- Council House Art
George Shaw, A Corner of a Foreign Field, Holburne Museum, Bath, 8 February–6 May 2019 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 4 October–30 December 2018). Standing at the Sky's Edge, music and lyrics by Richard Hawley, book by Chris Bush, a Sheffield Theatres Production, Crucible, Sheffield, first performed 15 March 2019. Ray and Liz, directed and written by Richard Billingham, limited UK cinema release, March 2019.
Towards the end of March 2019, after visiting an exhibition of painting in Bath, a musical in Sheffield and a film in Birmingham, I realized that, quite inadvertently, I had been to see three major pieces of council house art in that grimly comic month when British political life was dominated by the run-up to the original Brexit deadline. Away from the febrile atmosphere of the news, I had enjoyed some really serious, accomplished art which offered nuanced personal reflection on what the musician Richard Hawley called 'that tiny little subject, postwarBritain'.1 The Sheffield musical that Hawley worked on with the Crucible Theatre, the George Shaw retrospective in Bath and Richard Billingham's Black Country memoir, Ray and Liz, are all works that come from and document British twentieth-century council housing, testifying to these origins, and in the process evoking ambivalence, anger, nostalgia, sadness – and beauty. Just as the 1980s Conservative Government's Enterprise Allowance has been acknowledged by many musicians as having provided unintended material support for start-up bands, and the 1944 Education Act gave us the Scholarship Boy – and Girl, so too do the council house and the council estate require recognition as generative, in their own way, of art which tells stories of twentieth-century Britain, of the dream of a welfare state, and of the obligation to house its citizens.
One of the newest paintings in the George Shaw retrospective, A Corner of a Foreign Field, at the Holburne Museum in Bath, was hung opposite the entrance. 'Sunrise over the Care Home' (2018) offers a canvas divided by a line of trees and barely glimpsed houses into the tussocky grass of the foreground and the flat golden cloudless expanse of the sky. Two trees, perhaps remnants from the garden of the now-vanished Care Home, are silhouetted [End Page 288] against the sky, bringing middle-distance and sky together, and emphasizing the absence in front of them. The golden Humbrol enamel of the sky recalls the colouring of Shaw's 2004–5 Ash Wednesday paintings (Fig. 1), but here it is harder, more golden and closer to abstraction. To be confronted with this golden Coventry sky after walking through honey-stoned Bath points to some of the paradoxes of success for Shaw. The Holburne is an exquisite museum, set in former pleasure gardens, in a wealthy beautiful city in prosperous Southern England. Shaw made his name with paintings of Tile Hill, the 1960s Coventry estate on which he grew up. Coventry, famously blitzed in the second world war, built cars and urban ringways in the postwar period, as well as rehousing its inhabitants in purpose-built social housing like Tile Hill. Instead of the traditional painter's medium of oil on canvas, Shaw works on board, using Humbrol enamel, sold in tiny tins to finish Airfix models of planes. This hobbyist medium would be familiar and available where he grew up, and is a conscious choice for an artist highly educated within the British art-school system, consonant with his continuing engagement with the music, films and pop culture that shaped his youth. The Tile Hill paintings, of houses, garages, and the estate's pubs, enact something of the design of the estate in their repetitions, and, at first glance, in their muted colour palette. The gleam of the enamel, the heightened, uniform depth of the colour, nearly suggest that these houses too are models. But in the intimacy with which they record the edgelands and the in-between bits, the back alleys, the pockets of wasteland, the mature trees and bits of spinney, the paintings testify to a life lived in these spaces, adolescent loitering just out of view and nipping across short-cuts. It...