Not long ago, this blog featured a review of Their Safe Haven, a book that explores the life and work of fourteen Hungarian artists who settled in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. One of them, George (György) Mayer-Marton (1897–1960), became a senior lecturer at Liverpool College of Art, and received several commissions to decorate churches in England with murals. The Crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Rosary in Oldham is now under severe threat. The church has been closed since 2017, and the artwork is at risk of being damaged by vandalism, water leaks, as well as by the eventual demolition or redevelopment of the building. The artist’s great-nephew, Nick Braithwaite, is leading a campaign to save the mural with the support of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has issued an appeal to restore the work and have it listed as a protected monument.
The first half of Mayer-Marton’s career was typically Austro-Hungarian, and hence of special interest to CRAACE. Born in 1897 in Győr, Hungary, into a Hungarian Jewish family, he studied at the fine art academies of Vienna and Munich after the First World War. Settling in Vienna, he became active in the Hagenbund artists’ society, eventually becoming its Vice-President. Following the decline of the Secession, the Hagenbund emerged as the most important modernist association in interwar Vienna. Regularly staging exhibitions with an international scope, it maintained a Central European network that connected artists in the successor states of the Habsburg Empire. While adhering to a general modernist outlook, the aesthetics of the Hagenbund were rather broad, encompassing different trends such as late Secessionism, Symbolism, Expressionism and New Objectivity. The Hagenbund also displayed art from outside Central Europe: in 1936 Mayer-Marton himself co-organised an exhibition of English Watercolours, Drawings and Prints 1735–1935.
When he moved to England, however, it was not out of artistic interest, but to escape from grave danger. 1938 was the year of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Being Jewish, Mayer-Marton rightly felt threatened and decided to leave with his wife, Grete. They obtained visas for Britain just before Mayer-Marton was barred from the National Chamber of the Fine Arts with the pretext that he was supposedly not sufficiently patriotic. Their Safe Haven contains excerpts from his diary of exile. By 1940 the couple had settled in London and Mayer-Marton established a studio in St John’s Wood, but tragedy soon struck: during the Blitz the bombing destroyed the building, and with it many of the painter’s works, as well as their home. Grete never recovered from this and died young in 1952. Mayer-Marton himself first worked for the CEMA (the predecessor of the Arts Council) before taking on the senior lectureship at Liverpool College of Art. He died of leukaemia in 1960.
George Mayer-Marton suffered many personal losses during his time in England, and his career there was cut tragically short. Nevertheless, as an artist he was highly productive, and his works can today be found in many collections across the UK. He was not afraid to tread new ground: specialising in murals (which he introduced as a new subject at Liverpool), he developed a mosaic technique that he employed in his church commissions. Sadly, many of his murals in churches and public buildings no longer exist. It is all the more important to save what is one of the finest examples: the mural of The Crucifixion in Oldham.
The Oldham mural follows one of the most fundamental Christian iconographic types: the crucified Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John. The crucifix itself is executed in stone and glass mosaic, while the two side figures are frescoes. Unfortunately the latter were painted over by a local priest in the 1980s, but according to the expert opinions of conservators it is possible to restore them to their original state. The composition, as well as the mosaic technique recalls Byzantine art, especially in the frontal, hieratic figure of Christ. The flowing robes of the two side figures, reminiscent of late Gothic altarpieces, add a sense of movement to the composition. With its historicist overtones, the mural is nonetheless modern. Instead of merely copying the art of the past, it aims to create a new formal language for religious art, fitting for the postwar period.
Is there anything Central European about Mayer-Marton’s Oldham mural? I would wager to say that there is. His interest in murals, his brave employment of gold, his experimenting with Byzantine abstraction, were surely rooted in early-twentieth-century Vienna and the Hagenbund’s subsequent continuation – and mainstreaming – of Secessionist aesthetics. Indeed, artists of the Hagenbund tended to be preoccupied with mural painting. A prominent member, Anton Faistauer (1887–1930) published an article on The New Fresco in 1926, in addition to his prolific practice as a mural painter. Mayer-Marton drew on these memories in his Crucifixion, but also on other aspects of Central European culture. The figures of Mary and St John, with their slim beauty, curvilinear poses, and complicated draperies, are reminiscent of painted and sculpted figures from the magnificent late Gothic altarpieces found in Central Europe’s churches and museums. And the crystalline shapes in the background – an important feature of Mayer-Marton’s work – recall Central European modernism: the work of the Czech Cubists or of the Hungarian Lajos Tihanyi.
But, of course, Mayer-Marton created the mural in England, for a local church. His efforts to develop a modern religious art were part of the history of post-war modernism in Britain. The Church of the Holy Rosary in Oldham opened in 1955 to serve the new Fitton Hill housing estate, built to accomodate workers settling in the industrial town during the post-war boom. The number of local Roman Catholics was growing, and the Parish of Our Lady and St Patrick decided to construct an additional church. In its architectural style, the Church of the Holy Rosary echoed the previous, nineteenth-century Gothic revival churches of the parish, while translating their formal language to a modernist idiom. In its simplicity, the building reflects the everyday religious practice of a working-class community with modest funds. Mayer-Marton’s mural was commissioned as its central jewel, a vision in gold illuminating its modernist sobriety.
The Oldham mural is one of only two ecclesiastical murals by Mayer-Marton to survive in situ. It is testament to how a Central European artist reinvented himself in Britain, building on his previous knowledge to create an art meaningful in his new home. As such, it is not only significant within Mayer-Marton’s oeuvre, but also has a wider relevance. It speaks of the history of post-war British industry, urbanisation, social transformation, religion, and migration. From a more strictly art historical standpoint, it highlights religious practice as an important, yet often overlooked social context of modernism. It definitely deserves to be saved.
Images courtesy of Nick Braithwaite.