With more than 250 teashops across the country in the 1930s, Lyons was a British institution.

But in the immediate post-war years, ongoing rationing meant the teashops were looking a little shabby, with no decorating materials available to spruce them up.

It was against this background that the Lyons lithographs project was launched in 1947, featuring the cream of post-war British artists.

“It was quite an inspirational idea,” says Neville Lyons, whose first cousin twice removed [his grandfather’s cousin], Joseph Lyons, co-founded the first Lyons teashop in London’s Piccadilly in 1894.

“It was bringing great art to the general public. They didn’t need to go to grim museums or art galleries to see great pictures.”

Eastbourne’s Towner has the complete set of 40 lithographs in its collection, including works by Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Duncan Grant, LS Lowry, John Nash, John Piper, William Scott and Ruskin Spear.

“They combined some of the more popular and well-known artists of the time as well as introducing new artists,” says Towner’s collection curator Sara Cooper.

Original works

“Grant, Lowry and Freedman were established artists at the time, while David Gentleman and Clifford Frith were examples of the emerging ones. Unlike something like the London Underground posters, where artists sent their submissions and a lot were rejected, the Lyons managers knew who they wanted to ask and had some good connections.”

Indeed, Cooper believes only a couple of major artists were omitted from the selection.

“Henry Moore was omitted, although his name was certainly mentioned in connection with the project early on,” she says.

“If [Eastbourne-based artist] Eric Ravilious hadn’t been killed in the war, he would have been an obvious choice too.”

The original idea had been for each artist involved to submit a lithograph, but it was decided it would take too long to teach those who didn’t know how to make them.

It means alongside the complete lithograph collection, Towner’s exhibition also features some of the original paintings and sketches which were later turned into prints.

“We have an original from Bawden’s Dolls At Home and a nice original by Nash,” says Cooper.

“We also have a working painting by Scott. We have some of the original keyline images, which are to do with the lithograph process, so visitors can see the process of printing them.”

Another original is from George Hooper – the only image in the 40-strong set that was edited, in a minor way, by the Lyons board.

“Lyons didn’t want them to be controversial,” says Cooper. “Hooper’s image Hotel Entrance was actually the image of a pub – I think it might be a pub in Brighton – but they didn’t want to have a picture of a pub in the shops so they changed the title.”

The initial series of lithographs, which were plastered on walls and mirrors in the shops, went on display in 1947 and were followed by two more series in 1951 and 1955.

There are plans to show each series grouped together, so visitors can see how the project progressed.

“Freedman was really involved at every stage of his lithograph,” says Cooper. “He did one for every series, as did Edwin La Dell – they were the two key artists involved.”

The lithographs were also available to the public to buy direct from the Lyons head office. Sadly the Lyons teashop chain is no more, with the last shop closing in 1981. At the chain’s peak there were four Lyons teashops in Brighton – in Western Road, Old Steine and two in North Street. All four closed down between 1972 and 1975.

“The public attitude to food had changed,” says Lyons. “Younger people had become more interested in fast food and pizza restaurants.”

  • Open Tuesday to Sunday and bank holidays 10am to 6pm, tickets £5.50/£4. Visit www.townereastbourne.org.uk n Neville Lyons tells The Joe Lyons Story on Saturday, July 13, and Art In The Lyons Teashops on Saturday, July 27. Both talks start at 5pm and cost £6/£5, or £15 for a combined ticket including entry to the exhibition.
  • The spirit of Lyons is going to be recaptured on Saturday, July 20, as Brighton-based promoters Melting Vinyl host The Corner House Club Night in the gallery, recreating the atmosphere of the four huge Lyons Corner House restaurants which offered different food and music across four or five levels. On the bill is Briefs Encountered by the Radio City Theatre, a special edition of debating salon The Catalyst Club hosted by David Bramwell, a sewing workshop by Eastbourne’s Owl And Sewing Cat, live music from orchestra ensembles, a jive and swing club, and a dress-up Corner House photobooth. Tickets for the night, which starts at 8.30pm, cost £10/£9 from www.meltingvinyl.co.uk