The history behind two Stevenage public murals - one at Primark - now protected with listed status
- Credit: Elain Harwood / Historic England Archive
Two striking public artworks in Stevenage – including one on the side of a Primark store – have been given listed status.
Gyula Bajó’s tiled mural in the town centre and Stevenage subway sculpture 'Scenes of Contemporary Life’ by William Mitchell have both been listed at Grade II by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of Historic England.
The tiled mural by Gyula Bajó at the former Co-operative House in the Town Square – now Primark – was installed between 1956 and 1958.
It is composed of 800 vitrified ceramic tiles with coloured enamel glazes, which were fired at 900 degrees Centigrade, and is the earliest of the four major surviving Co-op murals of the 1950s and 1960s.
Craig Daniels, area manager Hertfordshire, East Anglia and Bedfordshire at Primark, said: “We’re proud to be able to call this historic building our Stevenage home, ensuring the Co-Operative House’s legacy as the ‘Stevenage Super Store’ lives on and we are able to continue to serve the local community.
"As one of the most important landmarks in Stevenage town centre, it’s great to see the mural be recognised through this new listing.”
‘Scenes of Contemporary Life’, by innovative sculptor William Mitchell, is a two-part sculptural wall mural at Park Place underpass, St George's Way. It is a fascinating artistic record of local Stevenage life and memorable British events in 1972.
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The town centre of Stevenage – Britain’s first post-war new town – was among the earliest and most influential pedestrian developments of its type in the world. Sculpture and external decoration were key features of its design.
Phil Bibby, executive member for highways and transport at Hertfordshire County Council, said: “As Britain’s first post-war new town, and one of the earliest and most influential pedestrian developments of its type in the world, Stevenage has a rich and fascinating history that these Grade II listings are part of.
"They also highlight what a great modern development the town is, that meets the needs of our communities with innovative urban design and features.
“It’s fantastic that the cultural significance of these public artworks has been recognised by Historic England.
"I hope that in the future, some of the newer subway murals we’ve been creating around the town to make walking and cycling more attractive options might also gain similar recognition, and Stevenage Town Centre continues to evolve to meet the challenge of the 21st century.”
Residents are being encouraged to share their photos, drawings, film clips and local knowledge of these remarkable artworks on the National Heritage List for others to enjoy.
Eilíse McGuane, Historic England listing advisor, said: “These vibrant public works of art are an integral part of Stevenage town centre, seen and enjoyed by local people and visitors every day.
"They represent the innovative approach to the town centre design and celebrate Stevenage’s heritage.
"We’d love for local people to Enrich the List with photos and memories of the murals being created or of the town at that time.”
A book about Stevenage town centre has also been published by Historic England.
Featuring new research and photography alongside a plethora of archive images, Stevenage: Pioneering New Town Centre is the first book to look in detail at Stevenage town centre, from its planning, development and design influences to its enduring significance and survival.
About the listed artworks in detail
Tiled mural by Gyula Bajó at former Co-operative House, 6-8 Town Square
Co-operative House, now Primark, was the ‘Stevenage Super Store’ of the Letchworth, Hitchin and District Co-operative Society, and the first major retail premises to open in Stevenage Town Centre, in June 1958.
The former Co-op features the colourful tiled mural by Hungarian-born artist Gyula Bajó (1907-84), who joined the Architects’ Department of the Co-operative Wholesale Company around 1953.
The Stevenage artwork is the earliest of the four major surviving Co-op murals of the 1950s and 1960s, the others are in Ipswich (1963, by Bajó with Endre Hevezi, not listed), Hull (1963 by Alan Boyson, listed at Grade II), and Scunthorpe (1963 by Derek W Brown, not listed).
A Co-operative Wholesale Society pamphlet on ‘Co-operative Architecture’, published in 1960, explains that the Stevenage mural ‘symbolises the spirit and activities of the Co-operative Movement as a whole and in relation to Stevenage’.
The mural depicts the "four cornerstones of a balanced economy – Industry, Commerce, Transport and Agriculture…" with a spinning-wheel and finished products representing textiles and consumer goods, a steelworker representing heavy industry, a teaching figure representing science and technology, and scenes showing agriculture and family life.
On its unveiling, the mural was praised by the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and France’s Revue Moderne.
‘Scenes of Contemporary Life’ by William Mitchell at Park Place underpass, St George's Way, Stevenage, SG1 1AY
Park Place underpass was built as part of the dual carriageway redevelopment of St George’s Way in Stevenage in 1972.
It is adorned with murals by architectural sculptor William Mitchell (1925-2020).
Prolific and innovative, Mitchell worked in various materials, but most notably concrete.
His preparatory drawings, held in the collection of Stevenage Museum, help to explain how the sculpture was constructed.
The mural’s decorative panels depict social, political and cultural events of the day alongside scenes of everyday life in Stevenage; contemporary vehicles and the developing town; political demonstrators, including the Women’s Liberation Movement; a group of figures representing the ‘Flower Power’ movement; and a United States Air Force space rocket and cosmonauts in a Soviet landing capsule.
In correspondence with Stevenage Development Corporation around 2015, Mitchell wrote that sculpture played an important role in giving an area character and making the surroundings "less severe".
Representations of the football team, buses, cars and people dressed in the fashionable clothes and hair styles of the day were intended to be "an instantly recognisable pastiche of time and place... the panels were meant as a time warp for the future and a recognisable landmark for the then present".
Who was Gyula Bajó?
Hungarian-born artist Gyula Bajó (1907-1984) held his first exhibition in Budapest in 1932 and received a doctorate in art in 1942, after which he sought refuge in England.
He and fellow Hungarian artist and architect Endre Hevezi (1923-2017) were taken on as labourers for the pottery firm of Booths and Colcloughs in Stoke in 1948.
In their spare time they designed what became known as ‘Bajó Ware’, a popular modern tableware with unusual designs based on historical and mythological themes.
Both men left the firm around 1953, Hevezi to continue his architectural studies, while Bajó joined the Architects’ Department of the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) as an architect in their London office.
He designed a number of tiled murals for the CWS, two of which survive, one in Stevenage (listed at Grade II) and the other in Ipswich (not listed).
Who was William Mitchell?
William Mitchell (1925-2020) was a prolific and innovative architectural sculptor who worked in various materials but most notably concrete.
He grew up in London and worked in painting and decorating before undertaking a National Diploma in Design at the Southern College of Art in Portsmouth, from which he secured a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and thence to the British School in Rome.
In 1957 he was appointed London County Council’s first in-house artist, a short-term post shared with Anthony Holloway.
The LCC’s architects, led by Oliver Cox, had fought for the post, wanting to encourage site-specific works using cheap materials; the art was to cost no more than conventional construction.
Mitchell’s first medium was concrete, and throughout his career he developed a number of techniques, including casting concrete from glass fibre moulds (as at Stevenage), and crafting sculptures from wet concrete known as 'Faircrete' (as at Clifton Cathedral).
Mitchell’s early work for London County Council on public housing and related community buildings led to work in many schools and public libraries around the country.
He also worked on large-scale schemes such as those at the Three Tuns public house in Coventry, and the Lea Valley Water Company in Hatfield (both Grade II).
His sculptural works within a host building include at Liverpool and Clifton cathedrals (both Grade II*).
Mitchell’s work overseas in the 1970s and 1980s include sculptural fountains at the Federal Building in Honolulu, Hawaii, murals at Richmond Station, San Francisco, and works in the Middle East.
He also created the decorative interior fibreglass panelling at the Curzon Mayfair Cinema in London and the Egyptian Rooms at Harrods, both listed at Grade II.
Stevenage: Pioneering New Town Centre book
The pedestrianised town centre of Stevenage was a pioneering development. Its innovative approach caused much controversy at the time but inspired planners and architects internationally.
The scheme was part of a wider move towards pedestrianisation which continued throughout the 20th century.
Stevenage: Pioneering New Town Centre is written by Emily Cole with Elain Harwood and Edward James. It is the first book to be published about the architecture of Stevenage town centre.
The study of the town centre's development offers a fascinating insight into changing society. Over the past 75 years, the way that people lived, worked, shopped and enjoyed leisure time altered the vision for Stevenage and for town centres across the country.