Visit to Julian Rea, son of Betty ReaPosted: February 24, 2014
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.