A visit to see Manchester Grammar School’s art collection: the final piece of the jigsawPosted: December 1, 2015
I have long wanted to know what happened to the artworks sold at Pictures for Schools once they had left the exhibitions, and tried to contact schools which purchased work. This always been unfruitful as many schools have closed, merged, changed name or changed location and premises since the 1960s. Though most of the buyers were local education authorities and education committees, there were a number of primary, secondary and independent schools across the country that bought work from the exhibitions. Unfortunately, those schools which do still exist are often unaware that they once owned original works of art.
I was pleased to discover, through a chance conversation with their Head of Art, Lisa Murphy, that Manchester Grammar School (MGS) is an exception and still has several, though perhaps not all, of the artworks it purchased at Pictures for Schools. Lisa, who has been at the school since 1998, is keen to use original works with students, whether through direct observation, as part of project work, or as the basis for reinterpretation.
Manchester Grammar School Art Collection Fund was suggested by an old boy in 1956 for the purchase of original and contemporary works of art, and governors, old boys and friends of the school contributed. The collection was not just limited to works on paper, but was intended to encompass ceramics and sculpture, though this was not in evidence when I visited. In 1960, an exhibition of the collection was held. The catalogue explained that:
“The aim has been to buy pictures that are good of their kind by modern artists, known and unknown.”
In the 1980s, an Ivon Hitchens work was sold to enable new purchases to be made. Aside from the Art Collection, other work belongs to the school Common Room. Some works were purchased through a bequest and some were gifts. There are also remnants of an earlier collection, and other work includes a 1945 John Skeaping print of a mare and foal which was part of the School Prints series. In addition to its own collection, the school also made use of Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston loan scheme for educational institutions in the north of England.
The Pictures for Schools invoice books held in Nan Youngman’s papers at the University of Reading, though incomplete, reveal that Manchester Grammar School was a regular buyer from Pictures for Schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Invoices were made out to the bursar on behalf of Art Master JH Bell, and on occasion on behalf of the ‘High Master’. John Henry Bell joined in 1951 and served as Head of Art from 1956-81. An Oxford-educated historian and scholar, he also painted landscapes, with a particular interest in mountains. He was known for an extensive collection of art and architecture slides, and recorded talks for BBC radio. At that time, the historical and critical aspects of art were emphasised in the school more than the practical aspects.
I recently visited MGS, a large and still academically oriented independent school in suburban south Manchester, to see what remains of the collection, and to get a sense of these artworks in a school setting, The artworks are scattered around the school, which is based around an extensive and disorientating 1930s building. In general, the school gives the impression of being filled with art and visual stimulation. Students’ work is displayed throughout the large and impressively resourced art department, as well as in the shared spaces of the school such as hallways and corridors. Changing and themed exhibitions of students’ work take place in a small gallery space next to the main reception, and there is also a small sculpture garden containing students’ work. Staff rooms, common rooms, reception, offices and classrooms also have pictures on display, ranging from formal and old-fashioned portraits of former grandees to architectural drawings of the school to work by local artists and artists who have been in residence in the school, including modern photography and graffiti-style stencil work. Some of the original mid-twentieth century works of art purchased by the school can be found among this, and highlights of the collection are on display in a wide corridor area. These include Edwin La Dell’s 1960 lithograph ‘Priddy Nine Barrows’, a green, rolling rural landscape. Though I had seen photographs of the print before, I much preferred it in ‘real life’, seeing its mark-making close-up and its colour choices appearing more vibrant.
Like many school buyers, Manchester Grammar School bought a large number of prints from Pictures for Schools, although it did also purchase paintings. Many of the artists involved in Pictures for Schools, and represented in the MGS collection, were themselves involved in art education, at secondary or university level.
Paintings at MGS include Gordon Bradshaw’s ‘Essex Landscape’ (1962), an unusual and stylised perspective on a townscape which is reminiscent of a briefly glimpsed view of a town looking down from a railway viaduct as the surrounding countryside stretches out behind it. Susan Horsfield’s ‘Boxes of Fish’ (1961) is a detailed oil painting. Horsfield met Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman through their involvement in the Women’s International Art Club and was invited by Youngman to submit work to the scheme. Peter Midgley’s humdrum oil painting ‘Still Life’ (1958), meanwhile, shows newspaper-wrapped grocery shopping in Kitchen Sink-style. Midgley taught at Beckenham School of Art.
Schools often had less money to spend on original works of art than local authorities. Prints, which could be purchased framed or unframed, were among the most affordable works of art at the exhibitions. Furthermore, prints such as linocuts had an obvious application in the classroom; they could be used to demonstrate to students what could be achieved in a medium they were likely to use themselves in school art lessons. There are also screen prints, etchings and lithographs. These include the bold 1966 screenprint ‘Blue Night Flower’ by Dennis Hawkins – who taught at Repton School and was a founding member of the Midland Group and the Printmakers’ Council’, which edges towards abstraction. Philip Greenwood’s, ‘Slate Street’ (1965) is a dark, sketchy, angular etching, while ‘Two Friends’ is a figurative lithograph by Alistair Grant, who studied with Edwin La Dell and taught at the RCA. Another print, ‘Barmouth’, from 1984, picking out the shapes of the town through exaggerated use of line and colour, is by John Brunsdon, who designed posters for Pictures for Schools as well as selling work through the scheme.
Perhaps the work I saw on my visit I liked the most was Euan Jennings’ highly stylised 1957 linocut ‘Essex Gravel Pit No 2’, a detailed reinterpretation of an everyday and workaday landscape in blue, black and yellow, in which contrasting textures and patterns are used to create contrast between different layers and areas of foliage, water, rock and stones. Jennings was Principal at Tunbridge Wells School of Art.
I also like Denys Delhanty’s 1959 gouache ‘Summer Landscape with Cow Parsley’, a more unconventional landscape that has something in its palette of black, white, greys and pale blues, and brush marks resembling surface scrapes and bubbles, of the quality of a photographic negative. Denys Delhanty was Head of Art at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and his work was extremely popular in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions.
Unsurprisingly, given their prominence in Pictures for Schools, a number of the artists in the MGS collection are associated with East Anglia. These include the Great Bardfield artist Edward Bawden – an artist’s proof of his linocut ‘Town Hall Yard’ (1957) is on display – as is a large, sweeping, abstracted, expressive linocut of an ‘East Coast Storm’ (1967) by Julia Ball who was, like Nan Youngman, a member of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors.
I was disappointed, however, not to see abstracted linocuts of farm machinery by Peter Green, one of the best-selling artists at Pictures for Schools, which once formed part of the collection. As Lisa Murphy is making a renewed effort to locate and catalogue the works to improve their visibility in the school, I’m hoping that perhaps they might be unearthed for a future visit.
 Information about the collection and the history of art teaching at MGS is largely drawn from the pamphlet Art at the Manchester Grammar School, edited by David Stockwell, 1993.