Friday, 2 September 2011

Hertfordshire County Council's mural programme: John Greene at Burleigh School, Cheshunt

Catherine Davis

On 11th December 1946, John A. Greene replied to an enquiry about his work. His letter is first item in the archive on art commissioned for Hertfordshire schools. Greene is also found in a film archive, rare footage of a painter at work on the mural thus commissioned. 'Education for Living' was produced in 1949 as one of J. Arthur Rank’s 'This Modern Age' series.

Greene’s letter was the start of quite a tricky artist/commissioner relationship. A graduate of the RCA and a lecturer at the Architectural Association School, he had undertaken commercial work, including posters for the LMR. He was also a member of the Society of Mural Painters, and it was the inexperience of the local authority that’s reflected in correspondence as it began commissioning artists.

Greene was asked to create a mural for Burleigh School, Cheshunt. This commission pre-dates a later decision by HCC', in early 1949, to focus on employing young artists. And judging by the ups and downs and sometimes fraught correspondence between 1946 and the mural’s completion in March 1949, it was just as well that a younger artist wasn’t involved. Enthusiastic and anxious to get a project under way, the ethos and details of the scheme were evidently not thought through before the later date. Add to this, the difficulty of obtaining materials under post-war restrictions, and the shockingly slow payments for his work, it is remarkable the murals were completed at all.

Correspondence reveals a lot of discussion about the images to be included. At one point Greene wanted to include schoolteachers old and new, but this failed to gain approval by the County Architect who replied on 16th October 1948:

“I have shown your design to a number of people, including the headmistress, and each one has expressed the view that is dangerous to caricature the teaching profession in a school building. Santa Claus or some other legendary figure would be above reproach!”

The final suggestion from Greene on 20th January 1949 was:

“The two figures are now circus characters.... The 'yellow' design contains three groups for boys and two for girls – and the 'blue' design three for girls and two for boys..... The children there seem to take a great interest in them and the subjects in the second design were from their suggestions'

These are the images seen in 'Education for Living' where Greene is working, watched by a small group of interested children. The filming took place on 25th February 1949. HCC wrote to Greene only two days earlier (a remarkable features of these archive letters, to the modern eye, is the speed of the post):

“J.Arthur Rank's 'This Modern Life' film company are taking some shots of Cheshunt on Friday, the 25th February, at 10.30a.m. They are very anxious to show a mural painter in action in the school, and I should be grateful if you could kindly arrange to be at work on Friday morning.

You will appreciate that Hertfordshire County Council has taken the lead in appointing professional mural painters to decorate their schools, and a film illustrating this will have important repercussions over the rest of the country.”

The only further comment from Greene on file informs the County Architect on 16th March that the work had been completed.

I have contacted the school to see if the pieces still exist, although I fear that in keeping with the tricky time John Greene had, they may have been lost and I certainly never saw them mentioned in a more recent list of artworks in schools. So it is perhaps fitting that his contribution to the mural programme was captured on film where it can still be appreciated, however briefly.

John A. Greene: Artist in oil and watercolour, lecturer. Studied art at the RCA. Lecturer at the Architectural Association School from 1946. Produced work for I.C.I. and the British Transport Commission. Lived at Bordon, Hants. Produced posters for BR and the Post Office. Produced artwork for LMR (D) series.

The stills from 'Education for Living' are by kind permission of "ITV Studios Global Entertainment".