New Town Utopia

For some time, I followed with interest on Twitter the development of New Town Utopia, a new documentary about the new town of Basildon in Essex.

Although I’ve visited Harlow, another Essex new town, I’m not familiar with Basildon. I found the documentary, which I watched this week, to provide a remarkably even-handed portrayal of the town. Rather than merely dwelling on or aestheticising the town’s architecture, or condemning its social failures, it matched the aspirations for the town’s development up to the experiences of those who had moved there from the East End of London, and those who were born and grew up there.

The words of Lewis Silkin, the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, run through the film, setting out the context from which new towns such as Basildon emerged in the post-war period. Silkin explains that they aimed not just to alleviate the ‘grossly congested and overcrowded’ living conditions of the inner-city, but to ‘produce a new type of citizen, a healthy, self-respecting, dignified type of person, with a healthy sense of beauty, culture and civic pride’. By being well-designed and filled with artworks and cultural centres, he hoped that new towns would play their part in fostering an ‘appreciation of beauty’. The film questioned the extent to which new towns such as Basildon lived up to this. Whilst their new residents were delighted with new homes with conveniences such as indoor bathrooms, the improvement in living conditions did not always correspond to the changes in citizens which politicians and planners such as Silkin envisaged; Basildon, like the areas of East London from which many of its residents came, retained a reputation for toughness, and its interviewees categorised the town’s pubs according to the violence of the welcome one was likely to receive.

Whilst the shopping areas and public spaces of Basildon, like other post-war new towns, were populated with artworks such as large-scale sculptures and mosaics, what was most striking in New Town Utopia was the culture that emerged outside of the mainstream culture of the town, and these municipal gestures (or perhaps as an escape from it) – from the electronic bands of the 1980s (most famously Depeche Mode and Alison Moyet) to later generations of rock and indie promoters, to poets, painters, pupeteers and street artists.

To find out more about New Town Utopia visit www.newtownutopia.com.

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Beyond the ‘Basildon Man’

Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)

If the tone of Radical ESSEX is at times defensive, it’s because it has reason to be. The book is upfront about popular perceptions of Essex, from its reputation as a county characterised by its purported brashness, to the right-wing, Tory-voting ‘Basildon Man’ invented by the newspaper industry in the 1980s as a supposed archetype of a shift in working-class political allegiances.

Radical ESSEX sets about showing us a different side to the county, and introducing us to alternative figures from its history. Published by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and resulting from an exhibition and programme of events of the same name, Radical ESSEX brings together essays on various aspects of the county’s landscape, architecture and culture. There’s a strong emphasis on not just telling alternative stories about Essex, but highlighting the ways in which the county, which is within easy reach of…

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Inexpensive Progress on Pictures for Schools in Cambridgeshire

This fascinating blog post by Inexpensive Progress, a Cambridgeshire-based writer and collector, sheds some light on the fate of some of the work from the Cambridgeshire Collection of Original Artworks for Children, as well as giving details about the scheme’s history in Cambridge and some of the artists involved.


Interesting upcoming talks in Leeds for fans of twentieth century art and design

Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is holding three talks this month which look like they’ll be of great interest to fans of twentieth century art and design. The first, on Wednesday 13 June at 6pm, is by Lynda Nead, author of the recent, excellent book Tiger in the Smoke. The second, on Wednesday 20 June, is by Margaret Garlake, author of the essential book New Art, New World, and concerns emigre artists and their work for patrons such as the London County Council as part of the post-war reconstruction effort in Britain. Finally, on Wednesday 27 September, Gordon Johnston will discuss the work of the sculptor Peter Peri, whose work was exhibited at Pictures for Schools as well as in numerous public contexts.


Enid Marx in the news

I’ve been pleased to see a couple of articles recently shining a light on the print-maker Enid Marx, who exhibited linocuts and woodcuts at Pictures for Schools in the late-1950s and early 1960s, and sold to work to schools and local education authorities through the scheme.

The Guardian and the Twentieth Society Century magazine have both featured articles on her career, which encompassed both art and design, to coincide with a new exhibition of her work at the House of Illustration in London, and a new book about her by Alan Powers.

I hope to get chance to visit the exhibition in London, which is on until 23 September.


Exhibition visit: ‘Radical Clay’, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

This week I visited Bristol to catch ‘Radical Clay’, a small but thoughtfully done exhibition showcasing some of the ceramic pieces which were acquired as educational resources for the city’s schools. The exhibition posed the question: ‘Is investing in children’s creativity by showing them the very best still something to aspire to?’

Now mostly accessioned into the Bristol Art Gallery collection, more than 400 examples of studio pottery were purchased to be lent to schools across Bristol in the post-war period. Pictures for Schools was one of the places from which Bristol, along with a small number of other local education authorities and museum services, bought pottery, as well as purchasing work directly from galleries such as Primavera in London.

Bristol developed an impressive collection containing work by some of the leading potters of the time, including Bernard and Janet Leach, Hans Coper, Lucy Rie, Helen Pincombe and Peter O’Malley, as well as potters with more local connections, including to the local art schools. Pieces ranged from abstract sculptural objects, such as a stoneware vase by Hans Coper (1970), to more functional items such as bowls, teapots, cups and vases, to crafted object such as an earthenware dove by Ewart Uncles (1969).

Whilst some were chosen to appeal to children, incorporating imagery such as fish, cockerels and birds, the exhibition usefully drew out some of the other ways in which the pieces might have been used in schools, such as demonstrating particular techniques, ways of forming shapes, and of creating decorative patterns.

The pieces were lent to schools until 1990 when the service, consisting of increasingly valuable and hard-to-insure artworks, closed. However, ‘Radical Clay’ gave some idea of how the artworks might have been used in schools, reproducing photographs of ceramic pieces displayed in school alongside students’ own work, alongside testimonies from those who had studied and taught in Bristol’s post-war schools about the influence that creative education had had on their future careers.

As well as placing the collection within the post-war educational context of Britain’s post-war schools, as a tool for fostering first-hand learning and the development of creativity, the exhibition explored wider trends in studio pottery at that time, partly through the use of archival documentary films demonstrating particular schools, studios/production contexts and techniques. The exhibition drew connections not just to a fashion for Mediterranean dining, and to artists’ and craftspeople’s ambitions that their work should be affordable and enjoyed as part of everyday life, but to countercultural movements which reacted against mass culture and consumerism and placed renewed value on the handmade at that time.

‘Radical Clay’ is at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery until Sunday 10 June. For more information visit www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-museum-and-art-gallery/whats-on/radical-clay.


Exhibition of Argyll County Council’s school art collection

I’ve received an email about an upcoming exhibition of work by Scottish artists from Argyll County Council’s art collection for schools, dating from the 1960s to the 1980s, organised by Cowal Open Studios.

The exhibition Paintings are for People — the Argyll Art Collection takes place at Dunoon Burgh Hall from 21 April-2 June and Tighnabruaich Gallery from 28 April-3 June.