The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Colchester Pioneering Public Art receives £52,000 from the National Lottery

The Twentieth Century Society welcomes the decision by the Heritage Lottery Fund to award £52,000 to support the restoration and interpretation of a series of murals by artists Henry Collins and Joyce Pallot in Colchester’s Southway Subways.

Clare Price, Senior Conservation Adviser at C20 Society, supported the application by Colchester Civic Society and Colchester in Bloom to the HLF, saying: “Henry and Joyce Collins’ cast concrete murals across the UK represent a significant and unusual instance of public art commissions which celebrate the locality and enrich the streetscape. The Southway work is very much of its time, and has historical significance in this context. The intention to repair and refurbish these significant features of the town centre, ensuring that they can continue to be enjoyed by the public is laudable and fully justifies the application for funding. The Society not only supports these goals but considers them vital to the continued existence of these important works of public art.”

Henry Collins (1910-1994) and Joyce (nee Pallot) (1912-2004) met at the Colchester Art School in 1932 and their first prominent commission was for the Sea and Ships Pavilion for the Festival of Britain, 1951. International commissions included a Wareite (early Formica) piece for the Brussels Exhibition, 1957-8, wallpaper designs for Rasch (German parent company of Sanderson) in 1960 and Formica panels for Expo ’70, Osaka. They founded the Colchester Art Society in 1948 along with Cedric Morris, a teacher of Lucien Freud. Henry Collins went on to teach at the St Martins School of Art, London and Colchester Art School. Joyce Collins continued to be a prominent member of the Colchester Art Society committee alongside alumni including John Nash. Their work has been exhibited widely, including at the Royal Academy.

The Collins’ were first approached by Sainsbury’s in 1969 to provide concrete murals for the new store in their home town of Colchester. A series of commissions for Sainsbury’s ensued along with BHS and other town centre commissions, and corporate work for IBM and Philips among others. Lynn Pearson’s Post War Murals database (2015) estimates that they undertook approximately 28 commissions for public and corporate work from the 1960s into the early 1980s.

The Collins’ work is renowned for the importance they placed on the making process, and particularly the relationship of the finished work to its context. Joyce Collins undertook rigorous historical research into the site in order to develop designs which would have a strong sense of local place, whilst Henry Collins took the lead in drawing. Designs were then translated from paper onto polystyrene moulds using homemade tools – items as mundane as nutmeg graters, a cake mould and a potato chipper were used to produce the most abstract and impressive of their designs.

They did not look to the past purely for iconic inspiration, but sought to learn from the way in which materials such as timber and stone had been manipulated by craftsmen historically, taking cues from church and secular building decoration, paying particular attention to how colour was integrated in other materials. The Collins’ were innovative in their use of colour, often introducing mosaic tiles to the mould that were then transferred during pre-casting. They believed that concrete as a medium did not ‘lend itself naturally to strong, clear colour,’ but that there were ‘definite reasons for using colour with the medium.’ Flat glass mosaics were used ‘to emphasize forms and shapes, at the same time provide a change in texture.’ (Concrete Quarterly, 1975) Casting was then largely carried out nearby at Hutton’s Construction in Birch, Essex.

It is unknown how many of the Collins’ public works survive, though many are thought to have already been lost. In 2014 the Firstsite gallery in Colchester funded the restoration and relocation of three 1976 reliefs by Henry and Joyce Collins, originally from Colchester BHS to 15 Queen Street, Colchester. This current initiative is a worthy continuation of the recognition of these renowned artists in their home town.