Burlington: Gallery 1
Olga Lehmann's Burlington murals
Find out the story behind the many murals that graced the walls of the Burlington underground bunker.
Circus-themed murals in the Burlington bunker
In 2004 in a charity shop in Essex, I purchased an oil painting of a 'hippie girl' called Miranda by the artist Olga Lehmann. This inspired me to undertake a journey of discovery leading from overground Essex to underground Wessex, where I am gradually unravelling the fascinating story of this interesting and talented artist.
Olga was born in Chile in 1912, the eldest of three children. She died in Saffron Walden, Essex in 2001 aged 89. Married to Carl Richard Huson, they had one son Paul Huson, who lives in Los Angeles and was co-screenwriter of the 1980s TV series The Colbys.
Paul writes books on herbalism, tarot and witchcraft. His partner is renowned film producer and script writer William Bast, who lived with James Dean in the 1950s and wrote the book 'Surviving James Dean'.
Andre Lehmann, Olga's father was a mining engineer born in Paris to a French mother and German father. Olga's mother Mary Grisel, was the orphaned daughter of a Scottish minister.
Olga had one brother, the late Professor Andrew 'George' Lehmann. Monica Pidgeon, Olga Lehmann's sister, founded Architectural Design magazine, was once heralded 'Queen of Architecture' and now runs Pidgeon Digital - an online resource about prominent architects.
Olga spent much of her early childhood in Chile, before coming to England in 1921. She attended Dulwich High School, then in 1929 won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art in London and studied under the well-respected Professor Henry Tonks.
Olga Lehmann painting a flamenco themed-mural
In 1943, Olga Lehmann was approached by the architect David Aberdeen. She was offered a commission by Bristol Aircraft Company owner Sir Reginald Verdon Smith, to go around 150ft underground into his factory at Spring Quarry, Corsham, Wiltshire to paint murals on canteen walls.
Sir Verdon Smith believed this would brighten up the place and boost the morale of his factory workers, who were producing Centaurus engines for Brabazon jets.
Olga Lehmann took with her an assistant, fellow artist Gilbert Wood. The pair of them would go out on the town in Bath or Chippenham, get a bus back to Corsham, set up ladders and planks and get to work painting floor-to-ceiling size scenes.
It is thought that the murals were produced in around eight canteen areas and took six weeks to complete.
Mural themes included the circus, prehistoric monsters, sports (such as cricket), sailors of bygone days and mermaids.
There is a wall painting inspired by Alice in Wonderland, showing a rabbit holding a speared heart, a five of clubs playing card with one of the clubs missing and a somewhat controversial painting which appears to be a missionary padre being boiled alive in a cooking pot, surrounded by tribal people gnawing on bones!
Aircraft engine production was gradually run down and the factory closed in April 1945. It had used extortionate amounts of public money, production of engines had not been up to speed and the factory got into financial difficulty.
Lehmann's 'Bendy Man' mural in the bunker canteen
According to Nick McCamley's book Secret Underground Cities, the asking price for the factory in 1945 was £70,000 – less than 1% of the actual building costs!
During the 1950s the underground area was redeveloped as a bomb-proof and radiation-proof Cold War bunker named Burlington to protect the Government, providing a base for the country to be restarted should there be a nuclear war. The site is now decommissioned.
The Ministry of Defense are selling off land to private companies. Corsham Media Centre is a privately owned multi-million pound 'media factory' providing service to the film and TV industry.
Described as a movie-making alternative to London including film stages, rehearsal studios, sound stages, state-of-the-art workshops and a special private 20 acre area set aside for large scale sets to produce special effects and street scenes.
It is rumoured that at a Corsham underground wine storage vault, Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson stores his vintage wine collection.
According to English Heritage, the RAF still use parts of the underground space and some of it is used for Royal Navy storage.
It is not clear how much regard is given to the well being of the existing murals and exactly how many of the 76 which have been photographed still survive. Some have been documented by English Heritage and recorded in the National Monuments Record Office at Swindon.
Flt Sgt Andy Quinn MBE, is Deputy Mines Manager for the Ministry of Defense. He wrote about Olga Lehmann's artworks for the MoD Defence States Annual Report 2001.
The 'Strong Man' mural in the canteen
According to this report, murals only survive in one canteen area, which was used by the RAF as a war operations room for RAF Rudloe Manor from 1979.
While working underground, Olga also documented the environment and work going on around her. Her sketches and watercolour paintings included the entrance to the underground factory, tunnels, machinery, a clown sketch study for a mural and a sketch of acrobats on horseback.
Original artworks are in the RAF Museum at Hendon and with copies at the Bristol Aero Collection museum at Kemble.
Some heritage groups and researchers have been allowed special access into Spring Quarry to view the murals and other wartime artefacts. Around 20 people at a time have donned hard hats, for a tour of the mysterious underground city. The site is not accessible to the general public for health and safety reasons.
Throughout her career, Olga worked as a 'jobbing artist' designing and illustrating Radio Times front covers, painting film sets and designing costumes for major Hollywood movies.
Tom Thumb (1958) received an Academy award for its special effects. She worked on Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), The Guns of Navarone (1961), A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) and numerous others.
Much to her annoyance, she was not always mentioned in credits for her work and therefore did not receive much public recognition for her endeavours.
The British Film Institute hold an archive of her original, detailed artworks produced for the movies. Olga worked extensively in television production and received Emmy nominations for costume designs in The Man in the Iron Mask (1977), The Four Feathers (1978), A Tale of Two Cities (1980) and The Master of Ballantrae (1984).
Olga Lehmann painting Dirk Bogarde
Movie stars such as Charlton Heston and Dirk Bogarde also sat for portraits over the years.
Olga Lehmann's paintings and various other artworks are located in museums and galleries around the country, including the Victoria and Albert.
Since working on this research, I have managed to track down and meet 'Miranda', the subject of my oil painting. She lives in Bristol and is the daughter of Olga Lehmann's brother George. Miranda has shown me the original study sketch she sat for in Saffron Walden Essex a few years before her aunt completed the actual painting in 1975.
According to a report in Defense News, an MoD publication dated October 2006, the MoD agree that the underground tunnels provide an important link to Cold War history and that they are working with English Heritage and Inteq to ensure that this important part of our heritage is preserved.
It is possible that many of the murals were destroyed in the period between the 1945 factory closure and the creation of Burlington in the 1950s.
Only time will tell exactly which murals still survive and how the Ministry of Defense, English Heritage and art organisations are going to work together to discover and preserve what is left of this wartime art, and only now is Olga Lehmann gaining the recognition she truly deserves.
last updated: 07/04/2009 at 11:24
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