art / history / People

Barbara Jones, Black Eyes & Lemonade

Croydon’s original mural artist

25 March 2021

Whilst I was reading about architect Jane Drew, who we featured last month, I happened upon a friend of hers and fellow Croydon-born creative, Barbara Mildred Jones. Despite being a rather influential post-war artist, designer and writer, Barbara Jones was shamefully not a name I recognised. As we are only a few weeks on from International Women’s Day it seems only right and proper to highlight her life and achievements.

Jones was born and educated in Croydon, attending three schools here – Coloma, Croydon High and then lastly Croydon School of Art in the early 1930s. (She also briefly moved back to Croydon with her new husband, artist Clifford Barry, towards the end of the war).

It was at Croydon High School where she met Jane Drew, and it appears they influenced each other on their creative paths. Jones went on from Croydon School of Art to study at the Royal College of Art – firstly on the engraving course, then moving to mural decoration, where she made her name.

Barbara Jones

Barbara Jones at work on the publication ‘This or That’ (1947), Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.

Jones worked on a variety of book illustration projects post college, then after the war she created murals for the famous 1946 V&A exhibition ’Britain Can Make It’ which gave British industrial and product design some much needed promotion. Below you can see her mural for the ‘Things for children’ section of the exhibition.

Barbara Jones, Britain Can Make It

Britain Can Make It Exhibition 1946. ‘Things for Children’ Section designed by James Gardner OBE, RDI, and Basil Spence FRIBA. Murals by Barbara Jones, figures by Hugh Skillen, Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.

However it seems Jones is most recognised for organising and co-curating a ground-breaking popular art exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain. Intriguely titled ‘Black Eyes and Lemonade’, Jones took the line from an 1813 poem by Irish songwriter Thomas Moore as she felt it summed up ‘the sparkle of popular art’. The exhibition caused a certain amount of controversy at the time, as the original concept of the show was to explore British folk art. But Jones, being a champion of art for the masses, instead presented a selection of British made ‘everyday’ objects, from crafted items to mass-produced consumer products, which wouldn’t have normally been exhibited in a gallery. Jones’ revamped theme was in a way a precursor to the ideas explored in the Pop art movement.

Barbara Jones, Black Eyes & Lemonade

Publicity photo; Black Eyes and Lemonade 1951, Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive.

Reading about the exhibition, it sounds like the sort of contemporary show I might have visited in recent years at the Hayward or Tate, with performers making an appearance alongside the artefacts – Jones arranged a visit from some pearly kings and queens as well as a chalk artist to draw on the gallery floor. The objects displayed in the show ranged from the normal and oft-overlooked, such as matchbox covers, horse brasses and corn dollies, to the more quirky including a huge bottle covered in beer labels (below), the Idris Talking Lemon (above) and what looked like an edible model of a cathedral. Oh and there was even an opticians sign loaned from Bateman’s opticians in Croydon. In addition to being the mastermind behind the exhibition she also designed the striking yellow and black poster and catalogue cover (which I’m now coveting a print of).

Barbara Jones, Black Eyes & Lemonade

Publicity photo; Black Eyes and Lemonade 1951, Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive.

1951 must have been an extremely busy year for Jones as she was also commissioned to paint murals for the Festival of Britain, and was working on her book ‘The Unsophisticated Arts’ which has many parallels to ‘Black Eyes and Lemonade’. The book has a pretty awesome and VERY bold cover design by Jones as well of course (if you’re into graphic design you can check it out here).

Barbara Jones, Black Eyes & Lemonade

Publicity photo; Black Eyes and Lemonade 1951, Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive.

Later in the fifties she went on to be a designer on the BBC children’s puppet show The Woodentops and in the sixties she became the Vice-President of the Society of Industrial Artists. By all accounts Jones had a varied and prolific career, and sounded like a quite remarkable person who was way ahead of her time. She lived until her late sixties, working out of her studio at her house in Hampstead.

Barbara Jones, Black Eyes & Lemonade

Black Eyes and Lemonade Poster, Whitechapel Gallery, 1951, designed by Barbara Jones. Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive.

Thanks to the Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive, and Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives for the use of the images, with special thanks to Miles Clemson and Dr Lesley Whitworth. Header image is a crop of the Black Eyes and Lemonade poster designed by Barbara Jones, shown in full above, from the Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery Archive.

Posted by Julia

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