Third visit to Nan Youngman collection

I recently made my third visit to the Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading, and I now feel like what I look at is more about filling in the details and adding to a more complete picture of Pictures for Schools than helping to build my general understanding of Pictures for Schools and Nan Youngman.

Some of the interesting things I found during this visit included correspondence with the auctioneers Bonham’s regarding artwork which had been left unsold and uncollected after Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the 1960s: after debating whether it should be destroyed (it seems to me to be a real shame that this was even an option, if it was considered to be of good enough quality to have been selected for the exhibitions in the first place!), it was put up for auction. I also read correspondence between the Pictures for Schools organisers and Manchester Art Galley regarding the Rutherston Collection which was lent to educational establishments in the North of England. The keeper of the collection visited the Pictures for Schools exhibitions each year and reserved artworks which, if they were not sold first, were sent to Manchester to be approved for purchase for the collection by committee. I would love to know if the collection, which purchased work by Elisabeth Frink among other artists from Pictures for Schools, still exists. Another interesting set of correspondence related to the guide lecturers – who were seconded from Whitechapel Gallery’s Upper Gallery, or were Directors of Education – who took school parties around the Pictures for Schools exhibitions. There was some debate over how to provide the best experience for school parties and it was concluded that schools usually got more out of the visits if they had time to explore for themselves and ask questions rather than having each artwork explained to them. A large volume of correspondence from schools booking school visits and talks demonstrated the large volume of school visits which were made to the exhibition, with groups typically bringing between 20 and 30 and sometimes up to 70 children. Often, letters were followed up by notes of thanks saying how much the visits had been appreciated, but occasionally letters also expressed regret that the behaviour of students had got out of hand.

Shortly after reading Nan Youngman’s autobiography in the Tate Archive in London, which described a difference of opinion between Youngman and the rest of the Society for Education in Art when the Society voted to move overwhelmingly towards Herbert Read‘s ideas after 1945, it was interesting to find a chain of correspondence between Pictures for Schools exhibition treasurer Katharine Baker and Organising Secretary Joan Bartlett, and between Youngman and Joan Bartlett, in which some parties could barely conceal their frustration about the perceived inefficiency of the SEA and the lack of understanding it showed about its role in relation to the exhibition. Something else which backed up what I read in Nan Youngman’s autobiography, where she described the influence of Marion Richardson and her visualisation method, was a set of ‘O’ Level exam papers Youngman set for the Oxford Local Examination Board in the 1950s and 1960s, which asked examinees to choose a title from the list to help them conjure up a visual image.

Of tangential interest were photographs and reports relating to courses Youngman ran for the British Council both overseas and for overseas teachers in the UK. It was also nice to see another photo of Nan Youngman, this time holding a student’s work at the 1931 exhibition she held of children’s art at Wertheim Gallery. One curio was a bag filled with plastic discs which were used to draw lots at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions when more than one buyer was interested in the same artwork.

Something I am increasingly finding is that even if the basic information given in a catalogue listing does not seem promising, it is still worth looking at everything if possible as often information seems to have been put together in folders that does not seem to belong together – for example, a folder might seem to based on one topic, but then some interesting press cuttings have also crept in which show the critical attitude towards the exhibitions at different times. I had hoped to have finished looking at the collection during this visit, but it seems that I will need to return to Reading again to get a complete idea of what is there.

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Nan Youngman’s autobiography in the Tate Archive

After visiting the Rea family in London, I spent a full day reading a typewritten copy of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s (unpublished) autobiography in the Tate Archive, which was written in the mid-to-late-1980s. I found it to be highly readable and entertaining, written in a strong and engaging voice. It was interesting to hear where Youngman came from, from her early, comfortable middle class life in Maidstone, Kent with a mother who, like Youngman, had a penchant for organising things, to her miserable time at boarding school under the restrictive regimes which helped foster her non-conformist attitude later in life, to her days as a student at the Slade in the 1920s where she attended riotous parties, smoked, learned to play the tenor ukulele, formed close friendships with both men and women and, like many Slade students, looked down on students at the RCA. One surprise from this time is the detail with which Youngman recalls her outfits on different occasions, especially for a woman who was known for her pudding bowl haircut and almost always wore trousers!

Particularly relevant to my research were sections discussing Youngman’s teacher training under the art educator Marion Richardson post-Slade in the 1920s, which revealed the high esteem in which Youngman held both Richardson and her approach to teaching, such as the visualisation method which Youngman went on to replicate at the art clubs she ran for her own students. It was also great to be introduced to other characters who have cropped up a lot in my research into the art educational context around Pictures for Schools, such as Herbert Read, who Youngman suggests was inspired to write Education through Art by an exhibition of children’s work she held at Wertheim Gallery in 1931 and later visited the caravan in the orchard of Hitchingbrooke House in Huntingdon where Youngman lived during the war.

I appreciated being able to find out more about Youngman’s political beliefs, from the death of her friend Felicia Browne in the Spanish Civil War which made her realise “I was living in history”, to her involvement in the Artists’ International Association where she met Betty Rea in the 1930s and was involved in organising exhibitions and going on artists’ trips abroad, along with the rhetoric and posturing of those around her which eventually caused her to become disillusioned with Communist organisations. Something which came across strongly was Youngman’s relationships with those around her, from detailing love affairs to capturing the vitality of Betty Rea and discussing the numerous friendship groups she was part of, comprising artists, writers and academics, complete with their affairs and intrigue.

A particular adventure was a trip aboard a boat to spend some time with a friend in South Africa. Excitement of a different kind came during the war years, when the school at which Youngman taught art, Highbury Hill Girls’ School, was evacuated to rural Cambridgeshire. Youngman captures both the privation and sense of apprehension and excitement of the time, where she painted out of doors and, with Betty, ran local events to support Anglo-Soviet relations. One of the most touching areas of the autobiography is an appendix which reproduces a diary detailing the development of Owen Bell, a young baby who was entrusted to Youngman and Rea’s care during the war by a Communist friend of theirs who had gone away to fight and whose wife had died soon after childbirth. Youngman clearly doted on Bell, who returned to his father after he returned from the war with a new partner, and correspondence I’ve come across related to Pictures for Schools indicates that she continued to be very fond of him once he had reached adulthood.

Unfortunately, however, the autobiography only goes up to 1945. After a really useful section discussing the tension between Nan Youngman and other members of the Society of Education in Art such as Alexander Barclay Russell, who were divided over what Youngman saw as the high-minded, overly-academic theories of Herbert Read, it left me on a bit of a cliff hanger! I hope to find out if there is a more complete version elsewhere, as it stops before Pictures for Schools was founded in 1947, and I am keen to find out more not just about how central it was to Youngman’s life, but what she did after the exhibitions finished in 1969 and how she felt about them coming to an end.


Visit to Julian Rea, son of Betty Rea

A couple of weeks ago I went to London to visit Julian Rea, the son of the sculptor Betty Rea (a regular contributor to Pictures for Schools whose work is in the Derbyshire & Derby School Library and Museum Service among other collections), who was brought up by his mother and Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman in London and Cambridgeshire in the 1930s and 1940s.

The house is full of Nan Youngman’s paintings and drawings of different periods, from fairly large paintings of French and Welsh scenes to small drawings of the eastern coast of the UK, and Betty Rea’s drawings and sculptures. It also contains artwork by other members of their circle such as the Cambridge painter Elizabeth Vellacott, the sculptor John W Mills and some lovely, Cubist-style pencil drawings by Rea and Youngman’s friend Felicia Browne, who was the first British woman killed in the Spanish Civil War, as well as a painting by Thomas Swimmer that Rea himself purchased from a Pictures for Schools exhibition. I was able to get a great insight from Rea, along with other members of his family, into what Youngman and Rea were like as people, what inspired and motivated them, the types of creative, politicised social and professional circles they moved in, and the atmosphere and importance of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions.

I was able to see much other material related to Youngman’s personal and professional life. This included several handwritten drafts of the autobiography Youngman wrote in the last decade of her life in late-1980s, as well as correspondence relating to the OBE she was awarded in 1987, exhibition catalogues, press cuttings and even tributes given by friends and colleagues at her funeral. However, much of the material I liked best, as it gave me a real sense of Youngman’s character, was seemingly more minor. For example every Christmas Youngman produced colourful cartoons depicting the Rea family and other friends and pets as various pantomime characters, including one featuring Youngman asleep at the foot of a beanstalk – she had a real talent for caricature! I was also allowed to handle several stamps produced from original drawings by Youngman which were used to create funny Christmas cards showing Youngman as a different character each year, from a clown to a head and shoulders on a postage stamp. One of my favourite things I saw was a set of very small illustrations (sadly never used) which Youngman created for a book Henry Moore (a friend of Betty Rea’s who she had known since her days at the RCA, when she was a student and he was a student teacher) was writing for infant teachers. I found the drawings, which depicted the types of play, learning and creation children get up to when left to their own devices, from building structures to experimenting with paint and acting out role-play, utterly charming and incredibly evocative of the spirit and experience of childhood. They seem to fit perfectly with the type of educational environment and experience Pictures for Schools was part of, and promoted, where children were encouraged to express themselves and explore the world around them.


In Our Experience by Stewart C Mason: A small treasure of a book from the University of Manchester library store

DSC_1950Recently, I made my first foray into the University of Manchester store to retrieve a book edited by Stewart Mason, former Director of Education in Cambridgeshire. Mason was well-known for establishing a patronage scheme for schools in Leicestershire as well as promoting the value of artworks in schools, even before Pictures for Schools came into being in 1947; this collection was celebrated by exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1967 and 1980. In Our Experience: the changing schools of Leicestershire, which was published in 1970 (the year after Pictures for Schools ended), turned out to be a real hidden treasure, offering really good context for the educational backdrop against which such schemes took place. After the Second World War, the educational landscape in Leicestershire changed rapidly to cope with a large rise in population, and the county undertook a number of sometimes controversial experiments, from becoming one of the first counties to abolish the 11-plus, to introducing fully comprehensive education, making use of new ideas in architecture such as open plan schools, building larger schools which could justify purchasing specialist equipment and resources, emphasising child-centred learning, particularly in the infant school, and developing community colleges inspired by Henry Morris’s village colleges in Cambridgeshire to foster learning for all ages and all of the community.

Like Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire who promoted the idea of the educational environment as being a ‘silent teacher’, Mason also emphasised the importance of the school environment on children’s perception of their education, saying: “[School buildings] can and do exert a powerful influence on what happens inside and around them.” Mason was passionate about introducing contemporary art to schools, and saw art education as having value for the life of the whole school, not just art departments, saying the arts could “release energy and add sparkle and inventiveness to the general life of the school” and “pay for themselves by quickening the whole tempo”.

In the book, which features essays by a number of teachers and headteachers in Leicestershire schools, there is a strong emphasis on learning through doing and discovery, rather than by rote (I feel that the cover really conveys this ethos of learning!). The vision of education promoted by the book recognises that individuals learn differently and are able to take some responsibility for their own learning and promotes emotional and intuitive development as much as academic achievement. It is seen to be important that the child is educated as a ‘whole person’, fitting in with the ideas of writers such as Herbert Read. Other ideas include breaking down the boundaries between different subject areas into an ‘integrated day’, taking a view of education in which teachers are learners as much as children, and creating an environment where children feel that there they are on equal terms with their teachers and are encouraged to take a questioning approach to what is around them. The latter point is interesting in relation to Pictures for Schools, which encouraged children to look actively in order to develop skills which would help them take an interest in what was around them when they became adults. Some of these ideas, such as learning by doing, along with the idea of the school as a total society implied by community-based education, are also reminiscent of those of American educator John Dewey.

It was also interesting to hear how schools used their artworks. At Albert Road Primary School, Hinckley, for instance there was at least one original, contemporary work of art in each classroom. Children were encouraged to handle artworks, and were exposed to all kinds of artwork, including abstract art. Albert Road Primary was also home to the Clown, a piece of sculpture in the playground  which “is fondled and loved and climbed upon and sometimes even given clothing”. I’ve tried contacting the schools featured in the book to see if they still own the artworks mentioned, and if they are still in use in the school. Only one school has got back to me so far, saying the school has the artworks but they are no longer on display. They have invited me to visit, however, and I may take up the opportunity as I am keen to find out what happened to the artworks of a county once so well-known for its patronage but which has seen some of its artworks sold in recent years.