Anne Gardom considers the significance of murals

Murals – paintings on walls – are as old as mankind itself, full of mystery and unanswered questions. We look at the cave-paintings in France and Spain, or those made by the bushmen in Africa, and we try to imagine the life of the people who made them. What do they mean to us, and what did they mean to the people who made them? What do they tell us about the lives they lived?

The small town of Chemainus has a collection of very remarkable murals, and a visit there at the beginning of this year sparked off a train of thought: why do people paint on walls? Certainly we see paintings on walls all the time, even if only graffiti – and perhaps even they are saying something too.

Chemainus is a small town on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada, which sprang up to service the busy and prosperous timber trade. It centred on a very large wood mill which was the principal employer. It was a small town with a proud pioneering history, brought into being by the hard work, guts and determination of the first settlers, of many racial backgrounds, Europeans, American Indians, Chinese and Japanese among them. When the mill closed down after over 120 years of operation in 1983, Chemainus faced a desolate future, and the dissipation and disappearance of its very interesting history.

In order to preserve this history and to keep their town alive, the citizens of Chemainus decided to commission a series of historical murals to be painted on the walls of the houses in their town, which would describe and explain the way life used to be lived there. The result is quite extraordinary. A wide range of professional artists were asked to take part in the project and all their pictures and designs were carefully considered by the people of Chemainus before they were commissioned. The result is a series of murals of real artistic merit, a vivid reminder of the people who lived there.

Quite often photographs were used as a starting point – there is a portrait of Billy Thomas, all white whiskers and piercing grey eyes, who lived all his 102 years in Chemainus, and is still remembered by the people there. The Chinese ‘Bull Gang’ is shown, dragging huge logs over rollers at the mill. The Japanese girls in their brightly-coloured kimonos are grouped round the winning float in the 1939 parade; the leader of the first Japanese Scout Troop in Canada is portrayed, a rather poignant and lonely figure; all the Japanese citizens were interned in the Second World War. There is a composite portrait of four generations of a family who all worked at the mill, displayed against the grey-blue background of pine and timber that was the source of their prosperity.

The trains, the boats, the huge lumber mill, the early hospital, the school, the shop – all these are there for us to see. The people of Western Canada have had their heritage preserved in this series of paintings: they can learn about themselves, their history. The imagination and skill of the artists have given us, in the story of Chemainus, something of real value that we can all share and enjoy.

A way of life that no longer exists in prosperous Tasmania is preserved in the same way in the small town of Sheffield. Also a centre of the timber trade, with its shops, mills, factories and even its criminals remembered in murals painted by local artists. Less artistically impressive than Chemainus, it is nevertheless a powerful and direct reminder of the value a community places on its past, and the way in which its history defines it and gives it individuality and meaning.

It is not only the small places that remember their not-so-very-distant history, though perhaps they are especially aware of the danger of losing it in the rapid march of progress. Cities like Lyon in France can do it too – with great effect and originality. Some of Lyon’s most important citizens are commemorated in a trompe d’oeil – tiers of balconied windows painted onto a huge façade, peopled with the good and the great – some factual, some fictional like Saint Expury’s Little Prince, and at ground level a cheerful rendering of some local shops, including a very well-known bookshop and printer, with the lifelike owner standing in the doorway.

In Vienne, on the Rhône, its splendid Roman heritage is the subject of a huge theatrical mural, complete with the arena, modern stage lighting and girders, actors and a seventeenth-century author – an almost surreal mix of periods and people.

As we look round our own towns and cities, paintings on exterior walls are rare. The 1960s and 1970s were a time when, at least in London, murals were a popular way of giving local colour and identity to different parts of the city. There was one in Greenwich entitled People’s River, showing a varied group of residents tugging the River Thames like a carpet through the historic Greenwich landmarks. Often the murals of this period had a political or social message, which may be the reason whey they have not been preserved.

We save our most splendid murals perhaps for the interiors of our public buildings. Victorian artists were well aware of their potential for the expressive depiction of historical and legendary figures. In the Houses of Parliament and the wonderfully restored Foreign Office, we see Victorian confidence expressed in High Victorian art. Prince Albert’s admiration for the Middle Ages gave encouragement to fresco painting as a way of portraying the facts and fictions of English history. GF Watts, Daniel Maclise and William Dyce were among those commissioned to paint frescoes in the Houses of Parliament. Dyce’s Arthurian legends greet you in the Queen’s Robing Room, and in the Royal Gallery are the Death of Nelson and the Meeting of Wellington and Blücher, both rather remote and unearthly in feeling due to the unusual watercolour and glaze technique used by Maclise.

No discussion of painting on walls can ignore the extraordinary volume of graffiti with which the building of our cities are decorated, or desecrated! ‘This art-form – street art –’ says an article on the internet, ‘is usually created by young artists with little or no access to established art institutions, and in general created without the permission of the property owners.’ While the exuberant and fluid designs and lettering on railway bridges, street façades and factory walls often have great vivacity and impact, it is a poor substitute for the colourful and cheerful celebration of our history. Perhaps we should consider the policy followed in Philadelphia, a city with some large and very colourful murals – if you are caught making graffiti your sentence is a number of hours working on the city murals. Is there a message there?

Anne Gardom is the art correspondent of New Directions.