Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Wardie School, Edinburgh and its ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mural

2011 is the eightieth anniversary of the opening of Wardie Primary School on Granton Road, Edinburgh. It is also the seventy-fifth anniversary of the painting of a large, nine-panel, mural in its hall. The Decorated School Network is joining forces with the school to celebrate the latter and to this end we are organising a day in the school on Saturday 29th October (details to follow in the Events link on this page). The event will start around 1030 and finish around 1530 (exact times tbc). It will be open to all with interests in the school's history and the significance of/reasons for adorning schools with striking imagery. It is hoped that through drawing attention to the historical importance of the mural (it is unique in many ways) means and funds will be raised for its restoration and conservation.

The Scotsman (16 September 1931) provided considerable coverage of Wardie's opening in 1931. Particular attention was paid to its construction in an area where 800 houses had been recently built, that it was made of '750000 bricks', that the architect was Joseph Marr Johnston.

'The school is planned on the open-air principle around an inside garden. It is a one-storey building except in the front. There are 15 classrooms, with accommodation for 750 pupils, a sewing room, and a large hall or gymnasium. The style of the building from the outside is more suggestive of buildings more common on the continent and in the south of England than in Scotland, for the exterior walls are of red brick, with 'panels' of white harling, and the window frames are painted green.' The article also noted that in the central garden there would be 'lawns, crazy paving and flowerbeds' while there were already 'friezes on the walls of its infant classrooms on which are depicted fairy tales and rhymes'.

Five years later, under the 'Schools Beautiful' scheme initiated by Edinburgh Education Committee and Edinburgh College of Art, a postgraduate Andrew Grant Fellow of ECA, Robert Heriot Westwater (1905-62), painted the Wardie mural of Alice in Wonderland. The inspiration behind the scheme appears to have been the then Principal of ECA, Hubert Wellington. Westwater was extraordinarily active around this time, both as a painter, lecturer, art teacher and broadcaster. Appreciation of his contribution to Scottish art history is long overdue. The Wardie mural appears to be the first of Westwater's ventures into largescale wall painting. It was followed by his mural decoration of the ICI Pavilion at the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow and, in 1939, of a mural in the workers' lecture hall at Musselburgh Wire Mills.

The 'Schools Beautiful' programme was cut short by the Second World War. In Edinburgh, as far as is currently known, just three schools benefitted - Craigmillar Primary School (John Maxwell's and Alexander Inglis's murals, 1935 and 1939 respectively), Prestonfield Primary School (Tom Whalen's bronze fountain group, 1935), and Wardie. Craigmillar and Prestonfield were to feature as optimistic signals of present and future directions for Scottish education combining with art in John Grierson's remarkable, and famous, documentary film about the progress of schooling, The Children's Story (1938). Actually, this appearance was preempted by Wardie. For just after Westwater had completed his mural it appeared in 'Education in Edinburgh', a Campbell Harper film, with scenario written by JB Frizell, City Education Officer, about Edinburgh's educational services. Reviewed in detail in The Scotsman (11 November 1936), I have been unable to trace a copy of this film. Any clues as to its whereabouts would be gratefully received.

The incorporation of the decorated Wardie, Craigmillar and Prestonfield Schools into these early films is evidence of their place as beacons for educational progress. Wardie also had in common with Prestonfield its open-air, health and hygiene, ideas and realisation. Furthermore Wardie acted as a precedent for Craigmillar in terms of mural subject, for Inglis's wall painting focused on a doll's house with scenes from 'Alice' (combined with episodes from Edward Lear's 'Nonsense' and traditional children's tales and rhymes). Unfortunately, Inglis's work has been painted over and while the Maxwell mural opposite it survives, the school has closed and been turned into apartments. This makes Wardie's mural, in a working school, all the more precious.

The unveiling of 'Alice in Wonderland' at Wardie was a grand affair. It was undertaken by JW Peck, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Education Department in the company of representatives of Edinburgh Education Committee, College of Art and Council, together with a group of prominent artists, teachers and local schoolchildren. The ceremony, the mural and the ideas behind the scheme for art in schools which it symptomised was given substantial column and image space in The Scotsman (9 and 12 June 1936).

Westwater divided his mural into views of nine separate incidents in Alice in Wonderland. To some extent these bear a resemblance to John Tenniel's 1864 illustrations of Lewis Carroll's fantasy. Yet they move beyond those well-known black and white caricatures to recreate Alice in a novel painted fashion. A handwritten key to the panels, whose Italic script appears in columns akin to the format of the mural, is placed in the hall adjacent to the painting. The treatment of the scenes is colourful and figurative. As such it could be called fantasy realism. It captures the absurd yet learning world of Alice's adventures in a way that while easily readable defies, perhaps in keeping with the 'irrationalism' of Carroll's yarn, straightforward narrative reading from left to right or top to bottom.

Top Left - horizontal panel of Alice Falling Asleep while her sister reads a 'dry' book (Chapter One)

Bottom Left - vertical panel of The Game of Croquet with the Queen, King and Knave of Hearts (Chapter Eight)

Top Mid Left - horizontal panel of Alice, the Hookah-smoking Caterpillar and the Mushroom (Chapter Five)

Bottom Mid Left - vertical panel of Alice with animals wondering how to get dry (Chapter Three)

Centre - vertical panel with Alice and the Rabbit at the bottom of the Tunnel. Complete with Marmalade Jar and Golliwog (the latter, not being in Alice in Wonderland could be a cunning advertisement for Robertson's Jams and Marmalades?) (Chapter One)

Top Mid Right - horizontal panel of the Gryphon and Mock Turtle dancing the Lobster Quadrille (Chapter Ten)

Bottom Mid Right - vertical panel of Alice being grinned at and instructed by the Cheshire Cat (Chapter Six)

Top Right - horizontal panel of Alice awoken by her sister (Chapter Six)

Bottom Right - vertical panel of the Tea Party with the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse and Fish Footman (Chapter Seven)

The 'transcendent' Wonderland mural was to act in several ways - to enliven the school environment, as a pedagogic tool and as part of a modern, twentieth century campaign to revive mural art for public service. It still leaves an impression. Just as the basketballs missing the mobile hoop and board attached to it around the central white rabbit make their impression on it. I think Westwater might have approved...

While the empty places at the mad hatter's party table in the lower right panel hint that it might not be everyone's cup of tea, with its mural and its school Wardie has something exceptional and experimental. It is a testament to the vision and ideals of early twentieth century social reformers.

1 comment:

Ruth Lee said...

Interesting site. Please google the London Mural Preservation Society. We have some murals in schools (or rather outside schools) which might be of interest.


Ruth Miller