Nan Youngman’s autobiography in the Tate ArchivePosted: February 25, 2014
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the Rea family in London, I spent a full day reading a typewritten copy of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s (unpublished) autobiography in the Tate Archive, which was written in the mid-to-late-1980s.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.