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The lost art of protest regained

The eve of May Day sees a workers’ struggle of the 1930s brought back to life in banners

28 April, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Laurence Bradshaw’s poster, newly discovered at the Marx Memorial Library

THE giant banner had been rolled up and untouched in the corner of a store room at the Marx Memorial Library for decades – and was only discovered when curators started an inventory and came across it unexpectedly.

One of six, the artwork which says “Hammersmith Communist Party Sends Greetings To Comrades Fighting In Spain”, is now to be put on public display for this first time since it was taken on the streets to rally people to support the democratic government of Spain threatened by Fascism.

The Hammersmith poster is the work of the celebrated sculptor Laurence Bradshaw – and is now the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the Islington Museum that focuses on the Marx Memorial Library’s pieces relating to the Spanish Civil War.

Archivist Meirian Jump discovered the set had been handed to the library in 1975 by Communists George and Jean Pavett. “We unrolled them and were stunned,” she says.

Four of the pieces measure around two metres by two metres, while two are slightly smaller. Made from cotton and canvas, they had been created for the Aid for Spain campaign. Four are unsigned, while two boast initials. One is clearly marked LB – which prompted Meirian to contact art historian Christine Lindey, to learn more.

Christine, who has taught history at Birkbeck College, has recently completed a book about socially committed artists between the 1930s and 1950s – and she has helped identify one of the banners as by the celebrated Laurence Bradshaw, an artist better known for his sculptures and most famously for creating the bust of Karl Marx that graces the revolutionary socialist’s Highgate grave.

Laurence Bradshaw’s banner being carried in a street demonstration in the 1930s

“We saw the initials in the bottom corner and as soon as I saw this, I knew it had to be by him,” she says. “I had actually seen a picture of this very banner being carried by people in a demonstration in the streets of Hammersmith in the 1930s. Laurence was a member of the Hammersmith branch of the Communist Party, and I had been given the picture by his widow, Elaine. I knew he had previously done banners for the Spanish Republic, but I did not know where this banner had got to, so of course it was wonderful to see it.”

Bradshaw was born in 1889. His family were politically radical – his mother, Annie, was the first female Labour councillor elected in Liverpool, while his grandfather was a well-known Chartist. He had studied for a short time at Liverpool art school before working as an assistant for the artist Frank Brangwyn. Brangwyn was known for his social realism style, which would include images of people at work in a heroic style.

“Bradshaw was shaped by this aesthetic, arts and crafts tradition,” says Christine.

To earn a living he took commissions for sculpture – a lot of his work was not, therefore, overtly political – and included a lot of architectural detailing.

But he was firmly part of a group of artists who used their talents to illustrate their beliefs.

“There was a group of artists who in the 1930s began to do what they could for the anti-Fascist cause,” says Christine. “They did things like illustrations for the Left Review, and their work reacted to the rise of Fascism.”

He was also a member of the Artists Internation­al, a left-wing collective.

“His belief was art should be accessible, and based in realism,” adds Christine. “And in the 1930s, that went somewhat against the grain where his work was considered old-fashioned by the Modernists of the period. The figures in the banner are like sculptors’ drawings. They are created to look as if they are 3-D figures by using tones and shading. You have one figure holding a spanner and wearing a boiler suit.”

Christine says that an other factor is the inclusion of a woman in the image. “It is also interesting that the woman figures very strongly. She is the same size as the man, as important and equal – and that is also very telling.”

Another of the ‘banners for Spain’

Christine says the influence of Bradshaw’s work primarily as a sculptor comes over in the banner.

“If you look at his other work, this banner very much fits in with it,” she says. “You can see Brangwyn’s influence – it is accessible, unpreten­tious, clear. It was about getting the message across. This is a lovely document of the period, and a very powerful piece of art.”

• Banners for Spain: Fighting the Spanish Civil War in London runs from May 5-July 8 at Islington Museum, 245 St John Street, EC1V 4NB. Open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm (closed Wednes­day and Sunday). Free. 020 7527 2837, www.islington.gov.uk/libraries-arts-and-heritage/ heritage/islington-museum/ exhibitions
Islington Museum and the Marx Memorial Library will be hosting events to accompany the exhibition, including walks, talks and workshops. Full details and to book these free events: www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk/education/upcoming-events
Marx Memorial Library 37A Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0DU

MAY DAY

IT has it roots in ancient celebrations of the coming of spring in chilly, northern climes – but May Day in modern times has also been marked as International Workers’ Day.

Dating from the turn of the 20th century, it was first suggested by the International Socialist Conference in Amsterdam as a way of workers campaigning for an eight hour day, for promoting rights and as a global holiday as a means to promote world peace.

A march takes place each year from Clerkenwell Green in Islington and follows a traditional route along Theobald’s Road, past Red Lion Square and then on to a rally in Trafalgar Square where this year speakers include the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. The Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell Square is hosting a special open day for visitors to see the library’s collections, including a tour of a room where Lenin worked in 1902. The march starts from Clerkenwell Green at 1pm. The rally in Trafalgar Square starts at around 2.30pm.

Other events include a party at the King’s Cross Skip Garden on Friday, April 28, complete with food, music and May Pole dancing. See www.globalgeneration.co.uk

And the Kentish Town City Farm, in Cressfield Close, is hosting a day to celebrate the season: the event, which starts at 1pm, includes games, arts & crafts, pony rides, goat grooming, treasure hunt, maypole, music, refreshments. Entry £1 adult / 50p child.

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