The anonymous murals of Spring Gardens post office.
These murals that sit above the counters of Spring Gardens post office have always stood out to me as something quite lovely. They brazenly straddle the internal windows and allow me to eye them up and down until my number is called; try to photograph one of them and you’re as good as out on your ear - they’re very much the architects’ peep show. They leave me sated that even during the most mundane chores I can still get my fill of art.
Countless times I’ve taken a tour group through the post office to a chorus of "I’ve never noticed them before".
How do a series of huge brutal reliefs that squat just a few feet above the counter go unnoticed time and time again, but most intriguing of all is who made them?
I became a little obsessed with crediting these reliefs to an artist and found myself for much of last year lost in the archives, reeling from a multitude of dead ends and uncertainties. I have a theory, and a solid one at that, but I’m still looking for that definite answer, that "yes, you’re right, this is what happened".
So begins our whodunnit…
The staff at the post office don’t know very much about the murals, but what they do know is that they were a gift from Manchester University when the building opened 4th August 1969.
I’m certain that they’re wrong.
A post office has stood in Spring Gardens since 1623, and this current building promises to fulfil its postal requirements for “the coming 60 years” (until 2029). Designed by Cruikshank and Seward, Spring Gardens was the largest post office in the north when it opened and heralded the arrival of new mechanised sorting offices in the area at a total cost across all sites of £5m. In January of 1969 the lead architect, Lee Monks, fell from the 6th floor during an inspection of the building and was killed.
In anticipation of the opening of the post office there were multiple articles in both regional and national press, several pages were dedicated to the new site and yet the murals, though given cursory mention, are never credited to an institution, a student, or an artist. As if the extensive press coverage wasn’t enough the Piccadilly Hotel created a commemorative omelette called the ‘GPO Surprise’. That’s right, a commemorative omelette.
Surely if news was so lacking that a post office gets a four page spread (yes, really) somewhere in there they’d thank the university and name the students responsible. This seals the deal for me, they’re not a gift.
During this time public art was becoming more prevalent and Percent For Art schemes were common practice across much of the world (Bolton has a scheme to this day) and although there was no UK wide initiative the seed was planted and many buildings incorporated some form of public art into their plans. Sadly, although lots of buildings of this era are often artistically decorated it’s the art that’s first to go when the building begins to look a little dated. It’s because of this fact that the murals intrigue me further; it’s quite the feat that they have survived the extensive renovation especially when they are both anonymous in origin and really, quite crudely mounted.
Thinking back now I recall my initial interest in the murals was driven by the possibility that they could be the work of William Mitchell, and interestingly enough it’s Mitchell that sheds some light on the abundance of such works despite the UK not signing up to Percent For Art:
"In the 1950s and 60s Government tax incentives encouraged many building groups to establish Research and Development divisions. John Laing opened such a department at Boreham Wood in London. As part of this experimental period, I was encouraged to produce all manner of strange things to show the potential of various materials - concrete, wood, plastics, bricks, glass, metal and so on. It was an exciting and wonderful time. I believed that the Festival of Britain of 1951 had never received the credit it was due. Today’s meagre efforts pale before the outburst of artistic and creative ideas that were to be found at the Festival. I am sure that the Sixties were given a kick-start by the sheer exuberance of it all. The Dome is as much a washout as the Festival was a success. Some of the projects I did were good, some were reasonable and most were controversial - none, however, broke the bank. These were the products of an exciting time, and one that I don’t think we shall see again."
Further investigation and it became less likely to be Mitchell’s work, but then a new name came up. Jonathan Schofield of Manchester Confidential seemed to remember reading that the artist responsible was Mitzi Cunliffe - creator of the BAFTA mask and long time Didsbury resident. But it wasn’t Mitzi either.
I’ve spoken to the architects responsible for the original building and those responsible for the refurbishment, Postal Heritage, 20th Century Society, Manchester Modernist Society, Manchester University, architectural historian Lynn Pearson, author Terry Wyke (Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester), Manchester Confidential, all the staff at the post office, William Mitchell, I’d even had an appeal for information on the BBC, and then I looked again at the archive newspapers I’d printed. The only advert in the Manchester Evening News post office centre-fold was for John Laing Construction.
But a contractors is not the next likely step from the likes of William Mitchell or Mitzi Cunliffe so what, if anything, connects the dots?
Well this did for a start, a throwaway line in that quote of William Mitchell’s "…John Laing opened such a department…". So John Laing were experimenting with materials and bringing in the likes of Mitchell to create sculptures for them, so it’s more than feasible that they were some way involved in these fibre glass murals, but how?
Eventually a murals and ceramics expert at the 20th Century Society contacted me and connected almost all those remaining dots.
"Alan Boyson was asked to produce an proposal. He worked with the post office team and took inspiration in the new mechanisation of the mail and produced designs on such a theme."
Alan Boyson is a Manchester artist who specialises in ceramics. As with many artists of his era much of his work is integrated into architecture and as such is unsigned. Over the last five years the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society have been uncovering and crediting more and more of his work, including the Tree of Knowledge in Salford and tiles decorating the facade of a discount store in Denton.
"His work was considered too dear and it was not proceeded with. Boyson thinks the reliefs are poor work by an architectural team member who did not grasp what he was seeking to do produced the watered down, dull and cheap designs."
And that, up until today, has been my conclusion - Alan Boyson designed the work; the post office declined to pay him; John Laing created their version of his designs.
I’ve tried to get some kind of proof, I’ve published letters in John Laing’s retirement magazine to see if anyone reading was involved in producing the murals but I’m still waiting.
Right about now I take a break in writing up my findings for some tea and to share the mundanities of my existence with Twitter: "18 months later and researching the mysterious fibre glass murals is coming to an end. I admit defeat. You win, murals. Fuck you." And immediately Eddy Rhead, a man integral in my search for an answer, responds.
He mentions that Manchester Evening News centre-fold and asks me to recall the adverts on the page. I had the centrefold pinned to my bedroom wall for over a year but when I moved house I filed it in that place where you file things you never see again, even so I went to bed every night looking at my wall of post office cuttings and I’m positive that I must have found a different centre-fold to Eddy. Somehow in my days searching the library microfilm I must have missed another feature on the post office because all I have is an advert for John Laing and Eddy’s sure there’s an advert for a small shop-fitters in Sale. So now my investigation leads me here, to thinking that John Laing themselves contracted the work out to this smaller firm, and that’s where both Eddy and I are happy to settle. Well, not quite.
I can’t simply leave it at that without even looking for a name so I look up the address and find a company that dissolved just a few months ago called W Stockdale, and then I find the home address of the director and one other employee. In a hurry I wrote a couple of letters to both men but writing on the envelopes I spot that one of them lives just a few miles away, and well, it was too tempting not to cycle over and hand deliver my letter.
I’m looking for number 11 Mauldeth Road, when I get to where it should be I notice the number on the house is 9a - number 11 is next-door again. 11 is a huge building converted into modern flats and not likely to be the family home of an OAP. So I’m looking for a house that doesn’t exist, I’m knocking on doors all along the length of the road and practicing my 'how not to look like a crazy woman' smile but no one’s home."Those flats were redeveloped in 2006" a man on the street tells me and I’m a bit lost, a bit tired, and I’m happy. I’ve realised that my search has become so long and drawn out that a conclusion, like that final episode of The Killing, can only be a bit of a wash out.
So where does this investigation end? It ends here: on the one remaining name and address I have, it ends on the posting of a letter to the 79 year old, former director of a shop-fitters, his address may or may not exist…or it ends with you; your dad; your uncle; or your mate-down-the-pub’s granddad. Someone out there knows.
This story was republished by Manchester Evening News