Homage to the Work of Eric Ravilious

In November 2013 a striking new mural was painted in Morecambe’s iconic art deco Midland hotel. The painting, by artist Jonquil Cook, is a homage to the Midland’s lost mural, by the acclaimed artist Eric Ravilious.

History repeating itself. Eric and Tirzah Ravilious, 1933 and Jonquil Cook and Isa Clee-Cadman, 2013.
History repeating itself. Eric and Tirzah Ravilious, 1933 and Jonquil Cook and Isa Clee-Cadman, 2013.

In the spring of 1933, not long before completion of the Midland Hotel, the renowned water-colourist, Eric Ravilious, and his wife, Tirzah Garwood, installed themselves in lodgings at Heysham, near Morecambe. Ravilious had received a commission from the architect, Oliver Hill, to paint a mural on the walls of what were then to be the tearooms.

The building, which replaced an older Midland hotel on the same site, was built in the contemporary ‘modern’ style, and was part of a plan by the town and the Railways commission to entice foreign, notably American, tourists and money to the seaside towns of the northwest. Hill, however, whilst pursuing this fashionably austere modern architectural style, displayed his love of colour and decoration by inviting notable British artists of the day, including Ravilious, to create art works for the interior.

A new hotel for Morecambe

Tirzah Garwood writes in her autobiography of how the ‘…new hotel resembled a big white concrete ship’ facing out across the shining sands, mudflats and treacherous waters of Morecambe bay.

The Midland Hotel – designed by Oliver Hill

Ravilious’s day and night design took into consideration this exceptional location in a circular space where the distant horizons are impossible to ignore, and Tirzah wrote of the composition:

‘…The scene was a seaside, gay with steel and white concrete buildings, a circular tower with a winding staircase and numerous
diving boards. In the day the sun shone brightly and flags waved from the seaside architecture and at night, there was a splendid fireworks display in progress, the buildings were whizzing and sparking with set pieces and rockets which exploded in the dark sky and were reflected in the sea water. There were painted constructional posts and arches to strengthen the design and the base had to fairly simple, as it would have wear and tear from chairs scraping against it…’

Unfortunately for the artists the job of transferring Eric’s beautiful original design onto the tearoom walls quickly turned into a nightmare, mainly because of technical faults in the as yet unfinished building itself.

Hill and his financiers were eager to hurry completion and as Eric and Tirzah worked they became increasingly aware that their mural had no hope of lasting.

‘Decorating the tea room was disheartening work because the plaster was too recently put onto the wall and as well as not being dry, it exuded little heaps of yellowish sand or lime or whatever it is that plaster is made with. When we were drawing out the design, if we used an India rubber or disturbed it in any way the white paint peeled off…’

The artists had already had to suffer considerable delays because when they had arrived to begin painting the white undercoat had not been applied. Now, with the dampness in the wall, further delays occurred while this initial base coat, an all-important feature of any mural work, had to be reapplied. Tirzah writes:

‘Eric fumed at having to waste so much time when he was longing to paint watercolour pictures and be away from this ugly place but nobody seemed to care when we complained that the painting hadn’t a hope of lasting, so long as it looked all right on the opening day…’.

Here one should be aware that many found the hotel at the time of its construction to be ‘ugly’. Of the grand official opening Tirzah writes:

‘…the speeches were amusing in the sense that they almost openly said we don’t like this hotel ourselves, but we hope to attract Americans with it’.

The original Ravilious Rotunda artwork. Credit: RIBA
The original Ravilious Rotunda artwork. Credit: RIBA

Anne Ullmann, Eric and Tirzah’s daughter, who was consulted about and gave her blessing to the latest mural project, recounts how Eric’s teaching work in London would have frequently obliged him to leave Tirzah on her own in Morecambe.

In Anne’s opinion it is probably Tirzah, and not Ravilious himself, who put most of the work into the Midland Hotel mural, and a stylistic comparison between some of her own oil paintings and the mural bear this notion out. Coping with a variety of problems, from damp walls to burst pipes, Tirzah describes how the pair would

‘…go on drying the damp wall with our overalls before working on it and hoping for the most improbable best’.

In the end, Eric and Tirzah’s work at the Midland survived only in the form of black and white photographs taken shortly before the grand opening of the hotel in July 1933. The following year Ravilious was recalled to carry out extensive repairs on the suffering artwork, but the mural soon deteriorated again and was eventually painted out in around 1935.

The 1980’s and Hercule Poirot

Mural mural re-created at the Midland in 1989 by director Brian Eastman and the Poirot designers
Mural mural re-created at the Midland in 1989 by director Brian Eastman and the Poirot designers

It wasn’t until the 1980s that theatrical decor artists from Thames Television had the notion of reproducing the mural, in its original location, for an episode of Hercule Poirot entitled ‘Double sin’ that was to be filmed in the hotel. With only the black and white photographs as a visual source, the set designers were obliged to make their own judgements concerning the colours they used, and colour photographs of this carefully painted reproduction show that the buildings in the depicted seaside scene were pink and beige rather than the steely white described by Tirzah.

People visiting the hotel throughout the late 1980s and 90s, however, were happy to see something that recalled the original 1930s glamour of the hotel, many mistakenly presuming the mural to be the original work by Ravilious.

The ‘noughties’

The modern day Rotunda bar designed by Urban Splash
The modern day Rotunda bar designed by Urban Splash

When Urban Splash, the Manchester based design firm, took on restorations of the recently derelict Midland Hotel in 2006, they did not attempt to return the tearooms to their original state. The modern Rotunda Bar is instead a fabulous testament to the stylish design of the ‘noughties’, the circular space rotating around a centrally positioned bar where the dance floor used to be, and, presiding over all, a highly distinctive and sculptural lighting feature. The restoration saw two new doorways cut into the curved wall once graced by Eric and Tirzah’s mural, providing access to the cosy, fuchsia niches of the newly styled seating area.

No matter what changes took place within, however, certain essential aspects to the Midland could not be altered. The incredible seascape and ever-changing effects of light visible through the floor to ceiling windows that form the curved, exterior wall of the bar are still the dominant and most remarkable feature of this location, and the glory of the hotel still largely relies upon its natural and timeless effects.

As Tirzah described the hotel in 1933 the Midland still has the air of a mighty luxury liner, protecting its passengers from the power of the elements, and in this context Ravilious’s design, with its unpredictable vanishing points and boldly marked horizon lines, remains unchallenged as the perfect complement and compositional solution to this unique space.

Research for the current mural work involved making use of those black and white prints from 1933, the slides of which are carefully preserved at the Royal Institute for British Architects. It also entailed, however, a careful assessment of colour usage based on an examination of Ravilious’s existing watercolours. Ravilious specialists Alan Powers and James Russell were helpful in indicating other valuable sources, such as the original watercolour sketch Ravilious produced as his proposal for the mural, entitled Flags and Fireworks.

An evaluation of all of the available information, including taking into account the new layout of the Rotunda bar and the subtle, beautiful colour schemes imposed by the Urban splash designers, led to the conception of this new adaptation of the original day and night painting.

Martin Crombie Rotuna Ravilious wedding image
Newly Weds in the Rotunda Bar with new mural (Photo credit: Martin Crombie)
An art deco inspired colourful addition to the Rotunda Bar
An art deco inspired colourful addition to the Rotunda Bar

There is always a certain amount of trepidation involved when an artist sets about reproducing of another’s work, particularly when that other is an artist as treasured and celebrated as Eric Ravilious. It is for this reason that Tirzah’s humorous autobiographical notes have proved hugely important in the realisation of this project, not least because of the unrecognised nature of her own role in producing the work, and also in terms of the insight they provide into the working conditions and trials and tribulations of those great British early 20th century artists.

Offshore wind turbines: a nod to the modern day coast line
Offshore wind turbines: a nod to the modern day coast line

Our mural is not only designed to recall for today’s visitors some of the beauty of the original composition that Eric and Tirzah produced, but also as tribute to those artists who struggled tirelessly, largely unappreciated, throughout one damp Morecambe summer between the wars, making their contribution to one of the most beautiful testaments to Art Deco period architecture and design extant in the world today.

Wirtten By: Jonquil Doremus-Cook

Thanks to Anne Ullmann for extracts from the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood, entitled Long Live Great Bardfield and love to
You All, Fleece Press, 2012. Also to Alan Powers whose book Eric Ravilious, Imagined Realities contains the original watercolour
sketches produced for the mural design. Philip Wilson Publishers, 2003.

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