Charles Darwent on The Lyons Teashop Lithographs: Muzak for the eyes, anyone?

After the war, two schemes tried to cheer the tea drinkers and children of Britain with art – they were heroic, and doomed

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The Independent Culture

If the words "J Lyons & Co" make you go misty eyed – nippies! rock cakes! mob caps! – then Eastbourne may be your Valhalla. The teashop chain, shut in 1981, was Middle England's meeting-place, and the Sussex town the last redoubt of maiden aunts. Could anything be more Miss Marple than a show of Lyons lithographs at Eastbourne's Towner Gallery?

Ah, but. The walk from the station reveals a surprising lack of aunts, maiden or otherwise. Eastbourne has changed, and so has the Towner. Moved from a soft-bricked Georgian mansion to a Neo-Deco newbuild four years ago, the gallery is unexpectedly up to date. So, too, the Lyons Teashop Lithographs.

In 1946, Lyons' directors, Julian and Felix Salmon, saw that their teashops were war-worn. Building materials were in short supply and expensive, so the brothers commissioned a suite of lithographs to brighten up their cafés, with 1,500 affordably priced prints of each for sale to patrons.

Obviously, the work could not put customers off their iced fancies: Francis Bacon was never going to hack it. Even so, the long list of potential invitees for Lyons's First Series (1946-47) was catholic, including John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. If, in the end, none of the three made work, the resultant images were not just the eye-muzak you might have expected.

Like Lyons itself – like Britain – art in 1946 was still scarred by the war. Most of those on the First Series list had been official war artists, among them Mary Kessell, one of only three women selected. If Kessell's subject and style seem oddly downbeat for cheering up tea rooms – her Flight into Egypt is in haunting monochrome – it is understandable. Kessell's work for the War Artists Advisory Committee had taken her, among other unhappy places, to Belsen.

Fred Uhlman, who submitted a vrai-naïf view of St Agnes lighthouse, was a German-Jewish refugee. Even those, like Barnett Freedman and Carel Weight, less directly touched by war, still felt the gloom of its aftermath. Freedman's People includes a sad-looking tramp, violin in hand. Weight's snowbound Albert Bridge smells of slush and rationing.

What the Lyons series offers us, obviously, is a partial view of postwar British art: there is no abstraction, nothing to scare the punters, but the project is revealing even so. The National Health Service and National Insurance Acts (also of 1946) tempered austerity with hope – there may have been no money for the newly nationalised industries, but they did at least belong to us. So, in Lyons tea shops, did art.

That Attlee spirit was also behind the School Prints scheme of the same years. The Lyons Lithographs may have been made with profit margins in mind, but only partly: the project started from the belief that art made people not just happier, but better – especially when the people in question were children.

In 1946, a committee run by the tirelessly high-minded Herbert Read set about commissioning prints for the walls of 4,000 state schools – 14 of the resultant works are in a small show at Tate Britain. Freed from financial logic, the committee's choices were more adventurous than Lyons's. While there was some overlap in the artists chosen – Edward La Dell made both lists – Henry Moore actually got to make a School Print: his Sculptural Objects, for a second series in 1949, is astonishing.

It is, alas, not in the Tate show, nor are prints by Braque, Picasso and Dufy. The 1949 series of European modern masters proved an expensive flop and marked the end of the School Prints scheme. It would have been nice to have seen more: the works Tate shows – Barbara Jones's Fairground, the dreadful Lowry's Punch and Judy – hardly suggest the project's scale and excitement.

Part of the interest of these shows comes from our living, ourselves, in a time of austerity. Could projects like these succeed now? Probably not. An essay that accompanied the Lyons First Series pointed out that modern man lived in a time of mechanical reproduction. "We no longer expect our pots and pans, or our pins and needles to be 'hand-made'," it said. So, too, with our art. That they were designed by artists meant, in 1946, that the lithographs were de facto originals. You don't see that rationale playing well in Cork Street or Sotheby's these days. Originality is a selfish quality, and we live in selfish times.

'The Lyons Teashop Lithographs' to 22 Sept; 'School Prints' to 20 Oct.

Critic's Choice

In a class of their own: A Crisis of Brilliance at Dulwich Picture Gallery draws together works from C R W Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, David Bomberg and Paul Nash – all students at the Slade between 1908 and 1912. The show looks at the way this concentration of talent responded to the First World War (till 22 Sept). Or visit Tate Liverpool's Chagall: Modern Master (till 6 Oct), which tracks the Russian through a progression of schools and styles.