Phyllis Bray, Artist
David Buckman author of From Bow To Biennale: Artists of the East London Group recalls the forgotten name of Phyllis Bray. Celebrated for her murals at the People’s Palace in Mile End, Bray was a significant talent and an integral part of the lost history of one of the major artistic movements to come out of the East End in the last century.
Detail of mural ‘The Drama’ by Phyllis Bray at the People’s Palace
Many artists, writers and composers enter a twilight period after death while their work is reassessed. Some recover and others do not, yet one enjoying a positive reassessment at present is the artist Phyllis Bray, with two recent events spotlighting her work.
The first was the refurbishment of the People’s Palace in Mile End, where part of her large mural The Drama has been restored and is now on permanent display. The other is the first exhibition for eighty years of the East London Group, where one of her finest paintings is on display – The Lobster & The Lighthouse, portraying the now-demolished lighthouse at Braunton in Devon.
Phyllis Bray was born in 1911 and, after studying at Queenwood, Eastbourne, attended the Slade School of Fine Art between 1927-31, where she was fortunate to catch the end of Henry Tonks’ distinguished professorship. He had a reputation for acerbic comments upon the work of female students, occasionally reducing them to tears, but Bray was a gifted favourite. She won a string of awards and, at the strawberry tea honouring Tonks on the day of his departure in 1930, she was one of those chosen to wait on him.
Bray gained her fine art diploma in 1931 and that summer married John Cooper, who had been a teacher of evening classes since he left the Slade in 1922. It was his second marriage, after an unsuccessful one to another Slade student, Helen Taylor. By 1931, Cooper had established the East London Group through classes he taught at the Bow & Bromley Evening Institute in Coborn Rd from the mid-twenties onwards. The debut exhibition of work by the East London Art Club at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in December 1928, part of which was shown at what is now the Tate Britain in early 1929, led in November of that year to the first of eight annual East London Group exhibitions at Alex. Reid & Lefevre patronised by wealthy collectors from high society.
The show was an astonishing success and had to be extended for several weeks, described by the Manchester Guardian as “one of the most interesting and significant things in the London art season.” It was there that Cooper and other East London Group stalwarts, including as William Coldstream, Murroe FitzGerald, Archibald Hattemore, Elwin Hawthorne, Harold and Walter Steggles, and Albert Turpin established their careers.
Phyllis Bray began her participation by showing two paintings at the second exhibition in December 1930, among a total of ninety catalogued works, and each year after that her paintings and drawings became important features of these group shows. She was also a valuable additional teacher at Bow, as Cooper struggled to cope with his commitment there of three nights a week while also holding classes in Lambeth and Shoreditch and, eventually, at the Central School of Art too. By the 1937-38 academic season, Cooper was no longer at Bow and Bray took responsibility for overseeing the students herself with the support of another teacher.
But by then her marriage to the volatile Cooper had collapsed. The crisis came in 1936, the year of the last East London Group winter show at Alex. Reid & Lefevre and Bray’s commission to paint murals for the New People’s Palace. It was during this work in Mile End that she formed an emotional attachment to the architect George Coles.
The old People’s Palace had long been a centre of East End cultural life. Its creation was due to the beneficence of painter, property owner and philanthropist John Barber Beaumont who donated money to found a Philosophical Institution in Mile End that would provide educational and recreational facilities for working men. In 1887, Queen Victoria opened the Queen’s Hall as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations but a fire had destroyed the building in 1931. Construction of a New People’s Palace proceeded in 1936, with the front of the building enhanced by five sculpted reliefs by Eric Gill of Drama, Music, Fellowship, Dancing, Sport and Recreation.
Architect George Coles oversaw the interior and fellow architect Victor Kerr advocated the inclusion of Phyllis Bray’s murals. Coles was a master of the Art Deco style, and his works included the Gaumont State Cinema in Kilburn, the Carlton Cinema in Islington, the Troxy in Stepney and several Odeons. At the Queen’s Hall, it was decided that instead of painting direct onto plaster as she originally proposed, Bray would undertake three panels on canvas, each twelve feet by ten feet, and the subjects would be The Dance, The Drama and The Music.
A contemporary photograph shows Bray, elegantly balanced upon a precarious stepladder, busy painting The Dance. She was always athletic, and later in life famously strode early in the morning to plunge at dawn into the ladies’ pool near her home in Hampstead and turned a cartwheel on the Heath in celebration of her sixtieth birthday.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth performed the opening ceremony at the New Queen’s Hall on 13th February 1937. Previously, in November of 1936, Queen Mary November had seen Bray at work and been impressed by her painting and, several months after the opening, the Queen returned again, requesting to view the completed murals. Yet, although the New People’s Palace enjoyed some success before the war, by 1953 it was put up for sale and Queen Mary College acquired it.
The fate of the murals was unknown until 2011 when Queen Mary College began restoring the People’s Palace and the mystery was uncovered by Eoin O’Maolalai, Senior Estates Project Manager at Queen Mary, after a researcher at Tate Britain inquired whether the paintings had survived. Although the lower half of the murals had been destroyed when the hall was converted to a lecture theatre, O’Maolalai realised that the top half still existed in a storeroom above the theatre. “I found the wall and ran my fingers over the painted surface. What I felt wasn’t plaster, it was more like fabric. I looked more closely, found a tear in the fabric, peeled off some of the paint and below it I could see the vague outlines of what could be one of the murals.” O’Maolalai told me,“I peeled off some more of the paint and realised that I had found the top half of the murals. It was clear that the bottom half had been removed, possibly in the 1950s when a suspended ceiling was installed in the Small Hall.”
Restoration concentrated on the central panel, The Drama. Paint specialist Catherine Hassall scraped flecks of the covering paint off with scalpel, millimetre by millimetre, to reveal Bray’s work underneath. Hassall also carried out paint analysis during restoration work in the Great Hall of the People’s Palace, to match the Hall’s redecoration to its original colour scheme. Once the overpaint was scraped off, the Bray canvas was carefully removed from the wall, lined and stretched – and a decision was made not to touch up the picture, to avoid losing original paint. The fragment was put on display at the official reopening of the People’s Palace, after a £6.3 million renovation, on 20th March. Alongside it, are displayed photographs of the building and murals from the venue’s thirties heyday.
After her failed marriage to John Cooper, Bray married Eric Phillips, a distinguished civil servant. She died in 1991 after a successful career as an artist, with multiple mixed and solo exhibitions. As well as commercial work, including a string of book illustrations, she used her talents as a muralist in assisting Hans Feibusch, a collaboration lasting over forty years – creating paintings in Chichester Cathedral, Dudley Town Hall in Worcestershire, the Civic Centre in Monmouth and many parish churches. London examples are St Crispin’s in Bermondsey, with a fine ceiling by Bray, and St Alban the Martyr in Holborn.
Phyllis Bray, c. 1936
At work on the People’s Palace murals, 1936
The completed murals – The Dance, The Drama and The Music
The Dance, watercolour study
Elwin Hawthorne, Phyllis Bray, John Cooper and Brynhild Parker at the Lefevre Galleries, c. 1932
Temple of Juno Agrigento, gouache (courtesy of Louise Kosman, Edinburgh)
Selinunte, Sicily, gouache (courtesy of Louise Kosman, Edinburgh)
Landscape, gouache (courtesy of Louise Kosman, Edinburgh)
French Harbour, gouache (courtesy of Louise Kosman, Edinburgh)
Landscape near Brockweir, gouache (courtesy of Louise Kosman, Edinburgh)
The Mill, oil on canvas, 1933
The Lobster & The Lighthouse, oil on canvas
Phyllis Bray sketching in Bow by Hannah Cohen, c. 1932, crayon drawing
Drama, relief by Eric Gill on the front of the People’s Palace, 1936
Music, relief by Eric Gill on the facade of the People’s Palace, 1936
You may also like to read David Buckman’s other features about the East London Group
From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group by David Buckman can be ordered direct from the publisher Francis Boutle and copies are on sale in bookshops including Brick Lane Bookshop, Broadway Books, Newham Bookshop, Stoke Newington Bookshop and London Review Bookshop.
The exhibition From Bow to Biennale – Artists of the East London Group including Phyllis Bray’s painting ‘The Lobster & The Lighthouses’ runs at Abbott & Holder, Museum St, Bloomsbury,WC1, until Saturday 6th April.