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illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.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.
My PhD concerns not just the changing experience of post-war education, but the changing places in which it took place and the significance of educational environments, including the incorporation of examples of original and contemporary works of art and design into school buildings. This week I’ve been thinking about an educational environment that has been significant to me, the University of Manchester’s former UMIST campus in Manchester, where I lived as an undergraduate. UMIST is currently subject to a Manchester City Council consultation around a proposed Strategic Regeneration Framework, which would see a loss of the campus’ modernist heritage as well as areas of green space. Manchester Modernist Society is currently encouraging interested parties to comment on and object to the proposals that have suggested in the SRF. Here the comments I submitted:
“I would like to comment on the North Campus as a longstanding-resident and user of the city centre, including as a student, and a visitor to the city centre. As an undergraduate student at the University of Manchester (2005-2008) I spent three years living in Fairfield Hall, part of North Campus, and found it a very attractive and pleasant place to live, and also to undertake student activities. For example, I played in the University of Manchester Fellows Orchestra, which rehearsed in the Renold Building, and performed in the Sackville Building, and as a student and alumni of Manchester University I have also made use of the Joule Library, also based in Sackville Building. I found North Campus a very pleasant place to live as a student, well-connected but peaceful due to the lack of road traffic and used in the summer for outdoor activities, particularly in Vimto Gardens, a well-known landmark and meeting place. I found it to have a strong sense of place, both due to the campus architecture and sense of coherence of the campus plan and landscaping, and due to the use of public art referencing the area’s history and the way in which the university had shaped it. Its identity is both strong and distinct from other areas in Manchester City Centre. I consider those formative years spent living on North Campus to have piqued an interest in twentieth century art and design that stay with me to this today – I am now undertaking a PhD on the subject at the University of Central Lancashire (co-supervised by Dr Hannah Neate of Manchester Metropolitan University), and write regularly on public art, planning, landscaping, education and design, including for the modernist magazine.
Immediately following graduation I spent five years living in M1 (in the vicinity of Piccadilly Station), followed by eighteen months living in Castlefield, and continued to visit UMIST, particularly in the summer, as a quiet and green place to sit, read and have picnics. I also used UMIST regularly (and continue to do so) as a traffic-free pedestrian and cyclist route from the Piccadilly area to Oxford Road. I have also visited on a number of occasions as part of Manchester Modernist Society tours and events, and learnt about the significance of the architecture and the campus plan; I myself used to take visitors to show them Hans Tisdall’s mosaics in the Faraday Building, and they have been featured in my magazine the Shrieking Violet: https://issuu.com/natalieroseviolet/docs/the_shrieking_violet_issue_3
I no longer live in the city centre, but I work there and continue to visit UMIST, both as a green space and as a traffic-free pedestrian and cycle route heading out of the city centre for South Manchester.
I am concerned that the North Campus SRF focuses on the heritage of Sackville Building (and rightly so) but fails to take into account the architectural significance of a number of the mid-twentieth century ‘modernist’ buildings, which have both architectural significance (particularly the Renold Building) and as a cluster of buildings developed at a time of scientific, educational and technological expansion, which represents a significant shift towards modernity for Manchester’s cityscape. This demonstration of modernity and innovation is reinforced by North Campus’s proximity to the Mancunian Way, itself an innovative and high-profile example of Manchester’s post-war planning.
I am concerned about the removal of Hans Tisdall’s the Elements mosaics and I am particularly concerned that the mural in the Renold Building is not highlighted as a heritage asset, despite the fact that it is by one of Britain’s most important mid-twentieth century abstract artists, Victor Pasmore, who also contributed significantly to the development of British post-war art education through the Basic Design movement. Pasmore’s Renold Building mural is a rare example of a publicly accessible and viewable work by an artist by that stature in Manchester – indeed, his most celebrated work, the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, County Durham, has been the subject of extensive restoration and renewed interest in recent years. The mural is particularly significant, I feel, due to the post-war historical context in which it was commissioned, when educational and state bodies (including a number of universities) assumed responsibilities for patronage of contemporary art.
At a time when English Heritage is promoting the listing and retaining of post-war public artworks, I am also concerned that Anthony Hollaway’s Hollaway Wall is underlooked in the report, and that there are suggestions to shorten or move this Grade II listed structure, which acts as both an artwork and as a sound buffer. I consider the Hollaway Wall to be a rare and significant example of an architectural sculpture in Manchester, by an artist who built up a considerable reputation for his work across the country in the post-war period, particularly as an in-house design consultant for the London County Council. Along with William Mitchell, he was innovative in his experimentation and exploration of the use of materials for artworks in public places, including concrete, and was versatile in his media (for example, he designed a modern stained glass window for Manchester Cathedral). Hollaway’s work in Manchester, including the Hollaway Wall, commissioned with the local architects Fairhurst and Sons, is also a good example of a post-war emphasis on collaboration between architects, artists, designers and builders.
Finally, as alluded to previously, as a longstanding user of the space, I am concerned about any loss of green space in the North Campus area, including a reduction of space in Vimto Gardens, particularly in a city where parks and green spaces are in short supply. Although Sackville Gardens is nearby, it attracts a considerably different demographic and has a different atmosphere, due to its proximity to the clubbing area of Canal Street, where outdoor drinking is much more established. I consider the area’s landscaping, including mature cherry trees, to be one of the most successful aspects of the campus, which gives it a strong sense of place.
I would welcome a reuse of existing buildings, including railway arches and Sackville Building, and feel that an increase in the number of people living, working in and visiting the area would justify the retaining of significant areas of green space and make it an attractive place in which to live, work and visit.
I am also extremely concerned about any proposal to add roads through North Campus, and to increase the flow of vehicle through it, as I have appreciated and regularly used it as a quiet, traffic-free route as a pedestrian and cyclist. I am concerned that a road would both damage the atmosphere and landscaping of the campus, as well as leading to increased traffic, noise and pollution. The area is already bounded by several major roads, from the A6 to the Mancunian Way.”
One of the first books I read when I started my PhD, to gain some context of the experiences of interwar women artists and art education, was Pauline Lucas’s Evelyn Gibbs: Artist and Traveller. It’s a biography of the painter and art educationalist Evelyn Gibbs, a contemporary of Nan Youngman’s who was involved in Pictures for Schools as a submitting artist as well as a member of the organising and selection committees in early years.
Gibbs settled in Nottingham after evacuation during the war and was a founder of the Midland Group, which organised travelling exhibitions around workplaces, such as ‘Art for All’, as well as producing murals in public and commercial settings such as factory canteens. She also, like Youngman and many Pictures for Schools contributors, exhibited with the Artists’ International Association, including a still life of cake treats lined up on a canteen counter included in the ‘For Liberty’ exhibition in the basement canteen of the Blitzed John Lewis.
Lucas has now co-curated an exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery focusing on two periods of Gibbs’ work. The first highlights her time studying in Rome in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where she produced delicate etchings exuding human experience and emotion. The second is a body of work produced as a war artist, documenting women’s work at the Raleigh Factory in Nottingham, in a blood transfusion unit, and in a women’s voluntary centre in Leicester which encompassed activities such as a swap shop and clothes exchange. Elsewhere, she documented the jumbled disruption of bomb sites.
It’s the latter set of works that I find more compelling. In the Raleigh factory, women workers are dwarfed by machinery, towering stacks of boxes and components. Other paintings created during the 1940s capture the more mundane: streets, reflections, facades, trees, windows and huddled figures.
Gibbs’ work is represented in county collections including Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and London. Nottingham Castle, too, contains a body of mid-twentieth century paintings in its collection, in which several names familiar from Pictures for Schools are represented, including John Piper, LS Lowry and Ben Nicholson. Men of Straw demonstrates Richard Eurich’s strange, narrative storytelling, which was popular with child visitors to Pictures for Schools. Marion Adnams lines up the backs of terraced houses and rows of gravestones, overlooked by the tall order of a church spire. Carel Weight’s African Girl 2 is a striking portrait of a model in an artist’s studio. It’s here, too, that I found the Gibbs work I liked the best: Industrial View of 1953, in which a blur of blue, red and grey chimneys, swept with wispy smoke, blend into an overhanging dusky sky.
Evelyn Gibbs in Peace and Wartime continues until Sunday 9 October.
For more information visit www.nottinghamcastle.org.uk/explore/exhibitions/evelyn-gibbs.
My latest day trip around the towns, villages and cities of England was to the city of Lincoln, in the north-eastern half of England.
Lincoln is an unusual combination of the hard-edged aesthetics and feel of a northern town (redbrick terraces, austere churches and canals) and the prettiness of a cathedral city (sweeping crescents, cobbles and green spaces), particularly in quaintly named, sloping streets such as the aptly named ‘Steep Hill’. It feels both buzzing and lively – as a market town during the day and a university city by night – and old-fashioned, with an overwhelming sense of geographical and cultural isolation from the rest of the country. It’s simultaneously shabby – a strange array of traders make a sparse impression in a market hall that must once have been very grand – and twee, with a scattering of boutique food and clothing shops between the empty shop units.
Lincoln Cathedral, which stands atop the city, has a scale and grandeur which seems completely out of proportion to the provincial city below. Inside, it’s hard not to feel overawed by its scale and presence. I know cathedrals as a genre of buildings are meant to wow you into hushed reverence and give an impression of something much bigger than you (literally, architecturally and spiritually) but Lincoln Cathedral is particularly jaw-dropping. It has the appearance and atmosphere of a huge space yet its smaller chapels also create an impression of intimacy. I was drawn towards the Russell Chantry and the 1950s murals of Duncan Grant who, along with his companion Vanessa Bell, contributed to Pictures for Schools in the early years of the scheme. Grant’s narrative frescoes depict the patron saint of wool workers – and some blue sheep amid the flat country landscape which surrounds Lincoln – at the same time as envisaging Lincoln’s Mediaeval waterfront as a bustling trade centre, pointing towards both the city’s rural location and its past wealth and significance.
I was disappointed to have missed a display of twentieth century artworks from the Methodist Art Collection in the chapter house, but it was interesting to see sketches from the development of the Russell Chantry murals in an accompanying display at the Collection in Lincoln, and to hear that this mid-twentieth century intervention into an ancient, sacred building was deemed inappropriate due to the personal nature of its content (incorporating lithe young men modelled on Grant’s own lover), and hidden away for four decades.
I also caught a glimpse of another mid-twentieth century intervention into the cathedral, on a smaller scale, by another Pictures for Schools contributor, the renowned and innovative embroiderer and teacher Constance Howard. Both Howard’s own embroideries, and that of students associated with her embroidery course at Goldsmiths, were popular at Pictures for Schools. Howard’s Lincoln work is a subtly glittering, textural Mothers’ Union banner depicting a mother and child in a stylised manner that reminded me of the work of Steven Sykes in Coventry and elsewhere. It is unmistakably of its time yet also seems to fit effortlessly and timelessly with the other religious works around it.
I have written an article about my Pictures for Schools research for the latest edition of the modernist magazine, which focuses on twentieth century architecture and design. As the issue is themed ‘Forgotten’, I have discussed Pictures for Schools as a forgotten idea and ideal which was once successful and well-regarded but today is all but unknown.
For more information, and to purchase the magazine, visit www.the-modernist.org/forgotten.
I have long wanted to know what happened to the artworks sold at Pictures for Schools once they had left the exhibitions, and tried to contact schools which purchased work. This always been unfruitful as many schools have closed, merged, changed name or changed location and premises since the 1960s. Though most of the buyers were local education authorities and education committees, there were a number of primary, secondary and independent schools across the country that bought work from the exhibitions. Unfortunately, those schools which do still exist are often unaware that they once owned original works of art.
I was pleased to discover, through a chance conversation with their Head of Art, Lisa Murphy, that Manchester Grammar School (MGS) is an exception and still has several, though perhaps not all, of the artworks it purchased at Pictures for Schools. Lisa, who has been at the school since 1998, is keen to use original works with students, whether through direct observation, as part of project work, or as the basis for reinterpretation.
Manchester Grammar School Art Collection Fund was suggested by an old boy in 1956 for the purchase of original and contemporary works of art, and governors, old boys and friends of the school contributed. The collection was not just limited to works on paper, but was intended to encompass ceramics and sculpture, though this was not in evidence when I visited. In 1960, an exhibition of the collection was held. The catalogue explained that:
“The aim has been to buy pictures that are good of their kind by modern artists, known and unknown.”
In the 1980s, an Ivon Hitchens work was sold to enable new purchases to be made. Aside from the Art Collection, other work belongs to the school Common Room. Some works were purchased through a bequest and some were gifts. There are also remnants of an earlier collection, and other work includes a 1945 John Skeaping print of a mare and foal which was part of the School Prints series. In addition to its own collection, the school also made use of Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston loan scheme for educational institutions in the north of England.
The Pictures for Schools invoice books held in Nan Youngman’s papers at the University of Reading, though incomplete, reveal that Manchester Grammar School was a regular buyer from Pictures for Schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Invoices were made out to the bursar on behalf of Art Master JH Bell, and on occasion on behalf of the ‘High Master’. John Henry Bell joined in 1951 and served as Head of Art from 1956-81. An Oxford-educated historian and scholar, he also painted landscapes, with a particular interest in mountains. He was known for an extensive collection of art and architecture slides, and recorded talks for BBC radio. At that time, the historical and critical aspects of art were emphasised in the school more than the practical aspects.
I recently visited MGS, a large and still academically oriented independent school in suburban south Manchester, to see what remains of the collection, and to get a sense of these artworks in a school setting, The artworks are scattered around the school, which is based around an extensive and disorientating 1930s building. In general, the school gives the impression of being filled with art and visual stimulation. Students’ work is displayed throughout the large and impressively resourced art department, as well as in the shared spaces of the school such as hallways and corridors. Changing and themed exhibitions of students’ work take place in a small gallery space next to the main reception, and there is also a small sculpture garden containing students’ work. Staff rooms, common rooms, reception, offices and classrooms also have pictures on display, ranging from formal and old-fashioned portraits of former grandees to architectural drawings of the school to work by local artists and artists who have been in residence in the school, including modern photography and graffiti-style stencil work. Some of the original mid-twentieth century works of art purchased by the school can be found among this, and highlights of the collection are on display in a wide corridor area. These include Edwin La Dell’s 1960 lithograph ‘Priddy Nine Barrows’, a green, rolling rural landscape. Though I had seen photographs of the print before, I much preferred it in ‘real life’, seeing its mark-making close-up and its colour choices appearing more vibrant.
Like many school buyers, Manchester Grammar School bought a large number of prints from Pictures for Schools, although it did also purchase paintings. Many of the artists involved in Pictures for Schools, and represented in the MGS collection, were themselves involved in art education, at secondary or university level.
Paintings at MGS include Gordon Bradshaw’s ‘Essex Landscape’ (1962), an unusual and stylised perspective on a townscape which is reminiscent of a briefly glimpsed view of a town looking down from a railway viaduct as the surrounding countryside stretches out behind it. Susan Horsfield’s ‘Boxes of Fish’ (1961) is a detailed oil painting. Horsfield met Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman through their involvement in the Women’s International Art Club and was invited by Youngman to submit work to the scheme. Peter Midgley’s humdrum oil painting ‘Still Life’ (1958), meanwhile, shows newspaper-wrapped grocery shopping in Kitchen Sink-style. Midgley taught at Beckenham School of Art.
Schools often had less money to spend on original works of art than local authorities. Prints, which could be purchased framed or unframed, were among the most affordable works of art at the exhibitions. Furthermore, prints such as linocuts had an obvious application in the classroom; they could be used to demonstrate to students what could be achieved in a medium they were likely to use themselves in school art lessons. There are also screen prints, etchings and lithographs. These include the bold 1966 screenprint ‘Blue Night Flower’ by Dennis Hawkins – who taught at Repton School and was a founding member of the Midland Group and the Printmakers’ Council’, which edges towards abstraction. Philip Greenwood’s, ‘Slate Street’ (1965) is a dark, sketchy, angular etching, while ‘Two Friends’ is a figurative lithograph by Alistair Grant, who studied with Edwin La Dell and taught at the RCA. Another print, ‘Barmouth’, from 1984, picking out the shapes of the town through exaggerated use of line and colour, is by John Brunsdon, who designed posters for Pictures for Schools as well as selling work through the scheme.
Perhaps the work I saw on my visit I liked the most was Euan Jennings’ highly stylised 1957 linocut ‘Essex Gravel Pit No 2’, a detailed reinterpretation of an everyday and workaday landscape in blue, black and yellow, in which contrasting textures and patterns are used to create contrast between different layers and areas of foliage, water, rock and stones. Jennings was Principal at Tunbridge Wells School of Art.
I also like Denys Delhanty’s 1959 gouache ‘Summer Landscape with Cow Parsley’, a more unconventional landscape that has something in its palette of black, white, greys and pale blues, and brush marks resembling surface scrapes and bubbles, of the quality of a photographic negative. Denys Delhanty was Head of Art at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and his work was extremely popular in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions.
Unsurprisingly, given their prominence in Pictures for Schools, a number of the artists in the MGS collection are associated with East Anglia. These include the Great Bardfield artist Edward Bawden – an artist’s proof of his linocut ‘Town Hall Yard’ (1957) is on display – as is a large, sweeping, abstracted, expressive linocut of an ‘East Coast Storm’ (1967) by Julia Ball who was, like Nan Youngman, a member of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors.
I was disappointed, however, not to see abstracted linocuts of farm machinery by Peter Green, one of the best-selling artists at Pictures for Schools, which once formed part of the collection. As Lisa Murphy is making a renewed effort to locate and catalogue the works to improve their visibility in the school, I’m hoping that perhaps they might be unearthed for a future visit.
 Information about the collection and the history of art teaching at MGS is largely drawn from the pamphlet Art at the Manchester Grammar School, edited by David Stockwell, 1993.