The three-year closure of the Fairfield Halls, supposedly for “refurbishment”, is widely thought to have led to the loss of several artworks that previously graced the buildings, in an act of cultural vandalism from which the borough’s artistic reputation might never properly recover.
The biggest loss, in sheer scale as well as artistic terms, was the destruction of the ornate fire safety curtain which graced the Ashcroft Theatre.
The use of asbestos in the curtain was given as reason for its destruction, but now Lis Bird, the daughter-in-law of the artist Henry Bird, is hoping that the people of Croydon will join her campaign to revive interest and understanding in the lost work.
“Prior to its destruction, photographic images were made ‘to preserve the essence of the painting’,” Lis Bird told Inside Croydon. “A long-term aim is to have a photographic reproduction on view in the Fairfield Halls.”
Artist Henry Bird was an academic as well as an eccentric, his works also gracing the stages of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells theatres. Best-known for painting murals and female nudes, Bird won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art and he taught art history and drawing at the University College of Wales and the Northampton School of Art.
On his death, aged 90, in 2000, his obituary in The Times noted that he “was one of comparatively few artists to be thoroughly comfortable with the grand scale of ambitious public painting projects”. And his obit in The Stage said, “He was also something of a genuine eccentric, cutting an imposing figure with his flamboyant dress sense and usually seen around art colleges and galleries sporting a large fedora hat.”
His Ashcroft Theatre work was rightly regarded as one of his finest, and most significant for the people of Croydon. It even drew admiring comments from Queen Elizabeth II on one of her visits to the Fairfield.
The Queen was in Croydon for the town’s centenary in 1983, and she requested to see Bird’s mural painting. When she arrived at the Ashcroft Theatre, she left her lady-in-waiting behind and walked down to have a private talk with the artist. “Henry was touched and gratified by her comments,” Lis Bird notes. In the same year, Henry Bird Henry was awarded a Civic Pension for his service to the arts, at the time the only living artist to be so honoured.
Which makes the loss of such a major work by an important and widely admired artist all the more crass. “The destruction of such a major, unique and important public work of art is a terribly sad loss to the people of Croydon,” Lis Bird said.
According to Lis Bird, “Henry was no admirer of corporate blandness. For him the theatre was a place of enjoyment, excitement, emotions and discovery.
“The mural was a rich tapestry illustrating Croydon’s history going back centuries. In the centre at the top was a dramatic interpretation of the official heraldic arms of the Borough of Croydon. The scale of the supporters, a black lion and a silver horse, were exaggerated to fit the design. The shields were a reminder of the ancient connections with, among others, the Archbishop John Whitgift and the Diocese of Canterbury.”
It is at this point that those with a sense of bitter irony might recall that the council’s official motto is: “Let us strive for perfection”.
Lis Bird’s notes on the curtain were assisted by Peter Clapham.
They show that on the curtain’s mural, below the Coat of Arms, were four female figures, representing the four seasons, which were flown into darkness on a theatre gauze, symbolizing the passing of time.
On either sides were painted curtains which resembled the traditional crimson velvet curtains used in theatres. On them, embroidered in gold, were pictures of old Croydon theatres, now lost.
On the left, the muse of Comedy and on the right the muse of Tragedy were holding back the curtains revealing the stage and framing the main events. Two upright columns represented a fit-up theatre erected on the original Fair Field. Fit-up theatres were used by travelling companies when touring annual fairs.
The central figure on the stage featured Peggy Ashcroft as Ophelia in one of her famous starring roles. Above her, the name of the theatre was encircled by a ring of daisies and pearls suspended on theatre gauze, a play on her name – Margaret – marguerites.
To her right was the back view of a brooding Hamlet standing next to a spade. Opposite him, to balance the composition, were the two Commedia dell Arte figures, Pierrot and Harlequin. Slightly behind Ophelia were an oak and a beech tree signifying another link to the heraldic arms of Croydon.
A particularly successful, post-war, cultural event in Croydon was the visit by the Bolshoi Ballet. Two of the dancers could be seen on the right side of the stage, opposite the Muse of Dance, identified by her tambourine. Various theatre props were placed on the grass by Hamlet’s feet.
The diminutive figure of Charley’s Aunt could be seen to the extreme right by the
Clocktower. “This was Henry’s nod to the actor Peter Clapham, who played the main lead when the play was performed at the Ashcroft Theatre,” Lis Bird said. “He had a long association with the Fairfield Halls and had a deep understanding of Henry’s work.”
By the right-hand column at the bottom was a seated Bacchante figure – a votive figure (priestess) from Greek mythology. To balance the composition, again, the head of the Green Man could be seen peering out through lush green foliage at the bottom by the left-hand column. The Green Man is a figure from ancient folklore symbolising death and rebirth, sometimes also tranquillity.
Rows of medallion portraits of well-known actors, producers and literary people associated with the arts in Croydon were displayed on the two upright columns and also in a row near the bottom edge of the painting. This follows a long tradition in art of recording the people associated with specific places or events by painting their portraits
Other images linked to Croydon, to the left of Ophelia’s feet, were the Prince Regent and Mrs Fitzherbert travelling by open, horse-drawn carriage to Brighton. Croydon had recently become the first stop on the direct route to the coast. At the very bottom, Punch’s dog Toby was guarding a schoolboy, Young Croydon, who had abandoned his toy aeroplane and was trying to sneak in to the theatre beneath the white and blue striped canvas. The aeroplane referred to Croydon’s aviation history.
Another reference to the town was the badge of the Croydon Girl Guides depicting a crocus. Croydon derives its name from the word crocus. Other images were the Archbishop John Whitgift’s shield and mitre, placed close to the helmets of the police and the fire brigade, pointing out the importance of Church and civic institutions. Underneath these items could be seen a row of Shirley poppies.
Hanging on to the curtain at the bottom on either sides were two figures from pantomime.
On the right was a crouching Widow Twanky, played by Dan Leno, clutching her laundry basket from which clothes pegs were spilling out – another play on the name “Peggy”.
Opposite, on the left, was the famous clown Grimaldi firmly gripping his goose’s neck. Henry painted his portrait on Grimaldi and signed it on the goose. It has been suggested that it refers to Henry considering the mural as his “swan song” with regards to painting big public commissions and an example of his sometimes quirky sense of humour. In 1982, when he finished the mural, Bird was 73.
“The whole mural was a brilliant piece of story-telling in the age-old tradition of the theatre,” Lis Bird says. “What could be more appropriate for a theatre that aimed to attract people from across the wider Croydon community?
“The destruction of such a major, unique and important public work of art is a terribly sad loss to the people of Croydon.”
Croydon is to be London’s Borough of Culture in 2023…
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