Exhibition visit: ‘But what if we tried?’, Touchstones, Rochdale

‘But what if we tried?’ by Harry Meadley at Touchstones in Rochdale is an illuminating experiment to display as much of town’s 1,500-strong art collection at once as possible (there’s only space to show about 300 pieces within its Edwardian galleries, it turns out).

At a time when public ownership and funding of art, and issues around access and storage, are more contentious than ever, this timely exhibition explores the curatorial and logistical processes behind the scenes of programming a municipal gallery which is resource-poor but rich in artworks and heritage.

Piled high in the largest gallery are a selection of artworks acquired since the gallery first started collecting, displayed in accession order and giving an insight into how the collection has evolved and grown over time, and the types of artists and artworks acquired during different eras.

Some of the collection has clearly been acquired due to local interest and connections, from portraits of local dignitaries and paintings and drawings depicting the town and its surroundings, to artworks by locally based printmakers. Other work has been acquired through bequests, meaning it cannot be sold. Other artworks have come into the collection through changes in local government; for example, when the nearby towns of Middleton and Heywood were incorporated into the borough in the early 1970s, their collections were merged with Rochdale’s.

The collection also reflects developments in modern art and contains works by major artists such as Patrick Caulfield, Gillian Ayres and Lubaina Himid (though, as elsewhere, woman artists are underrepresented in the collection, comprising around 8 per cent), and the gallery is still collecting today. Works by well-known artists are frequently lent to other galleries – enabling them to both be seen by a wider range of people and providing a source of income for the gallery. This is such an important part of the life of such a collection that one wall of the exhibition is filled with carefully packaged artworks ready to be shipped off to other destinations.

Displayed alongside the artworks are a series of thoughtful, behind-the-scenes films showing in detail how a gallery such as Touchstones actually works, taking us into the stores and through staff meetings, curatorial decision-making, PR planning and installation. Staff, including curators, technicians and the council’s Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods, Community & Culture, are interviewed with a refreshing candour about their work, including the challenges and responsibilities of conservation and care. Rochdale today is a very different place to the cotton-rich manufacturing town it was when the museum and art gallery was established, but the interviews reveal a wealth of knowledge, passion and expertise about the collection and its place in the town.

This exhibition is a must-see for anyone who can make it to Rochdale before it closes on Saturday 1 June. www.contemporaryforwardrochdaleartgallery.org/projects/harry-meadley-but-what-if-we-tried/

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Artemisia Gentileschi portrait touring to schools and other venues

I was interested/encouraged to read this week about a seventeenth-century self-portrait by Italian woman painter Artemisia Gentileschi, which has been on display in a girls’ school in Newcastle as part of a tour from the National Gallery also encompassing other venues such as doctors’ surgeries.

 


Football Is Art at the National Football Museum

I recently went to the launch of a new exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester showcasing the museum’s art collection, which has been developed with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

One of the works which has been acquired is a maquette for Peter Peri’s ‘Boys Playing Football’ (I went to see the original on the wall of an estate in Lambeth back in 2017).

Peri was one of several artists who exhibited at Pictures for Schools whose work has been acquired by the museum; football, particularly local and amateur matches, was one of the aspects of everyday life captured in the pictures shown at Pictures for Schools and bought by local education authorities for school loan collections (see Carel Weight’s lively ‘Village Cup Tie’, purchased by the London County Council, and apparently later sold to the football museum, although not on display in this exhibition and Fred Uhlman’s atmospheric painting of a game on a winter evening, recently sold at auction as part of the disposal of Hertfordshire County Council’s art collection). Like many of the artists at Pictures for Schools, as a member of the Artists’ International Association he was interested in depicting and reflecting relatable aspects of people’s lives, and presenting his art in places that was familiar and accessible to them.

The exhibition encompassed a wide variety of styles and genres, from Lowry’s iconic images of northern life, to delicate illustration by Paul Nash, to contemporary British artists such as Rose Wylie and digital artworks, to fashion and textiles, to vintage posters and advertising, to portraits of footballers and artworks by famous footballers such as George Best, and even a sculpture by Piccasso.

Far from the glitz of today’s game, with its superstar footballers on multi-million pound salaries, many of the works I liked best depicted the quieter, more personal aspect of the game and its individual and collective meanings to people as part of their sense of identity, leisure, routine, community and belonging: crowds huddled loyally in the cold of a snowy day, as in Alistair Grant’s lithograph ‘Snow at Stamford Bridge’, or behind the scenes of the game as in the Mass-Observation documentary photographer Humphrey Spender’s 1930s images of changing rooms, which suggested some of the tension and anticipation of the game.

Mid-twentieth century British art was particularly well-represented in the exhibition. I was interested to find out that several of the works had been exhibited in the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition, held in 1953, and organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Football Association in order to mark the latter’s 90th anniversary. One of the highlights was the Great Bardfield artist Michael Rothenstein’s prize-winning etching and aquatint ‘Moment of Victory’, an abstract set of shapes which appeared to represent little in a literal sense, but suggested movement and celebration. Another highlight was the robotic stacked shapes of surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun’s colourful oil painting ‘The Game of the Year’, dating from the same year as the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition.

Football Is Art is at the National Football Museum until Sunday 27 October: www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/whatson/football-is-art/

 


Paper at SAHGB Architectural History Workshop, London, 23 March

I’m excited to be presenting about my Pictures for Schools research at the Society of Architectural Historians’ annual workshop for postgraduates and early career researchers, which takes place at the Gallery, 70 Cowcross Street, London on Saturday 23 March.

The following is what I have proposed to talk about:

Pictures for Schools: Landscapes of post-war Britain

Between 1947 and 1969, the annual Pictures for Schools exhibitions sold original works of art to schools, local education authorities and teacher training colleges at affordable prices. Whilst county council patronage of the arts in counties such as Hertfordshire, in the form of site-specific commissions such as murals and sculptures, has been the subject of both academic and public interest, Pictures for Schools has remained understudied.

The artworks sold at Pictures for Schools, many of which fitted broadly into a landscape genre, contributed to the changing physical environment of post-war schools. More significant, however, is the role they played in changing educational experiences and ways of looking at the world.

Many of the pictures depicted everyday places and timeless activities that, at first sight, gave an illusion of continuity, far-removed from the changing face of modern Britain. Despite this, this paper argues that the Pictures for Schools made a significant contribution to the cultural and educational aims of reconstruction and the changing experiences of post-war Britain. It encouraged children to develop skills as critical viewers, looking closely at and responding to the places around them, important skills for the post-war citizen.

For more information visit www.sahgb.org.uk/ahw.html.


Reflections on Nan Youngman seminar

I really enjoyed presenting about my research into the life and career of Nan Youngman and Pictures for Schools as part of the History Faculty’s Gender, Women and Culture Seminar series at Oxford.

I was surprised, delighted and slightly overwhelmed that several attendees had known Nan Youngman, through family and artistic connections. Attendees also had interests in history of education, social mobility and policy.

I received several really insightful questions which have given me lots to go away and think about and further avenues to pursue as I continue to disseminate this work and think about publication. Questions and comments included:

  • Is my background/training as a historian?
  • Did I like Nan Youngman?
  • Why was Nan Youngman’s autobiography (held in the Tate Archive) unpublished? Is there any opportunity to get it published today?
  • Did Youngman have to be extremely proactive in order to generate her own career, networks and opportunities at a time when opportunities for women were limited?
  • Did Nan Youngman have a private income which enabled her to do what she did?
  • Have I heard of another Artists’ International Association member, and associate of the Bloomsbury Group, Elizabeth Watson, who was a friend of Felicia Brown and painted Betty Rea?
  • At a time when art school/training was changing a lot, did anyone involved in Pictures for Schools resist this?
  • Britain was known internationally for its active education in primary schools in the 1920s and 1930s, in counties such as Leicestershire and Oxfordshire, not just in art but in other areas such as in the Singing Together movement.
  • Was Nan Youngman aware of similar work going on internationally?
  • What about the parallels going back even earlier in terms of art, craft, design and taste, to Matthew Arnold and William Morris?
  • What about the hierarchy implied by discussion of children seeing ‘great works of art’ – how did this play out across different schools and across the movement?
  • Were buyers considering/aware of the artworks’ potential as an investment?
  • Could and should Pictures for Schools be renewed today?

Sale of Hertfordshire County Council’s collection

Sad news from Hertfordshire, where the county council is following in the steps of Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire and selling the bulk of its impressive educational art collection. The collection was founded in 1949 by pioneering Director of Education John Newsom for loan to the county’s schools, as part of an extensive programme of school building and educational reform, and purchased artworks by leading British artists from Pictures for Schools among other sources. This is no particular surprise given that the loan service was suspended in 2012, staff who had previously been involved in its operations were made redundant and it was extremely difficult (impossible?) to get anyone from the council to answer any of my enquiries about it during my PhD.

This follows a ‘consultation’ on the future of the collection at the start of 2018, which was couched in terms which made the sale sound like it was a foregone conclusion, and a petition by local woman Armaiti Bedford against the sale of the works, which was signed by thousands of people.

The sale is being handled by Cheffins in Cambridge, who handled the (highly lucrative) sale of the Cambridgeshire art collection in 2017, and the first auction, of paintings, takes place on 21 March.

The sale has received a few passing mentions in the regional and national press; for more information see www.artlyst.com/news/hertfordshire-county-council-sells-off-art-assets.

 


Talk at Oxford University about Nan Youngman and Pictures for Schools, Tuesday 19 February

I’m very excited to have been invited to speak at Oxford University about my PhD research into Nan Youngman and Pictures for Schools as part of the Gender, Women and Culture series, which is themed ‘Gender, Women and the Arts’ this term. My talk is taking place in the History Faculty on Tuesday 19 February from 12pm-1.30pm.