Making connections – Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Over the summer I got an email from the Head of Fine Art at National Museums Liverpool, who’d spotted on Twitter that I’d just moved house into Stockport, her neck of the woods. She was interested in hearing more about my Pictures for Schools research, and also very kindly sent me some photocopies in the post relating to a historic loan scheme at the city’s Walker Art Gallery.

As well as a typewritten list of works, which was interesting to see, as there were a number of overlaps with some of the artists who sold work through Pictures for Schools (including LS Lowry, Carel Weight, John Bratby, Edward Middleditch, Anthony Gross, Richard Eurich, Stephen Bone, Helen Markson, Graham Sutherland, Ceri Richards, Michael Rothenstein, Julian Trevelyan, Tadek Beutlich and Elizabeth Blackadder), she sent me a copy of a chapter on art education from the recent book A History of the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool 1878-2000 by former curators Edward Morris and Timothy Stevens.

Setting out a historical context of art galleries being established for educational purposes, initially for the benefit of the artist and then for the ‘consumer, the visitor, the spectator, the general public’, the art education chapter briefly discussed the history of regional museum services and loan collections in Manchester, Leicester, Leeds and Bristol, as well as on a national basis at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The authors argue that initially the emphasis was often more on museum objects than art objects as they were seen as being more engaging to children.

Although there are a couple of brief references to Pictures for Schools in the chapter, and the importance of art in schools in the post-war period, like much of the writing on art in schools I have read elsewhere, the authors consider little to have been achieved in embedding artworks in schools. They attribute this to artists preferring to ‘work for the generous commissions provided by commercial galleries rather than for the meagre wages offered by local authority education departments suffering from tight budgets’.

With regards to art education in Liverpool the chapter has a focus on the work of local teachers and educators employed directly as education officers for the Walker Art Gallery, before going on to discuss the history of the gallery’s own loan service. Although the gallery had been lending museum specimens in boxes since the 1880s, it seems that the idea of lending original art work to schools grew out of a programme of lending work from the reserve collections to municipal galleries, hospitals and other public buildings, along with art schools. During the war the lending of art had a practical purpose, with valuable paintings distributed to private schools in the countryside for safekeeping, moving to a different school each term. This remained small-scale, with works only being lent to ten schools, until the 1950s, when the loan collection of late Victorian and Edwardian paintings was extended by the addition of lithographs by modern artists such as Picasso, Braque and Ernst which was more representative of the gallery’s collection as a whole. Between this time and the metropolitan reorganisation of 1974 when the gallery was transferred from the control of Liverpool City Council to Merseyside County Council, more than 200 more works were acquired by contemporary British and American artists, with the gallery matching an annual purchase grant of £500 from the city council. The majority were prints such as lithographs and screen-prints, which could eventually be integrated into the main collections, although forty paintings were also bought. The wider geographical area served by the scheme, and the increased number of schools it encompassed, eventually led to difficulties with transport, staffing and availability of paintings to go round, and the service was axed in 1979 and the work integrated into the permanent collection.

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