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As an architectural sculpture historian, and long-time researcher of William Mitchell’s artworks, it is great to see the ‘Scenes from Contemporary Life’ subway has been given its own exhibition at Stevenage Museum to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the artwork’s installation.

Black and white sketch of subway entrance showing figures, one holding a shield.

Sketch of the entrance to the subway by Mitchell

When questioned in 1968 why subways were so ‘lavatorial drab’ and ‘near-cynically uninformative’, William Mitchell responded that creative people should act as entertainers, and by utilising their materials to the hilt ‘render these alien tunnels so entertaining, amusing, informative and friendly that pedestrians would visit them by choice.’

Yet, like any location, where people walk back and forth through a familiar townscape, they no longer notice what surrounds them, whether a tactile relief surface or interesting mural to ponder. So, in the case of William Mitchell’s subway work, it is beneficial to revisit the myriad of motifs and funny juxtaposition of characters and get to see this narrative unfold with fresh eyes.

As a ‘Designer, Craftsman, Genius,’ William Mitchell was technically and aesthetically at ease in how to capture British contemporary life in the unlikely medium of cast concrete. More recently, the unearthing of original drawings related to the commission has aided a greater understanding of the subway work, enabling us to see the evolution of his processes related to scale, pattern and texture but also how implied movement played a role in the composition.

Drawing showing stylised figures dressed in 1970s style clothing.

Stylised figures drawn by Bill Mitchell as part of the design process for his work

The Stevenage Museum exhibition explores how the resulting imagery directly related to the preoccupations of the era and guided by the artist’s own annotated responses to modern day life, illustrates the evolving identity of this new town. Mitchell also had some fun in the process, formulating an interchangeable dialogue, and the exhibition’s jigsaw-like ‘Design Your Own Mural’ panels allow us to try out our own ideas for piecing together a narrative too.

Ten different designs for the underpass cut and mounted on black paper

A page from the book of working drawings produced by Bill Mitchell and now held at Stevenage Museum

In terms of quintessentially British life, William Mitchell explored popular sports, working and social life, but also the latest political and cultural changes and advances in technology. Yet, there are also nods to the American culture he encountered on his travels, so depicting with some certainty the exuberance of ‘flower power’ or the pivotal moment of an USA rocket blasting off.

Stevenage is additionally home to a sister carved subway which provides its own personal Hawaiian experience, so enjoy your immersive walk to the museum, through the swishing palm trees and rolling waves tossing up shells: an ‘aloha’ from the artist.

A black and white photo showing concrete panels awaiting installation alongside stacks of paving slabs.

Prototype panels stacked on the building site, St George's Way,1973

One old Stevenage Museum photograph from 1973, shows concrete prototype panels sitting on the worksite at St George’s Way during the construction phase and it was exciting to rediscover these relocated to Almond Hill Junior School. It would be interesting to learn how the four cast panels ended up in these school grounds as a donation and if anyone can recall the installation process for the subways themselves.

William Mitchell’s subway artwork somehow seems to transcend time and it’s great to see the exhibition has included the response of Stevenage’s younger citizens, with their new creative visions taking shape in drawings and clay. On 8th March 2024, I look forward to sharing my research findings in a lunchtime museum talk, examining the artist’s evolution of his practice, discussing some of his most ambitious commissions, and culminating in the story of the Stevenage subway scheme.

If you have any recollections, please share them with the museum or contact me through social media.

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