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.

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Exhibition visit: ‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’, Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Yesterday I went to visit an exhibition at Derby Art Gallery of a selection of artworks by the artist Marion Adnams, and an accompanying talk by the independent researcher Val Wood, who co-curated the exhibition. Spending most of her life in Derby, Adnams has been billed as something of a ‘forgotten’ artist. Like many women of her generation, Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman included, Adnams went into teaching; she taught art for many years at a girls’ school in Derby, where she borrowed artworks to hold an exhibition in school, and later became head of art at a teacher training college in Derby.

The work shown in Derby, primarily paintings, fits into a surrealist lineage. Demonstrating great technical skill, Adnams created fantastical imagery and imagined landscapes from found objects such as rocks and branches (a selection of these objects were on display alongside the paintings), and museum objects from Derby Museum, as well as everyday buildings such as a gas tower, and aspects of country life such as wagons, showing how the mysterious could be found in the everyday. One series incorporates model-like figures based on paper dolls she made as a child. Several of these paintings are on loan from public collections, including Salford Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery – where they were purchased as part of the Rutherston Collection for loan to schools (two of these paintings were displayed in Manchester Art Gallery’s 2010 exhibition of women surrealists, ‘Angels of Anarchy’) – and the Derbyshire School Museum Service, where one of the paintings was purchased by Evelyn Gibbs, who acted as art adviser to several local education authorities.

Although Adnams’ life was grounded in Derby, Woods focused on the wider artistic milieu of which she was part, which included friendships with other artists as well as with writers and poets such as John Betjeman – whom she advised on church buildings in Derbyshire, the subject of several early woodcuts – and the socialist and feminist poet Audrey Beecham. She exhibited in London, with the support of the gallerist Jack Bilbo. From 1939, she was supported by the friendship and encouragement of the director and curator at Manchester Art Gallery. She exhibited with the Artists’ International Association in 1945. She forged connections more locally, too; in 1946-47, she joined the Midland Group, which was set up by the artist-educationalist Evelyn Gibbs, and which aimed to educate and develop the public’s appreciation of art – this included running a picture hire scheme for businesses, schools and universities, as well as holding a Nottingham edition of Pictures for Schools. Adnams exhibited alongside artists such as Dorothie Field, who had been a student of Nan Youngman’s at Highbury Hill High School for Girls. Field was highly politically engaged and painted social realist scenes inspired by mining communities and incidents such as the Aberfan disaster. Later, Adnams developed a friendship with the writer and broadcaster Ray Gosling, who wrote a catalogue essay for a 1971 retrospective.

Adnams studied modern foreign languages at university as a young woman and embraced foreign travel; objects found in Mediterranean destinations such as Provence were also the inspiration for her work.

Adnams’ work was sold to a number of educational collections, in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Manchester. I will be exploring the history and ethos of some of these collections in a talk at a symposium to be held about Adnams in Derby on Wednesday 7 March. For more information visit www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/marion-adnams-symposium-tickets-42085404578.

‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’ is at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 4 March. For more information visit www.derbymuseums.org/whats-on/marion-adnams-a-singular-woman.


Isabel Alexander (1910-1996): Artist and Illustrator, Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate

51mofsqxqjl-_sx258_bo1204203200_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 Woodward

“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.