Ilkley Art Trail has launched a campaign to find an urgent home for an important large mural cycle by the internationally renowned sculptor, William Mitchell. The mural which is made from GRP, glass-reinforced plastic, also known as fibreglass, consists of thirteen interlinking panels, each created from a separate mould. The work, which is 3.15 metres high and 16.5 metres long, was commissioned from the sculptor by the Bradford and Bingley Building Society in the early 1970s.
Established in the mid-nineteenth century, Bradford Equitable Building Society and the Bingley Building Society were both highly important pillars of the local Yorkshire community. They merged in 1964 and a new Head Office was built on Main Street in Bingley. The mural was commissioned for the reception area of this prestigious building. When the Head Office was refurbished in 1998 the murals were transferred to the Bingley Arts Centre, but when the premises were taken over by a theatre company two years ago the panels were re-housed in a warehouse belonging to UKAR (UK Asset Resolution Ltd.) the holding company of the Bradford and Bingley (figs 1 & 2).
The conception of the mural was left to Mitchell, who did his own research and designed the sculpture to convey the ‘history of the area, giving the sense of place and highlighting particular features of the surroundings’. Mitchell’s concept for this work, and all other sculptured panels and murals, was first presented to the client via drawings and examples of the material to be used. He explains: ‘The emphasis on identity was intended to perpetuate the identity of the client within the area they operated from.’
For this commission, he recalls: ‘The overall concept was created around the Five Rise Locks in Bingley, which had been built in 1774, and were generally considered a masterpiece in canal construction.’ Three other major landmarks in Bingley were included in the cycle; the Little Theatre, All Saints Parish Church and the Market Cross. Four Bradford landmarks also featured; the Alhambra Theatre, the Cathedral, the City Hall and the Wool Exchange. Pubs, churches and bridges from the surrounding area were also included and all the buildings were set against a rock-like background, which Mitchell explains ‘symbolises the rugged character of the locality.’
The sculptor believes that recording historical references and representations of local landmarks in his work is important for celebrating the identity of the area and its people. In many other works he has given a similar emphasis to history and identity, because he feels, ‘we are in great danger of losing our past’. A cast concrete mural for St. George’s Way underpass in Stevenage, which Mitchell created in 1973, for example, depicts ‘Scenes from Everyday Life’ and records images of the local football team and popular fashion such as 1960s hairstyles (fig.3). While his mural for Erith in South East London, now located in Colebrook Street, dates from the late 1960s and highlights the importance of the town’s location beside the river Thames, recalling events in its medieval history and illustrating Tudor tall ships which were made in its royal dockyard founded by Henry VIII (fig.4). This mural is a fascinating coloured cloisonné-like work made from GRP, the same material Mitchell used for the Bradford and Bingley mural. The idea of colouring the GRP Mitchell reveals was inspired by a friend of his who produced racing car bodies moulded from GRP to which colour was added.
Like many post Second World War artists, Mitchell experimented with the different materials which were becoming available. GRP, or fibreglass, was gaining popularity for sculptural work because of its weightless properties and the fact that the work could be totally completed in the sculptor’s studio and transferred, ‘rather like a flat-pack’ to its final location. Mitchell says that GRP was also ideal because at the time building programmes ran to tight budgets and GRP did not incur the extra expense that was often involved with finishing off and placing other materials.
For the Bradford and Bingley mural Mitchell devised a special method of working with GRP. The idea was to have a mould which combined an open cell polystyrene and a closed polyurethane cell. The first part of the mould was carved from polystyrene, but when plastic was added it attacked the polystyrene breaking down the mould and so he decided to put a coat of melted wax between the polyurethane and the plastic which protected the mould. He used a low voltage electric hot rod to cut through the polystyrene like a knife to create detail. The next step was to add the molten wax, which was where he created the finer detail. He added atomised (powdered) bronze to the very first coat and this sank down into the wax surface. He followed this with a second coat to ensure all the areas were covered. This addition of atomised bronze gave the surface of the mural a metallic bronze finish, while the wax created a high gloss finish and the addition of sand to the wax in some areas created texture. The polyurethane cell has a different make-up and so the cell was not destroyed by the plastic, wax was again used, and this provided the best detail. Sheets of glass fibre were then added to the back of the moulds. These were fabric-like, each was applied wet and bonded with resin. A total of twelve coats were applied and Mitchell used to leave them overnight to cure. In the morning the surface of the mould would be heated and every piece of the mould removed. Regrettably Mitchell admits the moulds were generally lost in this process.
The Bradford and Bingley mural is therefore unique and of importance both for its record of the locality and its history, and Mitchell’s innovative use of polymers and GRP.
Helen Etchell a volunteer working with the Ilkley Art Trail, who rediscovered the mural in the UKAR warehouse, and was the first to flag up its importance and vulnerability, has made the following statement: ‘This artwork is of great significance to the Bradford area. William Mitchell is one of the most respected sculptors of post -war Britain, and given that so much mural work of this era has already been lost or destroyed it is vital that we save this work for the enjoyment of future generations’.
Lorna Bird, Director of Ilkley Art Trail, who is anxious to find a permanent location for the panels before the end of this year when they can no longer remain at the UKAR warehouse says, ‘They will be given on loan to a suitable home or organisation with public access. William Mitchell … has nine works of art listed by English Heritage, and we would like to see this work stay in Yorkshire.’
Main Image: William Mitchell, Bradford and Bingley mural, the Head Office, Main Street, Bingley in the 1970s (photo: William Mitchell).
For further information about the murals contact Lorna Bird: [email protected]
13.1.2016 UPDATE: 3rd Dimension is pleased to report that the fate of this mural cycle has been resolved – it is to be resited in Little Germany in Bradford, an area that is currently undergoing regeneration