Visit to BBC Written Archives, Caversham, Reading

During my visits to the Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading I had seen various references to BBC radio programmes which discussed Pictures for Schools. After following this up with archivists at the BBC I arranged a visit to the BBC Written Archives, tucked away in a bungalow in a residential area of Caversham in Reading, where they found me out several scripts on microfilm as well as material relating to other post-war BBC programming on art education.

Among the programmes was an extensive review of the 1955 Pictures for Schools exhibition on Children’s Hour by in-house art critic WR Dalzell (also a senior art master at independent Bedford School), who spent a considerable amount of time discussing and describing individual works, their subject matter and their effects – including painting, sculpture and embroidery – in detail, as well as explaining different artistic methods and media such as lithograph prints, and linking these techniques with children’s own work at school. Dalzell urged listeners to visit the exhibition for themselves, discussing the voting system for children to choose their favourite artworks, and ended by offering detailed public transport directions to get to the exhibition.

An episode of Today also included a brief segment on the 1965 Pictures for Schools exhibition, alongside an eclectic mix of items including George Melly on Nat King Cole and features on Esperanto, Dungeness Fish, falcons and an Islington building row, with Nan Youngman quizzed on students’ seeming preferences for abstract art that might be regarded as incomprehensible to their parents.

Another programme, a 1963 episode of World of Books, featured Nan Youngman interviewing Sybil Marshall about her 1963 book An Experiment in Education, which drew on her experiences in Cambridgeshire. Marshall was a teacher in a tiny village school in rural Cambridgeshire during Youngman’s time as county art advisor (1944-1954) and also attended Youngman’s classes for amateur painters and teachers. Youngman found Marshall’s work inspiring and encouraging, and took groups of overseas teachers to visit her students at school. The discussion encompassed the influence of educators such as Marion Richardson and Herbert Read, the pace of educational change and the extent to which educational innovation and experiment received acceptance or met with indifference or acceptance depending on the attitudes of individual teachers or heads.

I was also able to see correspondence regarding other programmes which were under discussion, including a proposed collaboration between writer Colin MacInnes and Nan Youngman on a programme about the British Council’s art education work overseas (Youngman acted as a lecturer and inspector for the British Council in various African and Caribbean countries) which appears never to have come to fruition.

Although I didn’t see any scripts, and it didn’t relate explicitly to Pictures for Schools, another file which absolutely fascinated me was a set of memos and reports dating from the late-1940s to the 1960s relating to a long-running radio series called Looking at Things. Designed as an educational course, the series appears to have been aimed primarily at secondary modern schools (though junior schools also made use of it) and accompanied by pamphlets which contained pictures of the ‘things’ under discussion as well as preparatory and writing activities for children to do in class. In keeping with a central theme I have identified in post-war discourse around education and reconstruction, the programme aimed to raise children’s standards of taste by encouraging them to look closely at everyday objects and places, from changes in fashion and interior decoration to modes and design of public transport, the style and function of buildings ranging from village churches and gothic cathedrals to new schools and civic centres, environments ranging from market or port towns and cathedral cities to new towns such as Peterlee, and new materials for manufacture and building. Experts were approached and enlisted to explain and present the topics under discussion, from eminent modern architects and professors to members of the Council for Industrial Design and furniture designers, although sometimes it was felt that the programme was too middle class, that experts did not fully understand the limitations of their audience, and that some of the language was unfamiliar to children, especially those from more deprived or urban backgrounds, to whom these objects or places may be out of reach. Although the programmes only occasionally seemed to refer directly to art per se, I felt that there were interesting educational parallels with Pictures for Schools, particularly in the way the programme really aimed to encourage children’s skills of close looking and seeing, particularly with reference to their future consumer purchases. There was also discussion of the series building links with Alexander Barclay Russell of the Society for Education through Art, under whose name Pictures for Schools was organised.

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