Reflections on Nan Youngman seminar

I really enjoyed presenting about my research into the life and career of Nan Youngman and Pictures for Schools as part of the History Faculty’s Gender, Women and Culture Seminar series at Oxford.

I was surprised, delighted and slightly overwhelmed that several attendees had known Nan Youngman, through family and artistic connections. Attendees also had interests in history of education, social mobility and policy.

I received several really insightful questions which have given me lots to go away and think about and further avenues to pursue as I continue to disseminate this work and think about publication. Questions and comments included:

  • Is my background/training as a historian?
  • Did I like Nan Youngman?
  • Why was Nan Youngman’s autobiography (held in the Tate Archive) unpublished? Is there any opportunity to get it published today?
  • Did Youngman have to be extremely proactive in order to generate her own career, networks and opportunities at a time when opportunities for women were limited?
  • Did Nan Youngman have a private income which enabled her to do what she did?
  • Have I heard of another Artists’ International Association member, and associate of the Bloomsbury Group, Elizabeth Watson, who was a friend of Felicia Brown and painted Betty Rea?
  • At a time when art school/training was changing a lot, did anyone involved in Pictures for Schools resist this?
  • Britain was known internationally for its active education in primary schools in the 1920s and 1930s, in counties such as Leicestershire and Oxfordshire, not just in art but in other areas such as in the Singing Together movement.
  • Was Nan Youngman aware of similar work going on internationally?
  • What about the parallels going back even earlier in terms of art, craft, design and taste, to Matthew Arnold and William Morris?
  • What about the hierarchy implied by discussion of children seeing ‘great works of art’ – how did this play out across different schools and across the movement?
  • Were buyers considering/aware of the artworks’ potential as an investment?
  • Could and should Pictures for Schools be renewed today?
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Sale of Hertfordshire County Council’s collection

Sad news from Hertfordshire, where the county council is following in the steps of Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire and selling the bulk of its impressive educational art collection. The collection was founded in 1949 by pioneering Director of Education John Newsom for loan to the county’s schools, as part of an extensive programme of school building and educational reform, and purchased artworks by leading British artists from Pictures for Schools among other sources. This is no particular surprise given that the loan service was suspended in 2012, staff who had previously been involved in its operations were made redundant and it was extremely difficult (impossible?) to get anyone from the council to answer any of my enquiries about it during my PhD.

This follows a ‘consultation’ on the future of the collection at the start of 2018, which was couched in terms which made the sale sound like it was a foregone conclusion, and a petition by local woman Armaiti Bedford against the sale of the works, which was signed by thousands of people.

The sale is being handled by Cheffins in Cambridge, who handled the (highly lucrative) sale of the Cambridgeshire art collection in 2017, and the first auction, of paintings, takes place on 21 March.

The sale has received a few passing mentions in the regional and national press; for more information see www.artlyst.com/news/hertfordshire-county-council-sells-off-art-assets.

 


Exhibition visit: Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World, Pallant House, Chichester

One of the artists involved in Pictures for Schools who interested me most was the painter and printmaker Julian Trevelyan, whose paintings and prints were extremely popular with schools, teacher training colleges and local education authorities around the country. Trevelyan also helped organise and select work for the exhibitions.

The Christmas holidays recently provided an opportunity to visit an exhibition dedicated to Trevelyan’s work at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World gives an overview of his career. It begins with his early days as a Surrealist, exhibiting 2- and 3-D work inspired by the mechanisms of the inner mind and the subconscious, and making connections with peers such as Alexander Calder.

In the 1930s, Trevelyan spent time in Bolton and in the Potteries as part of the Mass-Observation project. Highlights of the exhibition include paintings and collages from this time, which actively incorporate elements of mass culture into the urban streetscape; Trevelyan didn’t just paint the lettering of advertising hoardings, but collaged pieces of newspaper and music hall bills. Displayed alongside the pictures is a large suitcase, bursting with scraps, which Trevelyan took out into the northern streets with him as he drew and painted. A series of photographs of fellow Mass-Observation artist William Coldstream contrast the two painters’ attitudes towards observing and understanding place; whereas Coldstream perched on rooftops, taking an aerial perspective and keeping his distance from the town below, Trevelyan preferred to go out and about among his subjects and paint from a position in which he was surrounded by them.The exhibition then discusses his contributions to the war effort, where he served as a camoufleur, helping disguise buildings to confuse the enemy. Watercolours from this time, depicting life in African countries, are uncharacteristically lively and colourful compared to other pictures produced by British artists during the war.

The exhibition gives a sense of the different media in which Trevelyan worked, from oil paintings influenced by the Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, to print-making experimenting with different techniques and textures, such as incorporating fabric into the backgrounds of his plates.
Above all, what comes across strongly is Trevelyan’s sense of place. With his second wife, the painter Mary Fedden (who was also involved in Pictures for Schools), he showed a zest for travel and foreign landscapes and ways of life. However, he never turned his attention away from those places closest to home; a constant in his work, and visible in the exhibition, is the Thames at Hammersmith, and its ever-constant, ever-changing vistas and traffic, which provided the backdrop for Trevelyan and Fedden’s work, life and social circle.

Shown close to Trevelyan’s work is a smaller selection of paintings by Fedden, including her characteristic still lifes which experimented with perspective. Also on show are early 1950s plans for Fedden and Trevelyan’s mural for Swallow Dell Primary School in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, one of several undertaken together in the post-war period. Depicting in detail the various activities of a bustling harbour life, this emphasises that their relationship was not just a romantic partnership, but one of artistic collaboration and mutual inspiration.

Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until Sunday 10 February 2019. 


Interesting upcoming talks in Leeds for fans of twentieth century art and design

Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is holding three talks this month which look like they’ll be of great interest to fans of twentieth century art and design. The first, on Wednesday 13 June at 6pm, is by Lynda Nead, author of the recent, excellent book Tiger in the Smoke. The second, on Wednesday 20 June, is by Margaret Garlake, author of the essential book New Art, New World, and concerns emigre artists and their work for patrons such as the London County Council as part of the post-war reconstruction effort in Britain. Finally, on Wednesday 27 September, Gordon Johnston will discuss the work of the sculptor Peter Peri, whose work was exhibited at Pictures for Schools as well as in numerous public contexts.


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.


Reflections on Marion Adnams Symposium, University of Derby

Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.

The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.

My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.

For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?

I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.

The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.


Herbert Read: Art education and citizenship

One figure who has been coming up again and again since I have started looking at art and eduction is Herbert Read. In his 1943 book Education through Art, Herbert Read argued that art should be the basis of education, and his ideas were taken forward by other educators in the post-war period.

Read identified two opposing conceptions of education: first, that it should educate an individual to become what he is, and enable him to develop the potentialities he was born with, and second that it should educate a man to become what he is not, with whatever idiosyncrasies he was born with eradicated so he conformed to an ideal of character defined by the traditions of society. Thus, Read saw the educator’s dilemma as being between variety and conformity, or between a conception of society and the role of citizens as being either a “community of persons who seek equilibrium through mutual aid” or a “collection of people required to conform as far as possible to one ideal”. Education he said should, therefore, focus not on creating an artefact, the scholar, but an organic unit of society, the citizen.

Read suggested that the ideal of citizenship promoted by schools should not be uniformity or hierarchical classification, but individualism and variety. Along with developing the uniqueness of the individual, he argued that education should contribute to what he termed the ‘social consciousness or reciprocity’ of the individual, describing education as a process of ‘integration’ which would enable individual uniqueness to be reconciled with social unity, thus allowing individuals to become good citizens. Part of this social integration was what Read called the adjustment of the individual’s subjective feelings and emotions to the objective world, or ‘psychological ‘orientation”, a process in which Read considered aesthetic education to play a key part. Aesthetic education was, then, the education of the senses on which an individual’s consciousness, intelligence and judgment were based, enabling these senses to attain a harmonious relationship with the external world and creating an ‘integrated personality’.

Read believed that no other subject could give the child an instinctive knowledge of the laws of the universe, and enable them to behave in harmony with nature. He was writing in the midst of the Second World War, a time of “hideous objects and misshapen human beings, of sick minds and unhappy households, of divided societies armed with weapons of mass destruction”, and saw the potential for creative activities to “heal the mind and make beautiful our environment, unite man with nature and nation with nation” (Read, 1943, revised 1958).

Read built on this by describing the aim of education as the creation of artists. He identified the artist as the ideal type of citizen, giving a broad definition of artists as people who are efficient in the various modes of expression and saying that every man is a special kind of artist with their own moments of spontaneous development or originating activity. He also believed that the fields of science and art should not stand in opposition, as both were different ways of exploring the same reality. Read stated that art is central to the processes of perception, thought and bodily action, and provides a governing mechanism for life and civilisation, saying that life itself is aesthetic. Just as Read wished for the variety of individuals to be recognised, he acknowledged that there is not one type of art, and identified four broad movements in art and art history: realism, superrealism, expressionism and abstraction. He called for children to be shown the work of artists, both historic and contemporary in schools, preferably through original artworks, in an appropriate setting, though he cautioned against changing the function of the school from a workshop into a museum (Read, 1943, revised 1958).