'Fraternity' at the Mildmay
This striking design depicts a mural painted in 1911 or thereabouts for the main hall of Mildmay Radical Club in North London. It seems to have been one of several murals commissioned for arched recesses in the main hall. The club is still going strong, the hall is very much there, but the murals (and indeed the arches) are no longer visible - though it is at least possible that they are concealed under subsequent layers of paint, paper and renovation.
A representation of the mural survives only because it was proudly placed on the cover of the club's half-yearly report and balance sheet (and library catalogue!) for the latter part of 1911. This is on display in a cabinet on the first-floor of the club. Whether the artist, W. White, was a club member or someone commissioned to undertake the murals is not clear.
The design is intriguing - a flat capped working man surrounded by men all with different headgear and working dress who seem to represent international labour: one looks Indian, another perhaps Turkish or North African and the others, well, perhaps Australian and American.
Some of the imagery is puzzling - a curious shaped container, with a dragon's tail, is spilling out jewels and other items of value ... perhaps the wealth that comes from fraternity and cooperation. There's clearly an Imperial angle here, but it's difficult to read the artist's message (if he had one). It is of course very masculine - apart from a rather aethereal likeness of a woman representing, of all things, 'fraternity'. In the foreground there's a beehive, a common representation of useful toil, along with a cornucopia of fruits and flowers.
There are some points of comparison - check out the headgear! - with the socialist Walter Crane's design from some years earlier on the same theme - fraternity.
There's an even more striking analogy with a couple of the plasterwork figures - attributed to Walter Crane - in the grounds of the King's College Library off Chancery Lane, a remarkable series of plaster panels about which I have blogged before:
I am not suggesting that Crane's work provided the model for the Mildmay mural ... but they do have something in common, especially the hats, caps and turbans!
LATER: Prompted by the comment from Felix Driver, an historical geographer who has written about Walter Crane and his depictions of Empire, I am also posting Crane's imperial map - which posits 'fraternity' as well as 'freedom' and 'federation' as the virtues of Empire:
What a remarkable bookplate! It graces a book I've just bought, and there's quite a story behind it.
The bookplate was designed by Walter Crane - a socialist and talented designer and graphic artist - and engraved by W.H. Hooper. The branch referred to is the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League - hence the initials HSL in the design. And the flower - whose likeness appears at the heart of the bloom - is May Morris, a prominent member of the branch. May was the daughter of the renowned writer and activist William Morris - the leading figure in the Socialist League and in its Hammersmith branch. And the bookplate was to mark her marriage to a fellow socialist - indeed a leading figure in the League - Henry Halliday Sparling.
It's been argued, with some justice I think, that Crane's celebration of Morris for her ornamental quality reflects the personal and professional challenges she faced.
The bookplate appears in a copy of Wllliam Morris's lectures, Hopes and Fears for Art, published in 1882. And a printed letter tipped in to the book makes clear that this was one of several volumes presented by the branch to May Morris as a wedding present.
The letter reads:
We, the undersigned, fellow members with you of the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League, ask you to accept this gift of books, and with it the heartiest assurance of our love.
You have lived among us, and are endeared to us; you have worked for us with your best strength. Happily you do not leave us now. We feel nevertheless, looking forward to the near day of your marriage, that there comes a time in which a full word of goodwill may be spoken, and which indeed in brotherhood that holds you among its sisters, may hardly be repressed.
We wish you and your husband good health and long life and all that men wish each other. We wish for ourselves that you and he may dwell long in the Fraternity of the League.
TO MAY MORRIS
A note underneath in pencil reads: 'This book label + letter were given to me by Mrs Lang a friend + neighbour of Wm Morris'. This may be a reference to the writer Nora Lang, whose husband Andrew was also a writer and an early admirer and critic of William Morris's writing.
The original of the letter - signed by sixty-four members of the Hammersmith branch - is still extant, and has been reproduced in a recent issue of the journal of the William Morris Society in the US
By the time Morris and Sparling got married, the Socialist League was close to a crisis - the anarchist element within its ranks gained the upper hand and many of what became the minority faction, including William Morris and his son-in-law, withdrew from the organisation. May Morris's marriage wasn't a success and the couple divorced after a few years.
The Hammersmith branch - and in its later incarnation the Hammersmith Socialist Society - enjoyed a rare privilege for left-wing organisations of that time ... a group photo. Indeed there were a couple down the years - there are details here in this article by Nigel Stott.
It's strange the things you spot at summer parties. Sir Rick Trainor (he taught me almost forty years ago) yesterday evening hosted his last summer party as Principal of King's College, London - he heads off over the summer to be the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford.
The party was in the hidden away grounds of King's Maughan Library on Chancery Lane - and it's there that I came across these remarkable panels designed (it seems) by Walter Crane.
Crane was an influential artist and book illustrator - and a pioneering socialist ... indeed his designs featured on the membership cards, in the masthead designs, everywhere, in the socialist movement of the 1880s. He was a close ally of William Morris in particular.
These panels were designed for St Dunstan's House, a publisher's office, when it was built on Fetter Lane in 1886 (when Crane was most actively involved in the socialist movement). His authorship of the design seems to be less than absolutely certain. The building has been demolioshed - and the panels moved to King's property nearby, where they have been incorporated into what you might call a feature, though one sadly rather hidden away alongside the bicycle racks.
What's are these designs all about? Well the company based at St Dunstan's House published maps and novels including Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. There's no particular reason to believe that these panels were their commission - thought it would sort of make sense. There's a bit more detail here.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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