Pictures for Schools was a scheme which enabled county councils in England and Wales to purchase original artworks by living artists at annual exhibitions, the first of which was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1947. Initiated by artist and educator Nan Youngman, and administered through the national Society for Education Through Art, exhibitions continued at other major London venues (as well as the National Museum of Wales and in Scotland in 1967) throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, allowing local education authorities to build up county collections of paintings, drawings, sculptures and textiles, which were distributed to schools through loan schemes. Many artists involved in the scheme were in the early stage of their careers, and whilst some remain relatively unknown several went on to become members of prestigious networks such as the Royal Academy and New English Art Club. Some of the artists who contributed were also teachers and educators, and were actively interested in shaping ideas around art education.
During the post-war period, access to good quality art and design was promoted as a way of encouraging citizens to take an active interest in their environment, and it was also a time of increased professionalisation, which saw the creation of new ‘experts’ to administer the planning, design and construction of a new, modern Britain.
The research project ‘Pictures for Schools: Art, Education and Reconstruction in Post-war Britain’ will use Pictures for Schools to evaluate the role of new conceptions of modernity, expertise, Britishness, education and citizenship in the post-war reconstruction process, using a cultural geographical approach to map the key locations and individuals and networks involved in the scheme. It will consider the extent to which the scheme, the subject matter and preoccupations of artworks and artists, and the prioritisation of artworks in different media, can be seen to reflect, promote and influence post-war constructions of Britishness and modernity.
The project is timely, as a number of artists involved in Pictures for Schools in its later years were born in the late 1920s and 1930s. Though several are still practising artists, there is a limited window of opportunity to record their ideas and experiences, and to discover what part Pictures for Schools played in their careers, as well as get a sense of attitudes among artists towards art education at the time and what type of media and subject matters were considered to be both ‘modern’ and suitable for children. Furthermore, those local education authority collections of original artworks for children which still exist have come under scrutiny in recent years, with several collections severely depleted by sales of artworks. Though some council artwork loan schemes are still in operation, their future looks uncertain as art is increasingly sidelined both in schools and in the curriculum.
Whilst art in schools has been a renewed focus of interest in recent years, especially among education historians and art historians, research has tended to focus on the history, rediscovery and restoration of site-specific works for schools, such as specially-commissioned murals (in the Decorated School project), and has encompassed a wider timeframe than the post-war period, as opposed to looking at a geographically distributed and time-specific scheme such as Pictures for Schools. Research into Pictures for Schools will be used to expand upon existing work by cultural geographers on the post-war period and reconstruction process, in which concepts such as citizenship, modernity, expertise and Britishness have been at the fore, going beyond previous work which has often focused on particular buildings or locations.
The research is being undertaken by Natalie Bradbury as a studentship in the School of Forensic and Applies Sciences at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston.