“Oldham Mural” is saved

Following support from Manchester Civic Society and SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Oldham Mural has been listed by the Government.  The following is a press release from SAVE Britain’s Heritage:

PRESS RELEASE: Post-war mural of ‘dazzling beauty’ in Oldham is celebrated and urgently protected through listing

10th August 2022

Government adds Oldham Mural masterpiece to national heritage register
SAVE Britain’s Heritage welcomes the listing at grade II of the Oldham Mural and its home, the Holy Rosary Church in Greater Manchester.

Today’s decision by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) on Historic England’s recommendation follows a long-running, high-profile campaign led by SAVE Britain’s Heritage and the artist’s great nephew  Nick Braithwaite to stop the building being demolished and to save the mural in situ.

In its report recommending listing, Historic England gave a string of reasons relating to architectural and historic interest. It said: “The mural is highly unusual and possibly unique in this country in its striking aesthetic combination of neo-Baroque mosaic and modernist Cubist-influenced fresco inventively applied to traditional Christian iconography in a deeply personal evocation of suffering and redemption.”

It also praised “the transcendent spiritual nature of Christ […] heightened by the use of glittering mosaic for the figure and golden mandorla, contrasting with the figures of Mary and St John in earthbound, monochrome blue fresco”.

It added that it was “a major work in his oeuvre, much of which has been lost, the quality of execution and craftsmanship is superb, creating a piece of considerable power”.

The church, on the edge of Oldham, has been closed since 2017, leaving both building and mural vulnerable to decay and dereliction. In recent days the building has been subject to vandalism – so today’s decision has been urgently awaited.

The Oldham Mural, praised by V&A director Tristram Hunt for its “dazzling beauty”, was created by visionary Hungarian artist George Mayer-Marton in 1955 using a rare combination of mosaic and fresco.

SAVE strongly backed the listing application made in August 2020 by the artist’s great nephew which contained new information by conservators about the quality of the fresco surviving beneath a partial 1980s overpainting, as well as statements from eminent art historians and strong support from the Twentieth Century Society.

We also galvanised support from galleries and museums that hold works by Mayer-Marton including the Victoria Gallery in Liverpool and the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea as well as the Imperial War Museum.

We also secured direct support from the directors of world-famous art museums including Tristram Hunt at the Victoria & Albert Museum and Gabriele Finaldi at the National Gallery in London, László Baán at Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts and Harald Krejci at the Belvedere in Vienna.

At a joint SAVE & Twentieth Century Society event earlier this year, Clare A.P. Willsdon, Professor of the History of Western Art at Glasgow University, explained the mural’s historical context and argued it should be considered a “Gesamtkunstwerk” – or Total Work of Art – because of the significance of its positioning within the church and the other sacred artworks it contains.

Henrietta Billings, director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, says: “This is a fantastic result for Oldham, and modern public art in England. We’re delighted that the mural will now be celebrated and finally given the recognition it deserves. Listing will open up a new chapter for this building and artwork and we look forward to helping the Diocese of Salford to find a new and sympathetic owner.”

Marcus Binney, executive president of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, says: “The listing averts the possible loss of a major religious work which has been causing huge concern in the art world and beyond.”

Nick Braithwaite, great nephew of George Mayer-Marton, says: “I am delighted this masterpiece of exceptional significance is finally receiving the national recognition it deserves. I am grateful to everyone who has helped get us here and especially to SAVE Britain’s Heritage for keeping the mural in the spotlight.”
George Mayer-Marton working at his desk in Vienna [Credit: Estate of George Mayer-Marton]

Mayer-Marton (born Hungary 1897, died Liverpool 1960) was a leading figure in the Viennese art world in the 1920s and 1930s. He and his wife escaped to Britain in 1938, where he began working as a lecturer for CEMA, the predecessor of the Arts Council. In 1952 he was appointed as a lecturer at the Liverpool College of Art. There he established the Department of Mural Art and the UK’s first course in this technique.

During his time at the college Mayer-Marton completed more than 200 oil paintings and was commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church to carry out works at a number of churches in Lancashire and Cheshire, completing numerous frescoes and mosaics, one of which, the Pentecost, now resides in the Metropolitan Church of Christ the King in Liverpool.

The Oldham Mural is one of only two ecclesiastical murals by Mayer-Marton that survive in situ, and the only one that incorporates both fresco and mosaic. The Byzantine mosaic method he employed is thought to be its first use in this country.

The mosaic crucifixion was originally surrounded by wall paintings depicting the figures of Mary and John the Apostle against a background of various shades of blue. Historical photographs show that the wall painting extended over the entire wall, but in the 1980s the fresco element was painted over.  

New evidence has concluded that the fresco remains intact under the paint and that it is possible to restore the mural to its original condition.