Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Lyons Teashops and postwar British Art...

Lyons: David Gentleman, Cornish Pilchard Boat, c 1953-55
David Gentleman - Cornish Pilchard Boat

The Lyons teashops lithographs: do you take fine art with your tea?

A fascinating show at Eastbourne's Towner gallery tells the story of how tea company J Lyons commissioned the top British artists of the 1940s to record life in postwar Britain – and brighten up the famous teashops left dilapidated by the hardships of the second world war. The result was a poignant and beautiful record of a nation redefining itself.

The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity runs from 13 July to 22 October at the Towner gallery, Eastbourne, West Sussex


 Lyons: John Piper, Elizabethan Dance
 John Piper - Elizabethan Dance

The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity 1946 – 1955

13 July – 22 September 2013

Post-war British artists including Edward Bawden, John Piper, David Gentleman, John Minton, William Scott, Duncan Grant, John Nash and L .S. Lowry form part of The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity. The exhibition celebrates Towner’s collection of the complete set of 40 lithographs commissioned by catering giant J. Lyons & Co. to combat the wartime decline in the interiors of their famous Lyons Teashops, compounded by a post-war lack of decorating materials. Through the company’s enterprising approach to arts patronage and interior decoration, the cream of modern British art was for the first time accessible to a wider public in 200 Lyons Teashops nationwide.

William Scott - The Bird Cage

Towner’s exhibition presents all three series of lithographs – commissioned between 1946-1955 – together with a selection of the original paintings and working drawings. Whilst some of the artists were able to produce their own lithographs, others created watercolour, oil, gouache, pen and ink, or collaged works that were then turned into the final lithograph. The works were produced on a large enough scale to conceal the faded teashop decors. War artists, Royal College of Art alumni, and well-known and emerging practitioners were chosen to produce tasteful works of art that would appeal to the typical Lyons Teashop customer.
Lyons: Edward Bawden, The Dolls at Home, 1947
Edward Bawden - The Dolls at Home

Presenting a very particular British idyll, the lithographs depict urban, industrial, rural and coastal landscapes, domestic interiors, street scenes and still-lifes. Pictures of leisure pursuits such as billiards, cricket, fishing, punting, boxing and piano-playing vie with scenes of a railway station, a hotel lobby and fishmonger’s shop; and apple pickers in a Kent orchard contrast with yeoman warders at the Tower of London and afternoon tea in Henley. Anthony Gross’s Herne Bay pier was declared a best-seller and used on the film set of Carry on Cruising, and John Piper’s stage sets and costumes for Benjamin Britten’s new opera Gloriana became the inspiration for his Teashop lithograph. An oil painting of Barnett Freedman’s Music – Still Life, produced from his lithograph, was later gifted to the Tate gallery.
Lyons: John Nash, Landscape with Bathers, c 1946-7
John Nash - Landscape with Bathers

Together with the artistic innovations developed by London Underground, Shell-Mex, the General Post Office and others, the Lyons Teashop Lithographs established a distinctive post-war vernacular and a high profile demonstration of how Britain could thrive during the austerity years. The Lyons Teashops Lithographs are a key legacy of these pioneering times, the last Teashop having closed its doors in 1981.


Lyons: Barnett Freedman, People, 1947
Barnett Freedman - People

Bawden and battenberg: the Lyons teashop lithographs
After the second world war, John Piper, Edward Bawden and other artists were commissioned to spruce up Lyons teashops. Michael Prodger reflects on a halcyon time of 'art for all' – and a project that could never happen today

Michael Prodger
The Guardian
Friday 12 July 2013

The first half of the 20th century was a halcyon time for British public art. The common cultural mantra "Art for all" inspired more than just lip service; it lay behind initiatives aimed at democratising art and spreading a taste for it beyond its customary audiences. Unusually for an ideal of social improvement, the driving force was not government but business.

Frank Pick, the guiding light at London Underground, was the first corporate patron properly to understand that presenting the consumer with high-end art could be mutually beneficial. When he commissioned artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland to produce designs for tube posters, passengers started to imbibe modern art as they travelled. At the same time, the tone of the company's image was raised. Shell-Mex followed Pick's lead with its advertising: out went the commercial artists, in came the fine artists. The "You can be sure of Shell" slogan was seen on the work of a host of artists including Ben Nicholson and Edward McKnight Kauffer. The School Prints scheme, meanwhile, hoped that putting prints by Lowry, Henry Moore and other painters into the nation's classrooms might foster a taste for art alongside the three Rs.

One of the most interesting of these initiatives was, however, born for more prosaic reasons. Lyons teashops were a staple of the British high street; the first one opened on Piccadilly in 1894, and the chain eventually came to number about 200 cafes. Lyons also owned restaurants and hotels and produced own-brand goods such as tea and their celebrated battenberg cake, but it was the teashops – selling good food at reasonable prices – that remained its mainstay
Edward Ardizzone - Shopping in Mysore

By the end of the second world war, the teashops were looking rather tired. A shortage of decorating materials meant many were in need of sprucing up. Paint remained in short supply in the years immediately following the end of the war, so the Lyons directors came up with an imaginative way of covering up patches of peeling wall and distracting the eye: they commissioned a series of lithographs. The scheme was designed to be temporary, nothing more than "a novel and intriguing method of decoration … with no other purpose in mind than that of giving the teashops themselves an interesting and homely appearance". The prints were a sizeable 30 by 40 inches, to cover as much worn decor as possible. These lithographs and the postwar world they convey are the subject of a new exhibition at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne.

Between 1946 and 1955 the company commissioned three series of prints, some 40 in all, from most of the leading British artists of the day. The lithographs were not advertising per se (the Lyons name only appeared in small type at the bottom of each), but they were branding by association. The man chosen to direct the scheme was Jack Beddington, who had previously worked on the Shell-Mex posters and, during the war, at the Ministry of Information. He became project manager, selecting the artists and directing the choice of subject matter. Previously Lyons's publicity had been marked, he said, "not so much by the common touch … as by the commonplace". Beddinton was determined to change that.
Lyons: Michael Ayrton, The Spectators, c 1949-51
Michael Ayrton - The Spectators

To help, he brought in the artist Barnett Freedman as the technical director. He had long experience as a lithographer and had been both an official war artist and a teacher at the Royal College of Art. The last member of the triumvirate was Frank Oppenheimer, MD of the commercial printing firm Chromoworks in Willesden. The company printed the Heinz baked beans labels, among other things, but Oppenheimer took on the Lyons lithographs and kept the unions sweet when they bridled at artists producing their own prints.

For the first set of lithographs, he drew up a list of 29 names, most of whom had been war artists. It included Lowry, Moore, Cedric Morris, Sutherland, Edward Bawden, Edward Ardizzone and Nash (who died before he could take part). The subsequent series, of 1951 and 1955, included Michael Ayrton, John Piper, John Minton and David Gentleman. The artists were not told to modify their styles or tone down their work but they were, by and large, unthreatening to a tea-and-cake audience.

By the time all the prints had been completed, they offered an overview of postwar Britain as seen by almost all of the period's most renowned artists. It was a view that mixed the bucolic, the nostalgic, the subfusc urban world, and an occasional hint of exoticism. The prints effectively offered 40 different glimpses of one subject – the British way of life in an age of austerity.
Lyons: George Hooper, Hotel Entrance, c 1946-7
George Hooper - Hotel Entrance

The lithographs also convey a palpable sense of a clubbable generation. When Gentleman was invited to contribute a print to series three, he was not long out of art school. "I couldn't imagine a greater delight when I was asked. I knew the prints quite well and John Nash, Bawden, Minton … all those people taught me in different degrees at the RCA." He was on familiar terms with most of the artists involved with the series. It was, he felt, "a real honour to be asked. It was the first big thing I had been asked to do and it put me in company I admired very much."

Gentleman was one of the artists who produced an auto-lithograph, an image drawn directly on to the lithographic plate; some of the others, such as Bawden, handed over a completed picture (in his case a collage) for the Chromoworks staff to translate into a print. "Lithography was difficult," Gentleman says, "but I don't remember fearing being told, 'Forget it, it's no good'." Because the prints were produced by a commercial company, reproofing was "nightmarish … if you got it wrong you were lumbered with it". Eric Ravilious had called the glutinous lithographic inks "beastly stuff".

Getting mucky was worth the artists' while, however. They were paid between £50 and £150 each ("I got £150," Gentleman says, "an astonishing amount for me"), but the prints were also put on sale to the public "at a price within reach of the slenderest purse", the artists receiving sixpence for every print of theirs sold. The lithographs were produced in editions of 1,500, so a popular print could make real money. It was part of Beddington's plan both to popularise and support British artists.
The Shire Hall by Lynton Lamb

He also had a highly developed eye for publicity. He encouraged national institutions such as the V&A and the British Council to buy sets of the prints, and organised modern PR events to spread the word. In 1947, the first series was shown privately to Queen Mary, then to the artists and the press at a cocktail party, before a public exhibition was opened by Ralph Richardson. The third series was launched by Kenneth Clark, who made an exception to his "absolute rule not to open exhibitions" for his "old friend" Beddington and described the Lyons project as "an eyeful as well as a mouthful". The idea of a picture gallery for Everyman was well‑received by both critics and the public (although one customer said of William Scott's Bird Cage that it was very good considering "it was painted by a child of eight years old"). The prints dovetailed with the prevailing mood exemplified by the 1951 Festival of Britain.

The lithographs outlived their original purpose and remained on display until the teashops closed in the 1970s. Relatively cheap to buy, many of the prints have also proved disposable. The bulk of the original artworks were sold at auction in 1975; the Towner exhibition, with its preparatory drawings and original paintings, is the largest gathering of Lyons material since this dispersal.

The teashop project is not one that could be repeated today, partly because cultural mores have shifted – the link between patronage and profit is no longer such an innocent one – and partly, as Gentleman points out, because "today's equivalent artists would simply be too expensive". While some of the artists have now slipped from sight – George Hooper, Lynton Lamb, Clifford Frith – the Lyons lithographs nevertheless brought together a remarkable gathering of talent. Almost every significant artist of the period took part – "a good bunch", as Gentleman puts it – with Sutherland and Stanley Spencer among the few illustrious absentees. The Lyons prints remain an evocative snapshot of a distinctive moment in time – a period when utility and invention worked together – and a reflection of Britain's undemonstrative but confident postwar self-image.