The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity 1946 – 1955

Posted on 19/06/2013

Lyons Tea shop interior Courtesy Design Council and Design Archives, University of Brighton

13 July – 22 September 2013

Post-war British artists including Edward Bawden, John Piper, David Gentleman, John Minton, William Scott, Duncan Grant, John Nash and L .S. Lowry form part of The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a Time of Austerity.  The exhibition celebrates Towner’s collection of the complete set of 40 lithographs commissioned by catering giant J. Lyons & Co. to combat the wartime decline in the interiors of their famous Lyons Teashops, compounded by a post-war lack of decorating materials. Through the company’s enterprising approach to arts patronage and interior decoration, the cream of modern British art was for the first time accessible to a wider public in 200 Lyons Teashops nationwide.

Towner’s exhibition presents all three series of lithographs – commissioned between 1946-1955 – together with a selection of the original paintings and working drawings.  Whilst some of the artists were able to produce their own lithographs, others created watercolour, oil, gouache, pen and ink, or collaged works that were then turned into the final lithograph. The works were produced on a large enough scale to conceal the faded teashop decors. War artists, Royal College of Art alumni, and well-known and emerging practitioners were chosen to produce tasteful works of art that would appeal to the typical Lyons Teashop customer. 

Presenting a very particular British idyll, the lithographs depict urban, industrial, rural and coastal landscapes, domestic interiors, street scenes and still-lifes.  Pictures of leisure pursuits such as billiards, cricket, fishing, punting, boxing and piano-playing vie with scenes of a railway station, a hotel lobby and fishmonger’s shop; and apple pickers in a Kent orchard contrast with yeoman warders at the Tower of London and afternoon tea in Henley.  Anthony Gross’s Herne Bay pier was declared a best-seller and used on the film set of Carry on Cruising, and John Piper’s stage sets and costumes for Benjamin Britten’s new opera Gloriana became the inspiration for his Teashop lithograph.  An oil painting of Barnett Freedman’s Music – Still Life, produced from his lithograph, was later gifted to the Tate gallery.

Together with the artistic innovations developed by London Underground, Shell-Mex, the General Post Office and others, the Lyons Teashop Lithographs established a distinctive post-war vernacular and a high profile demonstration of how Britain could thrive during the austerity years.  The Lyons Teashops Lithographs are a key legacy of these pioneering times, the last Teashop having closed its doors in 1981.

Events during The Lyons Teashops Lithographs: Art in a time of Austerity:

The Joe Lyons Story: Food for Thought, Saturday 13 July, 5pm, £6.00 / £5.00 concessions / £4.00 Towner members.   Neville Lyons on the remarkable story of his relative Joseph Lyons, who out of humble beginnings created the world’s first ‘food empire’.

Corner House club night, Saturday 20 July 8.30pm – midnight. £10.00 / £9.00 concessions / £6.00 Towner members. A Towner and Melting Vinyl club night inspired by the 1940s and ‘50s  – including entry to the Lyons exhibition. Dress in your wartime best!

Art in the Lyons Teashops, Saturday 27 July, 5pm.   £6.00 / £5.00 concessions / £4.00 Towner members.   Neville Lyons will describe how the lithograph project was conceived and delivered – display high quality image reproductions of most of the lithographs and giving an insight into the background of the artists, many of whom became household names.

Image credit: Self-service Lyons teashop opened 1951 in Lower Regent Street. Interior design by Richard Lonsdale-Hands Associates in dove-grey, scarlet and royal blue. Courtesy, Design Council/University of Brighton Design Archives