Celebrating Mitzi Cunliffe: Sculptor


2018 is the centenary of the birth of the architectural sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe.  Her most famous creation is the iconic mask trophy for the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, a constant feature of the British media landscape for over sixty years. The Twentieth Century Society (C20) and the Manchester Modernist Society are launching a fundraising campaign to commemorate her achievements by:

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The Twentieth Century Society (C20) and the Manchester Modernist Society are launching a fundraising campaign to commemorate her achievements by:

  • Installing a civic plaque on her former house and studio in Manchester.
  • Hosting a talk/lecture about this neglected artist, designer and teacher.
  • Many of her works are still in situ today so we will create an online sculpture trail of her work in the Manchester area.


Mitzi Cunliffe (1918 – 2006)

Mitzi Cunliffe was born Mitzi Solomon in New York, where she trained as a teacher and artist before subsequently studying in Paris.  After seeing the medieval sculpture at Chartres Cathedral she later wrote ‘I knew then that was the kind of work in which I wanted to be involved’.  In 1949 in New York she met and later married Marcus Cunliffe, an historian of American history and literature, later moving with him back to Manchester. 


She established a studio in the garage of the family home which was to be her base until 1964, an extremely productive period. She made two significant contributions to the 1951 Festival of Britain: a pair of intertwined figures symbolically stepping from a tree, prominently located at the entrance and a pair of bronze door handles in the form of expressive hands for the Regatta Restaurant.  For the School of Civic Design at Liverpool University she made another set of door handles, a relief and the Dove sculpture, all of which still survive. Other large-scale architectural reliefs can be seen at Manchester and Leeds University, the latter celebrating the university’s strong links with the textile industry. 

She was commissioned in 1955 by the Guild of Television Producers & Directors (now BAFTA) to make the famous trophy.  We know its serene gaze but the reverse side, featuring symbols carved into the metal, hints at something mysterious about the enduring power of drama and its place in the new technology.  Her original intention was make both ‘faces’ equally important by placing it on a rotating support.

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Mitzi Cunliffe specialised in the particular challenges of relating sculpture and relief to architecture.  One of her most important works is at the Heaton Park pumping station, the only post-1945 building to be listed for its sculpture.  Taking account of the viewpoint from below, it graphically depicts the course of the water from Haweswater, with a group of workmen as a central feature of the composition.

Throughout her career she experimented with techniques and materials, as well as designing jewellery, textiles and ceramics.  For the Red Rose Restaurant at Lewis's store in Liverpool, she used a cast bronze technique to create a richly figurative pierced screen themed on the Wars of the Roses. Later, she developed ‘sculpture by the yard’, large panels cast in concrete or fibreglass, their subtle variation of bold repetitive patterning catching  the light to give a sense of movement.  

In 1971 Mitzi Cunliffe embarked on a new stage of her career, teaching at Thames Polytechnic (now South Bank University) and later in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal.  It is our hope that these commemorations will set the scene for further research on this significant twentieth century woman artist.


You can pledge your support here.

(images © Estate of the Artist)

The Life of Buildings - Jackson’s Row Synagogue

The Modernist Society, Manchester Metropolitan University and Archives+ at Manchester Central Reference Library have teamed up to work on an experimental project in which Manchester’s landmark architecture could be preserved in virtual reality to allow people to revisit former buildings where they once stood.


Computer and architecture experts aim to create 3D virtual buildings that could one day exist on their former sites – letting people to ‘enter’, walk through rooms and even hear stories hidden in the walls through wearable devices.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University, working with The Modernist Society and Archives+ at Manchester Central Reference Library, are looking to bring former buildings back to life using the latest technology as part of the new ‘Next Generation of Immersive Experiences’ project.

The team will investigate the range of digital reproduction methods currently available – including CAD software and laser scanning – to work out which might be most appropriate to produce virtual models of buildings that can also host oral testimony and other memories.

The initial project will be a pilot of the virtual reproduction via conventional augmented reality on a mobile device of the Jackson’s Row synagogue in Manchester, who are in support of the project.

Its cultural significance, and the fact that it was the first new building in the city after 1945, made it an obvious choice for the team.

Richard Brook, Principal Lecturer at Manchester School of Architecture, Manchester Metropolitan University and lead researcher, said: “This idea centres on the digital preservation of our cities. Cities change, and without development cities are petrified, stultified and can become thematised versions of themselves.

“Yet development is not without its sensitivities and often involves passionate protest about preservation of buildings and heritage. Last minute attempts to save buildings under threat of demolition through the statutory listing process often falter and a usual outcome is a clause in the planning approval that an archaeological record is made.

This record may include a measured and photographic survey and cursory written reports of the cultural history of the site. Such records are hard to access and, in technological terms, are a limited means of representing lost artefacts.“They also fail to represent the cultural value and personal memories to the people and communities  that experienced the buildings.

“This project imagines the creation of a model that can recreate a rich and layered version of a building and bring it to life through the collation of social, cultural, technical and visual archival sources.”

Sometimes buildings are demolished and elements that have touched the lives of its inhabitants are lost – the furniture, the pictures, the decor and the memories of the people who worked, celebrated or worshipped there. With this project we hope not to carry out just a building survey, but to capture and incorporate part of the spirit and the life of some of the people who have passed through its rooms.

University architects, historians, and computer scientists will work on ‘The Life of Buildings’, which has won funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council/Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Research and Partnership Development call for the ‘Next Generation of Immersive Experiences’.

Collaborators wanted

Events / Exhibitions / Publishing about 20th century architecture in Manchester

Are you a writer, 'zine-ster, historian, researcher or a whizz with social media? Are you a designer, artist, illustrator or photographer? Are you a budding publicist or project manager? Or are you an existing community or history group with an interest in 20th Century Manchester architecture?

Would you like to collaborate, contribute and help deliver events / exhibitions / publications about 20th Century / Modernist Manchester? ( that's Greater Manchester by the way.) Do you have an idea for a project or publication that want to develop or lead?

Then get in touch! The Modernist Society is a voluntary based, creative collaborative project that needs you to join in and make things happen. 

Events and activitites could include a talk or a film screening, a walking tour or an exhibition. Publications could range from a pamphlet or map to a book. Projects could be about individual buildings or places; types of building or more generally about the architecture and associated art and design of the period (that's roughly 1918 - 2000, though we're particularly keen on the the post-war period).

Here at the Modernist Society we have always been fond of a printed publication, from our early Alphabet City through to Toastrack and Sacred Suburbs, not to mention our quarterly Magazine - The Modernist.

Other recent projects have included exhibitions such as Galt, Garland and Games and tours such as GM10.

All our collaborations are voluntary but if there are costs involved we can investigate how and whether the project idea can be funded

So, if you have an idea and want to make it real, then get in touch by emailing Jack Hale or Eddy Rhead at info[at]modernist-society.org

Thanking you!

The Modernists

Manchester Modern

In Manchester Modern we present 111 buildings of the twentieth and early twenty first century lovingly photographed and researched by Richard Brook. It is conceived as a field guide, small enough to fit in your pocket, but weighty enough to know its merit. The book's designer Vaseem Bhatti is an artist of pedigree defining the distinctive visual identity of Warp Records’ Lex Records, and Manchester’s Skam Records.

So, how do I get hold of a copy?

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We did a crowdfunding campaign to get this book printed and all the backers who kindly trusted us to come up with the goods have all been sent their copies.

But what about us? I hear you cry.

Don't despair... we are waiting for the remaining copies to be delivered from our printer and once they arrive they will be available to buy on our web shop.

To stay informed, just make sure you can sign up to our mailing list here and you will be kept informed of all our events, publications and news.

Thanks for your patience.

The Modernists

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Discovery of the month - Frank Williams

A neighbour with a history

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Would you believe it but who should have a studio down the corridor from Modernist HQ but Frank Williams, formely of Manchester City Architects Department. Frank worked as part of the team on a number of our favourite Manchester buildings including Blackley Crematorium (1959) and Arnfield Water Treatment Works (1962). Frank was also a contemporary of our friend Derek Hill who helped design the Toastrack and with whom we partied in 2012.

Frank has loaned us some images of buildings that he worked on from his personal archive which we show here, including Blackley Crematorium, Arnfield Water Treatment Plant and the Godley Water Filtration plant.

The black and white photographs are by Elsam, Mann & Cooper and the prespective drawing is Frank's own.

I think we'll be hearing more about Frank later on...



A look at Leigh

The Turnpike Gallery and that William Mitchell

Leigh's Turnpike Centre is a brutal beauty incorporating a public library and art gallery. Built in 1971 and featuring a large William Mitchell frieze on the exterior, the building has a new lease of life after the recent re-opening of the Turnpike Gallery on the first floor.

The gallery was closed by Wigan Council due to funding cuts in 2013 and briefly kept alive by local art groups. In 2016, former Whitworth Art Gallery curator Helen Stalker took on the task of reviving the gallery's contemporary art programme with funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

The building has been knocked about about over the years and it shows the wear and tear of age and a typically local authority lack of care but with a bit of love and attention the Turnpike could easily become Greater Manchester's coolest art space. Just look at those aluminium finger plates on the gallery doors... that chandelier has got to go though.

Turnpike Gallery, Civic Square, Leigh WN7 1EB

From the arhive: St. Catherine of Sienna, Lowton

First published 2011

Weightman & Bullen 1957

Lowton is near Golborne, Lancashire, in the old South Lancashire coalfield area, off the East Lancs Road a few miles west of Leigh. I guess that the local authority is Warrington Borough Council which is technically now in Cheshire. It seems to be in the RC Archdiocese of Liverpool. St. Catherines is due to close because of the 'poor state of electrical systems'.

The church is briefly described by Richard Pollard on page 516 of the Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-west Pevsner. He says that St Catherine’s is “the first centrally planned Roman Catholic church in SW Lancashire, its design contains elements that would reappear in modified form at subsequent churches such as St Ambrose, Speke [grade 2 listed but vulnerable}. Hexagon plus detached open-framed concrete belfrey tower over the baptistery, the two joined by a lobby”.

The parochial website is a here . The home page has documents relating to the proposed closure on the grounds of electrical wiring maintenance costs.

C20 Roman Catholic churches in the former manufacturing districts are being closed at a startling rate as the Church seems to be undergoing an existential crisis of membership, costs and restructuring. I’ve suggested that EH undertakes an urgent review of C20 RC churches like St Catherine’s. Some of these churches (e g St Raphael’s, Stalybridge) contain splendid artworks. St Catherine’s, Lowton, sounds like another one.

Aidan Turner-Bishop

Post Script - Sacred Suburbs

From the archive: BBC New Broadcasting House

First published: 2011

And so, the BBC leaves its Manchester base for Salford and turns off the studio lights for the very last time. Opened by Prime Minister James Callaghan in June 1976, the building will be decommissioned after North West Tonight in the last week of November 2011, and the last remaining team will join 1700 other BBC staff at Media City UK.

After compulsory purchase orders were approved for the site in 1967, planning began and after abandoning designs by an external architect, design work was completed the BBC's Architectural and Civil Engineering Department, with a completion date of 1975.

The BBC has sold the premises to Reality Estates for an undisclosed fee. Reality Estates won the bid from a shortlist including the likes of Bruntwood and Downing. Reality Estates also own Gateway House on Piccadilly Station Approach and the former Manchester Abattoir in Newton Heath.

Perhaps unloved by many due to its uncompromising concrete facade, possibly one of the most impressive features is the radio studio built to house the Northern Symphony Orchestra, later known as the BBC Philharmonic, alas this huge studio is now silent but the band plays on.. in Salford.



10 Buildings / 10 Boroughs / 20th century architecture in Greater Manchester


We challenged the public to seek out their top ten 20th century buildings in Greater Manchester, one from each Borough.

We posted suggestions on a dedicated website, adding a new borough to our site each week.

And in May and June of 2017 we took two bus trips to visit ten buildings across Greater Manchester, hurtling through five boroughs on each trip. Some are in fine fettle and in productive use, others are neglected and empty.

GM10 was a Modernist Society project and part of the Manchester Metropolitan University Humanities in Public Festival 2016/17

We visited: Turnpike Gallery, Leigh, Wigan; Lancaster Halls, Swinton, Salford; The Octagon Theatre, Bolton; Civic Centre / Queen Elizabeth Hall, Oldham; Hopwood Hall Chapel, Rochdale; St.Raphael the Archangel, Tameside; Stopford House, Stockport; Essoldo Cinema, Trafford; St. Nicholas Burnage, Manchester.   

Special thanks to Helen Darby and Manchester Metropolitan University - Humanities in Public and to Jacob Critchley for designing the GM10 logo.

Galt, Games & Garland


The Manchester Modernist Society are proud to present an exhibition of GALT toys, games and puzzles - designed and produced by James Galt and Co.Ltd in the 1960s and 70s.

Based in Manchester, Galt revolutionised the nature of play in Britain, employing Ken Garland Associates to rebrand, package and produce an innovative product range, based on new modernist and educational principles. 

Collaborative, non gender specific, graphically bold, brightly coloured, durable and fun - Fizzog, Octons, Montage and Connect were fresh and exciting in their use of high quality illustration and simple geometric design. A stripped back sans serif logo and crisp Swiss typography added to the modern feel of the brand. Widely distributed through a mail order catalogue they were a familiar sight in thousands of schools, and now some fifty years later, evoking fond memories for the generations of children and parents that played with them.

This is the first ever major retrospective of Galt's achievements, displaying over sixty varied examples, collected by the curators, along with catalogues, books and other artefacts and ephemera. 

Everyday modernism, new ideas for a new world from Bauhaus to your house

Exhibition: Devised and curated by Natalie Ainscough & Stephen Marland

Venue: Central Library, St Peter's Square, Manchester M2 5PD

Tues, Apr 4, 2017 - Wed, May 31, 2017

UMIST is under threat

Time to shout?

Now, we're not big on campaigning here at the Modernist Society, we like to concentrate on positive things rather than demolitions and destruction but once in a while we do try to rally the troops and make a call to action.


The future of the University of Manchester's North Campus, or what we at the Modernist Soc will always refer to as UMIST, has been uncertain for some years but the recent publication of the draft North Campus Strategic Regeneration Framework 2017 (SRF) by Manchester City Council sets out a vision for the future of the campus that might destroy some of the finest examples of post-war architecture in the city and we strongly urge you to comment on the impact of these proposals on the former UMIST campus. (see how at bottom of page).

Although not listed, the Renold Building (Cruikshank and Seward 1962) was 'the first of its type in the UK – an entire building to house lecture theatres and seminar rooms. It is also one of the earliest UK projects to assume a tower and podium configuration' (Mainstream Modern) and is much admired for its zig-zag curtain wall, Niemeyer inspired curved roof, and Victor Pasmore mural. One suggestion in the SRF is to remove the Renold Building’s podium to allow for the opportunity to build a new residential block pushed up against Altrincham Street, an increase in building density being a key proposal of the SRF.

The Hollaway Wall (Anthony Hollaway 1966) which runs along the London Road boundary of the campus fairs little better in the SRF, despite being Grade II listed, suggestions include - remove and relocate, shorten and chop holes through it or shorten and incorporate into a new build - despite the fact that Historic England designated the wall Grade II for its design quality for its 'imposing and striking sculptural Brutalist design that combines both special artistic and architectural interest. It was designed by the highly successful artist Anthony Hollaway in collaboration with the notable regional architect Harry M Fairhurst'. Historic England also describe it as 'a good and rare example of 1960s public art design'.

Who knows the future of the Chandos Hall (W A Gibbon of Cruikshank & Seward 1962-4) or the Barnes Wallace Building (also W A Gibbon of Cruikshank & Seward), let alone the Chemical Engineering Pilot Plant, Maths and Social Science Building, Chandos Hall, Ferranti Building or Pariser Building.

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In our very own CAMPUS project in 2012 we unilaterally declared the UMIST Campus a Conservation Area - this had no legal authority of course, it was part of a 'happening' and art event to raise awareness of the very special nature and design of the campus and many of its constituent buildings, during which we created a map, planted plaques and tied the buildings up in 'attention modernist' crime scene tape - maybe we were premature and the 'crime' is about to happen.

In 2016 we published 'Knowledge and Work' a photographic portrait of the UMIST campus by Bill Ayres in which we stated "Some buildings lie empty. Some are still busily in use. UMIST the institution is no more but the physical campus is still pretty much intact. For now.”

For now.. we have a remarkable collection of post war buildings grouped together like no other in the city of Manchester, your comments could help shape what happens next.

Manchester City Council have previously been criticised for not giving enough opportunity for the public to be involved in its planning decisions - so lets make this one count. Your response can be sent by email to: city.centre@manchester.gov.uk or by post to: City Centre Regeneration Team, PO Box 532, Manchester City Council, Town Hall, M60 2LA

All comments from people wishing to take part in this public consultation must be received by Tuesday 14 February 2017, so that all comments can be included in a report to the Executive Committee. Please include your post code.

You might also copy your comments to:

The Twentieth Century Society and Historic England at: northwest@HistoricEngland.org.uk caseworker@c20society.org.uk

Read the SRF document

Our acknowledgement to Bill Ayres, Mainstream Modern, C20 Society and Historic England for use of some words and pictures.


See the Twentieth Century Society's comments here.

See press:

Manchester Evening News

Architects Journal


10 Buildings

10 Boroughs

20th century Architecture in Greater Manchester

10 Buildings

10 Boroughs

20th century Architecture in Greater Manchester

Here’s your mission.. throughout November to January 2016/17 the Manchester Modernist Society challenge you to seek out the top ten 20th century buildings in Greater Manchester, one from each Borough.

We will post your suggestions here on our special GM10 website, adding a new borough to the site each week. In May and June of 2017 we will take a bus trip to our top ten.

Email us : tweet us @modernistoc #GM10 : instagram us @modernistmag #GM10 :

or simply add your suggestions to the comments box at the bottom of each page.

And where better place to start than…Wigan

GM10 is part of the Manchester Metropolitan University Humanities in Public Festival 2016/17

Knowledge and Work

Some buildings lie empty. Some are still busily in use.

UMIST the institution is no more but the physical campus is still pretty much intact.

For now.

Knowledge and Work is a photobook celebrating the UMIST campus at a time when its future is uncertain. Photographer Bill Ayres has collaborated with designers Jacob Critchley and Jack Glover to produce a book of photographs that celebrates the architecture and landscape of the University of Manchester North Campus formerly known as UMIST.

Published by the Modernist Society, this is the first of three publications to be produced in 2016 celebrating and investigating twentieth century architecture in Manchester with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. With special thanks to G.F.Smith Papers.

128 x 175 mm

Printed on Munken Polar Smooth

120gsm text/300gsm cover

ISBN: 978--9955481--7

Edition of 300

Available now


Bye Bye Breadman

Recently we were contacted by Ian Hawkins who was on the trail of a half remembered public sculpture. Ill let Ian take up the story :

After eight years away, I moved back to Manchester in 2014. I didn’t really mind where in Manchester, but the house that got the most ticks happened to be in Middleton.

I grew up in and around Chadderton and Oldham so I was familiar with Middleton, but not much. I remember Thommy’s chippy, the cool statue outside the Middleton Archer pub and the big crucifix sculpture that used to be on the side of Middleton Arndale. You know, the big Jesus figure made out of different loaves of bread? No?

I asked my new neighbours if they remembered the breadman. No one did. I asked around further. No luck. I did a sketch on a Post-it pad for some shopkeepers. The best I could get was a vague recollection of something. This set me off on a mini-quest to find out more.

The breadman was designed by Rochdale’s town artist of the time, Michael Dames. There wasn’t an official title. It was known as ‘Bread Roll Christ’, ‘Sunblest Christ’ or simply the ‘breadman’. The whole piece was actually a triptych with giant corn dollies (made out of scaffolding) on either side of the breadman. The crucifix was around 20 feet/six metres tall and was to be installed next to a Tesco.

The artist was making ‘unlikely connections’ between the religious and secular; town and country; industry and agriculture. It was installed in 1980 and removed in 1984. According to the back of a photograph I found in Middleton Library, it came down due to ‘vandalism and public dislike’.

I don’t know how an art historian might assess the breadman. I don’t know how it ranks alongside contemporary works. I even find it hard to say whether I like it or not on a personal level. Either way, there was something about the figure that stuck in my mind from all those years ago. When I look at the photographs now, I think there’s something strange and dramatic about it. Perhaps even glorious.

As it turns out, the breadman was controversial. At least that’s how local media cuttings describe it. A 1200 signature petition was delivered to Rochdale Council to register their disgust at this representation of Christ. Other local vicars wrote open letters of support of the breadman.

One thing’s for sure, the local media got their money’s worth. After all, these were the early Thatcher years. The idea that councils were using ratepayer’s money for controversial art was too much for the Manchester Evening News and Middleton Guardian. But in reading through news cuttings, it’s clear that Michael Dames’ position was part funded by the Arts Council. The breadman itself was paid for by the Arndale property developers. These facts are absent from most of the articles that describe a ‘public outcry’ and ‘howls of protest’.

Eventually, Michael Dames resigned. A few years after that, a badly vandalised breadman was removed at the council’s expense (the press blamed the artist for that too).

I’m making a short documentary about the breadman. I’m pleased to say that Michael Dames is alive and well. He agreed to be interviewed on camera and told me that I was the only person in more than 30 years to ask him about the breadman. I’m in the process of finding whatever breadman memories I can and getting those on camera too. If anyone reading this blog knows of anyone involved, or has any photographs or film of the sculpture, or anything that might be useful to my film, I’d love to hear from you.

"Photo: The Local History Centre, Touchstones Rochdale"

A visit to "Projecting British Design: the Design Council Slide Collection in focus"

On Thursday 19th May we will have special access to the wonderful Projecting British Design: the Design Council Slide Collection in focus exhibition at the MMU Special Collections.

As well as browsing the exhibition we will be treated to a talk by John Davis, the curator of the exhibition and former custodian of the MMU Visual Resources Centre. The Visual Resources collection was transferred last year from the School of Art into the Special Collections after a period of uncertainty and now, hopefully, it has found a safe, permanent home. John will explain some of the background of the Design Council, its slide collection and how the MMU came to acquire this very rare and fascination collection. 

It is not only a rich visual treat but offers a fascinating parallel narrative to British post war history.

The exhibition is not on for long so we are very lucky to get this chance to explore it.

The event is free but spaces are limited so we ask you book a place. If you book and cannot come please let us know as not to deny someone else a rare space. 

Please book here

We shall meet at 5.30 for a talk from John Davis at 6pm on Thursday 19th May at

MMU Special Collections  Sir Kenneth Green Library All Saints Manchester M15 6BH

If you aren't an MMU student you will have to be asked to be let in. 

Mitzi in Leeds

More information about the Mitzi Cunliffe exhibition in Leeds has reached us. 

images courtesy of the artist's estate

Sculptor behind the first BAFTA mask was ahead of her time

Exhibition celebrating major contribution to public art in post-war Britain by American sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe opens at the University of Leeds on 30 March

She created the famous BAFTA mask trophy that has been awarded to the great and the good of the film and TV worlds for more than 60 years. But some say the work of sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe has been overlooked ever since.

Now the University of Leeds hopes to redress this by collaborating with the American artist’s daughter to create a new exhibition of her work from 30 March to 2 July: Sculptor behind the Mask: Mitzi Cunliffe’s work of the 1950s.

Painter and Royal Academician Stephen Farthing curated an exhibition of Cunliffe’s work in Oxford in 1994. He said Cunliffe, who lived in the North of England for much of the 1950s and 60s, was well ahead of her time.

“Mitzi Cunliffe wasn’t fortunate enough to live at a time when the art world was interested in a female American artist making sculpture in a garage in Didsbury, let alone the very real or possibly just imagined performative element in her work,” he said.

“Today, in my story of art, she would hang in the same gallery as Lady Gaga, Marina Abramovich, Jackson Pollock and possibly Barbara Hepworth. It was her ability to take a classical education and make it look towards the future that convinced me she should be part of the curriculum.”

Cunliffe’s elder daughter Antonia Cunliffe Davis has been working to raise awareness of her late mother’s artistic legacy for more than 20 years.

She said: “After all this time, I hope this mission will finally come to fruition and that the exhibition at Leeds will help get her the recognition she deserves.”

This year the University celebrates the 60th anniversary of one of Cunliffe’s most important 1950s public sculptures –Man-Made Fibres, a huge Portland stone sculpture for a new textiles building, also called Man-Made Fibres. The sculpture features two monumental hands with a striking weave motif cradled between them, reflecting the exciting developments in synthetic fibres that the new building represented. The University remains proud of its roots in Yorkshire’s textiles industry.

At the same time she was working on this, Cunliffe was commissioned by the then Guild of Television Producers to design the BAFTA award, which was presented for the first time in October 1955. Man-Made Fibres was unveiled by the Princess Royal – then Chancellor of the University – in June the following year.

The new exhibition, at the University’s Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, considers Cunliffe’s career in public art and as a designer of ceramics and textiles in the 1950s, when she created the famous BAFTA trophy – on loan will be the very first iconic mask produced.

The show has been curated by art historian Professor Ann Sumner, the University’s Head of Cultural Engagement, who said: “The exhibition concentrates on Mitzi Cunliffe’s major public art commissions, including her little-known contribution to the Festival of Britain, which launched her career in this country, as well as commissions for other Universities such as Liverpool, for schools in Manchester, her frieze for the Heaton Park Pumping Station, also in Manchester, and the remarkable War of the Roses screen in Lewis’s department store in Liverpool.

“The 1950s were an extraordinarily prolific years for her.”

The Leeds exhibition will focus on the Man-Made Fibres sculpture, culminating in the 60th anniversary of the building on which it sits, on 29 June.

Items on display – some for the first time – will include Cunliffe’s original maquettes (preliminary models), photographs, letters, drawings, textiles, ceramics and exhibition catalogues.

Arthritis and eye problems led Cunliffe to switch to teaching and writing from the early 1970s. She later developed Alzheimer’s disease and retired to Oxfordshire where she died aged 88 in 2006.

As part of the year’s events to celebrate Cunliffe’s association with the University, Man-Made Fibres is being conserved, and new public art will be commissioned in response to it.

The exhibition forms part of the University of Leeds Public Art Project and will be accompanied by a series of events and talks, as part of The Yorkshire Year of the Textile celebrations. It also coincides with the Out There: Our Post-War Public Art exhibition organised by Historic England at Somerset House (until 10 April).

Mitzi Cunliffe

The American sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe (1918-2006) arrived in Britain in 1949. Today she is best-known for her design of the BAFTA mask award trophy, but she was also renowned in the 1950s for her contribution to public art, as a designer of textiles, ceramics and glass, and a commentator on the relationship of architecture and sculpture. 

“Sculpture must again be made accessible,” she wrote in 1950. “Sculpture withers now in the hothouse of galleries and museums for temporary exhibits, catering to a faceless feeble audience of dilettantes and critics.” She wanted to see sculpture “taken for granted by people as part of the natural environment, the stuff of life”, to be “used, rained on, leaned against”. 

The Man-Made Fibres building is now known as Clothworkers’ Building South – the latter name itself an important nod to the University of Leeds’ foundations in the textiles industry. One of the institutions on which it was founded, The Yorkshire College of Science, was established in the 1870s, largely as a result of concerns by the wool and textile industries that the rapid development of new technologies in Europe posed a threat to the local trade.

Early Years

Mitzi Cunliffe was born in New York in 1918, the daughter of a glass manufacturer. She attended the Art Students League of New York before studying Fine Art at Columbia University from 1935 to 1940. She then sought inspiration in Paris, studying at the Académie Colarossi for a year, and in Sweden.  Back in her native New York, she had solo shows in 1944 and 1948, and produced Grief Piece as part of Erich Mendelsohn’s unrealised design for a Holocaust memorial in Riverside Park (1946-47); for this she was the only woman artist to contribute. She exhibited at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts in 1945, received an Honorable Mention from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1947 and exhibited at the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in Memphis, establishing a reputation for herself.

In 1949 she came to England after meeting and marrying the British academic Marcus Cunliffe, who taught American history at the University of Manchester. The glamorous young couple settled in Didsbury, and Mitzi quickly asserted herself as a sculptor converting their garage into a studio. 

Festival of Britain

She was one of six women sculptors participating in the Festival of Britain in 1951, where her major piece was the impressive Root Bodied Forth, an 8ft concrete group sited prominently on the viewing platform of the station entrance to the exhibition. She also designed a pair of handles, Push and Pull for the Regatta Restaurant at the Festival on the South Bank. The original maquette for Root Bodied Forth will be on loan to The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery from Leeds Museums & Galleries and the original Push and Pull handles from a private collection. Both of these were included in her first exhibition in London at the Hanover Gallery later that year. The catalogue included an introduction by Sir Hugh Casson, the Festival’s Director of Architecture:

“Her strong decorative sense, her power to express intense emotion, her enthusiastic imaginative approach to any project, whether it be a marble carving for a civic institution or a plan for handles for a café door, are a welcome reminder that sculpture need not necessarily be as it is so often today a monologue, but that it can be, as it once was, a well-understood dialogue between the artist and the community.”

Commissions flowed in following her success at the Festival and with her first London exhibition, including works for the University of Liverpool, local schools and Manchester Corporation Waterworks. Meanwhile she still completing works for New York clients.



Modernist Mitzi

We were delighted to have recently been in touch with the daughter of a Manchester Modernist favourite and one time Didsbury resident Mitzi Cunliffe.

Mitzi’s daughter Antonia tells us of a forthcoming Mitzi Cunliffe exhibition at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds (opens 30th March 2016) - more details promised on their website soon.

Antonia was kind enough to send us a couple of images from her personal archive including this photo of a scale model for the mural at the Heaton Park Water Inlet Building and a picture of Mitzi Cunliffe in her studio.

images courtesy of the artist's estate

So, here we take the opportunity to re-post an article by Maureen Ward originally on our blogsite from 2012.

Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe 1918-2006

Her best known work (the BAFTA mask) might well be gracing the mantelpieces of Colin Firth, Natalie Portman and David Fincher but this modernist sculptor’s favourite commission was created not for the RADA or Hollywood elite but the hungry shoppers grabbing a bite in Liverpool Lewis’ Dept Store cafe, the largest pierced bronze screen in the world.

For this fact alone Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe has captured our hearts and earned our admiration. If we were the sort to award blue plaques or lobby for a Hollywood-style Wall of Fame scheme in our own city, Mitzi would top the bill. She epitomises the spirit of an exuberant, utopian partnership between planners, architects, artists and sculptors dedicated to rejuvenating the public realm after the chaos of the blitz; functional yet accessible, experimental yet egalitarian, international yet rooted in everyday surroundings. Just like Mitzi herself....

A native New Yorker, Mitzi Solomon studied Fine Art at Columbia University before moving to Paris’ progressive Academie Colarossi, famous for nurturing female students such as Camille Claudel. It was here, upon viewing the Chartres Cathedral statuary that she became inspired to be an architectural sculptor. Back in New York she began stone-carving, fairly traditional ones by all accounts (though admired by Corbusier himself who she met in 1946) until her marriage to the English historian Marcus Cunliffe suddenly brought her to Manchester in 1949, and a leap in direction.

Like many artists of this period, her break came with two large scale commissions for the Festival of Britain exhibition on London’s South Bank in 1951. Planned as a celebration of Britain’s history, achievements and culture the festival was a ‘tonic to the nation’, aiming to help put the trauma of war behind it and kick start reconstruction of morale and built environment.

Modern architecture was at the forefront of the whole enterprise – the Royal Festival Hall was one of Britain’s earliest post-war public buildings, a showcase for contemporary art, engineering and design, and still admired today. Mitzi created ‘Root Bodied Forth’ which showed figures emerging from a tree displayed at the entrance of the Festival, whilst a pair of bronze handles in the form of hands adorned the Regatta Restaurant. Significantly she was commissioned by Misha Black, Director of the Design Research Unit, who would later design the interiors for Manchester’s CIS and CWS towers.

Post war Manchester was also embracing the new, with bold projects such as Piccadilly Plaza, UMIST campus and the CIS all underway. This was an era that aspired to bring art directly to the people and the building boom created more opportunities for a new breed of sculptor/muralist, as modern architecture with its tower blocks and expanses of raw surfaces was literally a blank canvas for experimentation. And experiment they did – with new materials, styles, techniques, and increasingly with abstraction, a result of the demands of working in such huge scale and grappling with new materials like concrete ushering in an era dominated by organic, abstract and textural patterns.

This was Mitzi’s Manchester and she was passionate that her work be ‘used, rained on, leaned against, taken for granted’, declaring that her ‘life-long dream is a world where sculpture is produced by the yard in factories and used in buildings as casually as bricks’. Based in the garage of her Didsbury home, Mitzi took on a stream of large scale commissions, producing some of the North West’s most influential public artworks. Her decorative relief panel for the Pumping Station at Heaton Park bringing water from the Lake District is the only post-1945 building to be listed entirely for its sculpture. Other surviving pieces include ‘Man and Technic’, recently given pride of place at the new Manchester Health Academy but originally commissioned for Brookway High School in Wythenshawe, and ‘Cosmos I’, a fibreglass relief at the base of Owens Park Student Tower.

Like her contemporaries she was prolific, designing jewellery, textiles for Tootal Broadhurst and ceramics and tiles for Pilkington's, her meticulous qualities as much sought after in these media as for her monumental work. She continued sculpting for large buildings throughout the 1960s and her final large-scale architectural commission consisted of four carved stone panels for the Scottish Life House at Poultry, London, in 1970. Mitzi lived to the ripe old age of 88, though her later years were marred by ill health – first arthritis then later Alzheimer’s took its toll – but she continued to teach, inspire and write for many years. Now, as the post war landscape she so laboriously carved begins to fade away, its buildings making way for the new, much of her magnificent work, like that of so many of her contemporaries, is disappearing forever.

Mitzi might have been born in New York but her soul belongs firmly in the North West of England and her Didsbury garage – the Heaton Park Pumping Station might be a far cry from the glitzy backdrop of the BAFTA ceremony but it’s no less deserving of our Modernist Heroines Wall of Fame.

Maureen Ward (2012)