The artistic gem that lay undiscovered for decades

3rd August 2012 at 01:00
Historic mural found hidden behind curtain at primary school

The art that adorns the walls of most primary schools is by poster paint-wielding pupils attempting to capture the essence of their summer holidays or the Great Fire of London. But not so at Greenside Primary in west London.

Hidden behind an old curtain in the foyer of the Grade II* listed school, an important 20th-century artwork that was neglected for at least two decades has been rediscovered by a parent.

The mural, by renowned architectural illustrator Gordon Cullen, was commissioned by the school's original architect, world-famous modernist Erno Goldfinger, in 1952. The work, which consists of seven separate images, is now the subject of a restoration campaign. A full condition report has just been completed, with experts saying it will cost #163;10,000 to return the mural to its former glory.

The piece is one of a number noted by the Decorated School, a two-year scheme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council that investigates the history of artworks found in schools.

The Cullen mural was first spotted last year by designer Kate Fishenden, whose daughter is a Year 4 pupil at Greenside.

"Normally the wall was covered with a large red velvet curtain, so I was surprised to discover it hid what seemed an impressive artwork, clearly 1950s in style," she said. "Our mural had clearly suffered over the years. In the short period between my seeing it and mobilising others to campaign for its proper protection, it suffered further damage when children's artwork was fixed to the curtain, some of the staples going through to the wall and the pictures behind."

Greenside aims to complete the restoration of the mural by summer 2013 and has already secured a #163;1,000 donation from the Norman Foster Foundation, founded by world-renowned architect Lord Foster.

Cullen was no stranger to such mural work, having completed a similar commission for the Tecton group, co-founded by famous modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin. Cullen's greatest legacy remains as an illustrator: his work continues to influence architectural illustration today.

The survival of such artworks is often down to a combination of supporters inside and outside the school, according to Catherine Burke, an education historian at the University of Cambridge and coordinator of the Decorated School project.

"Many such pictures and other artworks have been similarly neglected and even destroyed across the UK, often when new heads arrive and seek to put their stamp on a school," Dr Burke said. "The recent Building Schools for the Future programme has also led to the loss of some significant buildings and artworks."

The Decorated School project has also recorded the rescue of three frescoes by artist Fred Millett at St Crispin's School in Wokingham, Berkshire, and the loss of a Barbara Jones work when Yewlands School in Sheffield was demolished.

Julian Morant, head of Greenside, admits that the full significance of the Cullen mural had not been appreciated for some time. "It was not in a good condition and I suppose the original decision to cover it up was taken because it did not really enhance the main entrance," he said.

But science coordinator Robin Yeats said the pictures were now being used to engage pupils in a range of subjects. "They have been a great stimulus, but their existence came as a surprise. I have been here for two years and had no idea they were behind that curtain."

Big hitter

A painting that hung in Thames Primary School, Blackpool, for 86 years has been sold at auction for #163;289,250.

Captain of the Eleven by Philip Hermogenes Calderon smashed its estimate of #163;100,000 to #163;150,000 when it went under the hammer at Bonhams auction house last month.

The painting, which was used in a pioneering advertising campaign for Pears soap, was sold to raise funds to modernise classrooms.

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