Muswell Hill Library’s historic mural: ‘Decidedly striking’ artwork that’s turned heads for since the 1930s
- Credit: Archant
One of the most striking things about Muswell Hill Library is the 1930s mural that adorns the children’s section.
The mural has been cited as one of the reasons behind the building’s Grade II listing, while visitors to this day are entertained by the mythic depictions of the – purported – discovery of the Mossy Well that gives Muswell Hill its name.
It is thought to be the oldest surviving mural decoration in a children’s public library.
But the circumstances around its commisioning and design had faded into history.
With the help of the Haringey Archives at Bruce Castle, the Ham&High has been able to reconstruct just how the mural came to be.
In February 1929, the Hornsey Borough librarian – a Mr J.G. Faraday planted the seed of an idea. Reporting back from a series of visits to libraries in places as far-flung as Leeds and Sheffield, he suggested that making children’s libraries pleasant and “imparting them with an air of homeliness and cheerfulness, and, thus divesting them of the formal and austere character of the classroom” would encourage children to visit and use them.
In September of 1930, the principal of Hornsey School of Art, John C Moody, made a proposal to make that happen – he wanted to decorate both the hall and the children’s room of the library.
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And the borough council enthusiastically took him up on the offer “with thanks”, delighted to “merely repay out of pocket expenses” of up to £100.
Panels depicting the evolution of printing were the first to be drawn, with a second set of three, showing the mythical history of Muswell Hill, following in 1938.
Mr D Fuller won first prize in a competition the college ran to design the second trio of panels.
A glance at the editions of the Hornsey Journal, our now sadly defunct sister paper, from throughout the decade yields more.
Alongside notes reporting the death of a mayoress – Mrs Emily Cooper – a late 1933 copy illlustrates the excitement that the unveiling of some of the first decorative panels drew.
The Journal reported: “People entering the Muswell Hill Lending Library, Queen’s Avenue, this week have been impressed by the beauty of some decorations on the panels above the south wall. The decorations consist of three canvasses cunningly attached to the panels to give the effect of mural paintings.”
The paper described them as “decidedly striking”. This was November 24, 1933.
Then in January of the following year the mayor of Hornsey presided over a “pleasing little ceremony” to unveil more of the decorations at the library.
The January 25, 1934, edition of the Journal relayed Hornsey School of Art’s Mr J C Moody making the argument that civic buildings should make more opportunities for budding artists – like those at his college – to practice their skills.
By 1938, the second series of three panels were unveiled by Alderman Hubert Williams – the then mayor of Hornsey. The Journal reports him remarking that “the fame of the first series of panels had spread throughout the British Isles and had attracted visitors from America, France, Holland, denmark, Sweden and Germany.”
The panels had been designed by D Fuller, who had tragically died “about three weeks before” the second series were unveiled, but their completion, the Journal decreed, was a success. The paper’s correspondent said: “The three panels complete a decorative scheme for the lending library and they provide a pleasing contrast to the earlier series representing the evolution of printing on the opposite wall.
“They are beautifully executed; the drawing is clean of line and clear and the colouring is very cool and fresh, a happy medium for the Arcadian scenes they picture.”
The finished second set of panels, worked on by Mr Fuller, Mr Shaw, Mr R Woodward, Mr G Makins and Miss W M Gamlen, were unveiled on February 24, 1938.
Of course more recently, the artwork – which is mentioned in the building’s listing on the Historic England website – was one of the library’s features campaigners were terrified of losing when Haringey Council were battling to move the library.
To the relief of local people and the Friends of Muswell Hill Library, that plan was scrapped in 2017, and children in Muswell Hill are still able to enjoy the artwork designed for them more than eight decades ago.