Second visit to Nan Youngman collection

A couple of weeks ago I made my second visit to the Nan Youngman collection in the Special Collections at the University of Reading, and had quite a different archival experience to my first visit. Last time I spent a lot of time looking at press cuttings, catalogues and TV and radio scripts, representing external reactions and representations of Pictures for Schools, whereas this time I got more into the nitty gritty of correspondence, administration and planning.

This turned out to be a plentiful source of information to mine, particularly the correspondence, much of which consisted of letters from members of the public and external bodies, but much of which also comprised letters between individuals involved in organising the scheme. Some of the small stories contained within this correspondence gave a sense of what the exhibition was like, and what it was like to take part and be involved, from correspondence with the designer of posters for the exhibitions, who offered to accept payment in wine rather than cash, to an exchange suggesting ways of making sure the drinking at the private view did not get out of control. One long chain of correspondence is between exhibition secretary Joan Bartlett and a helper, Evelyn Atkinson. Although the letters discuss mundane aspects of organisation such as payment and the best brand of typewriter, their personalities also come through and another narrative runs through the letters, of friendships and relationships, of social activities such as visiting other exhibitions in London and making a day out of it, and the importance of the exhibition to those who were involved, not just financially in terms of income but as an annual event and social opportunity. Some of the friendships forged during the exhibitions were lasting, as a letter from a contributing artist to the Exhibition Secretary, inviting her to go and stay at her home her elsewhere in the country, shows.

Other correspondence came from education authorities and schools, much of it asking for invitations to private views (usually requesting one or two invitations, in one case requesting several if it wasn’t ‘too greedy’ and in one case requesting one for each member of the art department so there could be no accusations of favouritism). Other correspondence revealed the choices education authorities and schools had to make with regards to spending funds on art, from a letter requesting an estimation of the number of works in the next exhibition which would be available below a certain price, as that was all the school had to spend, to a letter from someone hoping to establish a county art collection who wanted details about which education authorities of a comparable size to theirs already had collections. Sometimes, schools wrote requesting artists’ addresses, whether to get in touch about repairing a sculpture or hoping to write for more information about the artist and the work which could then be used alongside the work itself in school. Galleries also did the same, requesting addresses where they could contact artists for future exhibitions, showing the part Pictures for Schools played in giving artists exposure and opportunities.

Letters in the collection also show the exhibition’s relationship with other organisations such as the Embroiderers’ Guild, which helped cross-promote the exhibition by sharing information with its members, as well as other schemes such as the Nuffield Foundation’s scheme for hospitals. The organisers of Pictures for Schools also built up relationships with art colleges – sending in forms were circulated to staff of various departments at prestigious art schools such as the Royal College and the Slade, to be given to promising students.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that in the late-1960s, a growing number of students got in touch with Nan Youngman and Exhibition Secretary Joan Bartlett requesting information about aspects of the scheme, such as the questionnaires handed out to children visiting, for research they were doing into the use of art in schools, as well as into county and museum loan services.

I also found the amount of people who supported the exhibitions and didn’t want them to end touching; there was quite a volume of letters in 1970 and 1971 (the last edition of Pictures for Schools was held in 1969) asking if there would be another instalment of Pictures for Schools, from artists who had sold a lot of work through the scheme and received exposure as well as those who looked forward to it as an annual fixture. Something which was also evident in these years was the continuing efforts of people 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 the planning committee, to come up with ideas for how the exhibitions could continue. Elsewhere, chains of correspondence indicated the continued search for a venue in these years.

What’s impressive is how well-documented nearly aspect of Pictures for Schools is, particularly in the 1960s; the retaining of copies of letters sent regarding the exhibition, as well as the replies, from letters inviting artists to serve on selection and planning committees to correspondence with the Arts Council, makes it possible to piece together a picture of the organisation of the exhibitions. It is also noticeable how well-organised and efficient the organisation appeared to be in co-ordinating a large number of artists, educators and administrators spread out across the country. However, records are noticeably weighted towards the 1960s onwards. This might coincide with a change in the Exhibition Secretary in 1963, to someone who perhaps considered it more important to keep such documentation. It’s also interesting to see what Nan Youngman herself kept, and among the ephemera in the collection are many press cuttings she has cut out relating to the careers of artists who had shown with Pictures for Schools, which indicates she took a personal interest in artists’ careers, as well as newspaper articles about controversy surrounding the Arts Council and the patronage of artists.

I also spent a while reading Nan Youngman’s teaching file, which included handwritten course notes relating to her teaching and lecturing around the country, as well as suggested book and materials lists for teachers. Something else which shed a light on her personality and beliefs were numerous typewritten manuscripts of her speeches and articles on art education. I came away from Reading with a real admiration for Nan Youngman and what she stood for and tried to achieve. There was a consistent message running through all her writing and talking, which she clearly put into practice through Pictures for Schools, which emphasised that art education was important for all children, that all children were capable of natural, creative expression, not just those who would go on to be practising artists, and that art education could enhance all areass of children’s experience in schools. It was also fascinating to see Youngman’s influences emerging, through repeated references to three figures in particular: art educator Marion Richardson, who Youngman studied under at the London Day College; Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire who employed Youngman as county art advisor for ten years (a folder of photographs showed children creating and interacting with art during her visits to Morris’ network of village colleges in the county) and writer and critic Herbert Read, whose book Education through Art Youngman both reviewed and repeatedly referred to in her speeches.


Visit to John W Mills to discuss his involvement in Pictures for Schools

Lion in a cage John W MillsLast month I made a visit to sculptor John W Mills at his home of 47 years, Hinxworth Place in Hertfordshire, to follow up on correspondence via telephone and email regarding his involvement in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions and friendship with its founder, Nan Youngman. Mills started submitting sculptures and prints to Pictures for Schools as a student at the Royal College of Art in the late-1950s. Although he did not know Youngman when he first submitting artworks to Pictures for Schools, Mills later became a close friend of hers through his professional relationship and friendship with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea. Mills shared his expertise on the ciment fondu technique for casting sculpture (something he has written books on) with Rea and visited and socialised at Rea and Youngman’s studios and home in Cambridge. In the early 1960s, Mills was invited to serve on the sculpture committee which selected artworks for Pictures for Schools exhibitions alongside fellow sculptors Elisabeth Frink and Willi Soukop. He was also on the planning committee for Pictures for Schools between 1965 and 1970. This comprised a small group of artists together with educators, a local authority education officer and the scheme’s administrators, which met annually.

Hinxworth is close to the borders of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and a twenty minute drive from Cambridge. Set in three acres of land, the grounds contain Mills’ studios (Mills is still actively undertaking commissions), as well as a collection of his work on display outside; Mills welcomes visits from schools, who come to see his work in the grounds. I also met Mills’ wife of sixty years, Jo, a former ballet dancer, and it became clear that both John and Jo were part of a highly sociable network of artists and other creative people which centred around Youngman and Rea’s base at Paper Mills in Cambridge and consisted of artists, writers and academics living all across East Anglia. I showed the Mills a photo of Mills’ small bronze sculpture ‘Lion in a Cage’, which is part of the Derbyshire collection of original artworks for schools, as well as Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues for 1967 and 1969 (both years Mills contributed) to trigger memories. The couple recognised a high proportion of the names in the Pictures for Schools catalogues as friends, peers, colleagues and former tutors of Mills, describing the roster of artists as ‘quite a line-up’. The couple made exclamations and comments upon seeing the names of certain artists. These included Fred Brill, who was Principal of Chelsea School of Art in the 1960s, Cambridge painter Julia Ball, Mary Hoad, Principal of St Albans School of Art (where Mills also taught for many years), who was described as ‘a great friend of Nan Youngman’, Arnold van Praag, described as ‘a great friend of mine who became a very influential painter at Camberwell’, Ralph Brown, who Mills says was grouped together with the Kitchen Sink School, and Carel Weight, who taught Mills at Junior Art School in Hammersmith from the age of 14.

I found the visit really useful to add colour and context to my understanding of the post-war art world. Mills particularly emphasised the word ‘post-war’ in my project title, saying it was ‘the key thing’; studying at art school as a teenager among artists who had returned from fighting in the war as ‘very serious people’ clearly had a profound effect on him, as well as his emphasis on using figurative, realist sculpture as a form of storytelling and means of communication. I also enjoyed hearing more about Mills’ time as a resident of Digswell Arts Trust, a large house in Welwyn Garden City where Cambridgeshire Director of Education Henry Morris established a trust for sculptors, painters, potters and weavers which provided subsidised accommodation and studio space and aimed to remedy some of the aesthetic deficiencies Morris saw in the new towns which were built after the war.

It was also interesting to hear how Mills saw Pictures for Schools as fitting into the post-war art world – he explained that it was a decidedly populist exhibition, which aimed to have a wide appeal, something which was sometimes at odds with emerging trends in the art world in the 1960s. We also discussed how it compared with other exhibitions Mills took part in such as Young Contemporaries and the Royal Academy summer shows, and Pictures for Schools emerged as a series of exhibitions which was both very well respected and well-organised.

I also got a sense of approaches and attitudes towards art education at the time when Pictures for Schools was in operation, as well as gaining a more rounded knowledge of aspects of Pictures for Schools I had discovered through archival research. For instance, it was really interesting to hear from Mills about the process of selecting sculptures, and the criteria which were used to decide which sculptures were appropriate – Mills recalls that there was very much an emphasis on quality and craftsmanship, sometimes more so than the content or subject matter of the sculpture and what it portrayed. It was also interesting to discover that each selection committee – whether for sculpture, prints, painting or embroidery – was responsible for how the work was hung or displayed, and that artists were given a high degree of freedom by Youngman in these aspects of the exhibition.

I also got to know more about what Youngman was like as a person, and what influenced her, for example Mills said she had a great sense of fun and loved to share dirty jokes, but was also committed to her painting practice and cared passionately about art education. She also emerges as a figure who was well-liked by different sets of people. Mills paints a picture of Youngman and Rea’s base at Paper Mills as being an open, supportive environment which acted as a venue for many discussions around art and education.

One of the most important things I got from talking to Mills was a sense of how interconnected the networks of artists and educators involved in Pictures for Schools were, for example through studying and teaching at educational institutions, but also through membership of organisations such as the Artists’ International Association and living in various geographical concentrations such as East Anglia/Cambridge/Essex. I also got a strong sense of collaboration between sculptors – of sharing techniques, and helping each other with the production of sculptures – as well as a side to Pictures for Schools that was highly sociable.


The Decorated School: Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling book

3_9781908966247newcoverFor the past couple of years I have been following the Decorated School, an interdisciplinary research network which has been considering the implications of embedding art in schools, often through the incorporation into buildings of site-specific work such as murals. Building on the ideas of twentieth century educator Henry Morris (Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, who in the 1940s employed Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman as his art advisor), the basic interest is in the idea of an educational environment which is itself part of the child’s education. Having attended a couple of their events, a research seminar and a final conference in London, I was pleased to be able to buy a new collection of essays which has arisen from the project over its two-year life span.

Like the eventual reach of the project and the network of researchers which grew up around it, The Decorated School: Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling is wide in its scope, ranging from interwar Scotland to post-war Britain to France, the United States, Japan, Denmark, Kyrgyzstan and Northern Ireland. Although some essays were familiar from being presented at Decorated School research events, others were new to me, with a particular highlight being Shona Kallestrup’s essay on Danish artist and writer Asger Jorn’s site-specific works for the Arhus Statsgymnasium, which highlights the difficulty of reconciling his vibrant, experimental murals with the academic formalism of the educational environment and building in which they were to be situated.

Early in the book, Annie Renonciat sets the scene really well for the following essays, detailing some of the goals outlined historically by those aiming to get art into schools. In the French context Reconciat focuses on, as elsewhere, these encompass the interrelated goals of educating an ‘aesthetic sense’ in children, enabling France to compete with other industrialised nations in the field of design, educating of the taste of the masses, and using art to uphold certain moral standards. Focusing on the period from 1880 to 1939, she provides an illuminating glimpse onto the efforts of bodies such as the L’Art a L’Ecole to create a visual environment in schools. Jeremy Howard’s chapter on 1930s Edinburgh is also really good background context for considering art in schools, introducing some of the individuals and ideas which laid the ground for art in schools later in the twentieth century: the words of William McKechnie, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Education Department, quoted here, reveal that access to art and design is a privilege of the citizen of modern, democratic Scotland, and something to be proud of, which will help the Scot to become a citizen of the world, explaining that the awakening of the ‘aesthetic sense’ will enable young people to practise critical discernment. Another highlight is Dawn Pereira‘s examination of the London County Council’s post-war patronage scheme with regards to schools, with particular reference to what types of artworks were considered to be suitable for schools, and the tensions which arose between head teachers, governors, artists and committees in the choosing and siting of artworks for schools.

Featuring individual artworks which have been rediscovered and reevaluated in recent years, in Hertfordshire, Edinburgh and elsewhere, the book is beautifully designed and illustrated, with colour photos throughout of artwork in situ in schools as well as in close-up detail, which really brings home how vibrant an educational resource art can be in a school context (I absolutely LOVE the cover image, a detail of a mural in Barclay School in Stevenage, Hertfordshire by Kenneth Rowntree, who also contributed to Pictures for Schools, which combines abstract forms referencing mathematical concepts with elements suggestive of storytelling and landscape, in bold block colours). The visual imagery is backed up by an engaging overview of how art education, artwork in schools and the concept and aims of visual appreciation has developed over the past century and a half, and how it can continue to be a fruitful area for both educators and researchers in the future.