A conversation about the fate of the Inner London Education Authority’s art collection

When I visited the National Arts Education Archive Leonard Bartle gave me the phone number of Trevor Rawlins, a former exhibitions and events manager for the Inner London Education Authority from 1972 until the year before it was abolished in 1990. Mr Rawlins was previously an art teacher and head of department at a school in Brixton before moving into an administrative role at the ILEA. His role there included organising exhibitions of children’s work, and Mr Rawlins was keen to talk to me about the collection of original works of art built up by the ILEA’s precursor, the London County Council, after the Second World War (in 1965 the Greater London Council was established to replace the London County Council and the ILEA was formed as a separate education authority). From what I have read about Pictures for Schools, I know that the exhibitions were one way in which artworks were purchased for the collection, both in the days of the ILEA and the LCC.

Mr Rawlins explained that those behind the collection identified young, up-and-coming artists whose work could be circulated to schools, comprising 700 or 800 works encompassing everything from oil paintings to wood block prints. A design collection of around 1,000 objects was built up in parallel (interestingly, this collection and its use in schools is currently a subject of a PhD being undertaken at Camberwell College of Arts). Schools could borrow artworks for three to six months then change around if they wanted to. Rawlins explained that this “worked very well until artists became very well-known”. Twenty or thirty years after they were first bought, some of the artists were at the top of their game and bringing in considerable amounts of money; sometimes artworks were worth £7/8,000, sometimes as much as £20,000. Eventually artworks became so valuable that the ILEA didn’t dare send them out, for example those by Elisabeth Frink, because of worries about insurance. Lots of people were going in and out of schools, and could brush up against artworks in corridor. Another worry was that works were signed so it would have been easy for anyone with a bit of nous to look up their value. Rawlins thinks those responsible got bored with the idea, and it became too much trouble.

By the time Rawlins arrived at the ILEA the collection had been in storage for many years in museum conditions – Rawlins thinks the last time it was used could have been the late-1950s. He was responsible for cataloguing the collection to be sold off by the London Residuary Body to private collectors at auction (either at Sotheby’s or Christies) when the ILEA was disbanded, and found that a lot of the artworks were missing. It seemed that a lot had been stolen, and the person who had been in charge had been given the sack. Although the money raised by the sale could have been invested in new artworks, it probably disappeared into the ether.

Mr Rawlins also mentioned a collection in Wiltshire, which is something worth looking up.

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