“A marvellous scheme which was a tremendous source of encouragement in very lean times”: Fred Cuming RA on Pictures for Schools

I had a chat on the phone this week with Fred Cuming, a painter who submitted artworks to several of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly at the Royal Academy (Cuming recalls at the time he was already interested in the Royal Academy’s work; later, in 1974, he became the youngest member to ever be elected Royal Academician). Cuming describes Pictures for Schools as a “marvellous scheme” which was “a tremendous source of encouragement in very lean times”.

Cuming became involved in Pictures for Schools in the mid-1950s as a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art, and continued to submit work until the scheme ended in 1969. He remembers that a whole generation of young painters, from London art colleges, including the Slade, the Royal Academy Schools and Goldsmiths, would send work as it was a ‘means of earning a bit of money’. He recalls: “It was common knowledge as somewhere you could sell a few pictures.” Artworks were sold at small, reasonable prices, and Cuming managed to sell an artwork or two every year. He isn’t sure where his paintings ended up, as artworks sold to the scheme went to education authorities across the country and found their way into public collections, but recalls that some work went up North to Kendal and Scunthorpe, and that one painting was purchased by the Museum of Wales.

For many young painters, Pictures for Schools was their first chance to exhibit their work and get their name known. Cuming explains: “It was very important to young painters, a lovely opportunity. It did me a world of good, that little exhibition. When you first come out of whatever college you’ve been to, not many galleries are interested in you, but lots of education authorities and a lot of the public visited, who were interested in what young artists were doing. It was also an introduction to exhibiting for local authorities. They ought to do it again.” The exhibitions also benefited children, by giving them an opportunity to see young artists’ work which was of a good quality – Cuming recalls that the standard of the exhibitions was always very good.

Cuming is primarily a painter of landscapes and interiors, often depicting the coastal landscapes of Kent, Romney Marsh and East Sussex in impressionistic, atmospheric style, with a particular interest in the effects of light. He is also interested in depicting interiors, for example in a number of paintings of his studio. He explains: “I painted the pictures I was interested in at the time – I didn’t try to paint to meet a market.” He remembers that painting was dominated by the so-called Kitchen Sink School of realist painters, centred around artists such as John Bratby, at the time, and that, although some abstract art was beginning to come in, painting was very much figurative-based. Cuming attributes this to the ‘very academic’ training painters received at art school.

To find out more and see pictures of Cuming’s work, visit www.fredcuming.com/index.html.

Raymond Williams on art and society

I’ve spent the last few weeks reading some books (Culture and Society, 1958, Politics of Modernism, 1996, and The Long Revolution, 1961) by cultural theorist Raymond Williams, as part of an attempt to gain an understanding of the cultural and social changes which took place in the mid-twentieth century, and their relationship to art. In The Long Revolution, Williams places art at the centre of society, reality and the way the world is experienced, and in this regard it was The Long Revolution which I found most interesting and useful. Of particular interest are Williams’ ideas about how communication and art can contribute to new social and cultural meanings which come to coexist alongside old meanings, and how individual members of society and artists can contribute to bringing about this change. I was also interested in Williams’ description of both seeing and the creation of reality being a creative act, as they bring back to me some of the ideas explored by Herbert Read in Education through Art, in which he describes the ideal type of artist as being someone who takes a creative approach to everything they do in life, describes aesthetic education as being a way of integrating the citizen with society, and places art at the centre of life.

In The Long Revolution Williams describes society as being in the process of a long revolution which has the power to transform both people and institutions. This revolution, identifies Williams, has a cultural aspect, as well as democratic and industrial elements, and none of these elements can be separated from each other but must be understood in relation to each other.

Williams says that each new generation has its own revolution, and uses the term ‘structure of feeling’ to describe the culture of a period. He says this is something which is not learned and does not appear to come from anywhere, arising from the responses of the new generation to the world it is inheriting. While it may experience some continuities with the experiences of the previous generation, the new generation experiences or interprets certain aspects of reality differently and this becomes the new structure of feeling.

Central to the needs of members of society is the ability to communicate their experiences, and creativity is at the centre of this process, argues Williams. He argues that all activities and areas of reality are subject to man’s interpretation and experience and therefore the world as we experience it is a human creation. By extension of this argument seeing, as well as living itself, is a creative process. Reality is a human creation which is interpreted through certain ‘rules of seeing’ and a ‘pattern of culture’ which provide a system for feeling and acting to which the individual member of society is trained by the previous generation.

According to this argument art and reality cannot, as has often been argued in the past, be separated. Art cannot be dismissed as secondary or a leisure-time activity: it is of fundamental social importance. Williams suggests that the way in which society grows is by discovering common meanings and ways of communication, and he recognises that art can play a fundamental part in this process. It can be an institution, acting as a way of organising experience and creating a shared meaning of society. It can be a way of recognising and reaffirming what we already know, contributing to the creation of a common knowledge. Furthermore, artwork and traditional artistic skills, inherited from previous generations, can create a lasting monument to the meaning of society, which can be passed down, learned and called on to recreate and organise society and its meaning in the future.

However, art can also communicate new experiences and experiences which aren’t communicable in any other way. Sometimes, says Williams, established means of communication are efficient for communicating experience, at other times new forms of communication must be found, and this is when new developments in art and communication take place. Members of society adapt themselves to social changes by developing, organising and describing new ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing, which can reveal and create new areas of reality. Williams describes this in terms of ‘remaking yourself’ and ‘changing your personal organisation’ so you can ‘live in proper relation to your environment’. In these terms, living and working is a constant process, beginning and ending again and on this basis, the experience of individual members of society is vital to social change, as their changing experiences, and responses/descriptions/communications of their changing experience help build up a changing pattern of society.

Often ways of communicating new experiences are developed by the individual artist before they are taken forward by society, argues Williams, and in this way, meaning changes as old meanings come to coexist alongside new meanings. In the 1960s, said Williams, it was increasingly difficult to communicate common experience due to the rapidity at which the experience of society and culture was changing, from art to entertainment to education. This meant that art became visible as a series of individual offerings rather than a common culture or set of common meanings.

Williams also had some interesting ideas on the creation, experience and reception of art, in particular the assertion that communication is about reception and response as much as transmission. In terms of art, this means that both artist and spectator collaborate in the artwork. This depends on a shared system of communication, and when the artwork is successful a working communication is established and a human experience is offered and received, which can then be accepted, rejected or ignored by the viewer.

The Independent Group, the Expendable Aesthetic and the knowing consumer

I’ve been trying to get a sense of the art scene at the time in which Pictures for Schools was in operation, and one phrase which has been coming up again and again is ‘the Independent Group’. The Independent Group comprised a group of young artists, writers, designers and architects who met at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London between 1952 and 1955, who included Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Nigel Henderson, Peter Raynham, Mary Banham and Alison and Peter Smithson. I have been reading Ann Massey’s book about them, The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture, 1945-59 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1995), to find out more. Although it’s not directly related to Pictures for Schools, there is overlap with certain figures such as Herbert Read, Chairman of the ICA at the time, who was also a chairman of the Society for Education in Art and a supporter of Pictures for Schools yet was seen as a reactionary figure by the Independent Group. I also think that one member of the Independent Group, Eduardo Paolozzi, may have submitted work to Pictures for Schools. Massey’s book has also been really good for gaining an understanding of the ways in which fundamental concepts such as modernism, art and culture took on a changing role and meaning in the post-war period.

Founded in 1946, the ICA was seen as a left-wing institution, which promoted European modernism (which, it has been suggested was unpopular with the public yet influential for artists and critics), and functioned as one of the few places in London to see and discuss modern art and design. The Independent Group positioned itself against the ICA, which, Massy suggests, thought the achievements of the European avant-garde could never be surpassed, by analysing modernism critically and using it as a starting point to explore culture. The Independent Group reacted against the Neo-romanticist style of painting and the new culture of consensus brought about by the welfare state, which fused national tradition with European-style modernism, to increasingly reference new technology and take an interest in the new, Americanised mass culture and patterns of consumption, embracing aspects of American sociology and cybernetics.

Unlike the elitist modernism promoted by the ICA, the Independent Group worked to break down hierarchies and bridge the divide between high and low culture, in this respect looking ahead to Pop Art. They collected and discussed aspects of mass culture such as comic books, which were 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 reviews of Pictures for Schools, reinforce the danger and assault on children’s sensibilities that these encroaching aspects of American culture were felt to present). American imagery was seen as sophisticated and cutting-edge, created by skilled graphic designers, and used to interpret why some images worked more effectively than others.

As well as expanding the possibilities of what art could be, whether by incorporating ready-made imagery into collages, such as those by Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, or by discussing ideas of transparency in relation to sculpture, as with William Turnbull, or by changing the ways in which art was experienced and the relationship between the artwork and the viewer, the Independent Group showed that art exhibitions were not limited to showing art. Parallel of Life and Art (1953) juxtaposed photography with art images, Growth and Form (1951) incorporated scientific imagery such as X-Rays, and This is Tomorrow (Whitechapel Gallery, 1956) teamed up artists and architects to visualise the future. The Group invited experts to do lectures, aiming to forge new relations between science and art; several of the Independent Group had scientific and technical knowledge, whether from being aircraft pilots during the war or engineering draughtsmen or undertaking research.

However, the aspect of the Independent Group which interests me most is the notion, referred to by Massey and others, of the ‘knowing consumer’ and the ‘trained eye’. Massey and others have suggested that, in contrast to Herbert Read’s idea of the ‘innocent eye’, the Group analysed culture from within as sophisticated readers of complex imagery, who had grown up with mass culture and were in a position to relate to, make sense of and reappropriate it. This relates to the idea of Pictures for Schools as developing children’s skills of ‘active looking’ as a way of establishing active citizenship and giving children visual skills to orientate themselves within a confusing, complex modern world to enable them to make genuine judgements of taste, as well as Susan Sontag‘s call for a renewed emphasis on the senses when approaching and interpreting both art and modern life.

Setting themselves in opposition to the old guard at the ICA, particularly Chairman Herbert Read, the Independent Group took issue with Read’s universal ideas of beauty, which emphasised qualities such as timelessness, with members such as critic Lawrence Alloway (a familiar name from the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene) seeking a new aesthetic critique involving a more formal rather than metaphysical way of looking at art. This led to the development of an Expendable Aesthetic, which recognised consumer demand, changing technology and taste and the changing nature of fashion and style, dissolving the link between quality and longevity and identifying modern design as serving consumer needs rather than being dictated by external factors such as the media.

For more information about the Independent Group visit http://independentgroup.org.uk/index.html.

Nikolaus Pevsner and a ‘geography of art’

I’ve been thinking a lot about the types of artworks shown in Pictures for Schools, many of which are paintings depicting national landscapes and past-times, wondering whether they represent a certain version of Englishness (and Britishness/Welshness in the case of Pictures for Welsh Schools) and what sort of version of national life the artists involved sought to portray to schoolchildren. I’m also curious to map how they fit into a changing tradition of English art.

For some inspiration, I’ve been reading the Englishness of English Art, written in 1955 and based on a series of Reith Lectures of the same name broadcast on the BBC, in which Nikolaus Pevsner, a German emigre, sets out to define whether there is ‘geography of art’, a ‘cultural geography of nations’. He sets out by defining a geography of art as being ‘what all the works of art and architecture have in common, at whatever time they may have been made’, explaining that another way of seeing this is ‘national character as it expresses itself in art’. He makes some interesting points about certain national characteristics he has identified as an outsider, a newcomer to the country, which arise from factors such as the English landscape and climate, before describing their effect on the country’s art.

It’s no surprise that temperance, reasonableness, moderation, conservatism and illogicality are among these essential English qualities identified by Pevsner (for Pevsner, climate is fundamental to character and the qualities of temperance and moderation arise from the English landscape and climate). These qualities, he observes, manifest themselves in practicality, self-discipline and, in art, disembodiment. These qualities have both good and bad implications where art is concerned. England has produced no outstanding genuises in the mould of Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Durer or Grunewald, argues Pevsner, and England is a country of amateur painters, ‘from maiden aunts to Prime Ministers’, because it is characterised by the amateur rather than the specialist, because its painters lack the ‘violent compulsion towards singleminded self-expression to which a lifetime must be devoted’, and because tolerance and fair play win out over fanaticism and intensity. Although Pevsner appreciates the ‘specifically English’, ‘romantic topography’ of Christopher Wood, John Piper and Eric Ravilious, he does not see them as great artists of the twentieth-century, with English painting reflecting rather than leading Continental developments in art (Pevsner thought that even the Festival of Britain of 1951 lagged twenty years behind a similar exhibition in Germany).

England’s tendency towards moderation also counts agains it; it does not tend to overthrow traditions wholesale, as in other countries. When revolutions take place, they are unbloody, notes Pevsner, and the outer appearance of things stays the same even as everything changes. Similarly, some of England’s political characteristics, such as rule by committee and unquestioning faith in the majority vote, are detrimental when applied to art-making, leading to timidity and inertia. Furthermore, reminds Pevsner, committees can not be relied upon to make good aesthetic judgements (an interesting point to bear in mind in relation both to the Arts Council, which was set up after the Second World War and run by committee, and Pictures for Schools, where artworks were selected by committees of artists).

Pevsner links the English characteristic of conservatism to certain aspects of England’s culture which remain grounded in past tradition, from the Judge’s wig to the Cinque Ports, but also paints a picture of England as an old-fashioned country full of outdated modes of living:

“One cannot be proud of all of them – not of obsolete railway stations with unspeakably shabby and dreary waiting rooms, nor of antediluvian dust carts scattering more garbage than they collect, nor of museums in provincial towns – to return to art – where stuffed birds live side by side with paintings of some value and the snuff-box of some citizen of the town.”

In art, this conservatism implies a lack of will to believe in the new, a trust in the tried-out, distrust of experiment for experiment’s sake, faith in continuity and a dislike of breaks.

However, what English artists do excel in, suggests Pevsner, is understatement, as seen in water-colours and miniatures, things on a small scale. He identifies that most of the great British work throughout history is either portrait or landscape, with the artist taking the role of an observer. Painters such as Constable tended to focus on atmospheric qualities such as the dew and breeze. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century the sporting picture was a speciality. Other distinctly English styles are the open-air portrait and the Picturesque, arising from the English passion for landscape gardens and gardening. Rather than imaginative, the art of the English is informative, narrative, repetitive and incorporeal.

For Pevsner, one of the difficulties of trying to identify a national character in art is that some countries are more likely to seek expression in certain fields than others, and that even where countries do express themselves through art, it cannot express everything about a country. Generally speaking, Pevsner does not see the British as a great artistic nation, however, due in part to an anti-aesthetic streak, which distinguishes between the utilitarian and the ornamental, useful art and useless art; he says that England is stronger at practical activities such as building then in sculpture and painting.

Another difficulty is that, at some times, this national character is stronger than at others, as there is also always, coexisting, a ‘spirit of an age’, which can either reinforce or work against national character. Part of the reason why Britain is not a leader in twentieth century art, argues Pevsner, is because of its dislike of violence and belief in evolution. The spirit of the age, and by extension its art, is violent, confrontational and fragmentary in form, qualities which are in direct opposition to those associated with Englishness.

To bring this back to Pictures for Schools, while some artists did respond to topical events, reflecting the physical and social changes that were going on in the post-war landscape – in 1954, for example, Fred Uhlman submitted ‘Coronation March’, one of several works inspired by the Coronation, and in 1950 John Berger offered a painting of ‘South Bank Concert Hall in Construction’ – a glance at any of the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues shows that many of the artworks depict subject matter of a fairly traditional, conventional, timeless nature which represented Britain at home and at work, at play and at leisure. Artworks dealt with both the manmade and the natural and represented both the urban and the rural aspects of British life. Although some artworks were abstract and in later years a couple of op art pictures were included in the exhibitions, many of the pictures stayed closer to the styles and subject matters you might expect to see in an amateur art exhibition or local painting show, rather than representing the cutting edge of materials and forms, perhaps because these subjects were easy to understand and appreciate and more radically modern art would have been considered too challenging for children. Popular subjects at Pictures for Schools exhibitions included animals and images of children, still lives, landscapes, cottages and country houses, beach scenes, gardens and forests, the high street and individual shops such as the butchers, cultural references and customs such as dancing around the May pole, pigeon houses and fish and chips, games such as football, cricket and hockey. Also common was imagery relating to industries and occupations such as hay making, hop picking, crab boiling potting, net mending, canal barges, railway men, ironworks, gasworks, steelworks, quarrying, mining and smoking chimneys, not to mention the austere mill scenes and northern cityscapes of LS Lowry. One artist went as far as to take this inoffensive, easy-on-the-eye version of everyday Britain to its natural conclusion, offering up a painting of that most utilitarian and easy-to-overlook bits of design, a pedestrian crossing, while Mary Hoad considered it appropriate to depict ‘A Filling Station in Hertford’.

Pictures for Schools: children as art critics

After getting stuck into the history and operations of Pictures for Schools, the aspect of the exhibitions I currently find most interesting is the way Pictures for Schools placed children’s opinions and ideas on contemporary art at the centre of the exhibitions and repositioned children as art critics, a group of society whose opinions were worthy of consideration alongside those of adults. The organisers of Pictures for Schools did this by inviting child visitors to vote for their favourite work of art on show each year, divided into girls’ favourite, boys’ favourite and favourite overall, and the top five works were shown at the next year’s exhibition; much was made of this, and children’s tastes, in press reports of the shows, placing a new emphasis on the opinion of a section of society not usually regarded as experts on culture.

On the subject of criticism, I have been reading a collection of essays by American writer Susan Sontag, written in the mid-1960s and based around the titular essay Against Interpretation, in which she rails against what she saw as a tendency for art to be reduced to something which exists to be interpreted. This, she argues, is manifested in a tendency for form to be separated from content when viewing art, with content seen as the essential element of a work of art and form just an accessory. Art, she says, is interpreted in terms of what its content can tell the viewer – what it is about, what it is trying to say, etc. According to Sontag, interpretation works according to certain codes and rules, which involve identifying elements in an artwork and using them to translate the meanings present in the work, resulting in a ‘shadow world of meanings’. This leads to an impression that the content of a work of art is the work of art, with art being valued insofar as it says something. Interpretation, therefore, is a way of justifying and defending art’s existence, and at the same time taming it and making it manageable and conformable. Sontag defines interpretation in the modern context as ‘the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone’, and her objection to reducing a work of art to its content is that art is seen in terms of how it can be put to use, rather than being appreciated for what it is. Perhaps this is why, as Sontag identifies, so much painting of the time, from abstract art to Pop Art, seemed to flee interpretation by providing no content for analysis, as in the case of abstract art, or providing content too obvious to invite interpretation, as in the case of Pop Art.

Interestingly, Sontag draws parallels between the explosion in interpretation and the pollution of the modern world, drawing on the visual imagery of “fumes of the automobile and heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere”. She goes on to describe interpretation as “the revenge of the intellect upon art”, which has parallels in the writing of Gestalt psychologists such as Rudolph Arnheim on visual perception, who argued that the increased mediation of art by critics and others with prominent, forcible, audible opinions was stopping the viewer from feeling able to trust their own senses and judgements. This resonates with Sontag’s view of interpretation as ignoring the sensory experience of works of art, something which she also sees as being hindered by a general cultural excess of sensory experiences which leads to a deadening of sensory faculties. Sontag therefore highlights the need to ‘recover our senses’ from the crowdedness of modern life, stating: “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”

Although the organisers of Pictures for Schools did offer guides and lectures to accompany visits to the exhibitions as a means of interpretation, questionnaires and voting forms handed out to children visiting were designed to make children really look at works of art to help identify how they really felt about them without being led towards a particular opinion influenced by external standards of taste. Instead of being told what to see, children were given the tools to approach a work of art and to ask questions of themselves and the artwork about how the artwork made them feel, see and react. Although many of the artworks included in Pictures for Schools were content-heavy in the traditional sense, often depicting recognisable scenes from everyday life such as landscapes and people, the questionnaires handed out at Pictures for Schools were worded in such as a way as to lead children to identify and make judgements about aesthetic quality. Questionnaires asked children to pick out certain features and characteristics of artworks such as colour and shapes, before asking them to choose the most effective and stimulating artworks.

In Against Interpretation Sontag also turned her attention to suggesting a new kind of art criticism which would work with art rather than take its place, identifying a need for an emphasis on form rather than content including ‘extended and more thorough descriptions of form’ and a ‘descriptive rather than prescriptive’ vocabulary to describe these forms. Sontag also suggests that ‘transparence’, which she defines as ‘experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are’, is the most liberating approach to art and criticism: content is something which must be cut back to reveal the true nature of the work of art. When Sontag states that the role of criticism is to make the work of art more real to the viewer, and to ‘show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means‘, this again brings me back to Pictures for Schools and its emphasis on original works of art having their own value which stands apart from and is superior to an experience of art obtained through reproductions, with the experience of the original central to understanding how artists had achieved the effect and impact of the work of art. Importantly, the Pictures for Schools questionnaire also asked children to define their understanding of ‘original’, in the context of artworks, ensuring that they were aware of how reproductions differed from the genuine item in their essential qualities.

This activity of asking children to develop and express critical opinions can be seen as a kind of active looking, a form of learning through experience, in this case the experience of original works of art and of making critical choices which were valued and listened to. Visiting Pictures for Schools and playing a full part in the exhibition required children to pay close attention to what was around them and develop their own visual skills, senses and descriptive vocabulary rather than merely becoming passive recipients of culture.