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.

stdClass Object
(
    [name] => The Museum of English Rural Life
    [otherNames] => Array
        (
            [0] => The MERL
        )

    [description] => 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, a building designed by Sir Alfred Waterhouse in 1880 for local businessman Alfred Palmer of the Huntley & Palmer biscuit company. 

The Museum was awarded £1.8million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in 2014 for the redevelopment of the galleries, and reopened on 19 October 2016. 

The new Museum uses its diverse and surprising collection to explore how the skills and experiences of farmers and craftspeople, past and present, can help shape our lives now and into the future. The Museum has worked alongside rural people, local communities and specialist researchers to create displays and activities that engage with important debates about the future of food and the ongoing relevance of the countryside to all our lives.
    [legalStatus] => Charitable
    [url] => Array
        (
            [0] => stdClass Object
                (
                    [qualifier] => Web Site
                    [url] => www.reading.ac.uk/TheMERL
                    [description] => 
                )

        )

    [email] => Array
        (
            [0] => stdClass Object
                (
                    [address] => merlevents@reading.ac.uk
                    [description] => Event bookings and enquiries
                )

        )

    [telephone] => Array
        (
            [0] => stdClass Object
                (
                    [number] => 0118 378 8660
                    [description] => 
                )

        )

    [fax] => Array
        (
            [0] => stdClass Object
                (
                    [number] => 0118 378 5632
                    [description] => 
                )

        )

    [addressStreet] => The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL)
University of Reading
Redlands Road
    [addressTown] => Reading
    [addressCounty] => Berkshire
    [addressPostcode] => RG1 5EX
    [addressCountry] => England
    [latitude] => 51.4483
    [longitude] => -0.959017
    [openingHours] => The Museum of English Rural Life re-opened in  October 2016 after extensive redevelopment, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Opening hours: 
Museum galleries:
Tuesday to Friday: 9am to 5pm
Saturday and Sunday: 10am to 4pm
Last Thursday of the month: 9am to 9pm

Shop, cafe area and garden:
Monday to Friday: 9am to 5pm
Saturday and Sunday: 10am to 4pm
Last Thursday of the month: 9am to 9pm

Library and archives reading room:
Monday to Friday: 9am to 5pm
Last Thursday of the month: 9am to 9pm
    [charges] => Admission Free
    [discounts] => Array
        (
            [0] => National Art Pass
        )

    [facility] => Array
        (
            [0] => Baby changing facilities
            [1] => Education facilities available
            [2] => Facilities for private functions and events
            [3] => Gardens open to public
            [4] => Library with public access
            [5] => Meeting room available
            [6] => Object study facilities available (enquire in advance)
            [7] => Parking for disabled available
            [8] => Picnic area
            [9] => Reception and lunch facilities for educational groups
            [10] => Refreshments
            [11] => Research facilities for academics
            [12] => Shop
            [13] => Study facilities
            [14] => Toilets for disabled
            [15] => Wheelchair access to all public areas
            [16] => Children's play area
            [17] => High chairs in café/restaurant
            [18] => Wheelchairs available for loan
            [19] => Bicycle park
            [20] => Late night openings
            [21] => Toilets
            [22] => Wi-fi available
            [23] => Mail order service available
        )

    [facilitiesInformation] => 
    [keyArtistOrExhibit] => Array
        (
            [0] => agricultural hand tools
            [1] => farm wagons: there are over thirty in the collection
            [2] => horse drawn ploughs
            [3] => dairying equipment
            [4] => livestock accessories eg horseshoes; veterinary equipment
            [5] => land drainage material
            [6] => country crafts and rural industries; the thatching collection, for example is particularly extensive as is that covering the woodland trades
            [7] => woodworking and carpentry
            [8] => country smocks
            [9] => basketry; corn dollies
            [10] => friendly society brasses
            [11] => beekeeping equipment
            [12] => animal traps
            [13] => sewing machines
            [14] => paintings and prints, especially of early nineteenth century livestock
            [15] => Designated Collection
        )

    [collections] => Array
        (
            [0] => Trade and Commerce
            [1] => Toys and Hobbies
            [2] => Social History
            [3] => Science and Technology
            [4] => Land Transport
            [5] => Fine Art
            [6] => Costume and Textiles
            [7] => Archives
            [8] => Agriculture
        )

    [collectionsDescription] => The entire collection of this museum is a Designated Collection of national importance.

The Museum of English Rural Life is dedicated to the spirit of the English countryside and its people. It was founded by the University of Reading in 1951 at a time when the motorised revolution was changing the face of farming and sweeping away implements and techniques that had evolved over many generations. 

Today, the museum is a national centre for the history of food, farming and the countryside, and continues with the task of recording and interpreting rural change. It is both a public resource and an academic research centre, preserving Designated collections of national and international significance. These comprise, in addition to the object collections, a library of over 50,000 books, archives of business and organisational records, and extensive photographic collections.

The collections cover the broad range of material relating to farming, rural crafts and industries, and country life. The bulk of the items date from the period 1850 to 1950. Pre 1850 farm tools and equipment are rare in England. Post 1950, the sheer range and size of farm machinery are inhibitors given the level of exhibition and storage space that we have available. This is why so much emphasis has been placed on reflecting this period through the two dimensional collections - especially the photographs and technical literature.
    [collectionsDescriptionGraphic] => 
    [constituentInstitution] => Array
        (
        )

    [lea] => Reading
    [regionalAgency] => South East
    [service] => Array
        (
            [0] => Academic publications and resources available
            [1] => Activities for pre-school children
            [2] => Adult lectures and courses held
            [3] => Direct teaching services for schools
            [4] => Events and resources for children and families
            [5] => Events/teaching/resources for people with disabilities
            [6] => Large print information and/or interpretation
            [7] => Member of staff available with responsibility for education
            [8] => Object identification and/or written enquiry service
            [9] => Pre-booking service for groups
            [10] => Primary school education service available
            [11] => Printed/audio-visual information available for schools
            [12] => Public access available to collections information
            [13] => Secondary school education service available
            [14] => Specialist publications on collections available
            [15] => Teaching/resources available for HE/FE students
            [16] => Public access to stores available
            [17] => Handling sessions
            [18] => Online shop
            [19] => Volunteering scheme offered
            [20] => Community outreach programme/service
        )

    [travelDirections] => 
    [contentTag] => Array
        (
            [0] => Your Paintings (52)
            [1] => Handmade in Britain (29)
            [2] => Museums at Night 2012
            [3] => Berkshire
            [4] => Museums at Night 2011
            [5] => agriculture
            [6] => Social History
            [7] => Rural
            [8] => Craft
            [9] => Designated Collection
            [10] => Archives
            [11] => Museums at Night 2009
            [12] => Museums at Night 2010
            [13] => South East
            [14] => Trade and Commerce
            [15] => recreation
            [16] => Science and Nature
            [17] => Road transport
            [18] => Art
            [19] => costume
            [20] => Hands on History (3)
            [21] => Countryfile (7)
            [22] => Springwatch/Autumnwatch (5)
            [23] => England
            [24] => Your Paintings PCF
            [25] => Genius of Invention (54)
            [26] => First World War Centenary
            [27] => Harvest (56)
            [28] => Takeover Day
            [29] => Stargazing LIVE 2014 (27)
            [30] => World War One (62)
            [31] => KIMM
            [32] => Show Me
            [33] => Bang Goes the Theory (9)
            [34] => Great British Sewing Bee (44)
            [35] => Museums at Night 2014
            [36] => The Sky at Night (72)
            [37] => Museums at Night May 2015
            [38] => Museums at Night May 2016
            [39] => Accredited Museum
            [40] => Mu_Cr
            [41] => Museums at Night 17-20 May 2017
            [42] => archive film
            [43] => black and white
            [44] => landscape photography
            [45] => early photography
            [46] => colour
            [47] => farmer
            [48] => designer (arts, craft and design roles)
            [49] => knitter
            [50] => lacemaker
            [51] => photographer
            [52] => textile artist
            [53] => weaver
            [54] => woodworker
            [55] => contemporary maker
            [56] => arts, craft and design roles
            [57] => Curator
            [58] => historian
            [59] => family historian
            [60] => local historian
            [61] => inventor
            [62] => land girl
            [63] => 20th Century
            [64] => British History
            [65] => 18th century (1701 - 1800)
            [66] => 19th century (1801 - 1900)
            [67] => 20th century (1901 - 2000)
            [68] => Edwardian
            [69] => Eighties
            [70] => Fifties
            [71] => Forties
            [72] => Thirties
            [73] => Twenties
            [74] => Family learning
            [75] => Community engagement
            [76] => Home Ed
            [77] => 14-19 education
            [78] => Higher Ed
        )

    [type] => Array
        (
            [0] => Museum
            [1] => Library
            [2] => Archive
        )

    [link] => http://www.culture24.org.uk/se000391
    [graphicUrl] => http://www.culture24.org.uk/asset_arena/6/15/17/571516/v0_thumb.jpg
    [priorityNumber] => 2001051100
    [modificationDate] => 20/04/2017
    [publicationDate] => 11/05/2001
    [relevance] => 10
    [uniqueID] => SE000391
)

venue

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,…

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save