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
A small article originally published in Manchester Art Gallery’s Dreams Without Frontiers publication, curated by Dave Haslam. The theme is Sixties Utopia and my article is about the Piccadilly Hotel (now the Mercure)
What does Piccadilly Hotel mean to you? To George Best it’s hiding in a cleaner’s cupboard from Matt Busby. To the ears of the city its cantilevered form straddles the headquarters of Piccadilly Radio. It’s a hotel built only for cars. It’s the future suspended in the 60s.
Piccadilly Hotel (to eventually become the Mercure) has no ground floor pedestrian entrance - because this is the future and why walk when you have a car. A vast William Mitchell mural made of broken pianos spans four whole floors of the stairwell because art and architecture go hand-in-hand in the future.
William Mitchell constructing the mural
One face of the decade’s utopia is Simon Dee who filmed the end credits of his talk show Dee Time on the concrete car ramp of the hotel. In his convertible Jaguar, with a model on his arm, Dee spins down the concentrically-looping concrete ramp with the insouciance of a man with no troubles. And in the 60s he had none. Dee’s 60s were his dreams; no frontiers. From his beginnings in pirate radio his career spiralled ever onwards and his lifestyle became one of a playboy. His 60s are forever captured in a bell jar of parody by way of the film Austin Powers, based on Dee himself.
Dee Time closing credits
And as he hits the road and waves goodbye to the crowd at the foot of the ramp, upstairs Albert Finney (Charlie Bubbles, 1967) lays supine on a bed, outside Julie Christie strolls across the concrete mega-structure (Billy Liar, 1963), and everybody else? They turn a blind eye to the fact that the ceiling collapsed twice during the opening ceremony because this place, this hotel, is promised to be the greatest hotel in all of Europe.
Julie Christie, Billy Liar. City Tower in the background.
Manchester Art Gallery and Dave Haslam present Dreams Without Frontiers; a publication to accompany the current exhibition.
Skyliner contributed an article under the themes Sixties Utopia, focussing on Piccadilly Hotel. There are contributions from a range of wonderful people including Maureen Ward, Julie Campbell, Dan Russell, and Greg Thorpe. Greg is responsible for one of my favourite regular columns: Manchester in Residents, over on his blog Manhattanchester.
Make sure to pick up a copy from the gallery.
In 2012 the CIS tower celebrated it’s 50th year (as well as it being the international year of the Co-Op) and this year the new headquarters at Angel Place will open. In tribute and celebration Skyliner presents an exclusive look at the 1962 commemorative brochure.
Thank you to S.L. Scott for the beautiful artwork in the image above and to the Co-Operative for allowing reproduction of the brochure.
"The Directors of the C.I.S have pleasure in enclosing Commemorative Booklet of that great occasion on 22nd October, 1962, when H.R.H. The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, K.G., K.T., so graciously opened the new building in the presence of a large number of guests from Home and Overseas.
It is hoped much pleasure will be derived from the contents of this souvenir booklet and that the typescript of what was said on that notable occasion will recall many happy memories.”
"New Head Office premises of the Co-operative Insurance Society Ltd, Miller Street, Manchester, England"
"To the applause of a large crowd that had gathered in Miller Street, Prince Philip, accompanied by Rt. Hon. The Earl of Derby, M.C., Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire, walks to entrance where he was greeted by Messrs. Wild and Dinnage, who accompanied him on his tour of the building."
"(Top right) The first visit is 60 feet below ground to the Control Room
The totems of Salford University’s Allerton Building, and other works by William Mitchell.
"I don’t give a hoot if you don’t like them, just as long as you look at them"
Whilst on The Crescent in Salford, continue towards Salford University’s Allerton Building and there you will find the striking Minut Men by William Mitchell.
Perhaps the first critique of this concrete trio was by Prince Philip, in 1967 when he opened what was then the Technical College, and exclaimed ‘What the hell is that?”.
From Lemn Sissay’s series of poems adorning the walls and pavements through to the classical Ford Madox Brown murals at the Town Hall, but what other artworks lie in wait of discovery throughout the city? What about off the streets and into the everyday; the negative spaces where you spend so much time? There is almost always art in these functional buildings, only it’s not usually very good. Offices and art seem to exist in parallel universes to each other, with the best attempts often as depressing as a faded, mass-produced watercolour in a crass gold frame, strip lit for added nausea.
In The Midland Hotel, in the Wyvern Room, the walls are lined with Eadweard Muybridge photographs. Muybridge was fascinated with the locomotion of animals and was a pioneer in his field, capturing what the human eye could not perceive as separate motions. British born, but working mainly in California, Muybridge killed his wife’s lover and Phillip Glass produced an opera based on the story.
The Castle Hotel was once home to a mural of the former landlady; Kath Smethurst. The mural was created by Mark Kennedy, a prolific mosaic artist in Manchester but aside from the artistic merit of the piece it was the material used that really set this apart – the grouting was made from Kath’s ashes. Kennedy has used the same method for his mosaic of Bernard Manning on the wall of Manning’s Embassy Club in Harpuhey.