An Englishman’s home is his castle

Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova – Prefabs: A Social and Cultural History (Historic England, 2018)

Up and down the country, in between areas of traditional brick housing and shiny new builds, it’s still possible to see the odd row of small, single-story rectangular cottages made of concrete and corrugated metal. Whilst they often look unassuming and sometimes shabby, these dwellings are remarkable survivors from the years following the First and Second World Wars, when there was a pressing need to provide housing quickly, cheaply and on a mass-scale. One solution, as a new book by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova shows, was prefabrication.

Prefabrication, either of entire buildings or of particular components, has a long history, being applied to everything from the construction of the Crystal Palace, to ready-to-assemble houses which were exported to residents setting up home in the colonies, to dormitory housing for factory workers. Over time, materials…

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Beyond the ‘Basildon Man’

Radical ESSEX (Focal Point Gallery, 2018)

If the tone of Radical ESSEX is at times defensive, it’s because it has reason to be. The book is upfront about popular perceptions of Essex, from its reputation as a county characterised by its purported brashness, to the right-wing, Tory-voting ‘Basildon Man’ invented by the newspaper industry in the 1980s as a supposed archetype of a shift in working-class political allegiances.

Radical ESSEX sets about showing us a different side to the county, and introducing us to alternative figures from its history. Published by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, and resulting from an exhibition and programme of events of the same name, Radical ESSEX brings together essays on various aspects of the county’s landscape, architecture and culture. There’s a strong emphasis on not just telling alternative stories about Essex, but highlighting the ways in which the county, which is within easy reach of…

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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.


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.