The year was 1947, it was summer, and a piece of Newcastle public house folklore was being born. The murals now hidden behind the wallpaper in the Crown Posada were getting sketched out in charcoal by three Gosforth Grammar School pupils, Mike Attewell, Tristram Storey and Douglas Wood – each 18 years old.
Seventy-one years later, Mike Attewell’s daughter Helen breezed into the iconic pub earlier this year with a copy of Cheers North East – dated November 2015 – which featured the artworks blinking briefly in the sunlight for the few hours they had between the removal of the old wallpaper and its replacement during a refurbishment.
“My dad did those,” she said to manager Andrew Nicholson, who has spent most of the past decade researching the history of the pub that’s part of the Sir John Fitzgerald (SJF) group. The story of the murals had previously been left to educated guesswork and conjecture.
“I though the paintings’ history was lost to time until I met Helen,” says Andrew. “She nonchalantly told me her father had done the paintings and more than that he was alive and well and living in Durham. After I picked my jaw up off the bar I got as many details as I could over a pint.”
Theories had abounded over the provenance of the Spanish dancer, bullfighter, guitar players and donkey rider depicted so beautifully on the painted plaster. Were they in homage to a former owner’s Spanish mistress? Did they have something to do with the Spanish embassy that operated further up Dean Street? Do they contain a hidden message?
We’ll let Mike Attewell take up the story:
“It was in the days when you’d find smooth, swift, pollution-free yellow municipal trolleybuses gliding through the streets of Newcastle. We would mount them without queueing and pay the conductor calmly after we had sat down. Ah dear!
“Three young students were idle between school and college. Their old art teacher, Charles Fallows, told them of a potential job decorating a pub with murals. The landlord trusted the decorator, Mr Finlay, and he trusted the teacher, and the teacher trusted us boys. People were like that in those days.
“Naturally the theme for Crown & Posada (as Mike recalls it was named then) was Spanish. Less naturally, the colours were yellow, orange and red – their impact, thank goodness, a little lessened by using an appearance of stencilling. A life-size fighting-bull plunged across the bar room wall, its horns level with the pints. On another wall, a flamenco dancer flared her skirt while her partner stamped his heels – and turned to applaud his own backside in the usual style.
“Elsewhere there was a landscape which had to be genuine, though it was out of date because it was copied from an El Greco painting, and there was a figure of a peasant with a donkey, who might have been Sancho Pansa. All this we never saw again – being good students we never went into pubs, although we did allow the exception of the Union bar, where the beer was cheaper.
“We were paid £25 between us, without hearing any criticism or praise that I remember. Inevitably the murals were papered over, being integral with the rest of the interior. Whether that happened years later or the following month, I cannot say.”
The three amigos graduated and followed teaching careers. Douglas Wood went into higher education, with a parallel career as a painter, often of portraits. He and Tristram settled in Australia where Tristram sadly died. Mike also enjoyed a career in secondary school teaching, followed by painting as an amateur.
He says: “It would have been decorators’ distemper we used on the walls after drawing an outline with charcoal. It has a stencil effect due to successive layers of working outwards, getting lighter. When painting murals you’re not supposed to work in solid colours as it destroys the architectural integrity (he chuckles at this). We picked out the roundels on the beams as well in red, orange and yellow.
“I also remember Finlay, who had a business in Gosforth, had a handcart with all his materials in. I don’t like to pester Doug who is ‘self-medicating’ after a skin cancer op. Tristram was a brilliant athlete, at least he was until hit in the leg by ‘friendly fire’ during National Service in Malaya. Some clot dropped a Sten gun – the most unreliable weapon ever issued – outside his tent.”
Apart from the fine beer, great crack and enthusiastic welcome, the Crown Posada is also noted for its huge mirrors and two stained glass windows designed by George Joseph Baguley and manufactured by William Wailes, whose private residence was Saltwell Towers in Gateshead.
It’s also worth looking at the ceiling’s deeply recessed panels and frames with their guilloche and egg-and-dart ornament. Until a 2004 refurbishment, they were picked out in amazing reds, golds and greens, but were subsequently whitewashed into history.
“It’s simply amazing to have an answer to add to my ever-expanding collection of Posada stories,” says Andrew Nicholson. And thanks to the very talented Mike Attewell and his two friends – plus his terrific memory and ability to bring a tale to life. Olé.
*Mike Attewll’s remarkable works can be viewed at mike-attewell.co.uk