Exhibition visit: ‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’, Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Yesterday I went to visit an exhibition at Derby Art Gallery of a selection of artworks by the artist Marion Adnams, and an accompanying talk by the independent researcher Val Wood, who co-curated the exhibition. Spending most of her life in Derby, Adnams has been billed as something of a ‘forgotten’ artist. Like many women of her generation, Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman included, Adnams went into teaching; she taught art for many years at a girls’ school in Derby, where she borrowed artworks to hold an exhibition in school, and later became head of art at a teacher training college in Derby.

The work shown in Derby, primarily paintings, fits into a surrealist lineage. Demonstrating great technical skill, Adnams created fantastical imagery and imagined landscapes from found objects such as rocks and branches (a selection of these objects were on display alongside the paintings), and museum objects from Derby Museum, as well as everyday buildings such as a gas tower, and aspects of country life such as wagons, showing how the mysterious could be found in the everyday. One series incorporates model-like figures based on paper dolls she made as a child. Several of these paintings are on loan from public collections, including Salford Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery – where they were purchased as part of the Rutherston Collection for loan to schools (two of these paintings were displayed in Manchester Art Gallery’s 2010 exhibition of women surrealists, ‘Angels of Anarchy’) – and the Derbyshire School Museum Service, where one of the paintings was purchased by Evelyn Gibbs, who acted as art adviser to several local education authorities.

Although Adnams’ life was grounded in Derby, Woods focused on the wider artistic milieu of which she was part, which included friendships with other artists as well as with writers and poets such as John Betjeman – whom she advised on church buildings in Derbyshire, the subject of several early woodcuts – and the socialist and feminist poet Audrey Beecham. She exhibited in London, with the support of the gallerist Jack Bilbo. From 1939, she was supported by the friendship and encouragement of the director and curator at Manchester Art Gallery. She exhibited with the Artists’ International Association in 1945. She forged connections more locally, too; in 1946-47, she joined the Midland Group, which was set up by the artist-educationalist Evelyn Gibbs, and which aimed to educate and develop the public’s appreciation of art – this included running a picture hire scheme for businesses, schools and universities, as well as holding a Nottingham edition of Pictures for Schools. Adnams exhibited alongside artists such as Dorothie Field, who had been a student of Nan Youngman’s at Highbury Hill High School for Girls. Field was highly politically engaged and painted social realist scenes inspired by mining communities and incidents such as the Aberfan disaster. Later, Adnams developed a friendship with the writer and broadcaster Ray Gosling, who wrote a catalogue essay for a 1971 retrospective.

Adnams studied modern foreign languages at university as a young woman and embraced foreign travel; objects found in Mediterranean destinations such as Provence were also the inspiration for her work.

Adnams’ work was sold to a number of educational collections, in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Manchester. I will be exploring the history and ethos of some of these collections in a talk at a symposium to be held about Adnams in Derby on Wednesday 7 March. For more information visit www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/marion-adnams-symposium-tickets-42085404578.

‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’ is at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 4 March. For more information visit www.derbymuseums.org/whats-on/marion-adnams-a-singular-woman.


Consultations on the future of art loan services in Derbyshire and Hertfordshire

I was dismayed to hear last week that two of the (very few) remaining local authority art loan collections for schools, in Hertfordshire and Derbyshire, are currently consulting on their future and are at risk of closure.

Both are significant collections of twentieth century art, encompassing paintings, prints, sculptures, textiles and ceramics, with a particular strength in post-war British art. Both collections are also closely linked to significant figures in the history of British education, who took a keen interest in their development and use as part of an education and educational environment in which art was valued not just in its own right, but for its potential to enrich the child culturally, socially and emotionally.

Both LEAs purchased work from Pictures for Schools and supported the scheme in other ways, such as assisting with the selection of the artworks; in the post-war period, both Hertfordshire and Derbyshire were regarded as running flagship museum services for other local education authorities to emulate. Both collections have continued to actively acquire new work from contemporary artists.

Hertfordshire’s collection was established alongside an extensive and highly regarded school building programme which took place after the Second World War, which used innovative building techniques and saw artworks bought and commissioned for new school buildings. Director of Education Sir John Newsom, author of the 1963 Newsom Report, was an influential figure in post-war educational reform, who advocated for the importance of the arts in schools as part of a rounded education. Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman turned down a job as Newsom’s art adviser in order to work for Henry Morris in Cambridgeshire; this position was held instead by artists Audrey Martin and Mary Hoad, both of whom were active in the Society for Education through Art and interested in new ideas about art education (Hoad was also Principal of St Albans School of Art). For more about the history of the collection see www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/topics/art-and-artists/hertfordshires-county-art-collection/the-hertfordshire-county-art-collection.

Derbyshire’s collection dates back to a Carnegie Trust grant in the 1930s, yet reached its heyday in the post-war period under another progressive Director of Education, Jack Longland, who had been Newsom’s deputy in Hertfordshire and was inspired by Henry Morris’ village colleges model, and Museum Service Organiser Barbara Winstanley. Both Longland and Winstanley took an active interest in Pictures for Schools, by serving on organising, planning and selection committees, and giving feedback and other support to the scheme.

Sadly, it appears that the collections have fallen victim to the challenges that have faced such services in other locations. These include a squeeze on school finances, pressures on council budgets, and the rising values and associated insurance costs of many of the artworks, coupled with a lack of specialist understanding and staff resources to enable schools to make optimal use of these artworks.

For more information about the potential sale of the Hertfordshire collection, much of which has been in storage for several years, visit www.hertfordshiremercury.co.uk/news/hertfordshire-news/council-dispose-of-over-1600-1106692.

The consultation about the ‘disposal’ of Hertfordshire’s work is being done in stages; the first round of the consultation shuts on Sunday 4 February. The council proposes selling those artworks which are not considered to have ‘relevance’ to Hertfordshire. For more information, and to add your views, visit www.hertfordshire.gov.uk/about-the-council/consultations/property/art-collection-consultation.aspx#.

The Derbyshire consultation closes on Sunday 11 February.

Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, Wednesday 31 January – Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley

I’ll be returning to Bradford School of Art on Wednesday 31 January to do another lecture in its Random Lecture series. The lectures take place at 12 noon; all welcome.

Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley

Born in 1925, the artist and industrial designer William Mitchell’s work can be seen in towns and cities around the world. However, it does not hang on the wall of art galleries, but is an integral part of the buildings in which it is found. These range from everyday places such as schools, libraries, pubs, subway underpasses and the foyers of post-war towerblocks, to flagship buildings like Harrods and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool.

The talk will give an overview of Mitchell’s work and career, focusing in particular on three artworks by William Mitchell in the Bradford area which demonstrate his post-war work in municipal and civic contexts as well as for corporate and commercial clients. Using innovative techniques and working in media such as moulded concrete and fibreglass, all three murals are distinctively of Mitchell’s style, yet take different stylistic approaches, from abstracted pattern-making to incorporating elements of the history of the area in which they are located.

It will explore a series of concrete murals in Bradford’s Kirkgate market, built in 1973 to replace a previous Victorian market, by Mitchell or an assistant; thirteen fibreglass panels, commissioned for the former Bradford and Bingley Building Society headquarters in Bingley in the early 1970s and depicting the architectural and engineering landmarks of the area; and a large mural for the Ilkley Wool Secretariat, completed in 1968, which explores the history of wool manufacture locally.

These case studies will be used to highlight wider changes in attitudes towards post-war architecture, and the ways in which these types of artworks are regarded: whilst a new home has been sought in recent years for the Bingley murals, which were removed as the highly unpopular building in which they were situated was demolished, Mitchell’s Ilkley relief has been widely feted and was celebrated with Grade II listing by Historic England in 2015.

‘The Lost Art of Churches’: Radio 4 Extra programme on modernist and modern art in churches

‘The Lost Art of Churches’, an excellent short documentary on Radio 4 Extra, which explores the challenges of maintaining and restoring twentieth century commissions by artists in churches (and also visits the Methodist Art Collection), is well worth a listen: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01hl41c

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!

Back to school

Sam Thorne – School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education (Sternberg Press 2017)

Sam Thorne’s School is not just, as its subtitle suggests, a ‘recent history of self-organized art education’, surveying the ‘sudden density’ of alternative of art schools that have emerged since the early 2000s. It’s also a timely contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of higher education, who should bear the costs – and the expected and desired outcomes for those who participate.

Implicit is the conundrum of the role an art school might usefully be expected to fulfil, given that somebody cannot be taught to ‘be’ an artist. Josef Beuys’ famous saying ‘everyone is an artist’ recurs again and again in the book. If everyone is an artist, then, the purpose of art schools is not to create artists, but to provide an environment in which artists might develop and realise their…

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