“If you think of the building as a boiler and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools”: Eric Woodward

“If you think of the building as a boiler house, a boiler, and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools then that’s a practical way of having a large collection because it’s not in one place at any one time.”

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Woodward at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where we chatted about his experiences as Senior Advisor to Alec Clegg, Director of Education in the West Riding, between 1956 and 1985, and I later interviewed him at the National Arts Education Archive at Bretton Hall, where Woodward currently volunteers one day a week. Woodward is clearly a great admirer of Alec Clegg, who he first became aware of when he heard a speech by Clegg at an SEA conference, citing “his honesty, his truthfulness, his humanity, his idealism” and his straightforwardness as inspiration, and appreciating the freedom and encouragement he was given by Clegg. In 1991 Woodward compiled a book of quotes, Sir Alec Clegg 1909-1986: His Own Words, from Clegg’s speeches and books, for which he also wrote the foreword (copies are in the National Arts Education Archive).

Woodward explained that after the Second World War he studied for a four-year National Diploma in art and design in Liverpool and followed it with a one-year certificate in teaching before teaching art in Liverpool schools. As an art teacher, Woodward noticed that junior and infant school students were uninhibited about drawing and painting, but by secondary school age students were beginning to say they couldn’t draw so art became a specialism. Woodward tried to rectify this by taking art out into the school, and encouraging students to paint murals around the building rather than confining it to something which took place in the art room. Woodward left teaching to join the West Riding School Museum Service as Senior Advisor, going to Wakefield in 1956 and living in nearby Woolley. He remained there until his retirement in 1985 and, in 1978, was appointed MBE.

The West Riding School Museum Service was set up in the 1940s under Alec Clegg, inspired by a similar service in Derbyshire run by Barbara Winstanley, and when Woodward took up the post he was sent on a two-week trip to to Derbyshire to see how the service worked. Originally consisting of visual aids such as film strips, after Woodward joined the service expanded and eventually contained a number of original works of art, as well as museum objects such as stuffed animals. Woodward explained that be did not influence the choice of artworks much beyond making suggestions about how practical the works would be to transport, but the county’s art advisors, Basil and Rosemary Rocke, went to the London galleries each year and brought back a selection of artworks which were then chosen for purchase by a committee of elected education officers and Helen Kapp, Director of Wakefield City Art Gallery. In 1953 there were 149 paintings; by 1964, the collection contained more than 400 paintings and pieces of sculpture. Schools could borrow something like three works per term, and chose from a catalogue, although this was not illustrated so teachers had to make choices by title alone. The West Riding had about 1,500 schools and Woodward thinks that primary schools made more use of the service than secondary schools, partly because there were more of them. He visited schools and advised on how to hang artworks such as paintings, for example by displaying them at children’s eye level, as well as how to keep more valuable paintings, such as those by Lowry, secure out of school hours. I asked Woodward if he thought the paintings were chosen to appeal to children, as was the case with Pictures for Schools, but he said that as far as he was aware no, the main consideration was quality. He wasn’t aware of much abstract work, aside from an Alexander Calder mobile and decorative, non-representational wall hangings and tapestries. Woodward describes exposure to original works of art as a “profound experience”, especially important because most homes in the West Riding would not have contained original works of art, and thinks that seeing artworks in books or through reproductions can’t match seeing the scale, colour and texture of works of art, particularly those such as oils, in real life.

Woodward has a really interesting way of visualising the collection and how it was circulated: “Obviously if you have a large collection of artefacts or museum objects, paintings, the size of the building limits the size of the collection. Well if you think of the building as a boiler house, a boiler, and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools then that’s a practical way of having a large collection because it’s not in one place at any one time.” As well as meaning the collection could grow in size and circulate efficiently, I also read this quote as meaning that you could add new, clean water to the collection with the acquisition of new works of art, meaning the collection remained fresh, relevant and interesting. Woodward said there was an annual stock check, to ensure that there were no ‘leaks’, to continue the metaphor, and that everything was in working order.

Woodward was also involved in other initiatives for schools, which tie in with ideas about learning through experience (something I have encountered a lot in the writing of John Dewey).  One of these was purchasing a working water mill near Barnsley, which was becoming increasingly dilapidated and dangerous but received a lot of visits from groups of schoolchildren, and restoring it with the help of the new Countryside Act which enabled county councils to set up country parks with match funding. Another was developing the educational use of Harewood Bird Garden, which included appointing a teacher advisor and providing art materials for visiting schools. Woodward was also involved in acquiring seventeenth century Clarke Hall in Wakefield and developing it into an education museum for role play, where children and teachers could go and dress up and cook like they were living in the seventeenth century. This remained open until this year, when it fell victim to museum budget cuts.

After his retirement at the age of sixty, Woodward found it hard to remain in touch with what was happening with the service without appearing to ‘interfere’ and several of the more valuable artworks, including those by Lowry, have since been sold. Woodward has found it difficult to obtain accurate information about the collection’s whereabouts, although he has ascertained some information about sales from Millers’ Guide.

Since retiring Woodward has held one-man exhibitions of his artwork, and one of his paintings is in the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. In 2000, he wrote the unpublished manuscript A Brief History of the West Riding School Museum Service 1956-1985, primarily, he says for his children to know what he did. A copy is now in the National Arts Education Archive along with other material relating to the West Riding Museum Service such as catalogues, which archive manager Leonard Bartle found out for me ready for my visit as well as archival material relating to the Society for Education in Art and Pictures for Schools.

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3 Comments on ““If you think of the building as a boiler and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools”: Eric Woodward”

  1. […] the two works, ‘Brighton Pier‘ and ‘Lindsell Church‘, were purchased by the West Riding School Museum Service from Pictures for Schools in the late-1950s, as the West Riding was a regular purchaser from […]

  2. […] post-war Director of Education for the West Riding of Yorkshire (a pioneering county for art in schools, which included making purchases from Pictures for Schools), at the National Arts Education Archive […]

  3. […] exhibited work at Pictures for Schools in the late-1940s and early-1950s, to buyers including the West Riding of Yorkshire, and exhibited as recently as […]


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