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.