3 min read

Mid-century pastoral: MERL’s forgotten Festival of Britain wall hanging

a photo of a wall hanging housed in a large display case

© Estate of Michael O’Connell. All rights reserved, DACS 2017

Found rolled up in cupboard, this forgotten Festival of Britain wall hanging is now on show at the Museum of English Rural Life

When Michael O’Connell made this wall hanging of Kent in the years before 1951, men would still have been leading horses through the fields and Oast Houses would have been standing next to the single track roads.

There’s just a beautiful variety and simplicity in it, with the river coming through the landscape and the hunter figure strolling through the trees. There’s no hint of the motorway in this landscape; at the top there is an industrial farm building – that’s the new world, but you still have the little farmhouse down the bottom.

It is one of seven large fabric panels made by O’Connell for the Country Pavilion of the 1951 Festival of Britain. And it’s quite strange to see it laid out here, flat against a conservation backing, because originally it was part of a giant, 50-metre or so long curtain that went down the entire length of the Pavilion building. Two of them have been conserved, one for Cheshire and one for Kent; a public vote decided that the Kent one should go on display first.

O’Connell has been described as the “Lost Modernist”. I don’t know enough about art to know whether he is that or not, but people certainly don’t seem to know much about him. Even so he’s been quite influential in textiles and a lot of his work is held by the V&A and the Australian National Museum – but they’re rarely on display.

a detail of a wall hanging with a man firing a gun next to a dog

© Estate of Michael O’Connell. All rights reserved, DACS 2017

a detail of a wall hanging showing a man leading a horse in a field

© Estate of Michael O’Connell. All rights reserved, DACS 2017

He invented this resist dye technique, so we have to keep telling people this isn’t a tapestry or embroidery because all of the detail is painted then dyed on. In some cases it is printed on, like the trees, which he then painted the details onto. The trees are my favourite part – they are very playful and range from a diamond pattern through to freer designs and then a single oak, which looks a bit like the National Trust symbol.

The colour palette is very mid-century, too. You don’t often think of green and orange working together but it does here. And then there is the symbolism; all of the hangings have these square, tiled backgrounds that feature the region’s most popular crops – in this one it’s the hops of Kent.

“It took the intervention of Christopher Heal of Heal’s to secure the fabrics at a time of austerity and rationing.”

O’Connell was born in Lancashire in 1898 to Irish parents. He fought and became a prisoner of war in the First World War and there’s a story that a German guard found him sketching and told him that he should take up art. But originally he had studied agriculture and after the war he moved to Melbourne to study it there.

But he didn’t do too well in farming and he moved into art. He became a member of the Melbourne Arts and Crafts Society and started making concrete garden pots. He lived in a tent for a while until the public health inspector condemned it as unfit for human habitation so he built a modernist house out of concrete blocks. By then he had moved on to making fabrics.

He moved back to England in 1937 and with his wife, the artist Ella Moody, built a house called The Chase in Perry Green. After the Second World War he was given the commission to make these wall hangings for the Festival of Britain and it took the intervention of Christopher Heal of Heal’s to secure the fabrics at a time of austerity and rationing.

a detail of a wall hanging showing an acorn

© Estate of Michael O’Connell. All rights reserved, DACS 2017

O’Connell travelled all around the country, met the people, experienced the landscape and then came back and made all seven hangings in the studio at his house at Perry Green in Hertfordshire. We have a photo of him in his studio at The Chase making prints in his workshop with two local sisters called Betty and Iris, one of whom helped him make this tapestry. Together with his son Betty and Iris attended the unveiling of it when MERL re-opened in 2016.

In the 1970s his workshop at The Chase burnt down taking a lot of his artworks and records with it but with the help of his students (he was teaching at this time) he rebuilt it, but by then his eyesight had begun to fade and he committed suicide with a gun in 1976 aged 78. It’s quite a tragic trajectory to his life.

“A curator found them all, rolled up in a cupboard.”

We didn’t know these hangings existed until a curator found them all, rolled up in a cupboard. We didn’t have the space to show them until the HLF gave us the money to build this display case, but that’s why the colours are so vibrant – because they were rolled up for so long and they never saw the light of day for decades.

They went on tour to Commonwealth countries after the Festival of Britain and then we acquired them and actually used them as a backdrop to our touring tent which travelled around the country – visiting country fairs.

Adam Koszary ‎is Project Manager at The Museum of English Rural Life. He was speaking to Richard Moss.

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The Museum of English Rural Life is owned and managed by the University. It was established by academics in the Department of Agriculture in 1951 to capture and record the rapidly changing countryside following World War II. In 2005, the Museum moved to its current premises in St Andrew’s Hall,…