A disused 1950s brick-built church languishing behind metal fencing in one of the most deprived areas of the country is not a place anyone would expect to find an art treasure. But taking up an entire wall inside the Holy Rosary church in Oldham – and at increasing risk of being lost for ever – is a rare mural by a leading 20th-century artist.
Now a campaign to save The Crucifixion by George Mayer-Marton, who fled to Britain from Austria in 1938, is gathering pace with an application to have the artwork listed amid concerns that the building will be demolished or redeveloped.
Save Britain’s Heritage has written to Historic England, the body that recognises and protects historic buildings and sites on behalf of the government, urging swift action to save the mural. A decision is expected before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, two conservation reports that were commissioned by the artist’s great-nephew, Nick Braithwaite, have concluded that magnolia emulsion painted over the fresco part of the mural could be safely removed to restore the artwork to its original state.
To spruce up the church’s interior, in the 1980s a local priest took it upon himself to paint over the frescoes
The Crucifixion, commissioned by the Catholic church in 1955, is one of only two ecclesiastical murals by Mayer-Marton to survive in situ. At almost 8 metres (26ft) high, it is a rare combination of mosaic and fresco.
The huge depiction in stone and glass tesserae of Jesus on the cross is flanked by frescoes of Mary and St John, which are now covered. “It’s very overpowering because of its size and sense of the sublime,” said Braithwaite, an expert on his great-uncle’s work.
However, perhaps in an effort to spruce up the church’s interior, in the 1980s a local priest “took it upon himself to paint over the frescoes. The less said about that the better”.
Mayer-Marton, a Hungarian Jew, was a significant figure in the interwar Viennese art world. But in 1938, following the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany – “he saw the writing on the wall”, said Braithwaite and obtained a visa for the UK.
After his departure, a decree was issued by the Nazis declaring him barred from the National Chamber of the Fine Arts because investigations had shown he “did not possess the necessary commitment and reliability to promote German culture”.
He established himself in St John’s Wood, north London, but his studio containing his life’s work was destroyed in the blitz. After the war, he taught at Liverpool College of Art, establishing a mural decoration department, and took commissions for murals in Catholic churches and schools. One of them, The Pentecost, is now on display in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral.
In 2017, the Roman Catholic diocese of Salford closed the Holy Rosary and more than 20 other churches as part of a restructuring. “It came as a great shock to me,” said Braithwaite. “We made submissions to the diocese not to close the church and to guarantee that the mural would not be destroyed, but there were no guarantees.”
The building is currently used as a store, and water leaks could damage the mural, he said. “And there’s always the threat of vandalism.”
In a statement, the diocese of Salford said: “Since the closure of the Church of the Holy Rosary in 2017, protecting George Mayer-Marton’s rare work of art has been of paramount importance to us. We have taken action to improve the security of the building to ensure the safety of the work and have cooperated with parties who have shown an interest in it.
“The diocese of Salford is committed to finding a new home for the work of art, and we continue to explore options to find a place where it can be permanently displayed and made available to members of the public for years to come.”
In a letter to the Catholic church’s patrimony committee this month, Braithwaite stressed that the mural was “part of Oldham’s heritage and should be retained in situ. It appears that the diocese may still be thinking just in terms of relocating the central mosaic element and sacrificing the fresco element, which has been demonstrated is perfectly capable of being restored to its former glory.”
The artwork had been “commissioned by the Catholic church and it should be valued as such by the church … The diocese has a responsibility to protect its artistic treasures.”
Henrietta Billings, director of Save Britain’s Heritage, said: “This is an incredibly rare, well-executed and important mural for Oldham and for England by a leading 20th-century artist and lecturer. It needs protection and national recognition through listing.”
Robert Proctor, senior lecturer in architectural history and theory at Bath University, said: “The commissioning of a striking modern artwork by a Jewish artist filling the liturgical east end behind the altar in this otherwise modest modern church … is historically extremely significant. It fully deserves consideration for listing as a nationally important artwork.”