Reflections on Marion Adnams Symposium, University of Derby

Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.

The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.

My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.

For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?

I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.

The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.

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Symposium paper: Pictures for schools: Marion Adnams and educational art collections

I’m looking forward to speaking at the Marion Adnams Symposium, which takes place at the University of Derby on Wednesday 7 March, 1pm-6pm. The abstract for my paper is below. To book onto the symposium, which is free, visit www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/marion-adnams-symposium-tickets-42085404578?.

Pictures for schools: Marion Adnams and educational art collections

Like many female artists of her generation, Marion Adnams worked as an educationalist alongside her artistic practice, teaching in girls’ schools and at a teacher training college. This was a time when educationalists such as Marion Richardson, Evelyn Gibbs and Nan Youngman worked to accord art a more significant place in the life of schools.

One element of this new form of art education was a desire to expose children to original works of art by professional, contemporary artists in their schools. Between 1947 and 1969 this was put into practice by Nan Youngman through the Pictures for Schools programme, which took the form of annual exhibitions in London of work sold at prices affordable to educational buyers. Paintings, textiles, drawings and sculpture were sold to schools, teacher training colleges, local authority loan collections and museum services all over the country.

Adnams’ work is represented in several educational collections, including the Leicestershire county collection art collection and the Rutherston Loan Scheme at Manchester Art Gallery, as well as the Derbyshire Museum Service, one of the most well-established and enthusiastic patrons of Pictures for Schools, where three of her paintings are still available for schools to borrow today.

This paper will explore the development of such collections, and their educational aims and use. It will highlight the place of original works of art as part of a changing conception of art education that aimed to encourage children’s capacities for self-expression, appreciation and critique, as much as the development of technical ability.