Pioneering Women #2: Mary Adshead

In preparation for my recent Monday lecture at the Birmingham & Midland Institute, I’ve been exploring the work of painter, illustrator and muralist Mary Adshead (1904-1995). Over a career spanning seven decades, Adshead produced dozens of murals and mosaics for public spaces, designed stamps for the GPO, and illustrated children’s books, some with her husband, the artist Stephen Bone. She was committed both to producing art for everyday spaces, and to promoting the work of women artists. She exhibited with the Women’s International Art Club from the mid-1930s and served on their committee in 1951. Her 1931 painting Portrait of Marjorie Gertler was recently exhibited at Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists 1900-1950, but Adshead has yet to receive the full recognition she deserves.

Mary Adshead painting a mural in her studio © the Artist’s Estate, Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.

Described in her obituary as ‘an immensely practical woman’, Adshead pursued painting whilst caring for three children and cooking for seven (including her parents). Yet these ‘distractions’ didn’t stop her from attracting high-profile commissions from Vauxhall Motors, Selfridges, London Underground, Cunard and the 1937 Paris Exhibition, among many others. We get a sense of her determination and ‘unusual composure’ in this striking self-portrait from 1931.

Mary Adshead, Self Portrait (1931) © Museums Sheffield. http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-72401

Adshead is perhaps best known for her interwar murals, especially those for Professor Charles Reilly’s dining room, with Rex Whistler (1926), and for Lord Beaverbrook’s Newmarket House (1928), one of which featured Winston Churchill riding an elephant. Lesser known, but no less interesting, are her wartime murals, especially those produced for Birmingham.

Mary Adshead, Staircase Decoration at Columba House Service Men’s Club, John Bright Street, Birmingham (c. 1942), from Oliver Hill, ‘Mural Painting in War Canteens and British Restaurants’, The Studio (November 1943), p. 139. Author’s collection.

This wonderful mural adorned the staircase in the Service Men’s Club on John Bright Street. With its cheerful central figure beckoning visitors in, it would have offered tired servicemen a warm welcome. I’m not sure about the significance of the letters flying in – was there a postal connection here? – but the overall effect is charming.

Just a few streets away, Adshead also produced a series of murals for the British Restaurant on Granville Street.

Mary Adshead, The World’s Food murals, Granville Street British Restaurant, Birmingham, from Eric Newton, ‘Meals and Murals’, Architectural Review, August 1943, p. 44. © The Archive of Dorothy Annan & Trevor Tennant at the Henry Moore Institute’s Archive of Sculptors Papers/Leeds Museums & Galleries.

The British Restaurants scheme was devised after the Blitz 1940 to supplement the rations of those unable to procure unrationed food, namely children and low-income workers. But the scheme was open to everyone: they were entirely democratic, and based around the idea of communal eating. There’s a lovely account of the founding of British Restaurants on the Liss Llewellyn website. Prices were deliberately kept low: a two or three course meal cost on average 1 shilling and 2 pence. The restaurants were immensely popular: over the 4 years they were in operation, there were 2000 restaurants serving 4 million meals a week. In Adshead’s painting of the Coventry British Restaurant, you can see diners sitting at long canteen-style benches.

Mary Adshead (1904 – 1995):
British Restaurant Coventry After Dinner, 1941
Oil on panel
12 x 13 3/4 in. (30.5 x 35 cm)
© the Artist’s Estate, Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.

At some point during the war, murals began appearing in British Restaurants. Quite how the scheme started is unclear: the Artists International Association (AIA) records at the Tate suggest that artists in Leamington, Nottingham, Northampton and London approached local authorities to offer their services as muralists. The AIA then approached CEMA, the British Institute of Adult Education and the Ministry of Food to set up a nationwide scheme. At some point, the Ministry appointed the artist Clive Gardiner as artistic advisor, but I haven’t worked out how many murals were commissioned centrally, and how many were produced in liaison with local committees.

Some of these murals were produced on boards, others painted directly onto the walls. Adshead’s Granville Street mural attracted particular praise from the art critic Eric Newton for incorporating the room’s ‘architectural impedimenta’ into its design.[1] In the Architectural Review picture above, you can see how Adshead has turned an air duct into the prow of a liner. Muralists often ‘squared’ their images to help them transfer their compositions from preparatory sketches to wall or board: we can see this ‘squaring up’ at work in Adshead’s watercolour study for The World’s Food murals below.

Mary Adshead (1904 – 1995):
Farmers ploughing, Study for The World’s Food mural, c. 1942
Signed, squared in pencil
Watercolour over pencil
4 3/8 x 7 1/2 in. (12.2 x 19 cm)
© the Artist’s Estate, Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.

These two wartime murals were not Adshead’s only projects for Birmingham. In the 1930s, Adshead also produced a lunette design for the Garrison Lane Nursery Training School in Birmingham, but it is not clear whether the design was ever carried out.

Mary Adshead (1904 – 1995):
Lunette design for a school mural, 1930’s
Gouache on paper
6 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. (16.5 x 32 cm)
© the Artist’s Estate, Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.

As the project goes on, I’ll be researching Adshead’s wartime murals in more detail. I’m keen to find out who commissioned the Birmingham murals: did Adshead put herself forward, or was she contacted by the Ministry or local authorities? Any leads would be most gratefully received!

Thank you to Liss Llewellyn, Museums Sheffield and the Henry Moore Institute‘s Archive of Sculptors Papers for help with images for this piece.


[1] Eric Newton, ‘Meals and Murals’, Architectural Review (August 1943), 41-48 (44).

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