Today she is best known for a method of teaching handwriting, but in the interwar years Marion Richardson’s work in the field of child art was well-known. Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman undertook teacher training with her at London Day Training College (forerunner of the Institute of Education) and helped her to organise large exhibitions of children’s work. Richardson’s art teaching was focused on developing children’s confidence and powers of self-expression and critique, aiming to train their ‘inner eye’ and ways of looking as much as their technical skills. One way in which she did this was through the ‘visualisation’ method, where children listened to a description of a place or scene and used it as the basis for their own work. In doing so, Richardson hoped to encourage to see pictures in the places around them, even industrial and everyday scenes not conventionally considered picturesque. Richardson also undertook pattern-making and activities such as fabric design with her students and aimed to encourage children to think about how they furnished their homes. She believed children should be exposed to good examples of art and craft, and have opportunities to discuss these and their own work.Richardson died prematurely in 1946, but her work and ideas inspired Youngman’s work throughout the rest of her career. Youngman continued to defend them even when they had become regarded as old-fashioned and were superseded among progressive educationalists in the 1960s in favour of more modern ideas about teaching art.A new installation at Radar in Loughborough, by Berlin-based artist Katarina Hruskova, bears the fruits of an arts-research collaboration with Dr Sarah Mills, Reader in Human Geography at Loughborough University, which involved spending time in the archives at Birmingham City University, where Richardson’s papers are held; the title, This is Just What I Saw, comes from words written on the back of children’s pictures.Drawing on aspects of Richardson’s teaching and her students’ work, including visual description, Mills and Hruskova held a series of workshops with young people in schools and other educational settings in the Midlands today. The resulting artworks, on show at Radar, translate images from these children’s work into a trio of colourful carpets. Whilst abstract they’re also suggestive of elements of place and natural forms, such as trees and water. Displayed next to them are condensed versions of the texts which were read to children to inspire the images; in the background plays an audio recording of Hruskova reading these same words, an effect that is both poetic and hypnotic. We’re taken on a journey through first an industrial scene and then a forest, where our attention is drawn to details such as the time of day, the weather around us; our senses can’t help but be aroused, our imaginations fired and our memories taken back to places we’ve known and things we’ve seen.Alongside this is a small selection of images giving a glimpse into Richardson’s own classroom, and her students’ art practice. Whilst in some ways these images appear formal by today’s standards, with children seated at rows of wooden desks, the children are surrounded by their own pictures and patterns, which hang on the walls, giving an impression of a visually rich and engaging environment.Ideas about childhood, and the nature and purpose of schooling, education and even art have changed considerably since Richardson’s day. By reimagining and reanimating the ideas of this forgotten educationalist, Mills and Hruskova have brought the art teaching of the past powerfully into dialogue with children’s education and experiences today, showing the potential of words and images to inspire creativity and make us look again at how and what we see in the world around us.
This Is Just What I Saw is at the Martin Hall Exhibition Space, Loughborough until Friday 25 October: https://radar.lboro.ac.uk/events/this-is-just-what-i-saw-exhibition/
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
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.
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.
“If you think of the building as a boiler and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools”: Eric WoodwardPosted: September 9, 2013
“If you think of the building as a boiler house, a boiler, and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools then that’s a practical way of having a large collection because it’s not in one place at any one time.”
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Woodward at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where we chatted about his experiences as Senior Advisor to Alec Clegg, Director of Education in the West Riding, between 1956 and 1985, and I later interviewed him at the National Arts Education Archive at Bretton Hall, where Woodward currently volunteers one day a week. Woodward is clearly a great admirer of Alec Clegg, who he first became aware of when he heard a speech by Clegg at an SEA conference, citing “his honesty, his truthfulness, his humanity, his idealism” and his straightforwardness as inspiration, and appreciating the freedom and encouragement he was given by Clegg. In 1991 Woodward compiled a book of quotes, Sir Alec Clegg 1909-1986: His Own Words, from Clegg’s speeches and books, for which he also wrote the foreword (copies are in the National Arts Education Archive).
Woodward explained that after the Second World War he studied for a four-year National Diploma in art and design in Liverpool and followed it with a one-year certificate in teaching before teaching art in Liverpool schools. As an art teacher, Woodward noticed that junior and infant school students were uninhibited about drawing and painting, but by secondary school age students were beginning to say they couldn’t draw so art became a specialism. Woodward tried to rectify this by taking art out into the school, and encouraging students to paint murals around the building rather than confining it to something which took place in the art room. Woodward left teaching to join the West Riding School Museum Service as Senior Advisor, going to Wakefield in 1956 and living in nearby Woolley. He remained there until his retirement in 1985 and, in 1978, was appointed MBE.
The West Riding School Museum Service was set up in the 1940s under Alec Clegg, inspired by a similar service in Derbyshire run by Barbara Winstanley, and when Woodward took up the post he was sent on a two-week trip to to Derbyshire to see how the service worked. Originally consisting of visual aids such as film strips, after Woodward joined the service expanded and eventually contained a number of original works of art, as well as museum objects such as stuffed animals. Woodward explained that be did not influence the choice of artworks much beyond making suggestions about how practical the works would be to transport, but the county’s art advisors, Basil and Rosemary Rocke, went to the London galleries each year and brought back a selection of artworks which were then chosen for purchase by a committee of elected education officers and Helen Kapp, Director of Wakefield City Art Gallery. In 1953 there were 149 paintings; by 1964, the collection contained more than 400 paintings and pieces of sculpture. Schools could borrow something like three works per term, and chose from a catalogue, although this was not illustrated so teachers had to make choices by title alone. The West Riding had about 1,500 schools and Woodward thinks that primary schools made more use of the service than secondary schools, partly because there were more of them. He visited schools and advised on how to hang artworks such as paintings, for example by displaying them at children’s eye level, as well as how to keep more valuable paintings, such as those by Lowry, secure out of school hours. I asked Woodward if he thought the paintings were chosen to appeal to children, as was the case with Pictures for Schools, but he said that as far as he was aware no, the main consideration was quality. He wasn’t aware of much abstract work, aside from an Alexander Calder mobile and decorative, non-representational wall hangings and tapestries. Woodward describes exposure to original works of art as a “profound experience”, especially important because most homes in the West Riding would not have contained original works of art, and thinks that seeing artworks in books or through reproductions can’t match seeing the scale, colour and texture of works of art, particularly those such as oils, in real life.
Woodward has a really interesting way of visualising the collection and how it was circulated: “Obviously if you have a large collection of artefacts or museum objects, paintings, the size of the building limits the size of the collection. Well if you think of the building as a boiler house, a boiler, and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools then that’s a practical way of having a large collection because it’s not in one place at any one time.” As well as meaning the collection could grow in size and circulate efficiently, I also read this quote as meaning that you could add new, clean water to the collection with the acquisition of new works of art, meaning the collection remained fresh, relevant and interesting. Woodward said there was an annual stock check, to ensure that there were no ‘leaks’, to continue the metaphor, and that everything was in working order.
Woodward was also involved in other initiatives for schools, which tie in with ideas about learning through experience (something I have encountered a lot in the writing of John Dewey). One of these was purchasing a working water mill near Barnsley, which was becoming increasingly dilapidated and dangerous but received a lot of visits from groups of schoolchildren, and restoring it with the help of the new Countryside Act which enabled county councils to set up country parks with match funding. Another was developing the educational use of Harewood Bird Garden, which included appointing a teacher advisor and providing art materials for visiting schools. Woodward was also involved in acquiring seventeenth century Clarke Hall in Wakefield and developing it into an education museum for role play, where children and teachers could go and dress up and cook like they were living in the seventeenth century. This remained open until this year, when it fell victim to museum budget cuts.
After his retirement at the age of sixty, Woodward found it hard to remain in touch with what was happening with the service without appearing to ‘interfere’ and several of the more valuable artworks, including those by Lowry, have since been sold. Woodward has found it difficult to obtain accurate information about the collection’s whereabouts, although he has ascertained some information about sales from Millers’ Guide.
Since retiring Woodward has held one-man exhibitions of his artwork, and one of his paintings is in the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. In 2000, he wrote the unpublished manuscript A Brief History of the West Riding School Museum Service 1956-1985, primarily, he says for his children to know what he did. A copy is now in the National Arts Education Archive along with other material relating to the West Riding Museum Service such as catalogues, which archive manager Leonard Bartle found out for me ready for my visit as well as archival material relating to the Society for Education in Art and Pictures for Schools.