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William Gordon: ceramics answer to St Aidan?

Last week I dropped my daughter off at a piano exam centre in Leicester which turned out to be the site of an incredible ceramic wall mural which I fell in love with and had to find more about.

From the back, St. Aidan's Church in New Parks (the first Post-War housing estate built in Leicester), looks unassuming but it’s pretty special and more worthy of more attention than it receives from the cars speeding by on the A563 ring road it faces.

As you enter by the front porch you are met with this impressive mural which depicts scenes from the life of St. Aidan and covers the full height of the fifties built church. The building, which becomes more outstanding the more I look at it, was designed by Basil Spence (marmite Scottish brutalist architect of Coventry Cathedral fame) and constructed between 1957-59.

The brief to build the church was a tight budget so Spence created a scheme made up of a simple church with cloister and stand alone bell tower. It is largely made up of a steel framed block in-filled with exposed brick. The bell tower is an open steel frame clad in concrete which almost looks unfinished. The mural was a commission fulfilled by ceramic artist William Gordon.

And sadly there’s not a lot I can find out about this artist. We know it was his first major tile commission and that Gordon had previously produced studio pottery at Walton Pottery in Chesterfield, some stunning and rare examples of which are held in my favourite room at the V&A. He was also responsible for the Carter & Co abstract tile mural at Basildon Bus Station (now sadly lost despite a public campaign to save it).

From the very few images I can find on the internet, his work was very ahead of its time. Clean lines, organic forms, minimal ornamentation - a forerunner to one of my favourite contemporary and much more commercial ceramicists, Stig Lindberg and a perfect partner for Spence's low cost no frills approach to post war building. Drawings and Gordon's explanation of his mural design exist in the Spence Archive but I couldn’t find it online.

Image: William Gordon Lamp base 1950 - porcelain cast with blue black slip and salt glazed

So, from sight, the tiles look to be slip-decorated stoneware in subtle pigments: rust, blue, yellow, black and white (in The Paint Pottle these would be paint numbers 81, 58, 43, 15 and 16 for those in the know) either sponged on or applied in broad freehand or creative strokes that generate defined pattern and shape directly into the mural. This is my kind of painting - a little bit playful and not worried about being too neat.

The result is a great energy to the mural - it takes your eye on a journey, the story of the pious monk who successfully spread the gospel to the socially disenfranchised back in the six hundreds.

But even if you’re not moved by the story, the mural's design is gripping. There's no high gloss symbol of money or status here - it’s natural and approachable style subtly draws you into the church as St Aidan did himself. I imagine this is what Gordon intended.

Having said that, maybe just ceramic geeks, because when I entered the church gushing about the mural, the exam administrator hadn’t even noticed it!

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