Thanks to Dr Emma West for inviting me to write a guest blog post about Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman for her research blog Revolutionary Red Tape, as part of ‘Advocates for the Arts’, a series about pioneering women. Emma is currently undertaking an enviable post-doc at Birmingham University focusing on culture in public places in twentieth-century Britain.
Read my blog post online here: https://emmawest.art.blog/2020/05/04/advocates-for-the-arts-nan-youngman/
I spent my PhD reading books by and about the writer, poet, anarchist and critic Herbert Read – a supporter of Pictures for Schools, who believed in the power of art education and children’s potential as artists – but never fully felt I got the measure of his multifaceted life and career.
A small but extremely thoughtfully curated exhibition at Treasure of the Brotherton, in the library building at the University of Leeds (where Read, a Yorkshireman’s papers are held), offers an interesting way into Read’s life and work. Curated by the artist Stephen Sutcliffe, it picks out ephemera from his archive, highlighting different sides of his life, from Yorkshire family man, to intellectual and anti-war campaigner, and the matters that were important to him.
One of the things that comes across most strongly in the exhibition – through correspondence from figures such as Isa and Walter Gropius and many of the leading artists of the day, as well as a series of annotated napkins from his 70th birthday dinner in London in 1967 – was his place in the British and international intelligentsia, and the high regard in which he was held as a friend, writer and thinker, in the fields of art, design and beyond.
‘Art in an Electric Atmosphere’ is on until Saturday 1 August. For more information visit https://library.leeds.ac.uk/events/event/1900/galleries/224/art-in-an-electric-atmosphere-the-library-and-archive-of-herbert-read.
Following hot on the heels of But What If We Tried? at Touchstones, Rochdale in 2019, which attempted to display the entirety of the borough’s publicly owned art collection at once, Manchester Art Gallery is offering an insight into its sculpture stores (only 3 per cent of the collection is usually on display at any one time). About 25 per cent can be seen in the current exhibition, Out of the Crate, which explores and highlights how the work came to be in the collection and asks for information about some of the work (it’s not always clear who the work is by or how it got there!).
Many of Britain’s best-known nineteenth, twentieth century and contemporary sculptors are represented in the collection, working across a variety of styles and media, from portraiture to modernism. My favourite piece was ‘Rocking Chair No. 4’ (1950), a tiny bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, which was bequeathed to the gallery in 2012 by Harry M Fairhurst, architect of the UMIST campus and the renowned Hollaway Wall. Freeze-framing a small moment of familiar tenderness, but blurring both human and animal forms, its intimate scale made me long to pick it up and handle it and see if it actually rocked!
Some of the sculptures in the collection had been purchased for educational purposes, from the Horsfall Art Museum, which aimed to bring beauty to industrial Ancoats, to pieces from the Rutherston Loan Collection (now accessioned into the main collection) which was established in the 1920s to lend work to schools and educational establishments in the north of England.
Although this scheme is no longer in operation, one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is documentation of a project involving a group of boys from Burnage Academy, who were asked to choose a sculpture to display in their school for a day via Art UK’s ‘Masterpieces in Schools’ initiative. Just as Pictures for Schools aimed to ask searching questions of child visitors through the provision of questionnaires about the exhibitions, and to encourage them to see themselves as patrons of art, the students were encouraged to look critically at the artworks, how they were made and what they represented, as well as to think about the role of a curator. It was fascinating to read their rationale about what would stimulate discussion and what their peers would find interesting, and the types of questions they asked of the work, such as “Is the paper ball an actual sculpture?” (their eventual choice of ‘Cobra’, a 1925 sculpture by Jean Demand, narrowly beat Martin Creed’s conceptual ‘Work No 88: A Sheet of A4 Paper Crumpled Into A Ball’).
Out of the Crate is at Manchester Art Gallery until Sunday 28 November 2021: https://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/exhibition/out-of-the-crate/
The writer and collector Robjn Cantus has posted a really interesting blog about works in his collection which he purchased from the sale of the Hertfordshire County Collection; several pieces were purchased from Pictures for Schools, including prints by Alistair Grant, Michael Rothenstein and Julia Ball. It’s great to find out more about the biographies of the artists, some of whom I have heard of but many who are new to me.
Loughborough is a market town in Leicestershire – a county that, under longstanding Director of Education Stewart Mason, embraced patronage of the arts in educational settings in the post-war period in a big way. As well as purchasing and commissioning site-specific works for individual schools, Leicestershire’s loan collection was one of the largest in the country, and purchased artworks from Pictures for Schools among other sources. Mason advised and guided Loughborough University on some of its purchases, and his influence in the county is acknowledged in the Stewart Mason building on campus.
The university’s sculpture collection punctuates the sports grounds that dominate the campus (Loughborough has a reputation for attracting sporty students). Given university status in 1966, the campus architecture has a strong modernist feel, although it’s undergone significant expansion since then. Known as Loughborough University of Technology until 1996, there’s a strong theme of science and technology in many of the artworks, particularly around the science buildings, which feature a number of steel artworks by Paul Wagner. There was also a tradition of students producing their own furniture, much of which is still in use around campus.
Many well-known and lesser artists of the post-war period are represented on campus, including Willi Soukop, who undertook many commissions for public and educational settings; his Spirit of Adventure, which resembles an aeroplane, is the first artwork encountered on approach to the campus from the town centre, and points the way to a place of learning, discovery and enquiry. Perhaps the most famous sculptor is Lynn Chadwick, whose solemn trio of angular figures The Watchers commemorates three influential figures in the history of the university. However, my favourite artworks were those which were less conspicuous, such as Austin Wright’s kinetic sculpture, nestled in a quiet pond area between two buildings, which resembles a calmly bubbling fountain, and Peter Peri’s Spirit of Technology, a man leaping into the unknown from the side of a student residence dining hall.
The sculptures are merely the most public-facing element of a much bigger collection, which includes wall-mounted works such as prints, paintings and textiles, displayed in areas such as boardrooms, corridors and waiting areas. I managed to see a couple of works inside buildings, including prints by Bridget Riley and John Piper, as well as a number of portraits of university grandees which showed their influence on the university.
Loughborough University and the former teacher training college Loughborough Training College, which became part of the university in 1977, both purchased work from Pictures for Schools, although the only one I managed to see was Michael Stokoe’s bold, colourful silkscreen Circles & Stripes.
The collection is not static and continues to evolve, commissioning and acquiring work by students alongside established artists. One of the highlights is one of the most recent works, an interior design scheme by Giles Round for the RADAR office. Alongside furniture and Round’s selection of artworks from the collection, this includes a wallpaper which repeats images of tools from a former catalogue across the walls. Round’s design scheme acts as a subtle reminder of the university’s past and enters into dialogue with work purchased and commissioned during previous eras of the life of the institution.
To find out more about the collection visit https://www.lboro.ac.uk/arts/arts-collection/.
I can’t attend, but very much recommend the symposium For the People, a day focused on modernism and everyday design, which takes place in Manchester on Saturday 9 November. It features Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West talking about the work of William Mitchell, and public art commissioned by the London County Council for the city’s housing estates, among a stellar line-up of speakers.
For more information visit http://modernist-society.org/events/paul-mellon-talks.