very dated concept, as you don’t really see them in contemporary buildings, and they seemed sort of out of place. Once I got used to finding them in leisure buildings of that era, I realised that they added to the glamour and razzle-dazzle of the venues. They were the work of artists, and they reflected what was happening socially as well as artistically at the time. ‘Mural painting was an art with something to say’ – appreciated in public buildings for its didactic function, or for offering escapism, creating an air of spirituality – it was the ‘artistic genius unleashed’ (according to mural historian Claire Willsdon, 2000, p. 3). see also the murals of Diego Rivera . In the examples included in this post, the murals were situated in bars and / or restaurants.
In Britain, there are great examples of this exotic, uplifting sort of work. I love Eric Ravilious’s famous and strange mural for the Morecambe Hotel in Lancashire (it only lasted for two years – English Lakes Blog). It was created in 1933 and it is surrealist looking, fantastical, other worldly. It is a strange architectural fantasy which seems to reinterpret the contemporary fashionable ‘lido’ scene, in a modern neo-classical/art deco fashion. Apparently the artist and his wife disliked the new art deco style hotel which was built to attract American tourists. I wonder are the strangely two dimensional buildings in the painting a statement on the shallow materialism of the hotel’s purpose? It reminds me of film stage sets of the period, such as the unsettling British film The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948), which in itself is a surrealist film. In this era there was a strand of surrealist art and design which ran parallel to the functional modernist approach, which seems now like a sort of hegemonic juggernaut which pushed everything else to the sidelines. In architecture there are many examples of other creative approaches to the question of the ‘future of architecture’. Apart from, for example, the mathematician Buckminster Fuller’s (1895 – 1983) geodesic domes, Dymaxion houses and car (Buckminster Fuller Institute), Frank Lloyd Wright’s (1867-1959) organic and, I think, futuristic (not futurist) work (Frank Lloyd Wright Trust), there was Frederick Keisler’s (1890-1965) organic interiors and ‘Endless House’ designs (MOMA) . In fashion, surrealist designer Elsa Schiaperelli (Italian, 1890-1973) seemed to be the counterpoint to the more modernist Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. She famously collaborated with Salvador Dali (Fashion meets surrealism). (I just this week discovered that Chanel also collaborated with Dali on the costumes for a ballet called Bacchanale!).
The use of wall painting in interior design also fitted within the innovative developments in bright and colourful wall treatments of the jazz age, when gilding, stucco work and coloured plastics all blended with decorative lighting to spectacular effect.
Rex Whistler’s (1905-1944) mural in the restaurant of Tate Britain in London is pure magic. Created between 1926 and 1927 (possibly 1930) its subject is ‘The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats’ and it features whimsical architecture and leaping animals against a bucolic backdrop, lighting up the basement room. Alexandra Harris describes it as a ‘subterranean wonderland’ (in Romantic Moderns, 2015, p. 76). Some say that the subject concerns the artist’s pursuit of mural commissions! It was a state-sponsored scheme and it was hoped that it would encourage other catering companies to commission murals from young artists. Whistler is remembered particularly as a mural artist, he gained a number of wealthy patrons who commissioned murals from him for their country estates. Although he was a great artist he was described as a ‘decorative painter’. Mural historian Claire Willsdon writes that his style stood in contrast to what had until then been a ‘British school at Rome’ style, in the vein of Piero della Francesca (p. 369, 2000).
In Ireland, the Dolphin Bar (designed by James Brennan, 1939) on Essex Street Dublin featured a mural around the perimeter of the bar, depicting horse racing. The photograph seems to portray quite a sophisticated and glamorous venue, in what was often referred to as an ‘American Bar’ style. The paintings look odd in a modern context but they appear to have added a further architectural / visual dimension. A railway buffet in Bray County Wicklow, built in 1935 and now a gastro-pub (see photo here), had the walls of its upstairs club-style lounge painted to represent ‘the sea…tinged with the glow of the sunset…to excellent effect’ (Irish Builder and Engineer, 1935). It also featured wall-mounted seagulls in plasterwork – unfortunately I don’t have a photograph of the upper floor. Lots of cinema auditoria also featured ceilings painted as skies, it seems to have been a bit of a convention in the 1930s.
Like the Dolphin Bar, Butlin’s Mosney Holiday Village (1948) featured painted murals in its American Bar. This was a cocktail bar with chromed tubular steel furniture, a terrazzo floor, concealed ceiling lighting and back-lit glass block panels. It looked very modern and glamorous, and the inclusion of mural paintings would at first seem at odds with this streamlined sophistication. The paintings seemed to depict folkish scenes, people dancing, working in the fields etc. Former Redcoats (who worked in Mosney in the 1950s) to which I showed this image of the bar and its paintings were puzzled by it, and could not remember the murals which of course now appeared so out of place amidst the modern decor! Willsdon writes, in her study on mural painting in Britain, from 1840-1940, that murals depicting the countryside, traditional activities and archaeology were popular in the 1930s, coinciding with the rural preservation movement and the use of motorcar, bus and train to explore remote, scenic areas (2000, p. 295).
As these were painted in the post-war era the content of the mural is also not altogether surprising, as interior design historians Anne Bony (Furniture and Interiors of the 1940s, 2003) and Stephen Calloway (Twentieth Century Decoration, 1988) have noted the prominence of folk elements in design in this period. People wanted comforting images related to their homeland, and to vernacular design and tradition. Blended with the modern styling of the furniture and finishes in the American Bar, the mural begins to make sense in this context. Apparently many visitors to Mosney were from the country, too, so they may have appreciated such homages to traditional customs.
Another location where a mural depicting a scene from the past seems striking, was in one of the new ‘Roadhouse’ building typologies, this one in Crumlin in Dublin (opened 1948). The building has disappeared beneath a newer super-bar type development and I haven’t found any images of the mural unfortunately! It was apparently a representation of ‘The Chase’ (of the Gilla Dacar), an Irish legend of the Fianna (see Project Gutenberg eBook). This, in the context of a bar designed around the modern technology of motor travel, along a new ‘highway’, is sort of charming. The building itself looked like a lot of the U.K. specially designed roadhouse buildings – in the modern style. Roadhouses did however often excel in blending countryside vernacular with International Style modernism and art deco – it suited their locations on the intersections of new arteries on the periphery of cities, in the new suburbs, the liminal area between city and country. They offered a taste of urban glitter for country people and a breath of fresh air for city dwellers. Some descriptions of roadhouse interiors in 1930s British architectural journals are really evocative of the visual culture of their time. One example, the Comet, was described in Architects’ Journal in 1937. It featured lots of 1930s whimsy; the balustrade of the stairs featured motifs of stars and moons, the walls were painted ‘shell pink’, the restaurant featured mirror tiles with aeroplanes and their smoke trails etched in the peach-tinted glass. The carpet was zebra-patterned in brown and dull gold. The sitting rooms had floor to ceiling silver-gilt panels and a turquoise carpet. The entrance (to what the writer described as a ‘Road Hotel’) was in stippled plastic paint with ‘rounded angles everywhere’ – streamlining – with a floor and staircase in terrazzo of a light buff colour mixed with mother of pearl. The etching of glass has been described as typically characteristic of the art deco era, when industrial methods transformed traditional materials, and was found in decorative objects as well as sliding glass screens. See Lucy Fischer’s Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco and the Female Form in which she describes art deco as merging craft with technology, and artisanship with mass production ( 2003, p. 15 ).
Roadhouses were normally frequented at night and there are fantastic videos on British Pathe showing a couple of them in England (The Ace of Spades 1933 Swimming Pool The Ace of Spades 1933 interior The Showboat 1933 ). The roadhouse in Crumlin (a new Dublin suburb) also contained a circular stained glass window by Stanley Tomlin, which was another traditional if not spiritual touch, in a building which was designed for frivolity and modernity and which hinted at the formal characteristics of an ocean liner.
In parallel to the folkish trend, there was a desire for fantasy and escapist decorative design – which the surrealist elements found in much interior design of the period addressed. Beavis Hillier also noted the remarkable popularity, in this era, of seaside iconography – particularly oyster shells, mermaids and dolphins which featured as murals and graphic design, as well as objects associated with flight such as Victorian hot air balloons and classical icons such as the winged Pegasus which he believes were a result of the restoration of safety to the seas and air after the war. The ballroom in Butlin’s Mosney was decorated with dolphin murals and the house band played against a backdrop of backlit giant oyster shell!
Murals are quite an ephemeral aspect of architectural design and seeing them or reading about their existence in building types which themselves are long lost / forgotten about is sort of thrilling for me! Somehow the building types are no longer relevant, which means that we are lucky if their facades remain, and their interiors have long since disappeared. They can usually only be imagined from old newspaper and periodical reports which occasionally included photographs. American bars, holiday camps, buffets, roadhouses – and their quirky internationalist / folkish interiors!