The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity

(Towner Gallery, Eastbourne)

Reviewed by David Attwood

I think there was still a Lyons opposite Charing Cross station when I arrived in London in the 1970s, though I don’t suppose that by then it called itself anything so Betjemanesque as a teashop. Even so, the chain was out of step with a new fast-food age, and  they had all gone by 1981. But J Lyons & Co was once a catering giant to be reckoned with, running 200 teashops nationwide, often on prominent corner sites.

Between 1946 and 1955 Lyons commissioned three series of lithographs from eminent British artists and illustrators, as a relatively quick and inexpensive way of brightening up the post-war dowdiness of their teashop interiors. The Towner’s show brought together the complete set of 40 lithographs, together with some of the original paintings and working drawings, from artists including Edward Bawden, John Piper, a young David Gentleman, John Minton and Duncan Grant.  Another, Charles Mozley, may be a little less familiar now, but his life and work are typical of many: the Royal College of Art, posters for Shell and London Underground, camouflage work in WWII, then Festival of Britain murals and commercial art in the fifties.

Jack Beddington, who had worked on the Shell campaigns before the war, was in charge of the Lyons scheme. He suggested a list of possible artists, and brought in Barnett Freedman as lithographic expert and the printing firm Chromoworks to produce the prints. Like Frank Pick at the London Passenger Transport Board, he understood that using upscale art could improve a company’s image, but also that it was best to be discreet about this, as he made clear in a 1946 letter to a Lyons director: ‘I should like to emphasise that this scheme… should have no connection with advertising. From the publicity point of view it seems highly important that the venture should be presented as your anxiety to popularise British artists and not to sell service, goods or anything else.’

As with the School Prints scheme – which was getting going at about the same time – there was after the war a patrician optimism about public taste, the idea of a cultural pyramid which many would naturally wish to ascend if given the chance. Beddington went on: ‘It is necessary to remember that in the last six years the intellectual age of the public has advanced a good deal: there is a much more widespread and informed interest in music, literature, the arts and matters of the mind generally, and this is true through all the income levels.’ The BBC’s Third Programme, launched in September 1946, was another case in point, as to some extent would be the Festival of Britain itself.

Indeed, taken as a whole, the lithographs present a very particular idea of Britishness. Rural and coastal landscapes, domestic interiors, street scenes and still-lifes; Leisure pursuits such as cricket, fishing, punting, boxing and piano-playing vie with scenes of a railway station, a hotel lobby and a fishmonger’s shop; John Minton’s apple pickers in Kent contrast with yeoman warders at the Tower of London and afternoon tea in Henley.  John Piper’s lithograph was inspired by the stage sets and costumes for Benjamin Britten’s new opera Gloriana.  Some artists produced an auto-lithograph by drawing an image directly on to the lithographic stone or plate, while others provided a watercolour, oil, gouache, drawing or collage to be turned into a print. 1500 copies of each print were produced, of which 1000 were put on sale to the public at 2/6d each. Anthony Gross’s Herne Bay Pier was apparently a best seller, but I liked the intense colours of Fred Uhlman’s The Lighthouse of St Agnes, and Clifford Frith’s haunting River Rother at Rye.

It’s certainly true that the prints achieved their purpose of allowing the public to see a wide range of British art; if simply brightening up the walls had been the aim, they might not have chosen Mary Kessell’s Flight into Egypt or Ruskin Spear’s rather gloomy billiards saloon. In fact, it would have been nice to see more original photographs of teashop interiors with the lithographs in place, for they seem to have been stylishly designed, and the Towner’s café made no more than a superficial attempt to capture anything of the Lyons ambience. Never mind; this was the valuable and enjoyable outcome of a lengthy project to track down some of the rarer Lyons lithographs.