EDitorial ± 25-Jan-2021

Ipswich Co-op Mosaic Mural

Growing up, the huge Ipswich Co-op on Carr Street was, like Martin & Newby, a local landmark. Depending on your viewpoint, the department store marked either the end or start of the high street. I dimly recall going there with my mum to join the divi queue and hoping she'd buy me something from Albert List over the road. Later, me and G. would pop in to the food hall for a Pork Farms pasty to reheat in our St Helens Street flat. Then, as a parent, me and The Boy walked into town and took the escalators up to the toy department for him to purchase a Lego Power Miners titanium command rig. That would be around 2009.

Shorly afterwards, the Co-op cleared out. A secondhand furniture place occupied some of the ground floor for a couple of years. There's currently talk of the old building being used a school but, as of 2021, the property remains empty.

As Borin Van Loon shows on his comprehensive Ipswich Lettering page, there's plenty to see at the front for those who care to look up, from the Ipswich Industrial Co-operative Society Limited upper-case wording to the musketeer statement Each For All & All For Each. However, take a stroll through the walkway leading to Cox Lane -- round the back of the store -- and you'll find something quite special and under-appreciated, a vividly coloured ceramic mosaic.

— Mosaic Mural by Bajo and Hevezi —

In 2020 the architectural historian Lynn Pearson published the fantastically informative England's Co-operative Movement: An Architectural History. One of the final sections is headed Art for the People: Co-op Design from the Mid-1950s to the 1960s and includes this paragraph:

The final mural in the series was a collaboration between Gyula Bajo and his old friend Endre Hevezi, probably carried out during 1963-4 and certainly complete by spring 1965. Designed for a site at the rear of Ipswich's modernised premises (1960-5, CWSAD), it is a colourful and elegant mosaic mural, a stylised abstract representation of co-operation based around a female figure holding a wheatsheaf. Although further developments were planned for the area, nothing materialised and the mural now looks out over car parks and back entrances to anonymous buildings.

Lynn Pearson's Building of the Month article for the Twentieth Century Society tells us that our own example at Ipswich is "one of only four surviving large-scale English co-op murals from the 1950s and 1960s", the others being:

  • Hull — Three Ships by Alan Boyson (1963)
  • Scunthorpe — Co-operative Pharmacy by Derek Brown with Harris & Sheldon (1963)
  • Stevenage — town square above Primark by Gyula Bajo (1957-58)

The commissioning of Bajo and Hevezi's mural tied in with the modernisation of the Co-op's Carr Street premises which were reopened in November 1965 by Pat Phoenix (Coronation Street's Elsie Tanner): such was the clamour, says Pearson, that "several people fainted".

I've seen a few references to the mural being called Harvest, perhaps due to that wheatsheaf, but can find no confirmed source.

— Debre Libanos, Ethiopia —

The rear of the Co-op building on Cox Lane is so large that it's a little hard to gauge the size of that mural. I'd recommend standing beneath it and looking straight up. According to the Recording Archive for Public Sculpture in Norfolk & Suffolk, it's approximately 3m tall and 9m wide. That's thousands of tiny tiles.

From the Co-operative Wholesale Society Architects Department (CWSAD), Hevezi and Bajo progressed to ever larger projects and designed mosaics for Debre Libanos, a new monastery complex in Ethiopia.

Lynn Pearson references an article in the Illustrated London News from 10 April 1965, headed Mosaics for Ethiopia show craftsmanship on a magnificent scale:

This series of mosaics for the new Coptic cathedral at Debra Libanos near Addis Ababa is one of the most striking pieces of religious craftsmanship to have been made in England for a long time. Their dynamic sense of power comes partly from their enormous size (they cover more than 600 square feet and are the largest mosaics ever made in England) and partly from the force of the facial expressions. They do not aim at novelty in conception or design, preferring to follow the early mediaeval traditions of mosaic-making. Before they were shipped to Debra Libanos, where the new cathedral is now complete and waiting for them to be installed, the mosaics are being shown at the Royal Festival Hall (April 8 to April 19) by the designers Endre Hevezi and Julian Bajo. This is the artists' first major religious work. They have done highly successful decorative mosaics for a department store in Ipswich and for the Greek State Tourist Office in Regent Street, but have never tackled such a dramatic or serious series of designs as the life of Christ. They spent months looking for the perfect shades of mosaic glass which they have imported from places as far apart as Sweden, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Then they worked up a series of watercolour designs, but it was not until they were laid out at the Festival Hall that they were able to see the overall effect. As they completed each mosaic in the studio it had to be cut up in foot-square sections, and packed away in cases to make space for the next mosaic. The only way they found to get an overall view of one of the scenes was to lay it out in the garden, and examine it from an upstairs window.

To give you a sense of period, the cover of that magazine from 1965 shows a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe of James Callaghan, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the headline Callaghan's Tough Budget Proposals.

— Gyula Bajo (1907-1984) —

Gyula Bajo and Endre Hevezi (sometimes spelt Hevesi) were both Hungarian refugees who, according to Millers Twentieth Century Ceramics Collectors Guide, were taken on as labourers for the potteries firm of Booths and Colcloughs in 1948. Previously separate businesses, Booths ("makers of fine tableware") and Colclough ("bone china in daily use the world over") merged in 1948.

Both knew their arts and architecture and designed pottery in their spare time. Given a studio they produced Bajo Ware, "a range of interesting and unusual designs for tableware and ornaments with painted and printed decorations based on historical, mythological and modern themes."

A catalogue entitled Decorative Art 1950-51 includes a "Vase of the Evangelists, reminiscent of Byzantine and early-Christian bas-reliefs in ivory yet modern in colour and form" by Hevezi and Bajo, while a similar publication from 1953-53 includes a "square earthenware dish painted with engobes on the wet body, greyish-matt glaze" designed by Dr.Gyula Bajo.

It's thought that Bajo first exhibited his artwork in Budapest in 1932. Mid-century paintings by Bajo (e.g. of Brixham and Stockholm) occasionally appear for sale online.

— Endre Hevezi (1923-2017) —

Endre Hevezi qualified as an architect in Budapest before being sent to Denmark as a refugee. There he painted portraits and landscapes, exhibiting in Copenhagen and Stockholm. Moving to England, still a refugee, he "carried the clay" (with Bajo) at Booth and Colclough, progressing to become the firm's designer.

Although he returned to architecture when he moved to London, he engaged in a series of commissions "in pottery, mosaics, stained glass and bronze", including the Ipswich mural with Bajo. Hevezi's work also pops up sometimes in online auctions.

Some of Hevezi's "fine ceramic panels" can be found on the side walls of the listed Roman Catholic seminary known as Allen Hall, designed by Hector Corfiato, in Chelsea.

— Queen's Way Co-op Mosaics —

I have a pet theory: first, take a look at the colour palette being used in the top right of the Cox Lane mural. There's a variety of small blue tiles from dark to mid to light. Next, take a look at these far cruder tile mosaics on the wall of the Queen's Way Co-op facing the Rands Way roundabout. Same shades of blue?

That old Co-op building is, in truth, the Carr Street Cathedral.