Second visit to Tate ArchivePosted: April 2, 2014
My most recent archive visit was another trip to see Nan Youngman’s papers at the Tate Archive. This time I focused on two sets of materials related to her time in Cambridge. The first related to her longstanding involvement in the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors from the 1950s, with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea, a small exhibiting society which aimed to help artists living around the city to feel less isolated, and to establish interest and patronage for their work among the local community. The Society continued to meet at Youngman’s home until shortly before her death in 1995, and in minutes of meetings which detail the allocated tasks for the Society’s exhibitions Youngman was generally described as ‘chief entertainer’.
The second, and more interesting set of artefacts, related to Youngman’s employment as Art Advisor in Cambridgeshire from 1944-1954 – including a speculative letter Youngman sent to Director of Education Henry Morris setting out her skills, experience and describing in detail why such a role could benefit the teachers and children of Cambridgeshire – in a nice touch she ends by pointing out that she has her own car, which would be useful for travelling around the rural schools! I have been reading some books about Henry Morris’s work and legacy, and something which comes out clearly is his difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships – his biographer, Harry Rée, suggests that he found it particularly hard to relate to women – yet there is a clear affection and respect emanating from the letters Morris and Youngman exchanged, and Morris clearly highly valued her contribution to the county. In the same folder are press cuttings relating to the local education committee’s plans to make Youngman’s role redundant as part of cost-cutting measures in 1952, going in the face of Cambridgeshire’s reputation as an enlightened county with regard to education and the arts. Youngman requested a series of letters of support arguing that she should be allowed to remain, from her local teaching trade union branch, the Society for Education in Art, Herbert Read and the warden of Sawston Village College, who stressed the practical and pragmatic value of Youngman’s support for the county’s art teachers, many of whom were previously lacking in confidence, and argued that for this reason art could not be seen as a ‘frill’. Youngman’s impact on individual teachers was manifested in several letters dating back over the years from teachers who had found encouragement and inspiration on her courses, and had been enthused to try out her teaching methods when they returned to school.
One small find which I found particularly touching was a highly personal letter from Bryan Robertson (better known as the long-running director of Whitechapel Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s) to Nan Youngman, in dense, neat handwriting, written when the former was a young man working for Heffer Gallery in Cambridge. It can only be described as fan mail, with Robertson stating his affection for Youngman as a person and as a painter (although he admits he is too intimidated by her to tell her in person), before taking an analytical look at her work in terms of colour and composition, and giving her frank and detailed advice about how her painting needs to develop. This includes telling her to start taking herself seriously as a painter, encouraging her to have a one-person exhibition and stressing the need to prioritise her painting over her role as an educator so she can take the place Robertson thinks she deserves among Britain’s great painters. Robertson’s affection for Youngman continued until she died; he writes at length on her in publications produced for exhibitions held in her 80th year and posthumously, and he appears to have been an important source of support and encouragement as well as, later, a key ally for Pictures for Schools in the post-war art world.