‘Everything is interesting: losing yourself in the archive and knowing when to stop’

Co-op College posterI am looking forward to running a lunchtime CPD session for my work colleagues at my day job, the Co-operative College, a small, specialist educational charity in Manchester which also houses the National Co-operative Archive, on Tuesday 29 September. I am aiming to introduce colleagues to my PhD research into Pictures for Schools and get their feedback and perspectives on this area of post-war history, culture and education.

The session is part of a series of research sessions open to all members of staff at the College (around thirty), as it seeks to raise and promote its research profile.

I am aiming to give an overview not just of Pictures for Schools and its history, but of some of the methodological approaches and decisions I have had to make, including the use of biography to discuss Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman. The majority of my research has been archival, and I will be sharing some of my findings, particularly those with a visual appeal. I will also highlight one of the difficulties I have encountered: narrowing down the avenues of exploration and knowing where to stop when everything is so interesting and there is so much surrounding context to explore! For this reason, I have entitled my session ‘Everything is interesting: losing yourself in the arch220px-HolyoakeHouseive and knowing when to stop’.

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Exhibition visit: We Want People Who Can Draw: Instruction and Dissent in the British Art School, Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections (until 31 July)

Ruskin plaque in the entrance to Manchester School of Art

Ruskin plaque in the entrance to Manchester School of Art

Though it’s not directly related to schools, as part of the contextual reading for my PhD I have also read a lot about the history and development of art education, specifically art schools and colleges in Britain, from the municipal colleges of art that were set up in industrial towns and cities in the nineteenth century, to the changing status of provincial schools of art and art degrees following the Coldstream Report of 1960, to the student protests and occupations sparked by that at Hornsey in 1968, where students demanded more say in the direction of their education.

The current exhibition at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections brings together an impressive, stimulating and inspiring range of materials relating to the last of these aspects of the history of British art education, borrowed from individuals and institutions including the Women’s Art Library in London. They encompass manifestos, books, magazines, pamphlets and student journals, including material from Art & Language in Coventry and King Mob at Goldsmiths in London, along with exhibition publicity, films, some evocative photographs of demonstrations and occupations, and prints and posters relating to these demonstrations, and correspondence between students and university officials. Through these artefacts, the exhibition draws out links with wider and international movements for change such as the Situationist International and radical feminism. Many of the publications were amassed and distributed by Ron Hunt, the librarian at Newcastle University, who must have some tales to tell!

Many of the objects, as well as being fascinating documents of the time and a particular educational and social moment, raised important questions about the purpose and uses of art in the post-war context, a period in which the government and other authorities had started by promoting the potential and responsibility of art to take on an explicitly social role in both educating and improving the lives and leisure of the masses. Should art, and the critical and technical skills students developed at art schools, be used for the good of society, as in the street theatre workshops discussed in the exhibition, or should it be enlisted into the commercial services of advertising, against which students at Hornsey were partly protesting? One of the most intriguing items in this regard was Ken Garland’s 1964 First Things First manifesto, recently updated fifty years on, which enlisted the signatures of several designers to rail against advertising and call for design which worked for the public good. It would be interesting to know what came of the signatories, and where their future careers led them …

At a time when the value – and cost – of studying arts subjects, not just at school but at degree level, is being questioned, and when university buildings are still being occupied through student protests, it was strange not to see present-day imagery and examples in the exhibition, despite this providing the starting point for the exhibition catalogue.

The catalogue is well worth a read and is accessible as PDF at www.specialcollections.mmu.ac.uk/files/wewantpeople_guide.pdf.


Sarah Nechamkin, a student of Nan Youngman

I’ve recently been speaking to some friends of the painter Sarah Nechamkin, now 97, who was a student of Nan Youngman at Highbury Hill High School for Girls in London in the early 1930s. Sarah sold and exhibited work at Pictures for Schools in the late-1940s and early-1950s, to buyers including the West Riding of Yorkshire, and exhibited as recently as 2013.

Nan Youngman’s art teaching in Highbury Hill, which included a sketch club Sarah was a member of, was a big influence on Sarah’s artistic career. Apparently Nechamkin still talks about the role Youngman played in her career: as she says in a film made by her goddaughter, Siân Cwper, “it was the biggest piece of luck in my life … I owe everything to her”, and she recalls that Nan Youngman taught her how to “set free my imagination” at school. With Nan Youngman’s encouragement, Nechamkin went on to Chelsea School of Art, later returning there to teach as well as designing and illustrating books for the Curwen Press and Penguin, and she is one of the former students whose subsequent artistic careers and development Youngman highlights in her autobiography. The two also stayed in touch, as there is correspondence from Nechamkin in Youngman’s papers at the Tate, among much other correspondence from former students of Youngman’s, decades on, reminiscing about her distinctive art classes.

Watch Siân Cwper’s short film about Nechamkin, which was filmed at her home in Ibiza a few years ago:


Herbert Read and Alec Clegg exhibition and seminar, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Alec Clegg quote Bretton HallI’m looking forward to visiting this exhibition and study session, ‘Herbert Read & Alec Clegg: A Revolution Realised’, about writer, critic and art educationalist Herbert Read and Alec Clegg, the innovative post-war Director of Education for the West Riding of Yorkshire (a pioneering county for art in schools, which included making purchases from Pictures for Schools among other places), at the National Arts Education Archive at Yorkshire Sculpture Park next weekend (Saturday 28 February).


Visit to BBC Written Archives, Caversham, Reading

During my visits to the Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading I had seen various references to BBC radio programmes which discussed Pictures for Schools. After following this up with archivists at the BBC I arranged a visit to the BBC Written Archives, tucked away in a bungalow in a residential area of Caversham in Reading, where they found me out several scripts on microfilm as well as material relating to other post-war BBC programming on art education.

Among the programmes was an extensive review of the 1955 Pictures for Schools exhibition on Children’s Hour by in-house art critic WR Dalzell (also a senior art master at independent Bedford School), who spent a considerable amount of time discussing and describing individual works, their subject matter and their effects – including painting, sculpture and embroidery – in detail, as well as explaining different artistic methods and media such as lithograph prints, and linking these techniques with children’s own work at school. Dalzell urged listeners to visit the exhibition for themselves, discussing the voting system for children to choose their favourite artworks, and ended by offering detailed public transport directions to get to the exhibition.

An episode of Today also included a brief segment on the 1965 Pictures for Schools exhibition, alongside an eclectic mix of items including George Melly on Nat King Cole and features on Esperanto, Dungeness Fish, falcons and an Islington building row, with Nan Youngman quizzed on students’ seeming preferences for abstract art that might be regarded as incomprehensible to their parents.

Another programme, a 1963 episode of World of Books, featured Nan Youngman interviewing Sybil Marshall about her 1963 book An Experiment in Education, which drew on her experiences in Cambridgeshire. Marshall was a teacher in a tiny village school in rural Cambridgeshire during Youngman’s time as county art advisor (1944-1954) and also attended Youngman’s classes for amateur painters and teachers. Youngman found Marshall’s work inspiring and encouraging, and took groups of overseas teachers to visit her students at school. The discussion encompassed the influence of educators such as Marion Richardson and Herbert Read, the pace of educational change and the extent to which educational innovation and experiment received acceptance or met with indifference or acceptance depending on the attitudes of individual teachers or heads.

I was also able to see correspondence regarding other programmes which were under discussion, including a proposed collaboration between writer Colin MacInnes and Nan Youngman on a programme about the British Council’s art education work overseas (Youngman acted as a lecturer and inspector for the British Council in various African and Caribbean countries) which appears never to have come to fruition.

Although I didn’t see any scripts, and it didn’t relate explicitly to Pictures for Schools, another file which absolutely fascinated me was a set of memos and reports dating from the late-1940s to the 1960s relating to a long-running radio series called Looking at Things. Designed as an educational course, the series appears to have been aimed primarily at secondary modern schools (though junior schools also made use of it) and accompanied by pamphlets which contained pictures of the ‘things’ under discussion as well as preparatory and writing activities for children to do in class. In keeping with a central theme I have identified in post-war discourse around education and reconstruction, the programme aimed to raise children’s standards of taste by encouraging them to look closely at everyday objects and places, from changes in fashion and interior decoration to modes and design of public transport, the style and function of buildings ranging from village churches and gothic cathedrals to new schools and civic centres, environments ranging from market or port towns and cathedral cities to new towns such as Peterlee, and new materials for manufacture and building. Experts were approached and enlisted to explain and present the topics under discussion, from eminent modern architects and professors to members of the Council for Industrial Design and furniture designers, although sometimes it was felt that the programme was too middle class, that experts did not fully understand the limitations of their audience, and that some of the language was unfamiliar to children, especially those from more deprived or urban backgrounds, to whom these objects or places may be out of reach. Although the programmes only occasionally seemed to refer directly to art per se, I felt that there were interesting educational parallels with Pictures for Schools, particularly in the way the programme really aimed to encourage children’s skills of close looking and seeing, particularly with reference to their future consumer purchases. There was also discussion of the series building links with Alexander Barclay Russell of the Society for Education through Art, under whose name Pictures for Schools was organised.


Final visit to Nan Youngman collection, University of Reading

This week I made my fourth and final visit to see Nan Youngman’s papers at the University of Reading. It felt very much like a finishing up and plugging the gaps visit, and I know feel like I’ve looked at everything in the collection and seen the full scope of what’s there. I found out about some more minor details of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions such as how they were publicised – this included advertising at underground stations, and writing to London borough libraries to ask them to display leaflets.

One of the things I got from the trip was a real sense of who the educational buyers were from Pictures for Schools, and what types of artworks and which artists were particularly popular, through looking at a series of invoice books from 1949 to 1968 (although there are some gaps where invoice books are missing, including a long period in the 1950s).

Schools of all kinds, including secondary moderns, grammars, junior schools and independent schools purchased work from Pictures for Schools, sometimes on a one-off basis and sometimes as repeat buyers, with Manchester Grammar School being a particularly regular buyer (this interested me as Mrs Rutherston was frustrated that it failed to make use of Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston Loan Scheme, and seemed generally unimpressed with the quality of art teaching at the school). Other regular buyers included Greenwich Library in the 1960s, as well as various training colleges around the country, and occasionally adult, further and higher education establishments. Other buyers included county or city loan services linked with museums, including Reading Museum and Art Gallery (this service is still in operation and embroideries by artists including Constance Howard and Sadie Allen purchased through Pictures for Schools in the 1960s are still available for schools to borrow), Ferens Art Gallery, who made purchases on behalf of Hull Education Committee and the Leeds Loan Collection which was linked both with Leeds College of Art and Leeds Art Gallery.

Although, as I already knew, Derbyshire Museum Service made regular and extensive purchases, I revised my opinion a little about the number of local authorities making use of the scheme, who seem to be slightly less numerous and widespread than I thought, although Essex County Council, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Great Yarmouth, Cumberland/Carlisle, Northumberland/Newcastle, Lancashire, City of Coventry, Cambridgeshire/City of Cambridge, West Bromwich, City of Manchester, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Buckinghamshire, Oxford, Rochdale, the London County Council and later Nottingham and Scunthorpe and Bromley were enthusiastic and regular buyers from the scheme, with West Sussex, East Sussex, Norfolk, Bristol, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, East Yorkshire, Gloucester, Southampton, Bradford, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Rotherham, Birmingham and Harrow Schools Art Library making purchases more intermittently. I also realised I may have overstated the links between Pictures for Schools and counties such as the West Riding, Hertfordshire and Leicestershire, who I know to have had extensive loan collections and to have valued art in schools. Whilst they did certainly support Pictures for Schools in its early years, they appear to have stopped being regular purchasers by the late-1950s and 1960s, perhaps because they had become accustomed to buying art on a more year-round basis and approaching and liaising with artists and galleries direct. Educational buyers from Wales (and very occasionally Scotland) also made occasional purchases, although Wales had its own Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions from 1951 and a one-off Pictures for Scottish Schools exhibition was held in 1967. One thing I am interested in finding out more about are the art advisers who visited Pictures for Schools on behalf of county education committees, some of whom seem to have had interesting artistic careers and involvement in their own right, including Robert Washington, long-running art advisor for Essex.

I noticed that prints were by far the most popular item, probably due to their affordability (many buyers purchased prints unframed) with embroidery also popular and sculpture noticeably unpopular. One name which really stood out was the print-maker Peter Green, who seemed to make extensive sales at each exhibition, as did fellow print-makers Philip Greenwood, Michael Stokoe and Richard Tavener. Something else I noticed was that buyers often stuck with one artist and continued to collect their work year on year. As I’d observed previously, I also came across more correspondence from schools and local authorities which had purchased work from artists and wished to follow up by contacting the artists to ask for biographical or other information to complement the use of the works as learning resources, and sometimes to arrange local exhibitions of particular artists’ work.


Fourth visit to Tate Archive (and library)

This week I took advantage of travelling down south on family business to visit the Tate Archive on my way back. During this visit, I spent some time looking at an extensive photographic collection, which mainly consisted of photographs of Nan Youngman’s work, both in colour and in black and white. Although I had seen Youngman’s work reproduced in books, and several original paintings and sketches, I was really struck by the volume and diversity of her work, including early portraits of her friends and acquaintances, a wartime sketch of an air-raid shelter, later, slightly dreamy, hazy seascapes in pastel hues capturing children and families playing, paintings of technology such as radio telescopes, and striking paintings and drawings of industrial scenes, including one of a kiln belching black smoke in Stoke-on-Trent, a painting of a steelworks, a derelict-looking pigeon loft captured in sharp detail and one work depicting a traditional, small-scale house incongruously nestled next to a huge gas tower, as well as some touching drawings and paintings of family life and a photograph of a mural at Youngman and Rea’s Cambridge home the Hawks, painted by Youngman, Rea and Elizabeth Vellacott, inspired by a restaurant garden in France. It was also great to discover a folder of photographs of Youngman’s Christmas cards – including one casting herself as a mischievous pirate in 1985, when she would have been nearly eighty – as well as of Christmas pantomimes, comic strips (‘comichawks’, based on Christmas at her home at the Hawks near Cambridge) and limericks inspired by the Rea family (‘Hawkericks’).

I also saw some photographs of Nan Youngman at her retrospective exhibition at the Minories in Colchester in 1971 (although, interestingly, the press release for the show, and newspaper cuttings, all started by highlighting Youngman’s work as an educationalist, often with reference to her relationship to Marion Richardson and then Pictures for Schools, before moving on to discuss her work as a painter). Also tucked in among the photos were press cuttings relating to the 1992 exhibition Ten decades of women artists, curated by Katy Deepwell, which focused on ten artists born between 1897 and 1906, showing how they had had to fit the production of art around family ties and asking why women had been marginalised in the study of art history. As well as Barbara Hepworth, the exhibition included Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, as well as the art educator Evelyn Gibbs and Youngman and Rea’s friend from Artists’ International Association days, Mary Adshead (apparently less well-known than her husband, Stephen Bone – both were regular Pictures for Schools contributors), and there was extensive press coverage, both locally and nationally, of Youngman’s involvement in the exhibition.

I also spent some time in the Tate Library, looking at four exhibition catalogues for Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place elsewhere in the country than the longstanding series in London and Wales. Three of these related to exhibitions held at the Laing Art Gallery and Museum in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1956-58, which were direct spin-offs of the London exhibitions, organised by the North East Branch of the Society for Education through Art, in whose name Pictures for Schools was organised. Although far smaller in scale – they contained only 45-50 pictures and 8-10 sculptures each time, along with textiles such as printed wall hangings – they replicated some aspects of the London exhibitions such as asking children to vote for their favourite work, with encouraging children to form their own opinions on modern art a stated aim of the exhibitions. The exhibitions also explicitly set out to have a ‘local character’, with artists living and working in the area well-represented, as well as, intriguingly, a section dedicated to ‘Costume designs for ‘Northumberland teachers’ opera group’ production of Prince Igor held at the Theatre Royal, 1957′. It was interesting to see Richard Hamilton and Harry Thubron represented in the first exhibition, as both were associated with the Basic Design courses being developed in Newcastle and elsewhere in the North East. Some other names, such as Sadie Allen, an embroidery artist, I recognised from the catalogues of the London Pictures for Schools exhibitions, although most were unknown to me. Like its London counterparts, the work seemed to be dominated by still-lifes and landscapes, often based on the mundane, industrial or everyday, such as a brick factory, furnace slag heaps, docks, old men and a bus stop.

It was more difficult to gauge the relationship between the Pictures for Schools exhibition held at the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham in 1963 and the London exhibitions. Although works had been borrowed from directors of London galleries, including the AIA Gallery, for the exhibition, no reference was made to the London exhibitions in the catalogues. However, regular Pictures for Schools contributors such as Mary Fedden, Sandra Blow, Fred Uhlam and Philip Sutton were represented, along with Nottingham painter and gallerist Dorothie Field, who had been among Nan Youngman’s students at Highbury Hill High School and went on to receive renown as a socialist realist painter. The exhibition was divided into two parts – more costly invited works, and members’ works. Interestingly, a tiny minority of the works could also be hired. My interest was also piqued by an invitation at the back of the catalogue to a discussion entitled ‘Children as patrons’, featuring painters Michael Granger and Dennis Hawkins, and sculptor LR Rogers, at which questions were welcomed. However, it was unclear whether the exhibition was a regular occurrence, or a one-off.