Exhibition visit; Joy For Ever: How to use art to change the world and its price in the market, Whitworth Art Gallery

Marking 200 years since the birth of the writer, critic and teacher John Ruskin, Joy For Ever brings together archival material and historic and contemporary artworks to profile and interrogate Ruskin’s ideas, question whether they have relevance today, and ask what a ‘socially useful’ art might look like now and in the future.

Although it’s not exclusively focused on Manchester, some of the most interesting content in the exhibition relates to the ways and places in which the people of the city have been exposed to and encouraged to interact with art, craft and design over time, including during the city’s nineteenth century industrial heyday and resultant population explosion. This includes material relating to the Art Treasures exhibition which was held in Old Trafford in 1857, in the vein of the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace in London, and the Horsfall Art Museum in Ancoats. I discovered that the latter set up a picture loan scheme in 1890, lending sets of pictures to schools including Manchester Grammar School. Ruskin himself was a teacher as well as a prolific writer and lecturer; particularly interesting was a section relating to his teaching of women, at a time when women’s education was not encouraged, and the types of topics he considered it necessary for them to study, including science, ecology and economics.

Nevertheless, the exhibition acknowledges that many of Ruskin’s ideas now appear old-fashioned at best. For example, it shows how Ruskin and contemporaries such as William Morris sought to influence people’s taste, and the way in which they lived, by designing and promoting products and furnishings aimed at introducing ‘good’ craft and ‘design’ into the home. Aside from the problem of who gets to decide what and what isn’t ‘good’ design, these were, of course, priced well beyond the reach of the workers at which they were aimed.

Joy For Ever is at the Whitworth Art Gallery until Sunday 9 June: www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/upcomingexhibitions/joyforever/

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Football Is Art at the National Football Museum

I recently went to the launch of a new exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester showcasing the museum’s art collection, which has been developed with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

One of the works which has been acquired is a maquette for Peter Peri’s ‘Boys Playing Football’ (I went to see the original on the wall of an estate in Lambeth back in 2017).

Peri was one of several artists who exhibited at Pictures for Schools whose work has been acquired by the museum; football, particularly local and amateur matches, was one of the aspects of everyday life captured in the pictures shown at Pictures for Schools and bought by local education authorities for school loan collections (see Carel Weight’s lively ‘Village Cup Tie’, purchased by the London County Council, and apparently later sold to the football museum, although not on display in this exhibition and Fred Uhlman’s atmospheric painting of a game on a winter evening, recently sold at auction as part of the disposal of Hertfordshire County Council’s art collection). Like many of the artists at Pictures for Schools, as a member of the Artists’ International Association he was interested in depicting and reflecting relatable aspects of people’s lives, and presenting his art in places that was familiar and accessible to them.

The exhibition encompassed a wide variety of styles and genres, from Lowry’s iconic images of northern life, to delicate illustration by Paul Nash, to contemporary British artists such as Rose Wylie and digital artworks, to fashion and textiles, to vintage posters and advertising, to portraits of footballers and artworks by famous footballers such as George Best, and even a sculpture by Piccasso.

Far from the glitz of today’s game, with its superstar footballers on multi-million pound salaries, many of the works I liked best depicted the quieter, more personal aspect of the game and its individual and collective meanings to people as part of their sense of identity, leisure, routine, community and belonging: crowds huddled loyally in the cold of a snowy day, as in Alistair Grant’s lithograph ‘Snow at Stamford Bridge’, or behind the scenes of the game as in the Mass-Observation documentary photographer Humphrey Spender’s 1930s images of changing rooms, which suggested some of the tension and anticipation of the game.

Mid-twentieth century British art was particularly well-represented in the exhibition. I was interested to find out that several of the works had been exhibited in the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition, held in 1953, and organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Football Association in order to mark the latter’s 90th anniversary. One of the highlights was the Great Bardfield artist Michael Rothenstein’s prize-winning etching and aquatint ‘Moment of Victory’, an abstract set of shapes which appeared to represent little in a literal sense, but suggested movement and celebration. Another highlight was the robotic stacked shapes of surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun’s colourful oil painting ‘The Game of the Year’, dating from the same year as the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition.

Football Is Art is at the National Football Museum until Sunday 27 October: www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/whatson/football-is-art/

 


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?

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.