William Mitchell – An Unacknowledged Genius…
Back in April, I wrote about a trip to Liverpool and my discovery of the work of the brilliant sculptor William Mitchell.
Well, as I suggested at the end of that post, I haven’t been able to get his powerful work out of my head, and after some rooting around the internet and a couple of email responses to my earlier post, one to my utter amazement from the artist himself, and another advising that a piece of his work had recently been reinstalled into Kirkby Library in Liverpool, I’ve decided to write another, more detailed and dedicated post on one of our most underrated and unsung post war sculptors.
William George Mitchell was born in London’s Maida Vale in 1925. After a childhood plagued by illness and missed schooling, he was apprenticed to a local firm of decorators, where he began to learn about materials and craft. The advent of WWII resulted in a stint in the Royal Navy after which he ended up working for the NAAFI (effectively the catering and retail arm of the Armed Forces) where he was responsible for creating painted murals and panoramas on the walls of refurbished club and canteen buildings, at many sites across the globe.
Despite being a naturally gifted individual, it seems that Mitchell was looking for a more formal training to help him focus his ability, and after deciding he wanted to be involved in the restoration of classical buildings, he studied at several colleges before graduating from the Royal College of Arts School of wood, metals & plastics in London, sometime during the mid 1950’s
Mitchell finally began to make a name for himself after joining the London County Council Architects Department in the late 1950’s, designing decorative works for the many new Post War Council Estates that were at that time springing up throughout London.
For me, one of the strength’s of Mitchell’s work was his seemingly unquenchable desire to experiment, and a quick look through his own website, throws up a huge range of materials, styles, processes and techniques which, when combined with his sharp eye for pattern and narrative, resulted in some truly wondrous things. As much of his work was carried out during the 1960’s and 70’s, cement and concrete were common materials, but Mitchell approached their use in unusual ways, such as casting and carving it whilst still in a wet state. A wonderful example of this technique (using Faircrete) are the Stations of the Cross at Bristol Cathedral, one of which “Crucified” is shown being carved by Mitchell above.
Other innovative techniques and materials included the use of recycled timber and furniture to create mosaics, the use of recycled glass, melted down and recast and textured to form new strips; inlaid chipboard, etched glass and GRP (Glass reinforced plastic) and GRC (Glass reinforced concrete), and the use of resin and polyurethane, images of which are shown below.
At the brilliant British Pathe Archives (themselves well worthy of a future post) I’ve found a short, wonderfully evocative film of Mitchell at work creating a cement mural for a Bermondsey Housing block. I love his almost nonchalant approach, as if he’s literally making it up as he goes along… carving the clay, in filling the mould with cement & reinforcement and them covering it all with coloured resin… Marvellous. (It’s interesting to note that the voiceover describes him as an industrial designer, rather than an artist. I wonder if that was his choice or the film company’s…)
Stylistically, Mitchell’s work seems to me to have deep roots in an almost folk tradition, harking back to more pagan and unruly times; the bold, geometric shapes, the rich use of textures bringing to mind rocks and the earth and an overwhelmingly strong belief in craftsmanship, all seem to suggest a man who was probably happy just to be commissioned to make his art and get it out into the public domain, rather than any selfish or considered act of trying to make a name for himself in the more accepted art circles. Truly a man with a sharply focused social conscious, and as he himself states on his website “Some of the projects I did were good, some were reasonable and most were controversial – none, however, broke the bank. These were the products of an exciting time, and one that I don’t think we shall see again. It was great to be part of it”.
Despite seemingly little “academic” recognition, Mitchell’s public sculpture during the 60’s and 70’s was radical, experimental, considered, generally beautifully made and hugely popular with the people who saw it every day, and although I suspect few people knew his name, many people will have enjoyed his highly theatrical and accomplished work.
Tastes change however and I fear that during the 80’s/90’s & 00’s, people will have seen his work as out of step with the times: too random or haphazard maybe, too dense, all in all too “concretey” and as such, I suspect that there are many of Mitchells works that have been quietly destroyed along with the buildings or urban spaces they inhabited. Thankfully this is starting to change now and a wider appreciation of concrete sculpture and murals is steadily growing. The Twentieth Century Society’s Mural Campaign is a case in point, as the opening lines of the above site state categorically that.. “Post War murals are an endangered species. Although paintings and sculpture from this same period are seen as fit subjects for gallery display and academic study, murals – often by the very same artists are still frequently ignored and often destroyed”.
Indeed it is very hard to ascertain with any degree of certainty using the web, how many of Mitchells’ works still exist, and even though there is frustratingly little regarding Mitchell on the web (other than his own site, where I acknowledge that much of the info and images in this post have come from), it’s obvious that he was a staggeringly prolific artist. His work for the LCC alone must have involved possibly 100’s of commissions, including decorative wall panels, community centre murals, free standing play features, subway decorations and large scale concrete decorative cladding panels to name just a few. He also completed some major installations in Harlow, Wrexham, Manchester and Liverpool as well as what looks like some significant overseas commissions.
Some of his work has recently been recognised and consequently listed; The Three Tuns Mural in my home City of Coventry and the Islington Green School murals are just 2 examples. Hopefully more will follow, as the art world finally wakes up to a criminally overlooked and disregarded aspect of our social and artistic heritage. If you’re interested, there is a good article here that refers to William Mitchell’s murals, and why they are so worth saving. In the interim, here is a small selection of his amazing work.