Today’s post requires another story about the archive life. Sometime in the late 1990s I found myself, with a couple of companions piloting a large trolley (with pneumatic tires, bought for transporting paintings) down the King’s Road, carrying some large metal sheets from a basement in Manresa Road, the home of the first Chelsea Library to the second Chelsea Library in Chelsea Old Town Hall, where they would be stored in the Print Room. Why? Well , here goes. And this is just the short version.
In 1947 a group of students from the Royal College of Art designed and painted a set of murals for the Children’s Library in Chelsea Library as part of their course. The murals were installed with some fanfare and written about in the Studio magazine in 1950. A few generations of children and librarians lived with them. In 1978 the Library moved to larger premises at Chelsea Old Town Hall on the King’s Road but apparently no-one thought to bring the murals along. The Manresa Road building was taken over by Chelsea College / King’s College. The ground and first floors carried on as a library, and the basement became a student refectory. Possibly straight away, possibly a little later, the murals were deemed surplus to requirements and were painted over with emulsion, in the usual dull colour. Time passed by. But not much time. In 1981 when some electrical work was under way the murals were noticed and some interested parties took them down and removed some of the paint. There was a little bit of interest in the local press (some of it inaccurate) and one of the original artists was brought in to see his old work. The murals were stored in a back room. More time passed, until I got a call at a point when it looked like the building was about to be rented out. Would I like to retrieve the murals? Like a proper archivist I said yes definitely and organised an expedition to remove them and transport them by trolley to the Library. At that point more time passed, and the murals remained preserved in temperature controlled conditions until they were moved to this building. Finally I was recently asked if someone could view them and three of us took them out and pieced them together like a jigsaw.
Naturally, one of the first things I thought was: there’s a blog post in this.
The three artists were Malcolm Hughes, who went on the become head of the Slade School of Art, Neville Dear and George Ball. That’s George Ball in the picture above doing some touching up while balancing on a shelf, a picture almost certainly posed for the benefit of the photographer. (The pictures were painted at the College and brought in when completed).
Below, Neville Dear. Possibly. The picture is by Dear but that guy looks a little like George Ball again to me. I wonder if the photographer is using a bit of artistic licence.
It’s definite though that the man below is Malcolm Hughes.
And here is Hughes with one of the others pausing from their labour and looking artistic.
In this picture they look a bit visionary. Matter of life and death?
Some credit should be given to the photographer, John Vickers for setting up some excellent pictures of children.
Some of them are awed.
(Although the girl in the beret got distracted by a book, which as a librarian I can only approve of)
Let’s have another try.
No, she’s still thinking of what she’ll take home.
All right then, pretend it’s a library. Get a girl to stand under the arch and pretend to read a book.
The girl in the beret had her book stamped and has gone home to read it. When she grows up she writes about fairies and vampires and in the later stages of her career writes a series of crime novels which are ultimately turned into a television series by Netflix starring Natalie Dormer. Or not.
There is an actual mystery.
The murals in the entrance hall, depicting a lively mob of children tumbling down some stairs.
And another group in the corridor leading to the library.
The whole set of murals has not survived but we have 18 panels, most of the ones in the two rooms of the Children’s Library. The Malcolm Hughes panels from the entrance hall are now gone. I’ve heard it suggested that they were destroyed during building work but we do know that Hughes was consulted about the panels in 1981 and may have visited the site so I have no idea why they were not in the basement when we collected the panels we have now. Perhaps someone took them away but we don’t know who.
What you want to know now I expect is how do they look now?
Well considering they’ve been covered in emulsion and had it scraped off and some damage was sustained installing and removing them they’re mostly not in bad condition.
Here you see a couple of panels from Neville Dear’s series about the seasons of the year set on an imaginary farm, and below the two that went next to them.
There were also some isolated panels we couldn’t quite join together.
Some of the figures are a bit odd.
The next ones are from George Ball’s series about childhood activities and these also join up
Many of the panels still have sections of emulsion on them.
This side panel which obviously went over a doorway still has plenty of paint on it.
I rather liked the slightly weird soft toy.
This one also had paint on, but I was intrigued by the continuing image so I did some careful but amateur restoration work on it and revealed the faces of the girl with the drum and the boy next to her. You can see them in one of the photographs above.
I should add that the unfortunate mark on her chin was already there and not due to any carelessness on my part.
Why a rural setting in a city library? Well all I can say is that it was intended by the artists “to offset the town background of the actual library” according to the Studio magazine. When I casually referred to the Powell and Pressberger film “A matter of life and death” earlier perhaps I was picking up on the atmosphere of their films which combined nostalgia for a rural past with the notion of a clean optimistic future of garden cities. It seems to fit with the pictures.
At the end I suppose you have to ask about artistic merit and it must be admitted that the surviving panels are not the greatest things ever put on a wall. But they have a certain atmosphere about them, a feeling of the post war period, and a naive charm. From the photographs it looks like the Hughes panels were the most accomplished so it’s a shame that those are the ones we don’t have. But that’s the unlikely story of the Children’s Library murals. I sometimes call myself a professional hoarder because I have the instinct to collect things for the collection that other people might have thrown away. Sometimes this pays off.
The Royal College of Arts is said to have a full set of slides of the murals, presumably taken in the days when they were new and hadn’t been through years of alternating careless and considerate treatment. I hope so anyway. As I said above we got them out because someone expressed an interest in seeing them and although I can’t leave them laid out in our archive rooms for a long period if anyone’s interested in the next couple of weeks, email me.