The Decorated School: Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling book

3_9781908966247newcoverFor the past couple of years I have been following the Decorated School, an interdisciplinary research network which has been considering the implications of embedding art in schools, often through the incorporation into buildings of site-specific work such as murals. Building on the ideas of twentieth century educator Henry Morris (Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, who in the 1940s employed Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman as his art advisor), the basic interest is in the idea of an educational environment which is itself part of the child’s education. Having attended a couple of their events, a research seminar and a final conference in London, I was pleased to be able to buy a new collection of essays which has arisen from the project over its two-year life span.

Like the eventual reach of the project and the network of researchers which grew up around it, The Decorated School: Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling is wide in its scope, ranging from interwar Scotland to post-war Britain to France, the United States, Japan, Denmark, Kyrgyzstan and Northern Ireland. Although some essays were familiar from being presented at Decorated School research events, others were new to me, with a particular highlight being Shona Kallestrup’s essay on Danish artist and writer Asger Jorn’s site-specific works for the Arhus Statsgymnasium, which highlights the difficulty of reconciling his vibrant, experimental murals with the academic formalism of the educational environment and building in which they were to be situated.

Early in the book, Annie Renonciat sets the scene really well for the following essays, detailing some of the goals outlined historically by those aiming to get art into schools. In the French context Reconciat focuses on, as elsewhere, these encompass the interrelated goals of educating an ‘aesthetic sense’ in children, enabling France to compete with other industrialised nations in the field of design, educating of the taste of the masses, and using art to uphold certain moral standards. Focusing on the period from 1880 to 1939, she provides an illuminating glimpse onto the efforts of bodies such as the L’Art a L’Ecole to create a visual environment in schools. Jeremy Howard’s chapter on 1930s Edinburgh is also really good background context for considering art in schools, introducing some of the individuals and ideas which laid the ground for art in schools later in the twentieth century: the words of William McKechnie, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Education Department, quoted here, reveal that access to art and design is a privilege of the citizen of modern, democratic Scotland, and something to be proud of, which will help the Scot to become a citizen of the world, explaining that the awakening of the ‘aesthetic sense’ will enable young people to practise critical discernment. Another highlight is Dawn Pereira‘s examination of the London County Council’s post-war patronage scheme with regards to schools, with particular reference to what types of artworks were considered to be suitable for schools, and the tensions which arose between head teachers, governors, artists and committees in the choosing and siting of artworks for schools.

Featuring individual artworks which have been rediscovered and reevaluated in recent years, in Hertfordshire, Edinburgh and elsewhere, the book is beautifully designed and illustrated, with colour photos throughout of artwork in situ in schools as well as in close-up detail, which really brings home how vibrant an educational resource art can be in a school context (I absolutely LOVE the cover image, a detail of a mural in Barclay School in Stevenage, Hertfordshire by Kenneth Rowntree, who also contributed to Pictures for Schools, which combines abstract forms referencing mathematical concepts with elements suggestive of storytelling and landscape, in bold block colours). The visual imagery is backed up by an engaging overview of how art education, artwork in schools and the concept and aims of visual appreciation has developed over the past century and a half, and how it can continue to be a fruitful area for both educators and researchers in the future.

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