For some time, I followed with interest on Twitter the development of New Town Utopia, a new documentary about the new town of Basildon in Essex.
Although I’ve visited Harlow, another Essex new town, I’m not familiar with Basildon. I found the documentary, which I watched this week, to provide a remarkably even-handed portrayal of the town. Rather than merely dwelling on or aestheticising the town’s architecture, or condemning its social failures, it matched the aspirations for the town’s development up to the experiences of those who had moved there from the East End of London, and those who were born and grew up there.
The words of Lewis Silkin, the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, run through the film, setting out the context from which new towns such as Basildon emerged in the post-war period. Silkin explains that they aimed not just to alleviate the ‘grossly congested and overcrowded’ living conditions of the inner-city, but to ‘produce a new type of citizen, a healthy, self-respecting, dignified type of person, with a healthy sense of beauty, culture and civic pride’. By being well-designed and filled with artworks and cultural centres, he hoped that new towns would play their part in fostering an ‘appreciation of beauty’. The film questioned the extent to which new towns such as Basildon lived up to this. Whilst their new residents were delighted with new homes with conveniences such as indoor bathrooms, the improvement in living conditions did not always correspond to the changes in citizens which politicians and planners such as Silkin envisaged; Basildon, like the areas of East London from which many of its residents came, retained a reputation for toughness, and its interviewees categorised the town’s pubs according to the violence of the welcome one was likely to receive.
Whilst the shopping areas and public spaces of Basildon, like other post-war new towns, were populated with artworks such as large-scale sculptures and mosaics, what was most striking in New Town Utopia was the culture that emerged outside of the mainstream culture of the town, and these municipal gestures (or perhaps as an escape from it) – from the electronic bands of the 1980s (most famously Depeche Mode and Alison Moyet) to later generations of rock and indie promoters, to poets, painters, pupeteers and street artists.
To find out more about New Town Utopia visit www.newtownutopia.com.
This fascinating blog post by Inexpensive Progress, a Cambridgeshire-based writer and collector, sheds some light on the fate of some of the work from the Cambridgeshire Collection of Original Artworks for Children, as well as giving details about the scheme’s history in Cambridge and some of the artists involved.
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.
I’ve received an email about an upcoming exhibition of work by Scottish artists from Argyll County Council’s art collection for schools, dating from the 1960s to the 1980s, organised by Cowal Open Studios.
The exhibition Paintings are for People — the Argyll Art Collection takes place at Dunoon Burgh Hall from 21 April-2 June and Tighnabruaich Gallery from 28 April-3 June.
I was recently recommended Warpaint by Alicia Foster, a historical novel inspired by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), and the work of a propaganda unit putting artists to work finding creative ways to demoralise the enemy.
The WAAC was established by Kenneth Clark, broadcaster and Director of the National Gallery, during the Second World War in order to provide employment for some of the country’s leading artists away from direct action. Whilst big male names were involved in documenting the war, Warpaint takes its inspiration from a small number of women artists – who, unlike the men employed, were not salaried but instead received commissions for artworks. Several of the artists at Pictures for Schools had been employed as war artists, either abroad or on the home front, including the women artists Evelyn Gibbs and Evelyn Dunbar.
Although some characters in Warpaint correspond to real-life personalities – including Kenneth Clark, who appears as a larger-than-life, womanising caricature, and the painter Dame Laura Knight, the oldest and most established of the artists featured in Warpaint – the plot develops through interconnected and fictional stories imagining the lives and love lives of lesser-known painters living in London and the home counties, based very loosely on Isabel Delmer, Grace Golden and Evelyn Dunbar (here reimagined as Vivienne Thayer, Faith Farr and Cecily Browne).
Warpaint is an engrossing and page-turning read, with elements of romance, thriller, tragedy and espionage, and period detail. However, it’s not merely an easy read. Underlying Warpaint are questions about attitudes towards women at the time, their role in society and the art world, and the type of work that was considered suitable for women.
As well as institutional and individual sexism, Warpaint conveys an atmosphere of state and establishment paternalism: if the role of male painters in the WAAC was to document action on the front line, and women’s place was to portray life on the home front, there was also a ‘right’ kind of observation, and a ‘wrong’ kind of subject. Some of the artists in Warpaint are naturally drawn towards destitute: the ragged, hungry families eating in municipal canteens for those left without kitchen facilities due to bombing raids. This is discouraged, in favour of pictures of scenes such as upper-class ladies knitting army socks, that will ‘make people feel better’, and give an impression of togetherness across the class divide. In another episode in the book, an artist finds herself practising self-censorship, in order to produce the kind of picture that will go down well with the Ministry: a lace slip, silk sockings and a clandestine pregnancy are edited out of a scene depicting landgirls in a dormitory, in order to make it appear more wholesome.
For this reason, the most interesting story artistically is that of Laura Knight, who manages to get prolonged access to an airfield in order to paint a longed-for ‘serious subject’. Rather than the abstracted shapes of planes in the sky, observed from afar, she develops an intimacy with the pilots, getting to know how they work and how they experience the cramped cockpit of the plane, working as individuals and a unit alongside the machinery of war.