I’ve just returned from an intensive five-day course in using Methods and Sources for Historical Research, a short course offered by the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, which was held partly in the grand surroundings of Senate House. The training was a really good way to get first-hand advice and tips from an experienced and seasoned archive user, Dr Simon Trafford, the course leader, who is an enthusiastic medievalist, as well as input from Laura Berry, an independent researcher who regularly uses the National Archives. In addition to covering some of the nitty-gritty of archival research – from copyright considerations to the definition of ‘public records’, exemptions, open and closed access and Freedom of Information requests – the course took us on a whistlestop tour of a variety of London’s many resources which are available for historical research, from major institutions such as London Metropolitan Archives, the National Archives and the British Library to smaller, more specialist collections such as the Museum of London Ephemera Collection, Lambeth Palace library, the Parliamentary archives at Westminster (I never knew there was an ‘act room’ piled high with parchment scrolls of every act ever made by Parliament!), Postal Archive, Bishopsgate Institute and the British Film Institute.
Although not all collections were obviously related to my research, it was interesting to hear about the breadth of archives and the range of material encapsulated in archives. There were about twelve of us on the course, mostly from the UK although there was one student visiting from Australia, and we ranged from PhD and Masters students to independent researchers and those whose job involves an element of research. Our list of research interests, which ranged from a comparison between conceptions of the family in the UK and Japan to gender studies, town planning and a project about the memorialisation of the Boer War, were circulated to each archivist we were visiting in advance, and they did their best to dig out material related to each of our projects in their collections, which we had a chance to look at briefly after each archivist or librarian had given us an introduction to their collections.
Whilst not directly related to my project, several of the archives had material of secondary interest – for example, the London Metropolitan Archives had material relating to the London County Council’s commissioning of artworks for public places, including schools, in the post-war period, including a lot of correspondence with the Arts Council, who acted as advisors to the LCC in choosing artworks. One trail of correspondence which made me smile was a number of handwritten and typewritten letters from a school boy to the LCC saying he had designed a sculpture for a housing estate, and his art teacher had recommended he send it to the LCC for consideration. The sculpture was to be three 17 foot-high giraffes in ciment fondu, which the young artist explained would break up the monotony of the grassy areas in a housing estate, but not be so large as to cause an obstruction. The boy said he had difficulty fully communicating his idea in writing, but had created a maquette which could be shown at a meeting. To their credit, the Arts Council did discuss his idea, but concluded that it was too ‘immature’, saying in their reply that they would look forward to seeing his future development as an artist. London Metropolitan Archive also has an open-access ‘Mediatheque’ where visitors can view a number of films produced by the LCC, including several about changing ideas about education, curriculum and school buildings in the post-war period, which may contain relevant background information for my project, and I hope I might have chance to drop in and watch them in future. We also had a fascinating and passionate presentation about the collections at the Postal Archive, which also houses a small museum, and were told anecdotes such as cats being employed by the post office to catch mice which used to eat mail sacks, a post-carrying horse sending a sick note, and Suffragettes attempting to post themselves as packages! The Postal Archive includes information relating to historic educational initiatives by the post office such as its series of prints for schools showing various historical events in the development of the postal service, which may be of tangential interest. Another resource which does not appear to be immediately related but may be useful in future are websites, accessible only from the reading room at the BFI, which host an extensive back catalogue of BBC programmes (this may be useful if I want to track down educational programmes involving artists and art education in the post-war period, which I have seen brief references to in the course of my research), as well as a website which hosts recordings being made on an ongoing basis of all TV currently being broadcast on the main UK TV channels (adverts and all!). Also potentially useful is the BFI’s Screenonline website, which acts as a mini-encyclopaedia of British film and TV and a social history of the UK through film, which has clips and audiovisual material which can be viewed by anyone who is part of an education institution via a portal. As a big fan of twentieth century British film, I have spent a lot of time on Screenonline in the past, but new to me was the BFI’s InView site, which provides access to a range of historical documentary and non-fiction films, documentary and propaganda films to members of higher education institutions. Like London Metropolitan Archives, the BFI also has a Mediatheque where a number of feature films, documentaries and TV series can be viewed for free, and I can see myself spending a lot of time in there if I am ever in London with some time to spare or looking for shelter on a rainy day!
The real value of the course was demystifying some of the bureaucratic hurdles often encountered at larger archives, from the various forms of ID needed to register for a readers’ card to introducing the different reading rooms at the British Library and detailing the process for obtaining records at the National Archives, which included advance ordering, selecting a seat, the time period it takes to retrieve records and where to go for the collection of order requests. It was also useful to be talked through the online catalogues at each institution, many of which have recently been revamped and expanded (although it is important to bear in mind that they are sometimes most effective when used in conjunction with old-fashioned paper catalogues), how to carry out effective searches and to be introduced to tools to help find records on a broader basis such as the National Record of Archives and Access to Archives, which may help locate records held internationally. Meeting a range of archivists was also an opportunity to benefit from their specialist knowledge of their collections, and showed the importance of communicating directly with archivists for guidance and suggestions of relevant material rather than relying solely on catalogue listings, which may be incomplete.
One of the aspects of Pictures for Schools I will be looking at is the networks of artists, educators and administrators involved, and some of the links between these figures and other initiatives and movements. One network I have started reading about is the Artists’ International Association in which Nan Youngman, a driving force behind Pictures for Schools was highly active, as well as art critic Herbert Read (all information below is based on Robert Radford and Lynda Morris’s A.I.A.: Story of the Artists’ International Association,1933-53 (Modern Art Oxford,1983)).
There are interesting parallels between initiatives to introduce examples of good art and design to children through, for example, the School Prints and Pictures for Schools schemes, and AIA projects such as Everyman Prints (which was available for purchase from selected branches of M&S) and Small Pictures for Small Prices, which aimed to bring affordable art ownership to a wide section of the population and benefited both artists by providing employment and the public by raising popular standards of taste. The AIA also had links with other movements I may look at such as Mass Observation, and it anticipated the development of state-led bodies such as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Art (CEMA) which was set up during the war (a precursor to the Arts Council of Great Britain in its art patronage and championing of the position of the artist in society).
The AIA was founded as the Artists’ International in 1933 and grew out of the anti-Fascist and anti-war political climate of the 1930s. Artists resented money being spent on the development of arms rather than culture and the AIA aimed to mobilise ‘the international unity of artists against Imperialist War on the Soviet Union, Fascism and Colonial oppression’. Several members, including Nan Youngman, had been members of the Communist Party’s artists’ wing the Hogarth Group and several AIA members joined the International Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War. By the late 1930s, the AIA was a mass organisation with many hundreds of members, not just artists and designers, but art teachers, students and non-professionals. Exhibitions took a political slant, whether depicting topical subjects such as hunger marchers or aiming to raise support for anti-Fascist and anti-war causes. The AIA invited submissions from European artists with similar aims, and assisted refugee artists escaping Fascist and Nazi oppression with work permits, homes and visas. The group also had a social function, with members, for example, travelling abroad and going on holiday together.
The AIA’s exhibitions reflected and responded to major concerns, changes and events in society, and exhibitions were held in a range of public venues which enabled them to be seen by a mass audience, for example an exhibition of War Painting was held at Charing Cross tube station, and another wartime exhibition was held in the bombed-out basement of John Lewis. Exhibitions such as Art for the People, held at Whitechapel Gallery in 1939 and visited by 400,000 people, aimed to educate the public in modern art, hanging artworks in sections such as surrealism, abstraction and realism and encouraging artists to talk to visitors and answer questions, as well as inviting visits by school teachers. There was little access to contemporary art in provincial Britain, so exhibitions also toured to factories, civic centres and barracks.
The AIA also had sub-groups, and worked with other types of creative practitioners, from photographers and architects to writers, dramatists and musicians, and held exhibitions of art by unprofessional painters, including a group of miners. Whilst the artists who belonged to the AIA were not universally linked by one style, and the organisation helped break down the divide between fine artists and commercial artists such as silk screen printers and cartoonists, one of the things which stood out to me was the debate between realism or abstraction; in the 1930s, many artists moved back towards realism as they felt it enabled them to respond more effectively to the times in which they were living, at the same time as appealing to a wider audience. This led to a distinction between ‘free’ artists, and ‘engaged’ artists who leaned more towards propaganda. In 1938, the AIA organised a debate about realism versus surrealism, pitting Graham Bell, William Coldstream and Peter Peri against Roland Penrose, Julian Trevelyan and Humphrey Jennings. Whilst this tension between realism and formalism/abstraction is a product of the particular circumstances of its time, it may tie in with debates still going on when Pictures for Schools was in operation, about whether children responded best to styles and subject matters with which they were familiar, such as landscapes and still lifes, or whether they should be exposed to abstraction and contemporary innovations in modes of expression.
As well as its explicitly political aims, the AIA’s emphasis on the social role of art is of great interest, particularly the AIA’s attempt to improve the position of the artist in society through pragmatic and practical initiatives at a time when artists were facing great challenges surviving in a tough economic climate. Through the establishment of ‘working units’, the AIA put the skills of its members at the disposal of anyone needing a mural, banner, illustration, cartoon, stage decoration, tableaux or poster which could be put to use in anti-Fascist or anti-government protests. The AIA was involved in the Council Institute for Art and Design (CIAD), which brought together art and design institutions, and promoted schemes for the full employment of artists. During the Second World War, artists were employed to paint murals in temporary buildings such as bunkers, barracks and British restaurants, and commissioned to paint portraits of young men about to go away to war. AIA members such as Evelyn Gibbs and Carel Weight acted as unofficial war artists, painting wartime scenes such as evacuation.
The AIA functioned in a way similar to a Trade Union for artists or a professional lobbying body, using subscriptions to provide legal counselling, debt collection, credit advice, war work advice, unemployment and sickness benefit. Assisted by Nan Youngman, it published recommendations for the reform of art education in schools and colleges and the establishment of government-backed bodies. It also initiated a circulation scheme of 500 pictures by its members, with artists having the chance to sell their work; the AIA negotiated an annual royalty fee of £5 per picture per year with the government.
By 1953, the AIA’s political clause had been removed, reflecting a more general shift towards apolitical art. The pictures of industrial Britain which had previously been popular began to be replaced by a new type of realism depicting escapist Cornish and Mediterranean scenes, and it will be interesting to see to what extent this trend permeated the pictures chosen for Pictures for Schools.