I’ve recently been speaking to some friends of the painter Sarah Nechamkin, now 97, who was a student of Nan Youngman at Highbury Hill High School for Girls in London in the early 1930s. Sarah sold and exhibited work at Pictures for Schools in the late-1940s and early-1950s, to buyers including the West Riding of Yorkshire, and exhibited as recently as 2013.
Nan Youngman’s art teaching in Highbury Hill, which included a sketch club Sarah was a member of, was a big influence on Sarah’s artistic career. Apparently Nechamkin still talks about the role Youngman played in her career: as she says in a film made by her goddaughter, Siân Cwper, “it was the biggest piece of luck in my life … I owe everything to her”, and she recalls that Nan Youngman taught her how to “set free my imagination” at school. With Nan Youngman’s encouragement, Nechamkin went on to Chelsea School of Art, later returning there to teach as well as designing and illustrating books for the Curwen Press and Penguin, and she is one of the former students whose subsequent artistic careers and development Youngman highlights in her autobiography. The two also stayed in touch, as there is correspondence from Nechamkin in Youngman’s papers at the Tate, among much other correspondence from former students of Youngman’s, decades on, reminiscing about her distinctive art classes.
Watch Siân Cwper’s short film about Nechamkin, which was filmed at her home in Ibiza a few years ago:
I’m looking forward to visiting this exhibition and study session, ‘Herbert Read & Alec Clegg: A Revolution Realised’, about writer, critic and art educationalist Herbert Read and Alec Clegg, the innovative post-war Director of Education for the West Riding of Yorkshire (a pioneering county for art in schools, which included making purchases from Pictures for Schools among other places), at the National Arts Education Archive at Yorkshire Sculpture Park next weekend (Saturday 28 February).
One of the books I have most enjoyed reading recently has been the artist Julian Trevelyan’s memoir, Indigo Days, first published in the 1950s. Trevelyan, along with his wife, the painter Mary Fedden, was one of the best-selling artists at Pictures for Schools from the early days right until its close, selling etchings, prints and paintings displaying varying degrees of abstraction and depicting subjects ranging from London streetscapes and landscapes in Gozo to oxen to forests (one of my favourites is this painting, ‘Forest‘, in the Derbyshire collection). Trevelyan was also involved in Pictures for Schools planning and selection committees, helping select artworks for display at the exhibitions.
Indigo Days is a really fascinating account of Trevelyan’s life and development as an artist, detailing the literary, artistic and political scenes he moved in, both in the UK and abroad, from his early involvement with the Surrealists to the Artists’ International Association, as well as evoking vividly places at home and abroad, from early education and school art teachers to his home and studio on the Thames at Hammersmith to foreign climes visited during the war. Particularly useful for my research were sections on Treveylan’s involvement as an artist in the Mass Observation project in Bolton, and his wartime work as a camouflage officer (alongside other Pictures for Schools artists such as Steven Sykes), along with his creative process and the inspiration he found in ordinary, everyday scenery, from a life-long preoccupation with smoking chimneys to the landscapes and distinctive architecture of the Potteries. It’s just a shame Trevelyan’s memoir comes to an abrupt halt after the war and doesn’t detail his later work and career. Although the book is now expensive to buy, I was fortunate to find a reprinted edition from the 1990s (with a beautiful cover) in my university library. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in twentieth century British art, design and culture, and artistic and intellectual life.
I recently listened to this interesting Radio 3 programme about the life, art and friendships of Eric Ravilious, presented by Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns. It was interesting to hear more about Great Bardfield artists and their life in Essex, as several of this group regularly contributed work to and sold work through Pictures for Schools (Ravilious’s wife, Tirzah Garwood, was one of the early best-sellers at Pictures for Schools, and her realist, detailed collages of village and rural life were consistently popular with child visitors to the exhibitions; other regular contributors from this group included Ravilious’ lover Helen Binyon, Bernard Cheese and Sheila Robinson, George Chapman, Michael Rothenstein and, most notably, Edward Bawden, who consistently sold well through the entire lifespan of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions).
The programme is still available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer here.
A few weeks ago I was in Leeds for the day and visited the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds, where I saw some Edward Bawden linocuts in ‘real life’ for the first time in a display drawn from the gallery’s permanent collection. I turned the corner to find them unexpectedly, and was taken aback by their bold size and scale, having assumed them to be small works on paper and not large-scale. I have a strong suspicion the two works, ‘Brighton Pier‘ and ‘Lindsell Church‘, were purchased by the West Riding School Museum Service from Pictures for Schools in the late-1950s, as the West Riding was a regular purchaser from Pictures for Schools and the accompanying labels said the works (along with some others in the gallery) were transferred from the Yorkshire Education Resource Service in 2002.
I was also recently recommended a really lovely Radio 4 programme about Brenda Rawnsley and the School Prints, a short-lived 1940s attempt to create and sell lithographs to schools by contemporary artists, chosen by a committee of experts which included people who went on to be involved in Pictures for Schools including Herbert Read and Nan Youngman. Like Pictures for Schools (and Nan Youngman), the School Prints was driven by a single-minded , determined woman, and the programme effectively told both her story and the story of the artworks through interviews with figures including her son (who recalled using unsold prints as wrapping paper at Christmas time!). Although there are key differences, such as Pictures for Schools’ emphasis on originals as opposed to reproductions, the programme covered a number of themes and issues I have been considering in relation to Pictures for Schools. These included the role of art in the classroom as a way of encouraging discussion and the skills of looking, and the presentation of a particularly positive, unchallenging version of Englishness, along with the choice of artists and subject matter for schools – subjects depicted in the School Prints, such as ploughing fields, fishermen, fairgrounds, markets and a puppet-show, wouldn’t have been out of place at Pictures for Schools (indeed, several of the artists who created work for the School Prints later contributed and sold work through Pictures for Schools, including Barbara Jones, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein, LS Lowry and Julian Trevelyan).