Once Upon A Time Mural at Rowlatts Hill Primary School

7.9.16 – 13.2.17

‘If you want to view paradise

Simply look around and view it

Anything you want to do, do it

Wanna change the world? There’s nothing to it’

I know I’ve used the phrase ‘most challenging project’ before, and I hate to repeat myself, but this was another albeit in a slightly different way. In fact I even reached a point where I thought I’d have to abandon this one. Before I’d reached a half-way stage I took a break of 4 weeks and couldn’t envisage myself returning to complete it. In fact I couldn’t even see myself picking up my brushes to paint ever again. I would describe that break as the most difficult of times.

Fortunately I was surrounded by some very good people. Considerate, patient, kind and understanding people. Last year didn’t begin well, and ended very badly. I was pleased to see 2016 disappear. Turning the calendar to reveal 2017 felt like breathing fresh air and making a new beginning.

rhstaffroomDespite my personal problems, working at Rowlatts Hill Primary School in Leicester is a very enjoyable experience. I have always been made welcome and there’s always cake, or chocolate, sometimes samosa. Let’s just say I’ve never gone hungry. Two years ago I painted a corridor wall with portraits of their selected ‘Heroes’ and before I’d finished Head Teacher Jay Virk had invited me to return. She spoke then about another project she had in mind by showing me the entrance to the Foundation Stage area of the school, which at that time was simply a small enclosed corridor with magnolia walls.

The Proposal
Jay wanted the area to be welcoming, exciting and colourful and asked if I’d design and paint a mural that would fill the space, which would both entice young children to read and instill in them the desire to explore the wonderful world of books.

However before I could embark on it I had another mammoth project to complete, ‘The Cavern’ music room mural at the Fulbridge Academy, with which in many ways this project had distinct similarities. It took a long time to finalise the design for ‘The Cavern’, there was such a rich source of material from which to select I felt overwhelmed. I encountered the very same ‘problem’ with Jay’s Foundation Stage entrance. I was spoiled for choice and the final decision of which books to include, and which to leave out, proved heartrendingly difficult.

‘Once Upon A Time’ became the working title for the painting and the more I researched, the more I delved into a world of superb illustration. I decided that not only would this painting be about the stories and their authors, it would also acknowledge and celebrate the work of the excellent children’s book illustrators who bring these stories to life. The world of make believe and imagination invented by the author has no boundaries, and to generate the images that visualise and make sense of that dimension is a very special skill indeed.

My ‘short’ list began by researching many ‘Favourite Children’s Books’ lists as well as making a note of the books and stories used in the school. As with the ‘Cavern’ music room project, the design developed as a historical timeline too rather than favouring one particular era, however there were some titles which were obvious certainties for inclusion. The design was drawn and redrawn many times before the final selection established itself, and even then late additions appeared during the painting stage.

The Location
The space had some awkward and unique features which played its part in the development of the design; a ceiling and wall height that changed part way along the corridor; two large windows; two large glass double doors and two wooden doors; plus a strangely positioned vertical post support feature resulting from a previous building modification. Other than that, it was plain sailing, except that the walls had some unusual features of their own with raised surfaces that jutted out, as well as the usual light switches and fire alarm box, and raised conduits to conceal electric cables. In other words, unlike the ‘Heroes’ corridor, they weren’t flat. The design really needed to disguise all of these abnormalities if that were possible.

As I have mentioned, there were many permutations of the design before a conclusion was found however from the moment I was first introduced to the space there were some things I envisaged immediately. To begin with I saw Lewis Carroll’s ‘too big’ Alice filling the facing end and extending across the door. I felt that the part of the story when she became a giant in a small room reflected the nature of the confined space. Not only that, the ‘Alice’ door would be regularly opened for the children to enter their own ‘Wonderland’. At the opposite end, above the double glass doors, I foresaw the butterfly from ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ as a visual metaphor. The story of a caterpillar evolving and eventually taking flight would be synonymous with the children leaving the early years area to spread their wings and make their own journey through the school.

I also intended to paint some exceptionally large images next to the large glass double doors at this end of the corridor, their reflection would suggest a continuation of the design into the main school. I deliberately selected two large and instantly recognisable heads for this purpose, half a Gruffalo was located on one side and half a Harry Potter on the other. The idea for this came directly from having grown up watching comedies like Harry Worth on TV.

For the remaining door I imagined one that was aged, forgotten, covered with ivy and concealing a secret garden. It’s actually an intervention room, but anything could be hiding behind a closed door, and it doesn’t have to be something frightening.

The oddly positioned ceiling support was the most awkward ingredient to incorporate into the design. I’d spoken with Jay about painting the ceiling so decided I could disguise it as Jack’s beanstalk growing up into the clouds. However, finding a suitable illustration which would work with it proved very troublesome. Despite investigating a plethora of drawings of this classic story I could find nothing that would be compatible with this strange architectural feature. Then, just as I began considering alternative stories which might be sympathetic with this structure, I had almost completed the painting by this time, by chance I came across a piece of work by Shawna Tenney in a book titled The Truth About Ogres. It was a terrific illustration and perfect for what I so desperately needed…………..except for the fact that I would have to reverse the image in order for it to work in the space available. As I’d already had to ‘flip’ an illustration by Quentin Blake in order that the seagulls attached to James’ Giant Peach could fly around a ceiling light, I felt reassured that this minor edit wouldn’t be detrimental to the original illustration.

The Design
My design had made a beginning but the rest of the space remained an unfinished jigsaw, and the number of pieces hadn’t yet been determined. The ceiling was an enigma as I hadn’t painted one in detail before however here was an opportunity to follow the example of so many Baroque churches (such as Sant’Ignazio in Rome) and stately homes (such as Burghley House in Stamford) and expand this confined space into an endless sky. I wanted the composition to suggest a possible storyline too so that it didn’t simply appear like a gallery of static characters, but as though there was a conversation going on between them and suggest they might come alive and play together when all the ‘grown-ups’ weren’t around. On the one hand the painting might encourage children to explore the books the characters came from but on the other it could also be used as a learning resource for the children to simply look around and invent their own stories.

This stage of the design process took several weeks as my ‘short’ list of potential candidates for inclusion were placed in different positions, and illustrations were researched to consider alternative poses. There were options provided by different illustrators too. Although some of the characters have a particularly distinctive appearance some books have received attention from a variety of illustrators to offer a different image. There are many Peter Pans, Long John Silvers and Jacks with giants and beanstalks out there. I have tried my best to acknowledge the sources of the images I have used, but I apologise for any inaccuracies and omissions as this is unintentional, I would like to ensure that the proper credit is recognised toward both authors and illustrators.

The Secret Garden door offered the possibility of extending the overgrown ivy across the wall as a textured backdrop to the composition, and the simple act of including a tree nearby in Tom’s Midnight Garden became a most important element to advance the design. It allowed foliage to extend across the ceiling to connect the two sides of the corridor, supply a branch from which Max (from Where The Wild Things Are) could swing, conceal the upper part of the BFG, and also locate a position for Winnie the Pooh to float as a little black rain cloud.

The ceiling not only provided a solution for the post support feature by including Jack and the Beanstalk but gave the opportunity to incorporate flight. There were many candidates but Mary Poppins, the intrepid Charlie Small, SuperTed, The Snowman, Peter Pan and James and the Giant Peach were perfect to fill that role.

I’d describe the production of the design as ‘tricky’, but it would have been impossible to make a perfect selection. There will always be a feeling of disappointment that important characters are missing, I have regrets that Black Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Famous Five and Rupert Bear are not present, but I had similar feelings about omissions in the final design of ‘The Cavern’ too.

My selection for the final design reading from the left as one enters the corridor was:
The Gruffalo
Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler

Stig of the Dump
Clive King/Edward Ardizzone

Mary Poppins
P L Travers/Mary Shepard

The Adventures of Charlie Small
Charlie Small/Nick Ward

Mike Young/Philip Watkins

Peppa Pig

Find the Duck
Stephen Cartwright

Where the Wild Things are
Maurice Sendak

The BFG (& Sophie)
Roald Dahl/Quentin Blake

The Tiger Who Came to Tea
Judith Kerr

Thomas the Tank Engine
Rev. W Awdry/Reginald Payne

Finn Family Moomintroll
Tove Janson

Roald Dahl/Quentin Blake

The Cat in the Hat
Theodor Seuss Geisel

The Borrowers
Mary Norton/Diana Stanley

Mister Tickle
Roger Hargreaves

Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Jeff Kinney

Burglar Bill
Janet & Allan Ahlberg

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll/John Tenniel

Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson/Monro Scott Orr

René Goscinny/Albert Uderzo

The Jolly Postman
Janet & Allan Ahlberg

A Bear Called Paddington
Michael Bond/Peggy Fortnum

Tom’s Midnight Garden
Phillipa Pearce

Winnie the Pooh
A A Milne/EH Shepard

The Sheep-Pig
Dick King-Smith/Layn Marlow

Flat Stanley
Jeff Brown/Scott Nash

The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Beatrix Potter

The Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett/Russell Barnett

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Roald Dahl/Quentin Blake

Charlotte’s Web
E B White/Garth Williams

Horrid Henry
Francesca Simon/Tony Ross

Janet & Allan Ahlberg

Harry Potter
J K Rowling/Mary Grandpré

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle

On the ceiling:
The Snowman
Raymond Briggs

Jack and the Beanstalk
Joseph Jacobs/Shawna Tenney

Peter Pan
J M Barrie/Alice B. Woodward

James & the Giant Peach
Roald Dahl/Quentin Blake

As all the characters on the walls were make believe, upon completion I painted my signature as a fictitious character too, Sir Lancelot, one ouatsignatureof the Knights of the Round Table of Arthurian legend. He made his first literary appearance in the 12th century……………but it’s also an anagram.

I began transferring my design to the walls at the beginning of September and a ‘Varnishing Day’ on 13th February saw the painting finished, which gives the impression it had taken 7 months but, without including the time taken to produce the design, it had actually amounted to 52 days.

It seemed a strange coincidence that 13th February was my final day. That same date in 2016 was when my wife and I found my Mum in a confused state at her home after she’d spent the previous 14 hours lying on her living room floor. She’d suffered a stroke and for the next 3 weeks she was confined in a hospital ward followed by another 2 weeks in a Care Centre. In May she was in hospital again after experiencing heart failure and although she did mange to return to her home another series of mini strokes followed and saw her condition deteriorate in the autumn. On the morning of the 13th November she was found with hypothermia and a more than irregular heartbeat after another night on the floor. Although she was wearing her emergency bracelet she hadn’t pressed the alarm button and despite the attending paramedic’s insistent and repeated request to be taken to hospital she refused, preferring to remain in the comfort of her own home. She’d had a dreadful year. She understood the implications. She’d had enough.

We stayed by her bedside night and day for the next week and she died on the evening of the 19th November. She was always interested in what I was doing and to learn details of my next project. As far as ‘Once Upon A Time’ was concerned, she’d offered suggestions for inclusion and interested to follow the development of the design. She was also keen to see my photographic diary each week as the painting stage progressed. This has been a very difficult project to complete. It’s the first painting I’ve done that she’ll never see.