Exhibition visit: Ruth Ewan – Asking Out, Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Working across a variety of media to explore historical narratives and representations, and bring to light untold figures and stories, Ruth Ewan has long been one of my favourite contemporary artists. I was very excited, therefore, when I heard she had been working with the National Arts Education Archive to develop new work for a show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Asking Out is an installation in the Longside Gallery which explores the work of Muriel Pyrah, an untrained teacher in Airedale Middle School in Castleford. Whilst Pyrah was not necessarily immersed in the latest ideas about teaching, appearing to base her work on her own experiences of teaching and ideas about students’ needs in the classroom, her work fitted with the progressive agenda of the West Riding Education Authority, who celebrated and promoted her ideas as an example of then-fashionable modes of non-hierarchical, child-centred learning which encompassed learning through doing and direct experience.

The exhibition takes as its starting point the concept of ‘asking out’: Pyrah’s students were required to contribute verbally to her classroom, to articulate their work and ideas, to ask questions and to critique each other’s work. From a relatively deprived town in the Yorkshire coalfield, Pyrah’s students were taken out to explore the world beyond the classroom – into local streetscapes, landscapes and industries, further afield to sites of historical interest and even to London.The aim was to develop confidence in Pyrah’s students, both in themselves and their surroundings. We can see this for ourselves in a set of films made in the early 1970s, towards the end of Pyrah’s career, when the cameras were invited into the classroom in order to share Pyrah’s work, and observe discussions among the children about what they’d seen, learned and experienced. The students appear lively and engaged, if sometimes a little awkwardly formal.An accompanying publication to Asking Out, containing essays and interviews with some of Pyrah’s former students, complicates the narrative, suggesting that her unorthodox methods did not work for or include everyone. Whilst some students thrived from being expected to talk in front of the class others, perhaps unsurprisingly, found the experience difficult and stressful. Pyrah also appeared to have very particular ideas about the ‘correct’ way of talking; use of local dialect was discouraged, adding to a sense of distance from other students in the school.Ewan has reactivated and brought to life Pyrah’s ideas, asking us to experience them for ourselves and inviting visitors to participate in and contribute to a reconstruction of her 1970s classroom. The overall impression is stimulating and colourful: the eye is constantly drawn towards text and images. As well as familiar wooden schooldesks, the room is full of artefacts to explore: a piano and songbooks; a nature table, full of tactile objects; maps and photographs showing features of the landscape; books and posters about how everyday goods are made; and a blackboard for writing, sharing and learning the meaning of interesting, unusual, difficult and favourite words.Above all, what comes across is the sense that the children were encouraged to look. Much of the children’s work, hung up around the classroom, is based on close and careful observation – of nature, of places, of the effect of the seasons.These historical artefacts are given added poignancy and power through their proximity to another installation encouraging, prioritising and revealing children’s ways of seeing. Frequencies by Colombian artist Oscar Murillo – who is currently nominated for the Turner Prize – brings together canvases on which children from schools across the world have been invited to doodle, as if drawing on their desks like generations of children before them. Displayed flat on table-tops, they reveal the preoccupations of children in very different countries, cities and contexts.Another complementary exhibition Transformations: Cloth & Clay at the National Arts Education Archive explores tensions between crafts and design, changing ideas about what these mean, and how they interacted with developments in the ways in which art was taught in schools, universities and experimental establishments such as Dartington Hall across the twentieth century.

What became clear to me across both Ewan’s installation and the NAEA exhibition was how many individuals were pioneering creative approaches to learning in post-war schools, and how much more I have to read, learn and think about.

Asking Out is at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/ruth-ewan-and-oscar-murillo

Transformations: Cloth & Clay is at the National Arts Education Archive, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/transformations-cloth-and-clay

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Article about the National Arts Education Archive in the modernist magazine

I was invited by my former PhD supervisor, Hannah Neate, to contribute an article to an issue of the modernist magazine she has guest edited, themed ‘Inventory’, and focusing on archives and repositories of materials.

I have contributed a piece about the National Arts Education Archive at Bretton Hall, which I used to view materials relating to the Society for Education through Art (SEA) during my PhD research into Pictures for Schools, and its wider place as part of the former Bretton Hall Teacher Training College and the early days of Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

‘Inventory’ costs £6 and can be purchased online at www.the-modernist.org/shop/the-modernist-magazine-issue-29 or from various booksellers nationally and internationally.


Reflections on History of Education conference

I was really pleased to be able to discuss my Pictures for Schools work at the History of Education Society annual conference over the weekend, and to hear about the work of other researchers.

I particularly enjoyed the opening keynote by Jane O’Dea from the University of Lethbridge, Canada who, as well as discussing the social, cultural and political forces that have shaped education and the distribution of literature in Ireland historically, reflected on the place, form and nature of academic writing and the work of the historian. Her advice to find your voice, be yourself, avoid jargon and prioritise quality over quantity – as well as the notion of the historian as a kind of artist – certainly resonated with me.

I was pleased to hear from Laura Newman at Royal Holloway University, who discussed some of the findings from an ongoing research project in collaboration with Kew Gardens looking at nineteenth-century school museums. Newman focused on the teacher-curators who drove the collection and display of objects, as well as writing articles advising teachers on the care and use of collections. Newman described how some teachers collected not just botanical specimens, but took opportunities to obtain items relating to manufacturing. They encouraged a culture of collecting in students and their families, and got former students to send artefacts relating to their eventual careers. However, the use of such museum objects varied – whilst some students were taken out onto nature rambles, and given object lessons, others were not allowed to touch!

Also fascinating was a talk by Catherine Sloan, a PhD student at the University of Oxford, about nineteenth-century school magazines. Sloan described in detail the operations of one magazine in particular, relating to a middle-class and hierarchical Quaker school in Croydon in the mid-nineteenth century, which was created, distributed and subscribed to by pupils, who encouraged each other to take responsibility for its content. She showed how school magazines were a means by which students obtained status in schools as cultural producers and ‘autonomous sculptors of school culture’, circulating knowledge and creating a ‘juvenile archive’. Although some researchers have debated the extent to which school magazines are a valid resource and encapsulate students’ authentic voices, she showed the value of such school magazines.

I got several really interesting comments and questions relating to my paper, including comments about how the need to teach critical skills is important now more than ever. One question prompted me to consider something I had never thought about before, and didn’t really know how to answer: were the organisers of Pictures for Schools concerned with the illustrations in textbooks, as part of a wider culture of visual communication, and did the exhibiting artists get any such commissions on the back of the scheme? Other questions related to aspects of the operations of Pictures for Schools that I should perhaps have made clearer: did the scheme cover the whole of Britain, or just England, and were northern schools beneficiaries or did schools in London and the south east benefit in the main? I was asked about the focus on Nan Youngman, and whether her work as an artist and an educationalist was equally important (the answer is that this was due to the availability and focus of archival material, and the stories that emerged from it – and that despite a split in the material between Youngman’s work as an artist and an educationalist, I believed these two sources of material benefited from being read alongside one another as part of a wider career trajectory). Finally, it was interesting to hear from a woman who was surprised to hear about Marion Richardson’s work in the sphere of art education, as she knew of her only as a ‘victim’ of her methods for teaching handwriting, for which she is better known!


‘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.


‘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’.


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: