Exhibition of Argyll County Council’s school art collection

I’ve received an email about an upcoming exhibition of work by Scottish artists from Argyll County Council’s art collection for schools, dating from the 1960s to the 1980s, organised by Cowal Open Studios.

The exhibition Paintings are for People — the Argyll Art Collection takes place at Dunoon Burgh Hall from 21 April-2 June and Tighnabruaich Gallery from 28 April-3 June.

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Warpaint by Alicia Foster

I was recently recommended Warpaint by Alicia Foster, a historical novel inspired by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), and the work of a propaganda unit putting artists to work finding creative ways to demoralise the enemy.

The WAAC was established by Kenneth Clark, broadcaster and Director of the National Gallery, during the Second World War in order to provide employment for some of the country’s leading artists away from direct action. Whilst big male names were involved in documenting the war, Warpaint takes its inspiration from a small number of women artists – who, unlike the men employed, were not salaried but instead received commissions for artworks. Several of the artists at Pictures for Schools had been employed as war artists, either abroad or on the home front, including the women artists Evelyn Gibbs and Evelyn Dunbar.

Although some characters in Warpaint correspond to real-life personalities – including Kenneth Clark, who appears as a larger-than-life, womanising caricature, and the painter Dame Laura Knight, the oldest and most established of the artists featured in Warpaint – the plot develops through interconnected and fictional stories imagining the lives and love lives of lesser-known painters living in London and the home counties, based very loosely on Isabel Delmer, Grace Golden and Evelyn Dunbar (here reimagined as Vivienne Thayer, Faith Farr and Cecily Browne).

Warpaint is an engrossing and page-turning read, with elements of romance, thriller, tragedy and espionage, and period detail. However, it’s not merely an easy read. Underlying Warpaint are questions about attitudes towards women at the time, their role in society and the art world, and the type of work that was considered suitable for women.

As well as institutional and individual sexism, Warpaint conveys an atmosphere of state and establishment paternalism: if the role of male painters in the WAAC was to document action on the front line, and women’s place was to portray life on the home front, there was also a ‘right’ kind of observation, and a ‘wrong’ kind of subject. Some of the artists in Warpaint are naturally drawn towards destitute: the ragged, hungry families eating in municipal canteens for those left without kitchen facilities due to bombing raids. This is discouraged, in favour of pictures of scenes such as upper-class ladies knitting army socks, that will ‘make people feel better’, and give an impression of togetherness across the class divide. In another episode in the book, an artist finds herself practising self-censorship, in order to produce the kind of picture that will go down well with the Ministry: a lace slip, silk sockings and a clandestine pregnancy are edited out of a scene depicting landgirls in a dormitory, in order to make it appear more wholesome.

For this reason, the most interesting story artistically is that of Laura Knight, who manages to get prolonged access to an airfield in order to paint a longed-for ‘serious subject’. Rather than the abstracted shapes of planes in the sky, observed from afar, she develops an intimacy with the pilots, getting to know how they work and how they experience the cramped cockpit of the plane, working as individuals and a unit alongside the machinery of war.

 


Homes for all

John Boughton – Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing (Verso, 2018)

I woke up in a youth hostel in Oxford in June 2017 to the news of the Grenfell fire. I was there as an attendee at an academic conference themed ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’. The grim extent of the catastrophe unfolded as the conference went on, and its repercussions are still being felt now, nearly ten months later.

One of the attractions of the conference was that John Boughton, author of one of my favourite blogs, the meticulously researched yet accessibly written Municipal Dreams, was speaking about his work visiting, documenting and exploring the history of the country’s council estates, one of the key areas of architectural and social development in twentieth century Britain. This work took on a new dimension in the light of Grenfell, which opened…

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Shades of grey

Lynda Nead – The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (Yale, 2017)

Lynda Nead’s new history of art and culture in post-war Britain borrows its title from a novel by crime fiction writer Margery Allingham. Whilst Allingham’s ‘tiger’ was a vicious killer who lurked in the grimy shadows of post-war London, it’s the smoke that is the important word here; Nead frames her study within the fog of 1950s Britain, beginning with the ‘Great Smog’ that hung over London for five days towards the end of 1952, the year The Tiger in the Smoke was published.

It’s significant, too, that Nead borrows from the mass cultural form of the detective novel to set the tone of the book, which emphasises the ordinariness and continuity of experience that characterised much of life in post-war Britain. Nead’s early focus on the atmospheric qualities of smog begins a search for…

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‘Woman’s Outlook’ book chapter in ‘Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918-1939: The Interwar Period’

Unrelated to Pictures for Schools (but related to historical, archival and educational research)I’m really delighted to have a chapter about the twentieth century co-operative women’s magazine Woman’s Outlook in the new collection Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1918-1939: The Interwar Period, published by Edinburgh University Press (I’m also really pleased that the book features an image of Woman’s Outlook on its cover!).

Woman’s Outlook, a magazine for the campaigning women of the co-operative movement, was published by the Co-operative Press in Manchester between 1919 and 1967 and combined information about political and social issues with domestic tips and advice. The chapter is based on research into the magazine in the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester, which holds a complete set of the publication.

To find out more about the book and other contributors, visit https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-women-039-s-periodicals-and-print-culture-in-britain-1918-1939.html.


Interesting event in Liverpool next week: Conversation and Exchange: Talking with Children

I’m looking forward to attending a discussion about creating art and gallery experiences for children, which takes place at the Bluecoat in Liverpool next Thursday (18 January, 6pm, free). It’s the second in a series of panel discussions entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Work’, bringing together UK and international artists, curators and other practitioners.

For more information and to book visit www.thebluecoat.org.uk/events/view/events/3798.


Ten things I wish I’d thought about more before I applied for my PhD

I recently submitted my PhD thesis, nearly five years after I started my studies. To say it was a challenge to reach this point – and that, frankly, it was a point I often thought I would never reach – is an understatement. Whilst I’ve loved my research, and spending a considerable amount of time immersed in my subject, it’s made me realise how unprepared I was in many ways to start a PhD. This is something I’ve thought about a lot and, as the 31 January deadline approaches for applications from prospective PhD candidates, I’ve written a list of reflections on my experiences for anyone who is currently considering applying for a PhD.

  1. Choose your university carefully

Think very carefully about the university and department you are applying for. Is it an environment where you feel comfortable, both academically and socially? Is it somewhere you can imagine spending a considerable amount of time over the next few years? Is there a strong research culture, and postgraduate support network, and are there students working in similar areas to you? Don’t get into the situation I did; I lived in a different city, and spent the train journey to each supervisory meeting trying to ward off feelings of having a panic attack, as everything about visiting the university, department and city in question filled me with such dread.

  1. Be aware of the financial commitment

Make sure you are fully aware of the financial commitment a PhD involves, and think very carefully about accepting a studentship that is only partially funded, or funded below the levels granted by research councils. My studentship was just £4,000 a year, meaning I felt obliged to continue working alongside my studies (outside of academia, in an unrelated field). Ultimately, spending three years working for an amount that represented less than minimum wage didn’t just present a financial challenge but a psychological one, as it made me doubt the value of my work.

  1. Be clear about why you are doing a PhD

A PhD is not something to be entered into lightly. Like any other kind of study, never embark on one just because you don’t know what else to do, or want to defer looking for a job.

  1. Make sure you are prepared academically

Having a Masters degree isn’t necessarily a requirement for being accepted for a PhD. I didn’t have one and spent the first year catching up – getting my brain back into the mode of reading academic articles, and producing academic writing.

  1. Don’t expect to finish in three years

Make sure you plan for the possibility of failing to complete your PhD in three years (mine took nearly five years, for various reasons). Although this varies from university to university, you could get hit by fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds per term.

  1. Understand the conditions of your studentship offer

Make sure any promises of financial support are set out in writing at the start. When I accepted my studentship I was told I would have a £1,000 annual allowance to travel to conferences, undertake fieldwork and pay for training. Once I started my PhD I was informed it was in fact £500 per year, and that only £250 of this was guaranteed – the other £250 came from elsewhere in the university and was discretionary. Although this might sound like a lot, all of these activities are expensive, particularly when conference fees and accommodation are factored in.

  1. Ask about extra-curricular opportunities

Make sure there is encouragement and support for the other academic activities that go alongside your research – will you have opportunities for teaching, to present at conferences and to submit to journals? All of these are essential for finding a job afterwards.

  1. Understand your limitations

Be realistic about your expectations of yourself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to finish in three years, at the same time as working and undergoing several major life changes. The result was that I burned out and had to take a year out to get my life back on track – supported by my university. It made me realise that I needed to go at my own pace, both for the sake of my research and the sake of my health.

  1. Most people won’t understand what you are doing

Most people outside of academia don’t understand what a PhD is or what it entails. Get used to deflecting questions about how your ‘course’ is going and when you will be finishing (I used to confuse people by answering ‘how long is a piece of string?’).

  1. Love your subject

You are in a PhD for the long haul. Believe in what you are doing, and that you will get there eventually if it is worth doing. At the same time, don’t be offended when you find that very few other people are really interested in your research – family and friends are usually more concerned about what you’ll do afterwards, if they ask anything at all!