Lyons teashops were the Starbucks of their day. In the aftermath of war, the management of the restaurant chain (the last one closed its doors in 1981) was faced with a pressing challenge: how to enliven dingy and often war-scarred interiors up and down the country without spending a fortune.
An ingenious solution was proposed, which also happened to be a clever early example of enlightened corporate sponsorship: to cover the walls with large lithographs commissioned from some of the best artists of the times. There were 40 of them in all, produced in three series over almost a decade. They hung in all the teashops, and prints were also available for purchase by customers. Artists were not only paid a fee to produce them; they also received a royalty on each one sold. The Towner is showing them all, arranged chronologically, with additional documentation: preparatory drawings and paintings, advertising material and much else.
The artists were a variable bunch, from the emerging to the fully emerged. We know the names of many of them well – Edward Ardizzone, Edward Bawden, John Piper. For some – David Gentleman, for example – it was the first commercial break after college. The subject matter, generally speaking, is soothing and uncontroversial. (Just occasionally we find ourselves butting up against something which feels almost daringly French – a still life of fruit by Duncan Grant, for example.) Although war had barely ended, it was not to be spoken of on the café’s walls. The closest we get to a sense that the worst was not far behind is in Carel Weight’s high view of Albert Bridge, London, which looks and feels stark and chill and bony.
Otherwise, there is a good deal of manufactured good cheer here, from the syrupy sweetness of children at a window in Barnett Freedman’s The Window Box to the punts which idle along the Cam in Edwin La Dell’s Clare Bridge, Cambridge. And yet there are some fine individual works too, including David Gentleman’s Cornish Pilchard Boat, in which the benefits of lithography seem to be shown to the full – the way that colour can seem to float across the surface of what it is defining. And in Barnett Freedman’s People, the artist seems to have captured, in the way the two women link arms as they walk, half-smiling, the very the essence of the late-forties look.
To 22 September (01323 434670)