Help preserve the memory of Bird’s Ashcroft Theatre mural

Lost masterpiece: the Henry Bird curtain mural in the Ashcroft Theatre, completed in 1982, was destroyed during the Fairfield Halls’ refurbishment

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.

Pride of Croydon: Peggy Ashcroft in 1936

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.

Royal visit: in Croydon in 1983, Queen Elizabeth asked to be shown the curtain mural by Henry Bird

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.

Are you sitting comfortably? When the Ashcroft Theatre reopened in 2019, it still had its 60-year-old seats. But its safety curtain had been destroyed

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…

Read more: Council has no answers over missing Fairfield Halls sculpture


About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Art, Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield Halls, Theatre and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Help preserve the memory of Bird’s Ashcroft Theatre mural

  1. Surely if it was properly maintained it could have been preserved, or at least a copy could have been paid more easily. Who was responsible for its destruction?
    Let us hope that the Year of Culture is not a complete embarrassment.

  2. We’re told that asbestos in the curtain was given as reason for its destruction. Really?

    The Ashcroft Theatre safety curtain was installed in 1982, and as noted on the “turnipnet.com” website, “when after almost twenty years of constant use the mural began to show significant signs of wear and tear, the Ashcroft Theatre Club drew this to Fairfield’s attention. The Club paid for its restoration, and the work was undertaken by Lis Bird, Henry’s daughter-in-law. As the Club Chairman, Patricia Lawrence put it, “Members of the Ashcroft Theatre Club believe that this is a unique legacy, one worthy of preserving, so that it can be enjoyed by theatre-goers for many years to come. We hope that you will enjoy it too”.”

    It’s odd that in the early noughties, nobody twigged that asbestos in the curtain might be so serious a risk that rather than restore it, it should have been chucked in a skip.

    Had anybody then or in the more recent renovation programme thought that something should be done about the asbestos, then companies like Hall Stage Ltd could have been hired to remove it. Why wasn’t that option taken? If I can Google that solution in 5 seconds, why didn’t anyone on the Council?

    The Scrutiny (hah!) Committee report of 10th February 2020 about the Fairfield Halls refurbishment said that “the brief, agreed between Brick By Brick and the council, was to take a heritage-led approach”. The summary scope of the works only mentioned asbestos twice, once being about the Ashcroft Theatre’s ceiling, the other its walls. And that was after the Halls had reopened.

    When bungling inadequates Oliver Lewis, Alison Butler and Paul Scott were involved in this fiasco, amongst so many others, you cannot be surprised that it has all ended so badly.

    • Anthony Miller says:

      It’s not unfortunately always simple with asbestos… Sometimes things will show traces but it’s difficult to tell if this is down to cross contamination. Different types also have different risk levels… I’ve had different labs give me different results with different tests on walls and floor tiles and in my limited experience … False positives and negatives are common… Sometimes the only way to really know for sure is to allow them to break off a physical sample rather than doing a touch test and that carries its own risks as well as causing unavoidable even if minor damage to what you’re testing. It seems to me a reasonable suspicion that a fire retardant safety curtain of that period might contain a fire retardant material like asbestos… Of course if it’s undisturbed it’s not actually a risk … But if (as may have been the case after 30 years of use) it showed any signs of say cracking it might’ve been wise to remove it … Moving it completely out the building for a major renovation might not have been practical either? Then again perhaps they just bunged it in a big skip with the missing grand piano and it’ll turn up one day in Arthur Daley’s warehouse..? Who knows?

      • Hall Stage Ltd boast over 100 years experience with safety curtain systems, and can “provide an asbestos removal service if required” and “offer full service and maintenance on all safety curtain systems and equipment, as well as supply of spares”.

        But why go to the experts when you can give “a heritage-led approach” project to Brick by Brick, a brand new development company so bad it built houses and flats it couldn’t sell or let?

        As for the missing grand piano, that’s gone the same way as the Peter Youngman metal sculpture that disappeared from its place on College Gardens. To this day, nobody knows (or will say) where it ended up.

        • Oh we know where at least one of the grand pianos, paid for by public subscription, ended up. Acquired on the cheap by one of the best-funded schools in the south of England…

  3. Anthony Miller says:

    Shame you can’t see all the faces in the grey medalians along the bottom.
    But from memory…. (They used to have their names arced above the face)…
    They included…
    Herbert Beerbohm Tree (founder of Rada) and June Whitfield …bottom far right?
    And Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim …bottom middle?
    And Peggy Ashcroft (again) towards the bottom left …
    Roy Hudd is also in there somewhere… I think middle left column…

    Nice to see something survived…

  4. Given there is, at least, an image of the curtain it’s a shame no one could not be commissioned to produce a good copy.

    The crying shame is that the destruction of what looked like a super piece of work was apparently destroyed by those who ‘did up’ the Fairfield Halls complex. It is yet another symbol of the mess that the Borough has been for far too long.

    That’s why there is a real need for daylight to shine on what happened over the last few years and all those who led the Borough to this sorry state. Perhaps then we’ll get a Council which acts for all the people of the Borough, and new officials to support them selflessly.

  5. Lewis White says:

    Can the Council produce foor scrutiny the asbestos report showing the testing, and report recommendations, which surely must have been made and then placed in the Health and Safety File of the Fairfield Hall refurbishment project ?

    And, indeed the “Duty of care Chain of Conveyance” paperwork surely would have had to have been provided to show what was removed, who removed it, where to, when, and where the asbestos was finally disposed of?

    All such things must be documented and filed for long-term scrutiny.

    If the Council can’t back this up with the paperwork, it is a very serious matter.

Leave a Reply