Nottingham Playhouse pays tribute to Geoffrey Clarke

Friday 14th November 2014

In 1963, when Nottingham Playhouse threw open the doors of its new home on Wellington Circus, one feature in particular struck and perhaps even perplexed its first attenders.

Clinging tightly to the curved concrete wall of the auditorium itself was an extraordinary assembly of aluminium. Its brutal abstract framework was pocked with an array of cylindrical forms jutting out into the foyer like horizontal factory chimneys and thinner metal rods rippling like some denuded and industrialised forest.

This was the work of Geoffrey Clarke, and the fact that the new Playhouse boasted a large new artwork by this leading sculptor was a significant feather in Nottingham’s cap. It stands for the boldness of the early 60s as surely as Sir Peter Moro’s modernist building itself.

In that same year, 1963, the Sunday Telegraph’s art critic Edward Mullins listed the significant commissions that the artist had already notched up:
“six separate works for Coventry Cathedral (three windows and a Crown of Thorns among them); candles and altars for Chichester Cathedral; 30 relief panels for the Canberra liner; doors for two London banks; a light-fitting for a bank in Liverpool (‘I believe the teller resigned the next day,’); a mosaic for Liverpool University; a tapestry design for a sheikh’s palace in Kuwait; aluminium reliefs for two Cambridge colleges; screens for the Royal Military Chapel, Birdcage Walk, and most recently a relief sculpture for the new Nottingham Theatre.”

That unnamed relief sculpture fast became a much-loved feature of the Playhouse, known universally as “the Mural”. Long before the addition of the Neville Studio, it became an important performance space in its own right: poetry reading, folk nights and jazz recitals were all given “under the Mural”.

At one notorious after-show party, it was even scaled by an esteemed member of the backstage staff, perhaps slightly under the influence. No such things as Health or Safety in those days; we’d have to discourage anyone from repeating the feat nowadays.

Geoffrey Clarke died on 30 October, a month short of his 80th birthday. He was born in Darley Dale, Derbyshire, the son of an architect. Following war service in the RAF, he enrolled at the Royal College of Art. In his first year he won the silver medal at the Milan Triennale for a collaboration with furniture designer Robin Day – who would go on to design the seats for Nottingham Playhouse’s auditorium.

Clarke initially found fame for his work in stained glass, but was already experimenting with exposed concrete and abstract aluminium shapes, which he cast in his own foundry to a method he had devised himself. The Mural at Nottingham Playhouse is a classic example of his mature style. Associated by critics with the “geometry of fear” school, who responded to the damaged world of post-war Europe by sculpting gnarled and battered forms, Clarke’s work is now held in the collections of the Tate Gallery and V&A. Appointed a Royal Academician in 1975, he continued to work and exhibit throughout his life.

Over the years, Clarke’s Playhouse mural has become so integral a part of the building’s fabric that long-term attenders barely notice it, or look upon it as a familiar old friend. It took until 2001 for people to feel the same effects of puzzlement and pride once again, when the forecourt was graced by a new arrival by a fast-rising sculptor of the day, in this case Anish Kapoor.

As we progressed further into the 21st century, the foyer lighting was redesigned to highlight Clarke’s Mural anew in splashes of colour and give it its due recognition alongside Sky Mirror. Geoffrey Clarke may be gone, but long may his Mural tower over theatregoers at Nottingham Playhouse.

Derek Graham
14 November 2014