I dream of a painted room. At home, in Dorset in south-west England, I have a plain, square dining room with a broad bay window facing south across the valley. The house is raised up across a falling landscape and light filters in through drawn blinds in days of brilliant sunshine. The furniture, like the room, is plain: William IV chairs, a battered Regency sideboard and a 19th-century dining table.
This is the room in which I dream of painting a mural. It will be in smoky shades of pale grey; bucolic scenes of the River Bride valley, of the big house and its lake, and small cottages, of the church spire against the rolling sheep-grazed hills that rise above the house. I have every wall pictured in my mind. The trees should have the quiet perfection of 18th-century landscape painting as it appears, for instance, in the background of a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. The sky will be untroubled by dramatic clouds; the light and air will be soft. The whole composition must relate, carefully, to the architecture of the room, giving the fireplace, door and window an inevitability that belongs to the design as a whole.
All I need to do is start painting but I have two fears that prevent this. The first is starting and never finding time to finish. The second is finishing, and not liking the result. In response, I dabble with the thought of scenographic wallpaper but this lacks the romance of a painted room – too mechanical, too impersonal. And so, in fear, nothing happens.
‘... Are you painting today, Charles?’
It had been the custom that on every visit to Brideshead I painted a medallion on the walls of the garden-room. The custom suited me well, for it gave me a good reason to detach myself from the rest of the party ... There were three finished medallions now, each rather pretty in its way, but unhappily each in a different way, for my tastes had changed and I had become more dexterous in the 18 months since the series was begun. As a decorative scheme, they were a failure.
So narrates Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. Evelyn Waugh’s elegiac sentences remind us of the temporal nature of the mural; of the dangers implicit in this task. Ryder’s mural painting provides a tiny but necessary backdrop to the wider tale of love and hatred, of Catholic guilt and reconciliation at the heart of the novel. In so doing, it also speaks of the great importance that mural painting played in mid-20th century Britain, in the generation of Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Rex Whistler, John Piper and Paul Nash.
Whistler, like Ryder, was in love with the daughter of a marquess (of Anglesey, not Marchmain), for whom he painted. At Plas Newydd, in northern Wales (home of the marquess of Anglesey, now owned by the National Trust), Whistler created the extraordinary painted dining room that remains his masterwork and operates at once as a tour de force of decoration and as a distinguished work of art in its own right. While completing the painting in 1936-1937, Whistler became close to Lady Caroline Paget, eldest daughter of the sixth marquess, and its Arcadian landscape contains coded references to his love for her.
In 1939, Whistler completed the mesmeric illusionistic gothic drawing-room at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire, also now owned by the National Trust. Walls are painted in imitation plaster; urns in half-round niches emit what appears like real smoke. The room is Whistler’s largest work. Does its power lie, perhaps, in us knowing that it is his last? When war broke out, he joined the army and died, aged 39, in the Normandy campaign. Of the 20th-century English painter-muralists, Whistler surpasses all others – understanding at once the capriciousness of the task, the role of allegory combined with quiet wit, and, above all, the sheer technical brilliance required to create illusions of another world.
The mural in mid-century England had a seriousness of intent that has never been surpassed. Schools, colleges, village halls, churches, restaurants and cafés commissioned murals from young artists who engaged in their task with purpose – a purpose that linked them at once to Giotto and the early Italian Renaissance to a quiet, chalky quality of fresco that we were then learning to re-love. The swagger and bravura of the baroque is not to be found in these rooms. The painter Stanley Spencer created the Sandham Memorial Chapel in the village of Burghclere, Hampshire – he had wanted to paint murals direct on to the wall but environmental conditions meant he had to produce oil paintings. Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious (the latter, like Whistler, a tragic war loss) were commissioned early in their careers to paint the refectory of Morley College, London, officially opened in 1930 but destroyed a decade later during the second world war. Later, at the Festival of Britain, John Piper’s massive and superb mural painting, “The Englishman’s Home”, decorated the southern façade of the homes and gardens pavilion. After languishing in Harlow in Essex, east of the capital, for decades, the mural is now returning for display at Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Festival – although a permanent new home is yet to be found.
Murals have an ancient history. We have been painting the walls around us across cultures and through time. But at the beginning of the 21st century, is it possible to escape the burden of quotation, of placing our wall decoration in metaphoric or literal quotation marks? When the architect Robert Adam quoted Etruscan painting and the recent discoveries of Pompeii, the reference had zest and power. A badly painted Etruscan dining room in 1980s Fulham, south-west London, lacks the same immediacy. Too often, mural painting today has become an excuse for badly done art: painting for those who do not know by those who cannot paint. If there is an exception, it is rooms painted by their occupants, which have a narrative, and a personal meaning; I think of the architect Quinlan Terry’s drawing-room at Higham Hall in Suffolk, with its columns and lettered frieze testament to a personal belief.
There is a quality to the best murals that demands skills of those who normally limit their attention to canvas in a frame. Can anything painted since the second world war exceed Lucian Freud’s sensuous cyclamen, painted on the walls of a bathroom at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – next to a bedroom itself painted by Sir James Thornhill? (A second Freud cyclamen was recently discovered at Coombe Priory in Dorset, the house he bought with his second wife, Caroline Blackwood).
For the mural to escape, on some level, the role of mere decoration is the hardest task. If it cannot, one is tempted to say the mural should either be old or left undone.