Jonathan Jones, 'On the wall' (The Observer, 05/04/2009)
Britain isn’t famous for its painted walls. In Italy you can’t move for frescoes but - it might be assumed - in this country the Reformation put paid to the “idolatry” of wall paintings just as it destroyed so much stained glass. Yet there are lots of fascinating murals and even ceiling paintings tucked away in Britain’s public and private buildings.
Some of the most recent and quirky examples of the art form are by Glasgow artist and writer Alasdair Gray. Nowadays renowned for his novels, including Lanark and Poor Things, he trained originally as an artist and his belief in socialism drove him to paint murals in Glasgow - many of which were lost.
More recently he has painted a new public ceiling work for the venue Oran Mor at the top of Byres Road, in the city’s West End, and done a new version of a 1970s mural at The Ubiquitous Chip restaurant (12 Ashton Lane). Gray is a rare modern exponent of an art that was seen as the noblest branch of painting in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In London, you can see Rubens’ Banqueting House ceiling (Whitehall, at Horseguards Avenue), one of Europe’s great baroque paintings by the grandaddy of British public art. James Thornhill’s Painted Hall (Old Royal Naval Hospital, riverside, Greenwich) is also easily accessible. But a real London art secret is the great cycle of history paintings by James Barry in the Royal Society of Arts on John Adam Street, off the Strand.
Irish painter Barry created his ambitious allegory of human progress in the 18th century with no patron and no money. Just like Gray centuries later, he believed murals were the truly social art form - so he created them.
His painted room remains surprisingly little-known and can only be visited on one Sunday a month. With its visions of hell, mythic depiction of the Thames and grand sense of history, a real discovery awaits the curious.
Even older murals have survived. In the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey you can see a worn but fascinating medieval painting of the Last Judgement. Similar scenes survive in a surprising number of British parish churches, such as in Ashampstead, Berkshire and Blyth, Nottinghamshire.