Stolen Eric Gill mural found in back of a van

A MURAL created by one of Britain's finest sculptors and valued at pounds 1.5m has been found in the back of a van in West Yorkshire, 11 months after its bizarre theft.

Estimated weight of the Eric Gill relief is six tonnes, which may say something for the efforts of the thieves who spirited it out of a storage cupboard at the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, Lancashire. Surveillance officers from the National Crime Squad, which specialise in tackling organised crime, have now seized it in Pontefract, West Yorkshire.

The Gill piece, Odysseus welcomed from the sea by Nausica, has been taken back to Lancashire where, by a previous court order, it must be restored to the walls of the Midland. The hotel, a monument to the 1930s art deco style, is littered with Gill's work.

The timing could hardly be better. The Midland is for sale at a rumoured pounds 750,000 and solicitors seeking a buyer now have an artefact worth twice that much to throw in.

Yet few works worth pounds 1.5m value have been less cherished than the 16ft by 10ft mural, which depicts classical bathers in various states of undress and demonstrates Gill's obsession with the naked body. The piece, which was boxed up in 14 crates of several hundredweight each when stolen, ranks as one of Gill's best works. It was made just after he had completed his celebrated Prospero and Ariel relief, which stands on the front of BBC Broadcasting House.But the hotel's late owner, Les Whittingham, detested the mural. He never bothered to recover it from the Barbican in London after loaning it out for a Gill exhibition there and was begrudgingly forced to take it back. After seven years of legal wrangles with Lancaster Council, a court order denied Mr Whittingham the right to sell it and ordered its return to the Midland. But last year, within six months of its return, a council conservation team found it was missing once more. Since its discovery last week, two 42-year- old men from Lincolnshire have been arrested.

The mural's creation coincided with great days for the hotel, a once gloomy Victorian pile which was taken over by the London, Midland & Scottish Railway, renamed the Midland and rebuilt to the design of famed architect Oliver Hill at a cost of pounds 70,000.

It was a time when the British were streaming to resorts like Morecambe and the railway companies were cashing in. Despite the Depression, streamlined new LMS trains accompanied the hotel's reincarnation and there was a stone jetty, from which the Irish Steam Boat sailed. Gill, who had a hand in the hotel's design, also carved two stone seahorses which still stand above the Midland's main entrance and are its insignia. On the ceiling above the circular staircase which sweeps out of the foyer is his mural of Neptune's son.

However, that once white ceiling is terribly smoke-stained and visitors tread a stained carpet to reach it. Paint peels from the once brilliant white exterior, which in its day was electrically polished so the surface resembled marble.

Morecambe's bitter winter storms have cracked the window panes and the salt spray long ago rotted the steel windows of the dilapidated Eric Gill suite, where his relief of Morecambe Bay still hangs. It was by a minor miracle that a few guests shuffled through the Midland's sparse tea-rooms this week. Here lives British seaside shabbiness with all the old glamour gone.

Gill's relief could be a saviour for the place, which to a prospective buyer is desperately short on enticements. However, until a new owner is found, his recently-recovered creation remains unceremoniously holed up in boxes in Lancaster Council's vaults.

"The police still had it in the back of the hired van it was found in," said Gary Phillips, "but they had to shift it.

"The hire firm wanted the van back."

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