Restoring the Cecil Sharp mural

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Restoring the Cecil Sharp mural


Fri, 11/03/2016 - 13:11


Jim Dimond at work on the mural
10 March, 2016

ON a dark night in September 1940, a Luftwaffe bomber squadron left a base in Occupied Europe and flew over the English Channel. 

They headed for London, and despite the best efforts of the troops manning an anti-aircraft gun and searchlight on the top of Primrose Hill, dropped a load on Camden Town. They had been aiming for the railway lines heading into Euston – but four of their high explosive shells smashed into Cecil Sharp House, Regent’s Park Road, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

It caused devastation, blowing a huge hole in the roof and wrecking one side of their main performance space, Kennedy Hall.

musicians’ gallery before the bombing
The Musician's gallery after Luftwaffe bomb damage

A musicians’ gallery was wrecked (pictured, above - before and after) – and gave the society a conundrum to solve in the immediate post-war years when they came to rebuild their home. At the time, the trustees were torn whether they should restore the building as it was or re-design the hall. They felt that without the musicians’ gallery that overlooked the dance floor, the hall may feel “characterless”, but for practical purposes, it was not ideal in terms of acoustics.

Architect John Eastwick-Field was commissioned to do the work. He saw the space, and suggested they commission a giant mural. 

Painted by the celebrated English artist Ivon Hitchens, today this historic, 60ft X 20ft piece is being restored.

Jim Dimond is leading the team of conservators, who are painstakingly repairing the paint and the canvas using a range of techniques. 

Despite hanging for nearly 70 years, sections have survived well. It has previously been cleaned to take off years of cigarette smoke and tar from its surface. Now the main dangers are dust and car pollution.

“Parts have been in a very precarious condition,” he said. “There was a flood in 1991 and there was a layer of paint that was flaking very badly.” 

Using a “heat pen” to lift up sections of cracked and flaking paint, the conservators then stretch the paint back over the gap it has lifted up from and stick it down. If areas have lost flecks, a water-based filler is used that is then coloured in. 

Using oils, Hitchens did the work at his Sussex home – which he had to structurally alter to work on such a scale – and then laid it out in his garden so he could get an overall feel for the work. The series of panels were then hoisted and fixed to the hall’s wall. 

“Hitchens started the work in 1951 and it took three years,” Jim revealed.

He’s is full of admiration for Hitchens.

“He was a painter of the mid-20th century school. His work was abstract but influenced by what was going on in contemporary art, so it is Picasso-esque, but with British elements, which means parts are figurative,” he says.

“There are people playing instruments, historic images. It is about dance, about the music and was carefully designed with Cecil Sharp House in mind.

“Ivon was keen this would very much be a backdrop, so it is meant to be fairly discreet so it does not put off the dancers. The brief Hitchens had was not to cause too much of a distraction.” 

Hitchens charged £2,500 – a figure seen as conservative – and then waived £500 as a donation – £850 came from the Arts Council. 

When the mural was hung in 1954, Hitchens wrote a description of his work for the house’s newsletter, explaining how it included representative figures of British folk dancing lore such as the traditional Green Man and Queen of the May.

He said: “The characteristic of a mural is that it should look like it is painted on the wall. It must not be an enlarged picture. Therefore it is not concerned with illusions of depth or a pretence of the solidity of the object.”

He added that his work had taken into account the fact the hall was used for dances. “Because the dance floor may be crowded in the centre, the middle of the painting was to be left more open and quieter, with the action taking place in the side sections.”

He established four rules. He wanted the mural to “embrace chief features of certain dance forms,” and have a “...feeling of some form of woodland setting to act as a foil to the urban surroundings of Cecil Sharp House”.

He chose figures to illustrate dance through the centuries, though did not set them in a particular period style: “Essentially,” he wrote, “it is the man who dances and not his costumes.” Finally, he tackled the idea of the size. “This great space might have been expected to call for figures of greater size, but the dancers want to feel they are the chief occupiers and that they are not being dwarfed by a race of superhuman gods looking down on their little antics.”

The restoration will take five weeks, and will be ready to be unveiled again in its full glory in time for the summer.

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