Visit to John W Mills to discuss his involvement in Pictures for SchoolsPosted: December 16, 2013
Last 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.