I cycled to an amazing, vast secondhand bookshop on an industrial estate in Sharston, on the outskirts of Manchester, today, and spent a good while with my head in the art books section.
I came away with a few books which could well be of relevance to my project: The Englishness of English Art by Nikolaus Pevsner, which I read about in Alexandra Harris’ book Romantic Moderns and is based on a series of lectures for the BBC, a Tom Wolfe book about ‘hideous’ modern architecture and a 1946 Ministry of Education pamphlet about art education, with the cover featuring a lovely print by an art student. Perhaps most excitingly, I also got a 1934 book by Evelyn Gibbs, an artist and art educator who was friendly with Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman and was art advisor for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire education authorities, entitled The Teaching of Art in Schools.
Dawn Pereira’s PhD thesis: Art for the ‘common man’: the role of the artist within the London County Council 1957-1965Posted: June 11, 2013
I first became aware of Dawn Pereira’s research into twentieth century public art a couple of years ago when I became a fan of the prolific architectural sculptor William Mitchell, and came across a paper Pereira wrote on his ‘concrete legacy‘ (later, I also saw Pereira deliver a paper at the Decorated School’s one-day seminar in Leeds). Pereira’s article opened my eyes to this area of art and social history as a rich field for research, and made me think I would like to do some research in a similar vein in the future, combining my interest in how artists such as Mitchell developed new uses for materials and utilised decorative textures in otherwise ordinary public places to great effect, and the perceived social benefits of such work. I later had the opportunity to visit William Mitchell and interview him at his home in London, where he proudly showed me a bound copy of a thesis Pereira completed at the University of East London in 2008, entitled Art for the ‘common man’: the role of the artist within the London County Council 1957-1965, which focuses for a large part on Mitchell and Antony Hollaway’s employment as design consultants for the London County Council in the post-war era, working on innovative large-scale artworks for public building projects such as schools and housing developments. Through my interest in Mitchell’s work I came across Joe Austin, a fellow blogger with an interest in the period and love of Mitchell’s art, and he too got in contact with Pereira, asking for the opportunity to read her thesis electronically. Austin was kind enough to break Pereira’s thesis down into chapters and share it with me over the internet. I had never read a PhD thesis before, but found Pereira’s thesis to be very readable and accessible, making great use of archive sources from the London Metropolitan Archive, in addition to interviews with Mitchell and others, as well as documenting the state of artworks commissioned by the LCC today, which have often neglected and fallen into a disrepair or have disappeared altogether.
Whilst there are clear differences between Pereira’s area of research and my own – Pereira is looking at the commissioning of artworks in a geographically defined area, within a relatively narrow timeframe – there was much of interest as a backdrop to my research (indeed, Pictures for Schools gets a mention near the start, and several of the artists commissioned by the LCC – including Karin Jonzen, Sir John Verney, Willi Soukop and John W MIlls, detailed in a useful ‘biography’ section at the end, are names that are familiar to me from their inclusion in late-1960s Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues!).
Of particular interest are the links Pereira outlines between the Arts Council, which was set up in the post-war period, and art commissioning schemes such as that run by the London County Council. The LCC, Pereira suggests, had money to spend on art but not necessarily knowledge about which artists and artworks were suitable, allowing the Arts Council, which had expertise but lacked funding, to adopt a consultancy role.
Pereira’s thesis also touches on how art commissioning schemes, and commitment to dedicating part of a local council’s budget to art, were taken up in areas such as Hertfordshire and Leicestershire and promoted by the ‘single vision’ of Directors of Education such as John Newsom and Stewart Mason. Leicestershire in particular was willing to take risks by purchasing artworks by relatively unknown artists, but also purchased work from established London galleries such as Redfern and Piccadilly. One of the things I will need to bear in mind during my research is the relationship and differences between works acquired through exhibitions such as Pictures for Schools, works acquired directly from artists or galleries, and commissioned, site-specific artworks for schools, and their relative prevalence and status in county council collections. The Pictures for Schools catalogues I have indicate that the Pictures for Schools exhibitions worked as a way of introducing schools and local education authorities to artists and their typical styles and subject matters, who could then be commissioned to make further, site-specific works if required.
Pereira suggests that animal and family themes were popular subject matters among artists working in schools at that time, although other artists embraced abstract painting and sculpture. One of the areas of Pictures for Schools I am potentially interested in exploring further in relation to ideas about Britishness is the nationality of the artists who contributed work to the scheme, as several of them arrived in Britain as refugees having to flee their own countries. Pereira suggests that community-based themes were common among these émigré artists.
I also picked up on a few books which may be useful for my project, including writing on the public art of the period by Margaret Garlake.
I happened across this interesting Radio 4 programme yesterday about England’s attachment to our countryside as “a guiding idea and inspiration”. The programme talks about how England’s natural landscape provided an “idea of England to be fought for” during the world wars, and explores the tensions created between preserving the English landscape and needing to expand and provide land for new homes and industries as the twentieth century progressed, taking in inter-war ribbon development, the rise of owner-occupation, prefab construction after the Second World War, New Towns on greenfield sites, satellite towns, affordable housing, the profession of planning, the rise of the car, etc. .
The programme uses interviews and archive clips, from John Betjeman on ‘Metroland’ and a clip from radio producer Olive Shapley’s 1930s Manchester slum conditions documentary the Classic Soil, to Winston Churchill on the delights of indoor bathrooms.
Find the programme on iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01j2bzr/Archive_on_4_Houses_v_Fields/
I found the programme’s discussion of an idealised version of a ‘deep’ or ‘lost’ England interesting in relation to my reading about modernity – as other writers have observed, modernity in Britain can be seen as clinging onto tradition and preservation, refusing to completely break with the past in its vision of the future (see Conekin, Mort and Waters 1999, Matless 2001). It is also going to be interesting to see what kind of visions of Britain were presented to children in the artworks included in Pictures for Schools, particularly in the paintings, many of which take the English landscape as their inspiration.
A poster I made for a research event my school, Built and Natural Environment, is holding next Wednesday (click on image to enlarge).
I had the opportunity to discuss my poster and receive feedback at an open crit held by Islington Mill Art Academy in Salford.
At the start of my project I was given two exhibition catalogues for Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place at the Royal Academy Diploma Gallery in 1967 and 1969. I was interested to see what types of subjects were considered to be appropriate to schools and schoolchildren and flicking through the catalogues, it struck me that a large number of the artworks appeared had titles referring to landscapes/places or still-lifes, and that certain words such as ‘garden’ or words relating to seasons came up over and over again, which I think of as being fairly conventional subject matters. It also seemed that the exhibitions were skewed towards painting, with relatively few sculptures or 3D works. On my induction training we were shown a website called Wordle which could be used to visualise the frequency of words in documents, so I decided to use it to make some illustrations showing the frequency of different subject matters and media in the 1967 Pictures for Schools exhibition, to give a sense of the type of work the scheme promoted.
Pictures for Schools, 1967 exhibition catalogue, frequency of words appearing in titles of artworks:
Pictures for Schools, 1967 exhibition catalogue, frequency of media:
I also decided to break the subject matter down further, by medium. Oil paintings subject matter:
Drawings, watercolours and gouaches subject matter:
Embroideries and collages subject matter (interestingly, there are more references to ‘abstract’ subject matters):
An article in the New Statesman magazine from July 1957, by eminent art critic John Berger, shows both the reaction of critics towards the emphasis on placing original works of art in schools, as seen in counties such as Leicester, and an evaluation of the artists and artworks involved in such schemes. In his New Statesman article, ‘Artists and Schools’, Berger describes a trip to Leicestershire, starting by contrasting old-fashioned church schools with the new, modern schools which were built in Leicestershire after the war. He outlines Leicestershire’s aim to create a visual environment for schoolchildren, most of whom would otherwise leave school without ever having seen a modern oil painting. Berger explains that Leicestershire’s county collection of artworks was funded using royalties from a school book produced by the county, building and decorating allocations, and school materials allowances, saying that the scheme relied on the enthusiasm, confidence and initiative of the county’s Director of Education, who organised an annual sale of works collected from London and persuaded artists to accept relatively low fees in return for having their artwork shown in a ‘living context’. If more Directors of Education had his vision, says Berger, a “minor revolution in the appreciation of the visual arts” could be achieved. Berger praises the standard of artworks by lesser-known artists who were represented in Leicestershire’s collection, especially singling out the sculptor Peter Peri for attention. Berger says that works such as Peri’s come into their own when seen not as part of the London art scene, but juxtaposed with the architecture of schools, exhibited next to a football pitch or gymnasium (Berger, 1957).