Saturday, 4 January 2014

Review: Self Portrait: The Eyes Within by William Mitchell

When I interviewed the prolific artist and designer William Mitchell (then aged 86) a couple of years ago, he concluded our discussion with a tantalising reference to a book he was in the process of writing about his life and work, which he told me would be “part instruction book” and “part adventure book”. Two and a half years later, Self Portrait: The Eyes Within is the result of his mining of eight decades' worth of memories and recording a wealth of anecdotes, experiences and observations for posterity. Brought to life by charming new, cartoon-like illustrations that perfectly fit the personal tone of the book, Mitchell reveals himself not just to be an accomplished innovator, experimenter and sculptor, but a lively and entertaining storyteller with plenty to say about art, life, education and society. I thought that we had covered good ground during our interview, but the book, a weighty, glossy, hardback tome, made me realise that Mitchell had barely even got started – and that his chosen genre of “adventure book” couldn't be more accurate.
Rather than focusing narrowly on his long and diverse career, Mitchell starts at the beginning, taking us back to the early years of his life in 1920s and 1930s London and to a different place and time. From the vibrancy of street life, markets, arcades and music hall entertainment – a world populated by larger-than-life family members – to the strict regimentation of a childhood spent between hospital and a London County Council-funded boarding school, he shows how his formative years set up the resilience and determination – as well as the love for colour, detail and patterning – that characterised his later artistic outlook and career. Mitchell's career path has been as far from the linear progression favoured by a careers adviser as can be imagined: from tool-maker's apprentice to Navy to NAAFI painter to insurance agent to RCA student of industrial design then furniture designer, London County Council design consultant and artist for public and private hire. From decorating decidedly unglamorous motorway sidings and underpasses to designing railway carriages and later the Egyptian staircase in Harrods, Mitchell has lent his skills to all kinds of situations and clients, and all receive attention in this book along with some of the projects which didn't quite make it – who would have guessed that there could have been a Harrods in Las Vegas, modelled by Mitchell along the lines of St Peter's in Rome?
Photos and detailed descriptions of how he made certain pieces – some of them now demolished – will delight fans of Mitchell's work, although Mitchell wryly relates exchanges and working relationships which reveal that satisfying clients at the same time as retaining artistic vision was not always an easy task. Also interesting are encounters with figures such as the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret and the Al Fayeds, along with architect Basil Spence, which offer a different take on famous characters and an insight into British social history. Although much of his surviving work in this country is grounded in the British post-war building boom of everyday buildings such as tower blocks, schools and universities, libraries, office buildings and churches, the book is as much a journey around the world as a guide to Mitchell's work, describing stints in Australia, Rome, the Middle East, the United States, Hawaii and Paris. My favourite moments in the book are those that are least expected, or that detail trips to far-flung and exotic places: Mitchell's fraught wartime voyage to Russia aboard a Navy destroyer as a naive teenage recruit, an epic and adventurous journey across Europe and the east in a second-hand motor home, complete with his family, en route to design a zoo in Qatar, and being taken to a mysterious desert settlement by the Emir of Abu Dhabi, whilst working in the country, to dine and debate. One final minor, but enjoyable, detail is the sartorial preoccupation which runs through the book; Mitchell has clearly always taken great pride and interest in his clothes, and at several points tells us what he was wearing at a given moment in time, adding to an overall picture of the man and an emphasis on good design that runs through his personal and professional life.
Self-Portrait: The Eyes Within is published by Whittles Publishing and costs £35. It can be purchased here and on Amazon.