Public art nearly always raises controversy, not least because of the cost. It would not be true to say that it always grows on you with time, but many pieces do and of the many towns that invested in William Mitchell’s work mainly in the 1960s and 1970s most are are glad to still be enjoying them, sadly some though have been lost forever to the bulldozer.
William Mitchell was born in London’s Maida Vale in 1925. His early childhood was plagued by illness resulting in very little schooling as he spent extensive periods in hospitals and convalescent homes. In 1938 he was apprenticed to a London firm of decorators, where he developed a taste for the history and tradition of the craft. He then spent 3 years in the Royal Navy after which he got a job painting scenes and panoramic views for the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI), refurbishing and decorating their clubs and canteens across the world. He wanted to learn more about materials and craftsmanship so took out an insurance book which enanled him to work for the Pearl Insurance Company as an Insurance Agent. Eventually Mitchell saved enough money to pay for a more formal art education. He studied at The Southern College of Art in Portsmouth and then at the Royal College of Art in London between 1953 and 1957. There he won both a Silver Medal and the Abbey Award entitling him to a fourth post-graduate year at the British School at Rome.
Upon his return Mitchell was appointed as a Design Consultant to the London County Council, Architects Department. Mitchell was soon working with some of the UK’s most respected builders, architects and engineers of the time including Sir Frederick Gibberd, Sir Basil Spence, The Building Design Partnership and Sir Ove Arup. The demand for new buildings, was collosal after World War Two and concrete, even though it had been around for a while, was still seen as a miracle building material which enabled cutting edge modernist design.
In the 1950s, Mitchell produced work for a wide variety of clients and his work at the London County Council enabled him to set up his own company in the early 1960s, employing over 40 skilled craftsmen and artists. Mitchell was a down to earth individual and gained a reputation for reliability. His imaginative patterned creations appeared in Brutalist social housing projects, public parks, shopping centres, tunnels, private insurance offices, schools, cinemas and religious buildings and he develop a style that became known throughout Britain and internationally.
Mitchell’s interest in experimentation, resulted in varied finishes created using recycled timber and old furniture to create mosaics; recycled glass, melted down and recast; poured resin and polyurethane to add colour and contemporary construction materials including GRP (Glass reinforced plastic) and GRC (Glass reinforced concrete) to create large scale panelled installations. He was one of the few artists to investigate Faircrete, a John Laing developed concrete product that could be carved whilst still wet, retaining these shapes once dry.
His work featured in Concrete Quarterly magazine and in-depth articles and features in the UK construction press helped to confirm Mitchell’s reputation within the industry. He became a member of the Design Advisory Board, Hammersmith College of Art, Trent Polytechnic, Formwork Advisory Committee and the Concrete Society, and was a regular on the construction lecture circuit, both in the UK and abroad (especially the U.S.), being described as a “doyen of British muralists” at a presentation he gave in 2007 to the Tile and Ceramics Society.
He died in Cumbria, just over a year ago in January 2020 at the age of 94 but his work, largely overlooked since the 1970s, is now inspiring sculptural architecture today with it’s current appetite for #Brutalism, concrete work and geometric form. He said of his work “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. It was great to be part of it.” I personally love his murals, and prefer them to many pictorial painted works that adorn so many buildings today. They are the perfect marriage of organic and geometric design for any urban area so if any town planners or architects are reading this, take note!