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Paul Catherall spent his childhood and teen years in Coventry, before being ‘Sent from Coventry’, as the title of this exhibition tells us, when he moved to London after graduating. While as a child Paul may not have appreciated the finer points of the Modernist and Brutalist architecture that characterises much of his hometown’s centre, now this iconic built environment is the source of nostalgia and artistic inspiration.
Perhaps most fundamentally, Coventry is a city of concrete resilience: it was the site of some of the worst aerial bombardment unleashed upon Britain during the Second World War and was rebuilt in spectacular fashion. The strength of the metropolis and its population – as well as the symbolic importance of peace and reconciliation – is captured in the post-war architecture of the city. The building most emblematic of these values is Basil Spence’s reconstruction of the city’s cathedral, depicted in Paul’s Coventry Cathedral and Coventry Cathedral II linocuts. The ruined bones of the bombed medieval structure are now connected to a Modernist building finished in 1962. The old and the new are married in the actual building, and this symbiosis is highlighted in Paul’s linocut interpretations of the site. The rougher walls of the original cathedral, with their variations of colours – beiges, blues, reds and greys – feed into the tall mid-century walls of Spence’s Modern creation.
This exhibition opens three days before Coventry is officially launched as the 2021 UK City of Culture. And yet there is some irony to the convergence of these parallel celebrations of Coventry, as many of the buildings that express the culture and history of the town, which Paul so lovingly depicts in his linocuts, are under threat of redevelopment. An extensive planning application has been submitted to demolish much of the city’s heart, replacing it with a nondescript twenty-first-century shopping centre. A primary purpose of Sent from Coventry is to celebrate the beauty and historical importance of these mid-century architectural masterpieces, such as the Coventry Elephant (Elephant Blue and Elephant Grey), the city’s train station (Cov Station), and the shopping area called Bull Yard (Precinct Shopping). Not only are these buildings integral to Coventry’s Modernist heritage, but on a more personal level for Paul, there are distinct memories tied up in these locations. He would swim every week at a building adjacent to the Elephant and eat his chips afterwards under its shadow; he remembers his first experience of independence beginning at the Coventry train station, when he ventured out to Birmingham; and he also vividly recalls avoiding a gang of skinheads in the shop next to Bull Yard’s William Mitchell mural (depicted in the linocut Three Tuns). In 1966, Coventry was described as ‘the town of the future’. It seems now that that future may be uncertain, with the appreciation of Coventry’s Modernist monuments dwindling.
Some iconic London buildings were made in the post-war moment in a similar style to those in Coventry – particularly edifices along the Southbank. A post-war mood of optimism and hope permeated the Southbank area during the Festival of Britain in 1951 – called a ‘tonic for the nation’. Austerity and rationing were coming to an end, and the Britain that these buildings represented was a Britain that could once again enjoy itself, and enjoy culture and art, after the devastation of war. These are depicted by Paul in Southbank Steps, Hayward III, and Southbank Magenta II, among others.There is a clear parallel between the context of the Southbank buildings and those that appeared in Coventry after the war, and yet the buildings of the Southbank are not currently under threat. Sent from Coventry places Paul’s London linocuts alongside his Coventry work, making a compelling visual argument for why all of this striking architecture should be preserved.
Beyond the Southbank, another London parallel to the current troubling situation in Coventry exists within Elephant & Castle, represented in the linocut Elephant Shop. After the bombing that it suffered during the war, this historic area of South London (not too far from Eames Fine Art) was rebuilt. Now the Elephant & Castle shopping centre is being redeveloped despite the opposition of many local residents. Perhaps hinting at the demolition that is to come, and that which haunts the centre of Coventry, the iconic pink elephant statue at the front of the Elephant & Castle shopping centre was moved from its 55-year home in January of 2021. Paul’s Elephant Shop captures the cool Modernist lines of the iconic locale but also – through the nuanced texture of the blue roofing and the structural poles that hold up the tenting over the entrance – the years of use that residents have made of the shopping centre.
Another timely element of this show relates to the artist and designer William Mitchell, who passed away on 30 January 2020, the day after Paul completed the linocut Three Tuns. Paul has long been inspired by this artist, and in Three Tuns, Paul reinterpreted Mitchell’s concrete sculptural mural that originally adorned The Three Tuns pub in Bull Yard. Like much of the architecture in Coventry, this mural is under threat, with the Bull Yard precinct topping the Twentieth Century Society’s Buildings at Risk register. But overall, Paul’s Three Tuns is hopeful: the rectangular window in the centre of the linocut reflects blue sky and the clean lines of the Modernist architecture that faces the mural. This key element of the piece reminds the viewer of the quintessentially Modernist structures that make up the majority of the city centre of Coventry, also reminding us of how the Mitchell mural fits into a narrative of post-war rejuvenation.
This exhibition is more overtly political than Paul’s previous work to date – but this is necessary, since it has been conceived and created during a crucial time for Paul’s hometown. While this may be a political show, the main point of it is to foster appreciation of a key architectural history that is vital to the culture not only of Coventry, but of Britain as a whole. In the timeless colours and smooth lines of his linocuts, Paul shows the beauty of this history, of which Coventry should continue to be proud. From Cov Station to Three Tuns there exists within Paul’s new work a range of Modernist and Brutalist design: from the sleek simple lines of the station with its mid-century detailing, to the playful, riotous and rough concrete mural by Mitchell. By including in this show other pieces of architecture similar in style from London and from around the world, Paul’s exhibition couches Coventry’s architecture within a wider context and history.
With this exhibition and with his oeuvre as a whole, Paul can fully reflect on the architectural importance and power of his hometown. But when he lived in Coventry, it was just home: “To me it was just normal – not a gleaming Modernist utopian experience and not a desolate, run-down urban jungle. Elements of both, maybe! But just home”.
Christine Slobogin, May 2021