Exhibition visit: This Is Just What I Saw, Radar, Loughborough University

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 Youngman continued to defend them even when they had become regarded as old-fashioned and were superseded among progressive educationalists in the 1960s in favour of more modern ideas about teaching art.A new installation at Radar in Loughborough, by Berlin-based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/

 

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Exhibition visit: Ruth Ewan – Asking Out, Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

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


Paper at International Standing Conference for the History of Education, Porto, 19 July: Pictures for Schools: Critical education in the art gallery and the classroom

I am delighted to have had the following paper accepted for the International Standing Conference for the History of Education at the University of Porto next week.

Pictures for Schools: Critical education in the art gallery and the classroom

Pictures for Schools was founded by the artist and educationalist Nan Youngman (1906-1995) to sell affordable works of art by contemporary British artists to educational establishments across the country, including schools, teacher training colleges and local education authorities.

One aim of the scheme was to change the physical spaces in which children’s education took place by making them visually stimulating. Another, equally important motivation, was to develop children’s skills as critical observers, which could then be applied to the places which surrounded them, and the consumer choices they would make as the citizens of the future.

At the first Pictures for Schools exhibition, which took place in 1947 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, children who visited were asked to express their preferences by voting for their favourite exhibit. These preferences were later discussed in accounts of the exhibitions by the organisers, and received with great interest by the press. At later exhibitions, which took place annually at various London art galleries until 1969, visiting school groups were given questionnaires which aimed to encourage them to look closely at the artworks on show, with the questions varying slightly each year. Some questions placed the artworks in relation to children’s own experiences of creating art, encouraging respondents to identify and compare elements such as technique, media, subject matter, styles and genre. Others positioned children as critics, asking them to discuss the artworks they felt were most successful. Children were also encouraged to imagine themselves as future patrons and consumers of the arts, by stating which artwork they would like to take home with them if they were able to.

This paper will explore the ways in which Pictures for Schools offered children a critical education across two types of educational spaces, the art gallery and the classroom. It will visit a series of educational spaces where, in the decade leading up to the Second World War, Youngman established the value of the active, participatory form of art education which would be promoted through Pictures for Schools. These include Youngman’s teacher training at London Day Training College, her time teaching art in girls’ schools in the 1920s, and the decade she spent as peripatetic art advisor to Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, from 1944 onwards.

The critical education offered through Pictures for Schools will then be placed within a wider context of post-war Britain. After the Second World War, the formal education system was extended. At the same time, opportunities for informal education and cultural experiences went beyond the school, museum and art gallery to encompass public and leisure spaces such as town centres, shopping centres, libraries and housing estates, where citizens were asked to be critical observers of the places and objects which surrounded them every day. This paper will explore the role of artworks as a pedagogical tool and argue that Pictures for Schools played a part in developing the skills of future citizens who were required to play an active, critical part in post-war reconstruction and society.

For more information about the conference visit http://www.fpce.up.pt/ische2019.

I will be taking part in session 4.10, which takes place on Friday 19 July from 9am-11am.


This Land Is Our Land: article about landscape and protest in the Fourdrinier

The new issue of the Fourdrinier is out today and focuses on This Land Is Our Land at Paper Gallery in Manchester (open Saturdays 11-5 until 3 August), a new group exhibition inspired by Marion Shoard’s classic book of the same name and the Kinder trespass. I’ve written an essay around some of the themes explored in the show, such as access to the countryside, and the ways in which our experiences of the countryside are mediated physically and culturally, drawing partly on some of the reading around landscapes I did during my PhD.

Read online: www.thefourdrinier.com/physical-land-visual-landscapes


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/


The Fourdrinier

Jenny Steele's wallpaperIn 2019 I am one of six writers based in the north of England who are writing for new arts writing platform the Fourdrinier, which focuses on art on paper. My latest article, in June’s issue, is an interview with Manchester-based artist Jenny Steele about her new wallpaper for Crosby’s modernist library, which draws on the history of the building and discusses the changing uses of libraries and their importance as social and educational centres. Read it here.

For the April issue I interviewed Jade Montserrat about her commission for Art on the Underground, which was installed across the London Underground network. Read it here.


Exhibition visit: ‘But what if we tried?’, Touchstones, Rochdale

‘But what if we tried?’ by Harry Meadley at Touchstones in Rochdale is an illuminating experiment to display as much of town’s 1,500-strong art collection at once as possible (there’s only space to show about 300 pieces within its Edwardian galleries, it turns out).

At a time when public ownership and funding of art, and issues around access and storage, are more contentious than ever, this timely exhibition explores the curatorial and logistical processes behind the scenes of programming a municipal gallery which is resource-poor but rich in artworks and heritage.

Piled high in the largest gallery are a selection of artworks acquired since the gallery first started collecting, displayed in accession order and giving an insight into how the collection has evolved and grown over time, and the types of artists and artworks acquired during different eras.

Some of the collection has clearly been acquired due to local interest and connections, from portraits of local dignitaries and paintings and drawings depicting the town and its surroundings, to artworks by locally based printmakers. Other work has been acquired through bequests, meaning it cannot be sold. Other artworks have come into the collection through changes in local government; for example, when the nearby towns of Middleton and Heywood were incorporated into the borough in the early 1970s, their collections were merged with Rochdale’s.

The collection also reflects developments in modern art and contains works by major artists such as Patrick Caulfield, Gillian Ayres and Lubaina Himid (though, as elsewhere, woman artists are underrepresented in the collection, comprising around 8 per cent), and the gallery is still collecting today. Works by well-known artists are frequently lent to other galleries – enabling them to both be seen by a wider range of people and providing a source of income for the gallery. This is such an important part of the life of such a collection that one wall of the exhibition is filled with carefully packaged artworks ready to be shipped off to other destinations.

Displayed alongside the artworks are a series of thoughtful, behind-the-scenes films showing in detail how a gallery such as Touchstones actually works, taking us into the stores and through staff meetings, curatorial decision-making, PR planning and installation. Staff, including curators, technicians and the council’s Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods, Community & Culture, are interviewed with a refreshing candour about their work, including the challenges and responsibilities of conservation and care. Rochdale today is a very different place to the cotton-rich manufacturing town it was when the museum and art gallery was established, but the interviews reveal a wealth of knowledge, passion and expertise about the collection and its place in the town.

This exhibition is a must-see for anyone who can make it to Rochdale before it closes on Saturday 1 June. www.contemporaryforwardrochdaleartgallery.org/projects/harry-meadley-but-what-if-we-tried/