Report from The Decorated School project’s final conference

The final Decorated School conference, which brought to an end a two-year project funded by the AHRC, took place at Prendergast Hilly-Fields College in Lewisham, London. The Decorated School was a joint project between the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and Art History at the University of St Andrews which looked at at how art has been made an essential part of the fabric of school buildings and their immediate environments, with a focus on England and Scotland. The project considered how artworks were commissioned, used and appreciated, and what ideas about childhood they were intended to convey, as well as plotting changing ideas about education and the school environment. The venue for the final conference was, fittingly, a decorated school featuring a series of early-twentieth century murals in the school hall, depicting verdant garden scenes, by Cyril Mahoney, Evelyn Dunbar, Violet Martin and Mildred Elsie Eldridge.

The conference started with an impromptu presentation by Christopher Marsden, Conservation secretary of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, postgraduate researcher into artworks in market halls and chair of Huddersfield Civic Society. Marsden gave an impassioned plea for any support members of the audience – who included academics and educators as well as relatives of artists who have undertaken work in schools and representatives from bodies such as English Heritage – could give in his ongoing fight to rescue Hungarian-British artist Peter Peri’s 1961 artwork Welcome, which was mounted on an exterior wall of Greenfield College, Huddersfield when the school was built, and remained there for more than fifty years. The sculpture, which is popularly known as Gladys, was taken down by the school following the building of an extension, as it was found to have cracks. Gladys, who is made of a mixture of concrete and polyester (an innovation by Peri known as ‘pericrete’) covering a steel armature, was sliced off at her ankles and the school has plans to re-erect her on a plinth in a flowerbed. Marsden is trying to convince the school to give her to him so he can place her in a more fitting, and still educational, environment – perhaps at Huddersfield University – where she will be less exposed. Marsden also showed a number of tiled artworks in schools by Dorothy Annan, many of which have been covered over or removed over the years by headteachers who did not appreciate the artworks (they are now wishing they hadn’t, as some of the artworks are now very valuable!).

The conference then continued with presentations from schools built in the mid-twentieth century which have recently rediscovered and started to restore murals painted at the time, including three murals dating back to 1950 by Pat Tew at Templewood School in Welwyn Garden City, a new town in Hertfordshire, where each school was given a small bursary for art. Soo Hitchen, a parent of three children who attended the school, who was involved in research into the history of the murals, explained that the murals were inspired by eastern-European fairytales and said that “children remember them as an integral part of their experience at the school” – even if some of them found the fairytale monster scary! Whilst Pat Tew had died shortly before the school could contact her, correspondence was made with her daughters, who were unaware of the existence of the murals.

Another parent, Kate Fishenden, whose daughter attends Greenside Primary School in Shepherd’s Bush, described the rediscovery of a mural (1952-53) by celebrated architect and artist Gordon Cullen, depicting scenes such as a castle, sea ship, aeroplane and railway, which had been hidden behind a red curtain at the school for twenty years after it was deemed unfashionable. The school was built by Erno Goldfinger, one of two schools built to the same design, and Fishenden said that it is Cullen’s mural which earns the school the ‘*’ in its Grade II* listing. Research into the mural’s history has been undertaken in the RIBA archives and efforts are being made to raise funds from grants and local businesses to restore it so the school can become “an artistic hub”.

Finally, Robin Cops from St Crispin’s in Wokingham, Surrey described the restoration of murals by Fred Millet (1953) which had been covered over by paint and emulsion (the paint can not be removed from one of the murals, but it will be repainted so that the three murals can be seen in context). Cops said that Millet’s wife is still alive and very active, and was a great source of information. Children queue against the murals and barriers have now been erected to prevent further damage – the merits of this enforced separation between children and artworks was debated later in the conference!

Artwork in schools has previously been neglected as an area of study, but the subject has now been incorporated into undergraduate courses at the institutions which undertook the research project, and the conference heard from students at St Andrew’s university on their research into the implications of artworks in school contexts: the role of children’s artworks in bridging Northern Ireland’s political divide, and Soviet and post-Soviet decoration of a school in Kyrgyzstan.

The Decorated School project has also made links with researchers in other parts of the world, including North America, and the conference heard from Sylvia Rhor, who discussed murals in schools in Chicago where there are over 500 (known) artworks of this type. Early murals in schools were initiated by women’s groups and public art societies, who aimed to show an idealised version of children, and to create ‘satellite’ museums in neighbourhoods. Many murals were in technical and vocational schools, and depicted factories, perhaps a way of training the children to become workers. Later, murals were painted in schools as part of the New Deal in depression-era America, and by groups of leftwing artists aiming to communicate social messages.

Bringing the Decorated School up to date, artist and architect Bruce and Will McLean shared their efforts to make art and design an integral part of a new school building – Dalry Primary School – in Ayrshire, Scotland, which was completed in 2007. Working over a period of several years with those who would be using the building – students, staff and parents – and using the concept of ’embedded intelligence’, the team aimed to create a “machine for learning”, with facts and figures integrated into the structure, forming an immersive educational environment. Bruce McLean also referred to a scheme he called ‘Prints for Schools’, conceived during the second world war, which gave schools an affordable way to purchase original artworks, in the forms of prints by well-known artists. McClean has long had an ambition to resurrect the scheme.

The conference finished with a discussion of where next for the Decorated Schools network. Andrew Saint, author of Towards a Social Architecture: Role of School Buildings in Post-war England, said art and architecture had “all got to be thought of as one”. He made a plea for visual imagery of artworks in schools and the type of research being undertaken to be archived, and called for the scope of the project to be extended so further education colleges can be considered next.

The conference enabled me to meet other researchers interested in the subject of artwork in schools, find out about some of the problems which face researchers working on the subject – for example, lost or damaged murals, lack of documentation of murals and their history in the past – and hear about some of the work which is being done to document, investigate and, in many cases, restore these artworks, which as the conference demonstrated have a renewed value and place in education today. The Decorated School has produced a database listing artworks in schools, together with any other information known about them, which will be a useful resource. The conference also enabled me to find out about some of the potential resources available for research – such as the possibility to interview artists and their families, as well as children who experience the artworks in schools, both today and in the past – and some of the archives which may be useful, for example the Courtauld Institute archive, RIBA archive, Nan Youngman’s archive at the University of Reading. Furthermore, I was also introduced in passing to programmes such as Prints for Schools, which may well have parallels with my research area. Other researchers at the event seemed familiar with the Pictures for Schools programme, suggesting that it had origins in the 1930s with Herbert Read and village colleges.

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