Thursday 26 May 2022

Is Britain finally going to recognise and pay tribute to the work William Mitchell, the People's 'Prince of Cement Sculpture' ?

Apart from two obituaries, one in 'The Telegraph' and the other in the   'Kidderminster Shuttle', Bill's death at the age of 94, at the end of January 2020, passed without regard, despite the fact that he produced a multitude of cement-sculptured masterpieces in the 1960's and 70's. Now William is back in the news because his group of concrete murals on a flyover in Birmingham, known as a 'brutalist climbing wall', have been given listed status.

After an application by the Twentieth Century Society, the murals have been listed at Grade II by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England. The Government's Heritage minister, Nigel Huddleston, said : “These three iconic public artworks are seen and enjoyed by thousands of people every day, bringing the arts to everyone. It is fantastic that these works have been listed in recognition of the important contribution they make to their local area and to protect them for the future”.

Many of us have seen at least one of William's works in the schools, hospitals, civic buildings and gardens, social housing, shopping precincts, underpasses and cathedrals, throughout Britain, which bear his mark. He fell out of fashion in the 80's, to the extent that some of his work was subsequently lost to demolition, but he lived long enough, to witness a revival of interest in post-Second World War modernist architecture and did see much of his work receive the protection of Grade II listing. Public acclaim came when he was 90 in 2016, when Historic England defined him as  'A widely influential, prolific and innovative architectural sculptor’.

When Bill returned to Britain in 1956, after a year as a student in the English School in Rome, he didn't complete his last year of study at the Royal College of Art. He was already 30 years old and anxious to start a career and to that end he used the money from his student grant to lease for a shop in Forest Hill in South East London where he started his own business. Using the carpentry skills he'd picked some 17 years before, when working for furniture maker, 'Harris Lebus', at its High Wycombe workshop, he turned his hand to making bespoke wooden tables with stainless steel legs which he displayed for sale in his window.

In 1958 he answered an advert by the London County Council' Housing Division and was appointed as an artist who was to assist architects in decoration of its new buildings. It was now, working for himself for 2 days a week and the Council for 3, he turned his attention to the possibilities of cement render and began to create his hallmark carving in the wet cement. He relished the medium because : "Concrete is a flexible material. It's malleable. It doesn't come in slabs. It's in a bucket and you can put it in what you like and it will take the shape of that." 

Bill's first job for the LCC was in children's playground at Derby Hill, where his locomotive with painted sand and cement render was followed by work on the Horseferry Road tower block. Not long afterwards, in 1960, a British Pathé newsreel, entitled 'Cement murals', (link), featured Bill and and his assistants at work in his Forest Hill workshop and showcased the mural they created for the LCC Dickens Estate, Bermondsey.

Bill demonstrated his unique process of producing 19-inch square concrete slabs cast in moulds containing negative designs in wet clay, then enhanced with coloured resins. Although the newsreel joked when the narrator said : "Anything tough enough to endure the rigours of our climate, such as auntie’s rock cake mixture, perhaps, might be substituted", it did, perceptively note that the link forged between artist and architect "augured well for the rapidly changing face of England".

When it came to Bill's own links with architects, he described the relationships he had them at the time as : "rabid. We used to have the most colossal rows. We were all working to a regular format" which he questioned and regarded as "criminal". Despite this, it was a time of great invention with his vacuum moulding machine giving him the ability to cast on site and his 1962 
sandblasting equipment, using 2,000 mph jets, the ability to blast holes in walls, having got the idea from an engineer removing rust from the Forth Bridge. He used the blaster to reveal the aggregate and for delicate work, used crushed walnut shells to get a surface polished effect from the walnut oil. For the majority of his exposed aggregate panels he used chicken feed mixed with fine aggregate and also used the same technique to etch glass.

An exhibition of his work at County Hall in 1962 and the attendant press coverage extended his reputation and saw him approached by architects like, Basil Spence, Frederick Gibberd and Ove Arup. He was also sought out by property developers and recalled : "They recognised I was as as entrepreneurial as they were and I was taking as many risks as they were." He didn't make the mistake of talking down to them and presented them with design possibilities. "Harry Hyams, Bernard Gold - big developer boys who had made their money and wanted the prestige of doing some art work."

For Bernard Sunley and his Manchester Piccadilly Hotel, Bill used a display of 6,000 light bulbs to create an advertising image onto the building by activating photocells with a beam which lit up big aluminium panels with reflectors from the car manufacturer, Phillips. Bill demonstrated it in action to a delegation from Manchester Council and was invited to demonstrate his invention in an episode of BBC TV's 'Tomorrow's World.' (link)

In another episode he demonstrated his sandblasting technique and considered that he was an able tv presenter because he “could talk at the same time and didn't confuse people with art” and recalled : I got lots of letters from doctors saying I would die at a very young age as my lungs would be filled with dust and to stop what I was doing”. In another programme he balanced on a plank of wood above a building site in Croydon, where he is installing a textured concrete wall in an office block and recalled : “There were not many people in my line of work who would go out on the roof with the builders. That was unusual. If it was now I would have had to wear protective clothing I couldn't even get up the stairs in.” 

With his own company, 'William Mitchell & Associates', Bill now took up new premises on the South Circular Road in London and rented an old printers with working space of 6000 square feet and gradually expanded the staff to 40.

He also used the premises to house parties for children and adult parties with guests such as Princess Margaret and the gang leaders, the Kray Twins from East London and the Richardsons from South London. Their were so many party goers that the police complained about the traffic hold ups. Bill recalled that he was :"never burgled. I never lost a thing. Nobody dared come anywhere near that place, if they had done there would have been hell to pay from the Krays. They policed the whole area much better than anybody else ever did."

In 1962 Bill was approached by George Williams, Director of Industrial Design for British Rail, who asked him to design the train of the future, The result, his mock up, without wheels, was installed for the public to view at Marylebone Station in London. The later working train incorporated his instantly recognisable twin windowed front nose, round-cornered windows, little table lights, individual inlaid timber panels at the end of each carriage, adjustable seats "borrowed” from a Russian train, galley kitchen, overhead parcel racks “borrowed” from a VC10, a non touch lavatory flush system and all the door ironmongery. 

Bill worked with architect Frederick Gibberd between 1960 and 1963, to create the, now Grade II listed,  'Civic Water Gardens' at Harlow New Town. Bill's two canals had a retaining wall clad in a startling blue mosaic and set with seven concrete abstracted ‘lions head’ bas reliefs, which disgorged water from their mouths.

In 1964 Bill created the 'listed' ceramic and glass mural at Islington Green School. He said that he chose the compass of Magellan for the mural because he, like the pupils, "was on a voyage of discovery." 

In the same year he made his listed Corn King and Spring Queen sculptures at the  Cement and Concrete Association HQ in Wexham in which he used bonded cast concrete sections in red and grey, with incised and applied decorations with ceramic, mosaic, flints and pebbles inserted into the concrete.

He also designed the, now demolished, exterior panels of Basil Spence's swimming pool at Swiss Cottage.

In 1965 he made the 'listed, large mural at the reception to Lee Valley Water Works in Hatfield. With his abstract concrete murals now in demand he was commissioned by Hatfield Water Company to design one for the hall in which their customers paid their water bills. Bill carved the design negatively into dozens of wooden blocks, which were then stacked while a fresh concrete wall was poured against them and created what was described as 'the largest single cast in art history'. When the building was demolished in 2014, he had the pleasure of knowing that the wall, at least, was preserved.

In the same year he made a series of up to 20 concrete reliefs attached to the podium of Quayside Tower, Birmingham.

He also created his concrete mural on the Winstanley Estate in 1963 and his children's play area was seen as cutting-edge enough for it to be featured in the journals 'The Builder' and the 'Architectural Review' in 1965 with a description of how he created the sculpted concrete walls and columns.

He also made the mural in the entrance hall of Clarke Lawrence Court which was the first housing block to be built on the estate.

By this time, at the age of 40, in his own words, Bill "was becoming a bloody plutocrat" with two companies in the USA in LA and San Francisco, one in north of England at Alston Moor and two in London. He expressed his philosophy at this time as : "To my mind there are far too many people calling themselves artists and art critics who want to keep the enjoyment of art and creative work restricted to a small clique. I dislike connoisseurs. To my mind everyone should be connoisseurs and have a choice to enjoy these things. I want everyone to see my work."

Bill knew that his working-class background "provided the armoury of good humour" that could turn scepticism and ribbing of builders into "interest and practical helpfulness". He knew he needed a good relationship with contractors to ensure the quality of the concrete, but also because he had to create a studio for himself in their yard. He also felt that an artist on a building site needed to demonstrate that he could use the tools of the builders’ trades and work effectively with them. He regarded the site as "the most exciting place for an artist – and one where he can fight to regain the artist’s old integrated position in society."

The year 1966 saw him create the wall of the, now listed, sculptured silver-faced nickel panels in the Curzon Mayfair Cinema in London.

For the Three Tuns public house in Coventry City precinct in 1966, he created his, now listed, large decorative cast concrete wall with the comment : "Those Victorians knew a thing or two. Why not show the thickness of a wall?" Bill cast the structural concrete inside and out in one operation, including the window apertures in a method he evolved from the process of constructing the door apertures in the lift halls at Winstanley Estate.

The following year he made his Minute Men sculptures at Salford University, in Manchester which saw him set fire to his plastic moulds to get them off. He commented that they were "Big figures cast in concrete. The minute men landed on prepared landing ground." He also said : “I wanted to do something with the material which was not indicative of trying to be something else. As it was new, let it be new. It had as much to do with the practicality and being outside. I also had to take into account : Was it waterproof and was it vandal proof?”

Perhaps the first critique of the concrete trio was by Prince Philip, who in 1967, when he opened what was then the Technical College, exclaimed : “What the hell is that?”  Bill's three figures cast concrete were designed in an Aztec style and inset with mosaics. Each figure, sometimes referred to as 'Faith, Hope and Charity', stands 15 feet in height and weighs around 5 tons. Bill's reaction was : "I don't give a hoot if you don't like them, just as long as you look at them."

The year l967 also brought the 'listed' cold cast bronze sliding doors for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, with his designs, which had to be signed off by the Pope, inspired by the Old Testament and Book of Revelations and were, in his eyes, "almost barbaric." He also created the Cathedral's bell tower. 

In 1968 he created his Erith Riverside Swimming Pool Mural in glass and epoxy resin. He was proud of his design for Richard Seifert's and had investigated historic content and the background to Erith. When it was moved to the middle of the town he said : "It became an identity disc in Erith, keeping its identity in local government reorganisation. It was public art, but not something you were supposed to some deep hearted satisfaction in. It was part of you and where you lived. That to me is what public art should be about."

His Spirit of Brighton, in Churchill Square, Brighton was also created in 1968 and demolished in 1996 and his cast concrete climbing wall under Hockley Flyover, Birmingham, now listed, was also created in the same year.

1968 also saw his 'listed' Sculptural Wall, London Road, Manchester and listed Story of Wool sculptural mural at the Wool International Development Centre, Ilkley.

In 1971 he created his abstract concrete mural above the entrance to the Turnpike Gallery, Leigh and 1973 his 320 metre long decorative cast concrete retaining wall along a section of the Kidderminster Ring Road. 

In 1973 he executed his controversial carved stations of the cross for the doors at Clifton Cathedral in Bristol. When interviewed by the BBC and asked how he felt 'about the fact that his depiction of Christ being whipped was cruel ?'  he replied :
"So you get this chap, you tap him on the shoulder and you arrest him. You take his clothes off. You beat within an inch of his life. You then cram some crown of thorns on his head and then you get him to carry this large piece of wood and you nail him on it. I can't believe why anybody would think this was cruel." He was unable to attend the consecration ceremony because he was in the USA, but when the tv clip was shown on a screen "There was a stunned silence. This wild-haired bloke who said "I can't understand why they would say that was cruel." 

Bill based each of his stations on a charcoal sketch and had to execute each one within 2-3 hours. Anything longer and he would have lost the image in his mind : 

His 1977 spherical corten steel fountain commissioned by Ford was nick named The Pineapple, by local people. It was a fountain made from hand-cut, rusted steel which was installed outside a Basildon office block and was removed and stolen, possibly by metal thieves in 2011.

Although his prolific period was coming to an end he still produced his Structural Column at Leon House, Croydon, Tapton Hall entrance mural wall at Sheffield and the Frieze at first floor level of the Emanuel House flats, Rochester Row, Victoria, London.

Bill was proud that his housing work was considered as public art : "A lot of the work I put into these houses was cleaned by the people in the houses and if anybody was caught messing about they got their arse kicked out of it. So there was "this is ours". There was that feeling." He remembered "an occasion in Manchester where I was really up against it and I had to go to the Town Hall to talk to all these people with flat caps on and and it was as though I, as a plutocrat, had walked in into a meeting of Lenin and at the end of it we all understood each other. That was an attempt to put in front of people what actually was gonna be done and the reasons why and that should always occur in public art." He explained why he didn't sign his work by saying : "To me it was a form of boasting. I don't think it was in good taste to do it because a lot of people are involved in doing these things.  I would do them, but I didn't instal them."

Bill's stature in his profession was such that he gave lectures to structural engineers, spoke to the Pre-Stressed Concrete Society in the USA and gave talks in Seattle and to the Cement and Concrete Association in Britain. In the 1970s his travelling in the USA and lecturing on producing public works, led to varied commissions around the world, ranging from the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system in San Francisco to Doha Zoo in Qatar.

In 1971 he created mural at the HiSAM Sculpture Garden in Honolulu based on his vision of Polynesia and also created a two-storey waterfall sculpture for the U.S. Courthouse and Federal Office Building in Honolulu.

He also appeared on television's Sunday Night at the London Palladium where, live on stage, he gave a demonstration of his 2,000 mph sandblasting on a lump of polystyrene, in response to which the host, Eamonn Andrews, ran away and the show's American guest star, Hollywood actor, Edward G.Robinson, couldn't believe his eyes.

His last flowering as a sculptor came in 1991 when, at the age of 75, he became Artistic Design Adviser to Mohammed Fayed, with a seat on the Managerial Board at his Harrods Department Store in London. Bill saw the Egyptian Hall, which took shape in 1991–92, as an enormous challenge. He was inspired by the naturalistic, colourful art of the eighteenth dynasty in Ancient Egypt and its pharaoh, Echnaton. By connecting rooms on the ground floor and first floor, he created the Hall with almost 8m high pillars, reached via the attractive escalators. The intention was that visitors were to be overwhelmed by the facsimile reliefs presenting Egyptian life, sphinxes, fan-shaped lights on slender bronze pillars, elegant showcases and the light.

He later said : “This is the one project, which, without hesitation, or embarrassment, I feel I am able to call my masterpiece. My client, Mohammed Al Fayed was never in doubt and he was paying for it. Throughout the project he never queried, or questioned any part of it. He just looked at the sketch proposals and told me to get on with it."

"Looking back I think : 'My God, did I do that? Why didn’t I do something different?' I am critical of my work. It’s not my place to educate, if people are prepared to accept it then terrific."

* * * * * * * * * 
Bill was born in Paddington Infirmary in the Spring of 1925. His mother, had a hole in her heart and her health deteriorated after his younger sister was born to the extent that she was hospitalised and, as he said, "for many years. I never saw her". His father was a gas-fitter by trade, left-wing in politics and a strong trade unionist. His was a tough Dickensian childhood with a botched operation on his stomach when he was 6 weeks old, undertaken by a surgeon who was drunk assisted by a theatre sister, who reported him and was sacked. He then spent time in a succession of hospitals where parental visits were only allowed on saturdays and one hospital where he remembered the cruel regime where children were given 'THIS CHILD WETS THE BED' notices, was swept away by the doctor who performed conjuring tricks and acrobatic stunts for the children.

Reflecting on the fact that he had rheumatic fever as a child in the 1930s he thought he had been lucky to get away with his life. He stayed at St John's School for 'delicate children' a boarding school for a hundred boys run by Catholic Sisters, the 'Chigwell Sisters', adjacent to their Convent of the Sacred Heart near Woodford Bridge, Essex. Doctors gave their services free of charge. It was here that Sister Winifred had the greatest influence on him. She was : "A big rosy cheeked nun. Her face looked like an apple on top of this gown." He recalled that she read the children Dickens, a chapter at a time, 'Dombey and Son' and if they behaved, rewarded them with another chapter. He was taught to read, drew pictures on the blackboard and was played classical music played on a gramophone.

At the age of 11 he was moved to the Ashford Residential School for Boys funded by the London County Council, which Bill described as a "cross between a reformatory school and a school for underprivileged children. The borders were a little blurred." At night the school was staffed by ex-servicemen and by day by teachers who came in. The expectation was that all the boys would enter the Army or Navy. When it was suggested that Bill begin his training when he was 13 in 1938, he gave the first demonstration of being bolshie by refusing to go. He himself put this streak in his character to his uncles on his father's side who were London market place costermongers whose barrows he would 'decorate' with their fruit and veg.

When Bill was 14 his mother died. His father was unable to cope with children and Bill's sister was fostered with another family and he was lodged by the London County Council with a Mrs West in Maidenhead and an his apprenticeship arranged to an engineering factory, producing gauges for aircraft production.
 Bill took it upon himself to leave the company and join a London company making gardening furniture from which he was sacked because he wasn't registered by the Labour Exchange. It was now he worked for the furniture company Maples in Tottenham Court Road which he considered to be "very up market" and where he was "semi apprenticed" to mix paint in the refurbishment in old houses.

At the age of 15 in the second year of the Second World War and thinking he could see the world, he forged his father's signature and joined the Navy and started life as a radio operator first in Chatham Dockyard, then to Butlins Holiday Camp, surrounded by barbed wire at Skegness and finally onto the destroyer HMS Onslaught in Hull with his box of tools. His only experience on water before had been on the Woolwich Ferry and 70 years later he later recalled : "I was 16 and and a half. I don't even shave and I was 'the answer to the War'. I'd just arrived - cap all askew, what a mess ! Next two years on Russian convoy duty. Thrilled to be going to Russia - sleigh bells and music. It was very, very cold and very,very dangerous."

He enjoyed the navy esprit de corps because he'd never stayed long enough in one place to experience that, in fact, he saw the "Navy was almost like a finishing school." At the age of 19, in 1944, he was a petty officer and when assigned to further duty on the convoys which made the perilous voyage to Arkangel or Murmansk, he refused. He was sent to a navy doctor who asked him if he would like service in a warmer climate and arranged for him to sail to Australia. He laughingly saw a parallel between his own voyage and the exile of rebels like the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

On his return to Britain at the end of the War, a chance meeting with an interior designer who'd worked at the Slade and had an "elevated view of what decoration should be" sent him the direction of becoming a painter decorator for the NAFFI, The 'Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes', which ran recreational establishments for the Armed Forces and sold goods to servicemen and their families and saw him work in Freetown, South Africa and Gibraltar.

On his last job, in the Portsmouth Naffi, he decided to apply for a place to study at the Southern College of Art, but on being interviewed by the Principal, W. J. L. Gaydon and on telling him he wanted to study art, in reply to Gaydon's : "Well, lots of people want to go" Bill replied : "No. 'I' wanted to go." Then, on being told he didn't have the entry qualifications he agreed to 'buy a place', he joined the Pearl Assurance Company and got a job as an insurance contribution collector, visiting clients on a bike in Portsmouth. After 18 months he took his savings in attache case of money to the Gaydon and said : "Is this enough ?" and recalled : "He thought I'd done a bank."

He chose to study for a Higher National Diploma in Design and not sculptor or painting, which  seemed, in his view, to be a social activities and not necessarily a serious business. Having said that, while selling insurance he had taken canvas on boards with oil paints and an easel to paint yachts in harbour between Portsmouth and Chichester and gave pictures to his landlady of the day. While a student at Southern College he did evening teaching for apprentices to earn money to support himself because he was without a grant. He started a class, based on the apprentices designing their own heraldic shields which initially had 15 and finished with 32.

It was his work with the City and Guilds that taught him that "craftsmen had integrity. I could watch somebody pick up a tool and I'd know they'd been trained. They'd gone through it. All they know, their work, their skill - I can tell, immediately." He received a prize for painting and decorating from the City and Guilds, but short of money, got a part-time job designing lettering on Goodwood Racecourse and wanted to leave the College after 18 months to set up a business decorating old
properties having got the idea while delivering charitable parcels to needy poor in living in run down council property.

However, at the suggestion of his tutor, he applied to the Royal College of Art and the 'School of Woods, Metals and Plastics' and a new course devoted to industrial design, which he thought was they way out to world wide work and seemed to be the coming thing.

In his first year he was approached by Professor Russell who had produced furniture for the Shah of Persia and asked Bill, as a student from "the right background" if he'd like to undertake some work to which Bill asked "How much ?" and after they struck a deal, the grant paid for Bill's bicycle holiday to Northern France and to him painting the stained glass at Chartres Cathedral.

He made another piece of furniture when the Duke of Edinburgh, the College's 'Royal Visitor', asked the Principal, Robin Darwin, to transform a large piece of wood, donated to King George V in India in 1911, into an entrance table for the College.
 When he met the Duke, Bill recalled, he asked Bill : "How are you getting on then?" I said : "Oh. OK. What about you ? To which he'd replied : "What about you ?" "Everything's OK". Bill thought that when people asked : "Who was the Duke talking to ?" They concluded : "It must have been that snot-nosed student." When Robin Darwin asked him if he'd "met the Prince before ?" He replied : "Oh yes Prof. I used to have tea with him, you know." Bill became a familiar face to the Duke and he recalled : "I got the medal. I got the scholarship I got the diploma and the Duke said : "You know, I'm getting bored looking at you." To which he replied "Yes, I can understand that."

His time at the Royal College heightened his appreciation of the Middle Ages. He reflected that : "The Renaissance, in a way, should never had happened because when you look at that the work that was done prior to it, that was so much more straight forward and beautifully interpreted. You look at the illustrations of biblical subjects, beautifully done, totally buggered by the Renaissance where things began to get mannered and  people say "I can't draw as good as that."

The fact that Bill was older, had a working class background and had Wartime experience : "I'd been in the water. I'd seen people die", set him apart from his fellow students. He recalled : "The Professor said that it would be utterly impossible for me to work with anybody and nobody would want to work with me." He himself conceded that he was "far too bossy without having the experience to be bossy" and that he "was already patronising."

In the mid 1950s, instead of his third year at the Royal College he was awarded the 'Prix de Rome' for a year's study at the
British School at Rome. When he asked Professor Russell "What am I going to do there ?" He answered : "You know you are a barbarian don't you ?" to which Bill replied "Yes I accept that". Russell continued :"When you return from Rome I will order the meal and you will order the wine. Two weeks later you will order the meal and me the wine. If that proves satisfactory, you would have spent your time well."

In Rome he didnt work in the studio which he said was "like being in a bloody artistic grammar school. At the weekends they left the place. It was like a monastery". In search of recreation he invited students from the American School to a party and as a result he was summoned to the Principal's office to explain the piano in the fishpond and the dead fish.

When the Principal remonstrated that the fish had been donated by Graham Sutherland Bill had asked : "What the same fish ?" The Principal went on : "There's no point in you remaining in this establishment any longer. I shall write to Robin Darwin, who should have known better and ask for you removed." 

Bill countered by asking the Principal why the School apparently had engraving students when the press had been broken for years? and from where he'd got the aircraft he'd used to carry out an archaeological survey in Southern Etruria ? A few weeks later Bill received a letter of introduction to the Italian architect, Geo Ponti and spent a few months working on the domes he was making for the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. That summer he returned to Britain and his career began.

“ 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.”

Bill's range of work from his own website and his work in Manchester.