Exhibition visit: ‘Radical Clay’, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

This week I visited Bristol to catch ‘Radical Clay’, a small but thoughtfully done exhibition showcasing some of the ceramic pieces which were acquired as educational resources for the city’s schools. The exhibition posed the question: ‘Is investing in children’s creativity by showing them the very best still something to aspire to?’

Now mostly accessioned into the Bristol Art Gallery collection, more than 400 examples of studio pottery were purchased to be lent to schools across Bristol in the post-war period. Pictures for Schools was one of the places from which Bristol, along with a small number of other local education authorities and museum services, bought pottery, as well as purchasing work directly from galleries such as Primavera in London.

Bristol developed an impressive collection containing work by some of the leading potters of the time, including Bernard and Janet Leach, Hans Coper, Lucy Rie, Helen Pincombe and Peter O’Malley, as well as potters with more local connections, including to the local art schools. Pieces ranged from abstract sculptural objects, such as a stoneware vase by Hans Coper (1970), to more functional items such as bowls, teapots, cups and vases, to crafted object such as an earthenware dove by Ewart Uncles (1969).

Whilst some were chosen to appeal to children, incorporating imagery such as fish, cockerels and birds, the exhibition usefully drew out some of the other ways in which the pieces might have been used in schools, such as demonstrating particular techniques, ways of forming shapes, and of creating decorative patterns.

The pieces were lent to schools until 1990 when the service, consisting of increasingly valuable and hard-to-insure artworks, closed. However, ‘Radical Clay’ gave some idea of how the artworks might have been used in schools, reproducing photographs of ceramic pieces displayed in school alongside students’ own work, alongside testimonies from those who had studied and taught in Bristol’s post-war schools about the influence that creative education had had on their future careers.

As well as placing the collection within the post-war educational context of Britain’s post-war schools, as a tool for fostering first-hand learning and the development of creativity, the exhibition explored wider trends in studio pottery at that time, partly through the use of archival documentary films demonstrating particular schools, studios/production contexts and techniques. The exhibition drew connections not just to a fashion for Mediterranean dining, and to artists’ and craftspeople’s ambitions that their work should be affordable and enjoyed as part of everyday life, but to countercultural movements which reacted against mass culture and consumerism and placed renewed value on the handmade at that time.

‘Radical Clay’ is at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery until Sunday 10 June. For more information visit www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/bristol-museum-and-art-gallery/whats-on/radical-clay.

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Exhibition visit: ‘School Prints’, Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield

I recently visited a small exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield about the School Prints, which emerged at a similar time to Pictures for Schools. The School Prints commissioned work by many of the artists who sold work at Pictures for Schools, including Julian Trevelyan, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein and LS Lowry, and several of those involved in Pictures for Schools, including Nan Youngman, Herbert Read and Audrey Martin, were on its advisory panel. Ultimately, however, Pictures for Schools, and supporters such as Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, reacted against the School Prints, believing that it did not go far enough, and that ‘original’ artworks such as paintings, sculptures and textiles were of more value to schools.

Some of the prints on display at the Hepworth had been accessioned from the West Yorkshire education service, although there was no mention in the exhibition of the fact that the West Riding, under Director of Education Alec Clegg, had once been regarded as one of the leading local education authorities for the provision of artworks to schools, and had created one of the country’s largest county loan collections. However, these efforts to provide artworks to local schools clearly still played some part in the cultural memory of the area. During my visit, a woman turned to the woman she was with and reminisced about attending a brand new school which had opened in 1952, and had a large, bright work of art on the wall which, she speculated, ‘must have had something to do with this’.

I was pleased to see quotes from students from a local secondary school, who had been trained as ‘art ambassadors’, on display alongside the artworks. My favourite comes from 13-year-old Alison Alute, who said: “All the different things going on in this painting makes a little voice in my head scream with excitement!”

I have reviewed the School Prints exhibition for Corridor8 at http://corridor8.co.uk/article/school-prints.


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.


Tadek Beutlich in Ditchling

An artist whose work was very popular at Pictures for Schools in the 1960s is the Polish-born printmaker and weaver Tadek Beutlich (1922-2011). Between 1963 and 1969 Beutlich, along with his wife Ellen, sold work to county council and school loan collections including Buckinghamshire, Manchester, West Sussex, Hertfordshire, the London County Council, Nottingham, Cambridge and the Inner London Education Authority Circulating Pictures Scheme, as well as Sion Manning School in Ladbroke Grove, London, Dunningford County Junior School in Hornchurch, Essex and Uppingham School.

Beutlich’s colourful, striking work is among my favourite to be shown at Pictures for Schools, so I loved the chance to see it in real life at two exhibitions in the picturesque and crafty village of Ditchling, East Sussex, which sits under the spectacular green hills of the South Downs, where he lived and worked for several years in the 1960s and 1970s. Tadek Beutlich ‘Beyond Craft’ is currently on at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, and shows a small selection of his prints as well as textile sculptures, drawn from the Beutlich family collection as well as the nearby Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

I was surprised by how big and vibrant the prints are when seen in person (I’d previously only seen them on a screen). Whilst some focus in on elements such as birds’ beaks, and depict insects, creating pattern from detail, many are more generalised responses to natural phenomena and processes such as radiation, germination, pollination, sun, heatwaves and sunsets, using layered relief prints from objects such as foam and wood and experimenting with the process of mark-making as the basis for imagery and composition in a limited yet effective colour palette of reds/oranges, greens and purples.

A much larger selection of Beutlich’s work and output, drawn from his studio, is on display – and for sale – for a short time only at the Jointure Studios down the road. This shows the range of Beutlich’s work and his experimentation with materials, from different types of grasses and fibres to PVA glue, to create responses to organic forms such as shoots and fungus, as well as vertical wall hangings incorporating objects such as X-Ray tape. Also on display are teaching aids used by Beutlich, who taught at Camberwell School of Art as well as later running workshops and exhibiting at the Metropole Galleries in Folkestone; his wife Ellen, a former tapestry student of his at Camberwell, still lives in the town. At Camberwell, Beutlich worked with another printmaker who sold work at Pictures for Schools, Michael Rothenstein, and devised his own inventive methods for printing that didn’t involve the use of a printing press.

Among the prints on display is Radiation II, which was sold to Buckinghamshire education committee as well as the Catholic Sion Manning School in Ladbroke Grove, London. Out of all the artists whose work was selected to hang and be sold at Pictures for Schools, Beutlich’s is the easiest to imagine capturing children’s attention and making a visual impression in post-war schools, particularly among the relatively blank slate environments of system-built schools. In its colour and bold shapes, it’s unmistakeable both as Beutlich’s work and as a product of the 1960s, when both art and science sought both new understandings of and new ways of representing the world and its natural forms.

Tadek Beutlich – Prints and Textiles is at the Jointure Studios until 12 March.

Tadek Beutlich – Beyond Craft is at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft until 16 April.


Isabel Alexander (1910-1996): Artist and Illustrator, Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate

51mofsqxqjl-_sx258_bo1204203200_The story of Isabel Alexander is by no means an uncommon one. Born into a middle-class, educated family in Birmingham in 1910, as a daughter she was denied her first choice of an education, to train at the Slade. Instead, she attended Birmingham School of Art in the 1920s before finding employment in schools and at Saffron Walden teacher training college in order to pursue her training and practice as an artist. This determination to work and exhibit enabled self-funded studies at the Slade, and a fifty-year career as an artist, pursued at the same time as being a single mother.

After the Slade Alexander went on to work in the burgeoning British documentary film movement of the 1930s and as a commercial illustrator. She designed book tokens vividly illustrating rural life and occupations in East Anglia, Kent and the Cotswolds (1953) and undertook botanical illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.

Alexander succeeds at documentary and narrative, as in her 1944 portraits of disabled miners. She also aptly captures place: highlights include ‘Pinnacle, Thaxted Church’, a 1951 linoprint of a church spire in which natural and architectural details are intertwined and ‘Bardfield Landscape III’, a subtly abstract, yellow-hued watercolour of 1950. Both are inspired by the Essex landscape; she settled in the picturesque and historic village of Thaxted, on the border with Suffolk, before relocating to North Yorkshire for the final years of her life.

In the 1960s Alexander exhibited drawings and paintings at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, selling work to schools including Godolphin and Latymer School in London and Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire education committees. She maintained a commitment not just to exhibiting herself, but to keeping up with visits to exhibitions and maintaining an ongoing interest in contemporary and historical art movements.

A new exhibition of Alexander’s work in Harrogate, bringing together work from private collections and accompanied by a book by Janet McKenzie, aims to highlight her legacy and expose the barriers she faced as a woman seeking a career as an artist. It also traces Alexander’s journey from realism to a growing focus on abstraction and experimentation with media and form.

However, the work in the exhibition suggests Alexander’s transition between realism and abstraction was not clear-cut, and a sense of abstraction and experimentation underlies much of her apparently realistic and naturalistic work. For example, the use of an unexpectedly lurid crayon introduces an ominous element into the otherwise murkily coloured landscape of ‘Condemned Houses, Blaencwm’ (1943), as does the skewed perspective of ‘Miners’ Houses, Trealaw’ (1944).

Displayed side by side at the Mercer Art Gallery, the watercolours ‘Moorland Larches, Yorkshire’ (1983) and ‘Winter Trees I’ (1971) hint at abstraction in their use of starkly outlined shape and colour, at the same time as conveying the particulars of landscape and season in a way that is sensory and atmospheric if not quite realistic and naturalistic.

Also not quite natural, but based in observable phenomena such as the flickering shapes and suggestive shadows of twilight and the transition to darkness, is the 1958 study ‘Moonlight’.

Other highlights include her pencil studies of weather phenomena and later, more large-scale and obviously abstract work in which experiences, natural phenomena and sensations elide, as in ‘Weeds and Water’ (1984) and ‘Gannet’ (1985) in which oils on newspaper explore the bird’s movement at the same time as suggesting watery flows.

Whilst much of her work documents places, landscapes and experiences close and familiar to her, Alexander maintained a commitment to travel and observation of new places, from a series inspired by the natural and manmade landscapes of the Isle of Aran to painting trips to France and Spain. Far from following the well-trodden genre of straightforward pastoralism, beneath Alexander’s work lies a tension between nature and artifice, implying a subtle critique of ways of working, living and using the landscape that that are alienating, exploitative or unnatural.

Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until 4 June. 

A large number of images of Isabel Alexander’s works have been added to the Bridgeman Art Library and can be explored alongside the exhibition.

 


Prunella Clough in Hampstead and Hastings

The Hampstead home of the modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger at 2 Willow Road, built for his young family in the 1930s, is chic and elegant with its parquet flooring, large windows overlooking Hampstead Heath and bespoke furnishings. Whilst giving the impression of space, light and flexibility, it’s also surprisingly homely and ordinary. It’s not overly large or flashy, but family sized and bears the marks of a place that’s been lived in and worked in, from collections of bedside books to children’s toys to scraps and pages ripped from publications and displayed on the wall of Goldfinger’s studio above his tools and plans. Aside from a catalogue for the seminal post-war exhibition This is Tomorrow, displayed on the wall, one of the indicators of the artistic and intellectual circles in which the Goldfingers moved is the art collection spread throughout the house. It’s eclectic in its style, subject matter and media, ranging from British surrealism and collage to sculpture and kinetic art to painted pebbles by Max Ernst and photographic portraiture. One of the artists Goldfinger appears to have taken a particular shine to, who also showed work at Pictures for Schools, is the painter Prunella Clough. On face value, Clough’s dense and textural studies of industrial landscapes such as slag heaps couldn’t seem further from the genteel setting of the home in suburban, villagey Hampstead.

Though much of Clough’s work depicted scenes of this nature, however, a show currently on display at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings draws out Clough’s interest in abstraction and the reuse of found objects as well as her starting point in the everyday. The viewer is invited to make connections between the murky outlined shapes of industrial towns – structures such as cooling towers, roof tops, docks and machinery, ladders and lorries – and abstract shapes, using colour and form to draw attention to these places. Clough visited factories with fellow artist (and Pictures for Schools contributor) Ghisha Koenig, and many of her figurative paintings are reminiscent of repeated movements and labour that has become second nature, dwelling on the faces and forms of those overseeing production and transportation.

Although much of her work focuses on the urban, in dark, overworked tones, the beachfront Jerwood Gallery highlights the inspiration she took from the activities and occupations of the coast. From boats and fishing equipment to fishermen cocooned against the elements in heavy waterproof clothing, here the impression is of light and transience, nets and yellow-lit beaches.

Other works make use of pattern, from the spidery black marks of ‘White’ to the swirls, soft outlines and light, off-white dribbles of ‘Electrical Installation 1’, which are reminiscent of circuits and blue jelly.

Much of the accompanying information in the show is drawn from interviews and essays by peers and critics, such as Patrick Heron, who suggest that Clough’s work is significant in the way it asks the viewer to look again at, and see the strangeness of the everyday. As Heron suggests (in a quote from the show I particularly liked), Clough’s work offers paintings as machines for seeing with, as tools to change the way we look at the world.

Prunella Clough: Unknown Paintings is on at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, until 6 July.


Exhibition visit: John Piper and John Bratby, Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

12977242_1777600372461474_7170271131356876250_oThe beachfront Jerwood Gallery, which sits among black-painted, newly renovated fishing huts in the rapidly gentrifying seaside town of Hastings, is currently showing two very different exhibitions by two twentieth century artists. Both are called John, but the contrast between John Bratby and John Piper couldn’t be greater.

The starting points for John Piper’s paintings, prints and ceramics are often British places, imagery and customs, from country churches and seaside buildings and occupations to the folky Green Man and the strange foliate style of church decoration. His work presents not so much representations of things as an exploration and juxtaposition of forms, colours and sensations through effects such as collage, mosaic and marbling.

Despite his abstraction of experiences and environments and the avant-garde circles in which he moved, the exhibition shows that Piper’s work was firmly part of the establishment of twentieth century British publishing, art and music. On display are his sketchy nautical nursery prints for Contemporary Lithographs, his drawings and paintings for Recording Britain and as a war artist, Shell book designs, and a Benjamin Britten record cover, as well as collaborations with Heal’s, a book on the installation of electricity on churches (produced with John Betjeman) and stained glass commissions for churches in Harlow and Coventry. Ranging from the 1930s to the post-war decades, it’s notable that despite his popularity in private and public commissions little in way of Piper’s style of modernism made it into Pictures for Schools.

By contrast, the paintings of the other artist on show at the Jerwood, John Bratby, fit seamlessly into the type of Britain and the representations of it which predominated at Pictures for Schools; indeed, Bratby, as well as other ‘Kitchen Sink school’ artists, regularly exhibited and sold portraits and still lifes at the exhibitions.

Whereas Piper made ordinary places and images mysterious, Bratby’s paintings appear to magnify the normal, intensifying the banality of everyday life and routines through dark outlines and thick brushmarks. His paintings, in a manner reminiscent of pop-art, incorporate and highlight brand names and throwaway packaging, from cereal packets to washing up bottles, and celebrate icons of popular culture such as Paul McCartney. His subjects suggest familiarity and intimacy, from flower arrangements to family life. Lounging nudes, the bathroom sink, a muddled collection of tools, are rendered unremarkable and unnoteworthy.

Bratby’s paintings make us contemplate vantage points and perspectives, both literal and metaphorical. They invite us to look in, at the now and the past, at the domestic and comforting, and outwards, to imagine a possible future and transformation of our lives. This is Britain viewed tentatively, through net curtains and decaying window frames, from a homely setting of wooden floorboards and kitchen tables. He portrays a country which is still drab, grey and brown, poised somewhere between post-war austerity and the promise of the cultural and social freedoms of a new consumer age. Hastings, too, where Bratby spent the last years of his life living and painting (and where it is still possible to imagine him working, amid the entropy of buildings and industries that still somehow cling on despite decades of decline), is a town on the verge of becoming something very different from the rundown resort it was formerly. The Jerwood, with its £9 entry fee, is a symbol of coastal regeneration, mimicking in its appearance yet irrevocably distanced from the traditional fishing huts and occupations it overlooks.

‘John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink Including the Kitchen Sink’ is at the Jerwood Gallery until Sunday 17 April.

‘John Piper: An Eye for the Modern’ is at the Jerwood Gallery until Sunday 8 May.

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