The Society for Education in Art and the beginnings of Pictures for Schools

I recently visited the Special Collections at the University of Leeds, which contains the papers of influential art critic and educational theorist Herbert Read. Among the Read collection are copies of Athene, the journal published by the Society for Education through Art (SEA), with which Read was closely involved. I read through some back issues of Athene from the late 1930s to the late 1940s to get a sense of why the SEA was formed and what it wanted to achieve, some of the key figures involved in SEA, what debates were going on around art education at the time, why it was felt that there was a need for original artworks in schools, and how and why Pictures for Schools was set up and developed (the exhibitions were administered by the SEA, with artist and educator Nan Youngman acting as a driving force). There is a lovely anecdote about Nan Youngman improvising by using the Earl of Sandwich’s castle in Cambridgeshire to teach her art classes (evacuated from London) during the war, which conjures up some great images of children painting among antique furniture and paintings!

The New Society of Art Teachers in Secondary Schools (known as the Society for Education in Art from 1941) was formed in 1937 with the aim of bringing together art teachers who believed in the importance of up-to-date teaching methods (Athene, Spring 1939). The SEA worked with other groups and individuals with similar aims and interests, and members were brought together at annual conferences and exhibitions. The Society also undertook and publicised research into art teaching, and aimed to establish a Central Institute of Art Eduction where teachers could work alongside psychologists, educationalists, artists and others with an interest in art education (Athene, Summer 1941). In 1943 Audrey Martin, soon to become art advisor for Cambridgeshire County Council, carried out a Leverhulme Trust-funded report on the current state of art education on behalf of SEA, and the results were published in the Society’s journal, Athene. She set the context of current art provision: at the time, art education in secondary schools and schools of art came under the supervision of the Board of Education’s Inspectors of Art, and some local education authorities, such as London, also had their own art inspectors. In other areas, including Birmingham, Leicester, Brighton and Cheltenham, art teaching under all schools was maintained by the Local Authority, supervised by the Principal of the local College of Art. Although the membership of SEA was composed primarily of specialist arts and crafts teachers, many schools did not yet have such specialists among their staff and the SEA argued the need for more specialist teachers to be trained in the years following the Second World War. Martin observed that most students left school at 14 and that, for the most part, subjects deemed to be useful for obtaining jobs were prioritised in schools at the expense of creative subjects, which were deemed to be ‘frills’ by teachers and parents (Athene, Spring 1943).

SEA used its journal Athene, published from 1939, to discuss current teaching ideas as well as to champion the status of art education within the educational system, promoting the idea that art should not be seen as a subject offered in isolation, but should be considered to be an integral part of the whole education system and as being central to individuals’ development (Athene, Spring 1948). Nan Youngman served on the editorial board from 1940 until 1943, and art critic Herbert Read and artist Mary Hoad were also on the editorial board around this time. Athene featured visits to art studios at schools around the country (often public schools due to their superior funding, facilities and resources); examples of children’s artwork; opinion and debate, reviews of books and exhibitions; profiles of art educators and theorists; correspondence; and guest articles by teachers, psychologists, and others interested in art education, not just in the UK but internationally. Athene did not merely focus on education in visual art; it also covered drama, creating writing and other creative subjects.

SEA advocated an ‘imaginative and creative’ approach to art teaching rather than the prevailing ‘purely mechanical methods’, and saw art teachers as having two functions: not just to develop children’s talent, but to foster an appreciation of good craftsmanship and design and so help with the formation of a generation with good judgement and good taste. One way in which the SEA hoped this could be achieved was by enabling schools to have access to works of art so that the “study of the art of the world should no longer be the happy hunting ground of the specialist and the cultured and interested few, but should be made accessible in some degree to every boy and girl during school life”. During the 1930s and immediate pre-Second World War years, the SEA was involved in a scheme (and promoted other, external schemes such as the School Prints) which circulated reproductions of both contemporary and classic paintings to county councils, although it was limited in its scope and did not reach all schools (Athene, February 1940). The Society surveyed teachers about the effectiveness of such schemes, with positive responses, and saw the need for such schemes to be extended nationally (Athene, Summer 1940). It also published articles in Athene detailing similar schemes already in operation at a local level, for example the Leicester Schools Service Department, which had been offering museum objects for short-term loans to schools since the early 1930s. In this scheme, objects were chosen from the permanent collection, from birds and animals to maps, postcards and illustrations, and circulated to schools with the co-operation of the Local Education Authority. A catalogue of objects available was supplied to teachers so they were able to plan lessons around loaned items. Also in Leicester, the College of Art collection loaned items for longer periods, with the education authority making an annual contribution towards its maintenance (Athene, February 1942). The Victoria and Albert Museum also had a circulation department, and there were regional circulation schemes in operation in Derbyshire and Lancashire (a textile collection). In 1943, there were eighty museums around the country offering items from their collections for loan to schools (Athene, December 1943).

In addition to offering reproductions of paintings, the SEA used its Picture Circulation Scheme to circulate photographs of good examples of new architecture and design in everyday use, believing that exposing children to contemporary ideas in architecture and planning was essential in enabling future citizens to play a full part in democracy. In 1940 the SEA was asked to advise on the education committee of the Central Institute of Art and and Design, which formed a committee to consider the place of the artist and the arts in reconstruction after the war (Athene, Summer 1940). It was agreed that art should be central to any long-term education policy. As SEA founder Alexander Barclay-Russell explained in Athene in 1941: “If democracy is to survive … it will require an education in which far more thought is given to the imaginative and emotional development of every individual to enable him to play a part in leadership and citizenship. It must be the aim of every school to enable the complete and mature nature of man to develop through their teaching and so educate the rising generation so that they can produce beauty about them by their own choice and discrimination.” (Athene, Summer 1941) The SEA was also concerned that children should be aware of town planning, looking ahead to reconstruction after the Second World War, and dedicated an entire issue of Athene to the topic in 1942, where it debated the merits of new using styles and methods of construction versus taking a more traditional approach (Athene, February 1942).

There were ongoing concerns about the quality of visual resources available for use in schools – partly because the type of resources available was limited by commercial possibilities and by the tastes of teachers. As artist and editor Mary Hoad observed in 1945: “There are pictures in existence for teaching purposes, but the depressing fact is that almost without exception they are aesthetically bad. There is a crying need for aesthetically good ones … it is essential that teachers who want pictures should be given the chance of getting hold of those which possess an aesthetic quality, in addition, or rather, bound up with, that other quality which makes them useful for a specific lesson.” (Athene, Spring 1945) There was also debate over the whether reproductions had the same impact in schools as original works of art and about whether there was more value in showing children reproductions of masterpieces, or works of art which were original, but not masterpieces. Both Nan Youngman and Henry Morris, Director of Education for Cambridgeshire, wrote strongly-worded letters on the subject, in support of original works of art. Nan Youngman had been convinced of the effect of original works of art on children since her London County Council school was evacuated to Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire during the Second World War. Youngman was given use of three rooms of Earl of Sandwich’s castle near Huntingdon for art classes. The castle contained a collection of artworks built up by the family over time, as well as more recent additions by the Earl of paintings by Courbet, Renoir, Cezanne and sculptures by Dobson, Breszka, Skeaping and Hepworth, alongside pictures sent by refugee artists for safekeeping. In a letter to Athene in 1940 Youngman enthused about the effect on her students of being in close proximity to such artworks: “It is the most lovely of the fantastic things that could have happened, that we should be working in the same house as such pictures. Our LCC furniture, brought in lorries, looks extraordinary in the rooms, but the children’s pictures seem quite at home. The effect on the children is very marked. They look at the pictures a great deal, and discuss them among themselves, continuing to be conscious of them in a way which they do not continue to notice reproductions. They are impressed that for so many years a family has cared enough for painting to build up such a collection. This makes the idea of caring for pictures more real to them.” She also noted that since being exposed to the artworks the children painted with more enthusiasm than before (Athene, February 1940).

In 1945, looking ahead to the new Education Act which came into force the following year, Henry Morris wrote to Athene with his ideas for the display of artworks in schools. He stated that “never was there a time when children were more in need of the potency and influence of the real unique work of the artist”, and advocated that Local Education Authorities become the main patron of the artist and sculptor (Athene, Winter 1945). In 1946, it was announced in Athene that a special exhibition committee had been formed by the SEA with the aim of holding a special exhibition of artwork for schools in London in 1947, supported by the Arts Council (Athene, Winter 1946).

The first Pictures for Schools exhibition, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1947 and opened by the then Parliamentary Secretary of the Minister of Education, was a great success, with 250 artworks chosen from 1,000 submissions, to be suitable for children aged from four up to the age of 15. Works were purchased by county councils in Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Dorsetshire and the Isle of Wight, as well as by the Circulation Department at the V&A, with sales amounting to £1,542 (Athene, Spring 1948). The SEA received a commission of 20 per cent on any sales to cover the exhibition’s costs, and raised enough money to pay back the Arts Council for its support (Athene, Summer 1949). Children who visited the exhibition were invited to vote for their favourite painting in the exhibition, and over 6,000 votes were cast – although organisers admitted that children seemed to choose the artworks which appeared most familiar to them, such as those depicting animals, flowers and landscapes (Athene, Spring 1948).

The exhibition received favourable press coverage and the SEA drew the conclusion that it had found a new market for works of art. Due to the success of the exhibition, it was decided to hold a second in 1948, with the aim that eventually works will “hang in schools of every kind, from tiny village schools to secondary schools in cities, as well as private and public schools”, and the organisers planned to hold an accompanying conference for Directors of Education, teachers and artists to discuss the best means of developing the work begun by the exhibitions (Athene, Spring 1948). To further allow even more people to see the artworks involved, a selection was made from Pictures for Schools which was available to travel to provincial towns for display (Athene, Summer 1949).

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14 Comments on “The Society for Education in Art and the beginnings of Pictures for Schools”

  1. […] In my last supervisory meeting one of my supervisors mentioned the Gestalt in relation to twentieth century art and art education, so I’ve been trying to read up on the concept. I’ve also been looking at a couple of really interesting books by Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1956) and Towards a Psychology of Art (1966), a Gestalt psychologist who applied modern psychological theory specifically to the analysis of art and visual perception. Arnheim was writing a time in the mid-twentieth century when psychologists were increasingly using art to try and understand the human mind, and when art teachers were consulting professionals such as psychologists to inform their teaching of art and understanding of children’s artwork (as I have seen through articles in the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene). […]

  2. […] art teacher, she was heavily involved in both the Artists International Association and then the Society for Education in Art (SEA). The collection (or at least the parts I saw, which wasn’t a huge proportion of it) […]

  3. […] seen at the time as subversive and dangerous for children and even banned from import (articles in Athene, as well as references to the dangers of children’s increasing exposure to comic books in […]

  4. […] I realised when I read editions of the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene dating back to 1930s and 1940s, these same debates have been going on for decades and the fact […]

  5. […] like Kenneth Jameson, Art Inspector for the Inner London Education Authority and President of the Society for Education in Art, who had long been involved with the scheme both as a contributing artist as well as a member of […]

  6. […] After a really useful section discussing the tension between Nan Youngman and other members of the Society of Education in Art such as Alexander Barclay Russell, who were divided over what Youngman saw as the high-minded, […]

  7. […] Archive in London, which described a difference of opinion between Youngman and the rest of the Society for Education in Art when the Society voted to move overwhelmingly towards Herbert Read‘s ideas after 1945, it was […]

  8. […] circulation department in issues of the Society for Education through Art’s journal, Athene, dating back to the early-1940s when they were calling for a nationwide scheme to get artworks into […]

  9. […] as part of a group of East Anglian painters. Another possible link with Nan Youngman is through the Society for Education in Art, under whose name Pictures for Schools was organised: Mrs Rutherston was actively involved in the […]

  10. […] influence on Youngman as a teacher. As well as drawing on sources I have looked at such as the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene, Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues and Nan Youngman’s autobiography, Lucas also had […]

  11. […] which were direct spin-offs of the London exhibitions, organised by the North East Branch of the Society for Education through Art, in whose name Pictures for Schools was organised. Although far smaller in scale – they contained […]

  12. […] There was also discussion of the series building links with Alexander Barclay Russell of the Society for Education through Art, under whose name Pictures for Schools was […]

  13. […] at Saffron Walden Training College. Professor Alexander told me that she was a member of the Society for Education through Art and subscribed to its journal Athene, so was well aware of developments in education. She travelled […]

  14. […] on planning and selection committees and selling work through the exhibitions, as well as the Society for Education through Art (SEA). He took over as president of the SEA from 1968, before his early death at the age of 54 in […]


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