Edward Povey painted 25 murals in Wales and the North-West of England between 1975 and 85; out of these he selected seven to talk about.
He was born in Woolwich in south-east London where his earliest memory was of houses damaged by wartime bombs. He began “drawing fervently” from the age of seven, and at around ten started to paint still-lifes and landscapes in oils and at thirteen began writing notebooks of lyrics and songs. He remembers aged 10 admiring a classmate who drew beautifully and then being bemused when visitors praised his own work, and on holiday the excitement he felt in experiencing the studio of a professional painter. These were “events where I felt myself coming out of my skin.” He found home life hermetic and “secondary school was a bore – even more of being continually told what to do – I longed for freedom.” It arrived at sixteen when he left school and became a race-horse shipper’s runner for two years, speeding on errands around London writing songs and poems. At eighteen he emigrated alone to Canada, met artists, became a member of the Baha’i faith and for two years toured with a blues band. When he returned he reunited with his previous girlfriend Vivien Alsworth with whom he visited Israel for several months, and on the plaster wall of a kibbutz painted his first mural, ‘Abraham and Isaac’. Living in Brighton on his savings and Vivien’s grant, Edward signed up at a Polytechnic, achieved his ‘A’ levels and then studied for a year at Eastbourne Art School before applying for an art teaching degree course at the Bangor Normal College, of the University of Wales. Here he studied for four years whilst panting murals on his weekends and holidays
the first commission
It all began with a commission from friends who said, “You’re an artist, come and paint a six-by-six foot picture on the front of our shop. I thought ‘How hard can this be? So I said ‘Sure’ and painted this completely realistic rendition of all the fruits and different things that they sold. And it worked!” A commission to paint their two-storey shop down the road followed. He set up his ladder and household paints in the back, and “aiming for something more challenging this time, made a design comprising all the different products for sale but placed two large glass storage jars in the foreground, so through their warping glass everything was swirling and moving and twisting. “I gridded it up and drew it on the wall and painted it just like that. And the newspapers and BBC said ‘Oh my god this is great!’ and the whole thing just started happening.” He was paid £75 for the two murals which he thought was a fortune. After this Edward deliberately dressed in a jester’s outfit with cap and bells for the openings of his murals to make a splash in the quiet streets of North Wales.
‘The Futility of War’
The next commission in 1976 was from Bangor College itself, to paint an interior mural on a subject of his own choosing. Edward suffered from a fear of war from childhood. His class in school were taken to see ‘The War Game’ film which showed the effects of a nuclear strike – he found it so shocking that he collapsed unconscious. The protest mural he painted, ‘The Futility of War’, was a scene of soldiers in the trenches. Working alone in a blacked-out room in the library building he dressed himself in a soldier’s uniform. Lit by a spotlight and using a mirror he modelled for all the soldiers; his features, smeared with mud, served for their faces. To complete the work he surrounded it with a frame of flags wrapped in barbed wire.
‘Mount Ogre’ followed in 1977, a commission for a mountain scene which he copied from a tiny photograph he found in a magazine. It was then drawn and painted onto a three-storey building, using an extendable ladder. By this time Edward’s reputation as a muralist had increased enormously and he was frequently reported upon in the papers and interviewed on radio and TV.
A year later, in 1978, Harlech Television commissioned a mural celebrating the Eisteddford in Caernarfon on a wall over fifty feet high feet by fifty wide, fully scaffolded and primed. It was to become known as ‘Helter Skelter’. Edward’s theme was the history of the town. He chose the motorway and the castle as a compositional structure, wrapping the motorway around the castle in the form of a corkscrew. History came spiralling down that highway making a helter-skelter of Romans, Celts, Christians, farmers, industrialists, the local people and famous people intermingled.
“Seeing that the wall viewed from a distance became literally the size of a postcard I realised that to read well, the overall design had to be relatively simple, so I designed the main compositional effect on the scale of a postcard. However, close up I filled that simple design with a host of portraits and details.”
Two assistants worked with him on Helter Skelter, but Povey realised that their colour sensibilities were too far from his own and so they had to leave. He never worked with other artists on murals again. Inevitably the mural took months to complete. Asked the length of his working day, he replied, “Dawn to dusk.”
Besides the material challenges of the size and siting of walls, Edward challenged himself with new ideas and different styles. In 1979 a mural called ‘The Wakes’ was commissioned by the owner of a hat shop in Eccles in Manchester and he went there to do research. Whilst ‘Helter Skelter’ was busy with people, there was a lot of space in it as well. “So now with ‘The Wakes’ mural I decided to reduce the intervening spaces so that it was crammed with people with almost nothing in between them.” He says how inspired he was by Stanley Spencer’s “human landscapes” in his Burghclere murals. The subject for ‘The Wakes’ he decided, would be a “town festival, filled with local characters and with me portrayed at different ages in the company of my family.” Whereas the Helter Skelter’s structure relied on the motorway and castle, here the people themselves created the structure. “The way they lean and move, many of them formed to shape the current that flows through the work. It’s like a ballet.” He observes that his work after this became increasingly autobiographical, also that he became increasingly inclined to “mess with walls”; when they had obstacles he would remove them, while windows and other apertures would be blocked up. He is dismissive of health and safety regulations – “I’ve no time for harnesses and hard hats, history is made by people taking risks.” ‘The Wakes’, three floors high, was again created off a ladder.
The mural ‘Pots’ was commissioned by Craftcentre Cymru in 1981. He says, “ ‘Pots’ for me was going to be the ultimate challenge. It was very tall, on a mill in Porthmadog in North Wales. The wall was beautifully prepared and fully scaffolded, and the windows were covered in wooden shutters in such a way that from below the picture became complete. My brief was that the painting had to be about the Pottery – Craftcentre Cymru, and had also to reflect the town. So I researched everything. I wanted it to be autobiographical and also to technically chaIlenge me.
So I started with the pottery manager painting designs onto a pot in the centre, wearing a long translucent scarf; behind her lie the pottery with its kilns, carts and stacks of pots. As she paints the pots are passing down into the foreground onto shelves, the nearest pot coming so close and so large that only three pots fill the entire width of the mural. You can see the people in the designs on these pots are the same size as the people at the top! And this creates both a wonderful symmetry of size and a flattened space. The top of the mural is filled with pottery staff interspersed with my family and friends – in the middle pottery assistants are carrying pots down, and at the bottom the pots are painted with images of the history of the town. You can see the railway industry, tourism, copper-bottomed slate ships built in the docks and so on. And the translucent patterned scarf swathes down over it all, glazing the people and pots. It was a precision exercise in the control of tone and colour, and took several months to complete.”
“My murals went from being simply a painting on a wall with no regard for the environment to being very much a part of it, so the colour chords had to speak to the world that they came into. I came to realise that the artist does have some responsibility to the architecture that surrounds his work, to knit it into the world in which it’s going to live. I’m not wild about the mural being part of a political campaign, like a protest stuck like a postage stamp onto what would otherwise be architectural living space and the social environment. Murals should primarily have visual, artistic meaning. Another trouble is that if you take murals into run-down environment they make the areas look worse, because the contrast makes the whole scene look like a garbage dump, a total mess with something fresh put onto it. If I got a commission right now I’d like it to be in a cathedral or a church. I see art as a voice in the wilderness, leading the society. But when societies have major social problems art rarely has a role. I’d rather see it in more refined environments.”
Bangor, the painted town
Besides completing twenty-five murals between 1975 and 1983 Edward painted 20 life-size portraits and fifty other paintings. He wrote a novel, got a degree, toured the country with the Rainy Days Band and helped raise two sons. “Did I sleep?” he says. “It’s really ridiculous how it all got crammed in. I’m sure that as a result I wasn’t much of a husband or much of a dad. I’m obsessive and selfish. There’s only one thing for me, and that’s what I happen to think is what I have to do at the time. That’s all there is. And beyond that, well, I’m charming enough to get along with most people.”
What would he say to a newcomer? “Someone starting out now? I’d say: In the beginning charge very little for your time. Say ‘yes’ to every job that requires a paintbrush, paint on any wall and any surface. Accept any brief from any patron. And after ten thousand hours you will get to be good!”