A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to spend a day in London in the expert company of Dr Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West, two researchers with backgrounds and ongoing research interests in public art and the London County Council (LCC): Dawn’s PhD work on William Mitchell and Anthony Hollaway as design consultants for the LCC was a major catalyst for my interest in post-war public art as a subject for academic study, and Rosamund is currently undertaking a PhD at Kingston University about public art commissions on post-war LCC housing estates.
We started at the Royal Festival Hall, where we saw the collaborative ‘festival quilt’. This large (although easy to miss – I’d never seen it before, despite visiting the Festival Hall on a number of occasions) artwork is composed of squares contributed by women’s groups from across the country commemorating landmark events, figures, inventions and developments in British history, from the 1851 Great Exhibition (the Festival of Britain, for which the quilt was commissioned, followed 100 years later) to the invention of the sewing machine, to cultural phenomena such as jazz and cinema, in a variety of styles. It’s full of detail and visual appeal and has aged well; it’s one of the quirkier aspects of this landmark building, which is well worth a look as a cultural document of the interests and values of a time and as a participatory, collaborative piece of art created by ‘ordinary people’. We also saw ‘Sunbathers’, a work by the Hungarian artist Peter Peri from the Festival of Britain which, after years of being lost and neglected, has been recently restored and resited high-up in the Festival Hall following a public awareness and funding campaign. Its athletic, interlinked figures now gleam pristinely in the nude, yet are strangely anonymous in their terracotta-coloured concrete.
Although sculpture was less popular among buyers at Pictures for Schools than paintings, prints and embroideries (mainly, probably, because it was more expensive and less easy to site in the school), Peter Peri was a regular exhibitor at Pictures for Schools. His work was, in its realism and everyday subject matter, such as small-scale sculptural depictions of children at play and leisure, characteristic of the mood and style of the exhibitions.
Peri’s work was part of a wider context of realist art promoted by critics such as John Berger for its accessibility and humanism; it emerged out of a context of politicised networks of artists such as the Artists’ International Association, founded in the 1930s, which worked to promote the status of the artist in society, provide employment for artists, raise public appreciation and increase opportunities to enjoy the arts, and to create social change through art. Peri was prolific in his public commissions for patrons such as schools and local authorities; writing in the New Statesman in the 1950s, Berger argued that, far from fitting into the fashionable London art world, his work came into its own when situated in workaday settings such as the school.For me, the most effective work we saw by Peter Peri on the tour was that which was still part of the fabric of the places where it was first situated. The best work of his we saw was ‘Following the Leader’ (1949), a relief on the exterior of a central stairwell of an otherwise nondescript earlier block of flats in a now-gentrified area of Vauxhall. Utilising coloured concrete, it depicts a ring of children ascending the brickwork hand-in-hand, tendons stretched and hair and skirts blowing in the wind. Although apparently simple, the feeling with which Peri has moulded the faces of the children, and the sense of play, movement, youth and vitality, he creates, gives it a quality which is touching and timeless. His real skill was to communicate a sense of relatability and humanity in these figures, despite their scale and necessarily being viewed from a distance.Although commemorating a sombre subject, children lost in the Blitz, it has less of the naivety and idealisation of motherhood, youth and childhood that characterised much of the work of the social realist genre, and which can be seen in his ‘Children Playing’ (1951-2) and in the exaggeratedly healthy, muscular figures of ‘Boys Playing Football’ (1951-2), two exterior murals on the nearby South Lambeth Estate.
We were fortunate to be able to see all these works in situ; the significance of all these artworks, and the social, historical and political context in which they were commissioned, has now been recognised by their listing, as part of a wider drive by Historic England to recognise and promote the public art of the period. However, the scale of gentrification of the once working-class areas of south London we visited was stark – like many across London, several of the estates were awaiting or had already undergone a process of redevelopment, with former council developments replaced with housing aimed at a far wealthier demographic, and now largely removed from the social purpose for which it was intended, and the democratic and inclusive spirit in which the artworks were commissioned.
One victim of this process of rebuilding was a 1956 concrete mural by Willi Soukop (another European emigre who exhibited at Pictures for Schools), inspired by the story of the Pied Piper yet noticeably more abstract in its shapes and style than the work of Peri, previously situated on a community hall on the Elmington estate in Camberwell. Although its value had been recognised enough for it to be retained and incorporated into a new development once the hall was demolished, it had been hidden behind foliage in a new nature garden, surrounded by modern flats, where its visual impact was considerably lessened.
Although Nan Youngman was the organiser and originator of Pictures for Schools, she had the support of long-running exhibition secretaries, who themselves had interesting backgrounds and careers.
Slade-trained painter and writer Sylvia Pollak was the first Organising Secretary. She had, like Youngman and many of their circle, links with the Artists’ International Association and the Women’s International Art Club.
She was succeeded by art historian, writer and lecturer Alison Kelly, who had a particular interest in furniture and pottery, from 1950-1957, when she resigned to spend more time lecturing; it’s unfortunate that I didn’t realise she was alive until August 2016, living to the ripe old age of 102! During the war, Kelly had been flown around the country working on camouflage schemes for possible bombing targets such as factories.
Katharine Baker, who had been treasurer for the Society for Education through Art, took over from 1958-1967. She had previously worked for the British Institute for Adult Education, which during the war organised good design exhibitions, put pictures in air raid shelters, armed services establishments and British Restaurants, and sent exhibitions to outlying districts. She received a New Year’s day MBE in 1948 for her work on the ‘Art for the People’ travelling exhibitions.
Finally, Joan Bartlett was Organising Secretary from 1967 until after the exhibitions’ close in 1969, when the exhibitions were held at the Royal Academy’s Diploma Galleries. I know little about Joan Bartlett other than that she lived in Saffron Walden.
I’ve recently been corresponding with Katharine Baker’s nephew, who has shared correspondence revealing the amount of expertise and hard work behind Pictures for Schools and the working relationships between Katharine and Nan. She was obviously held in very high regard by both Nan and the exhibiting artists and purchasers.
One of the first books I read when I started my PhD, to gain some context of the experiences of interwar women artists and art education, was Pauline Lucas’s Evelyn Gibbs: Artist and Traveller. It’s a biography of the painter and art educationalist Evelyn Gibbs, a contemporary of Nan Youngman’s who was involved in Pictures for Schools as a submitting artist as well as a member of the organising and selection committees in early years.
Gibbs settled in Nottingham after evacuation during the war and was a founder of the Midland Group, which organised travelling exhibitions around workplaces, such as ‘Art for All’, as well as producing murals in public and commercial settings such as factory canteens. She also, like Youngman and many Pictures for Schools contributors, exhibited with the Artists’ International Association, including a still life of cake treats lined up on a canteen counter included in the ‘For Liberty’ exhibition in the basement canteen of the Blitzed John Lewis.
Lucas has now co-curated an exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery focusing on two periods of Gibbs’ work. The first highlights her time studying in Rome in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where she produced delicate etchings exuding human experience and emotion. The second is a body of work produced as a war artist, documenting women’s work at the Raleigh Factory in Nottingham, in a blood transfusion unit, and in a women’s voluntary centre in Leicester which encompassed activities such as a swap shop and clothes exchange. Elsewhere, she documented the jumbled disruption of bomb sites.
It’s the latter set of works that I find more compelling. In the Raleigh factory, women workers are dwarfed by machinery, towering stacks of boxes and components. Other paintings created during the 1940s capture the more mundane: streets, reflections, facades, trees, windows and huddled figures.
Gibbs’ work is represented in county collections including Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and London. Nottingham Castle, too, contains a body of mid-twentieth century paintings in its collection, in which several names familiar from Pictures for Schools are represented, including John Piper, LS Lowry and Ben Nicholson. Men of Straw demonstrates Richard Eurich’s strange, narrative storytelling, which was popular with child visitors to Pictures for Schools. Marion Adnams lines up the backs of terraced houses and rows of gravestones, overlooked by the tall order of a church spire. Carel Weight’s African Girl 2 is a striking portrait of a model in an artist’s studio. It’s here, too, that I found the Gibbs work I liked the best: Industrial View of 1953, in which a blur of blue, red and grey chimneys, swept with wispy smoke, blend into an overhanging dusky sky.
Evelyn Gibbs in Peace and Wartime continues until Sunday 9 October.
For more information visit www.nottinghamcastle.org.uk/explore/exhibitions/evelyn-gibbs.
An interesting article in the Guardian about Felicia Browne, fellow artist, Artists International Association member and friend of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman, whose death in the Spanish civil war politicised Youngman according to her autobiography.
I recently made a trip over to Leeds to see a new exhibition of works by Maurice de Sausmarez at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds, held to mark the centenary of his birth and continuing until 20 February 2016.
De Sausmarez was closely involved in Pictures for Schools, serving on planning and selection committees and selling work through the exhibitions, as well as the Society for Education through Art (SEA). He took over as president of the SEA from 1968, before his early death at the age of 54 in 1969.
De Sausmarez also moved in the same kinds of social circles as Nan Youngman and other Pictures for Schools artists, and was a member of the Artists’ International Association (AIA), of which he was chairman in the 1940s, although his widow, the artist and colour specialist Jane de Sausmarez, told me that he didn’t want to have anything to do with politics after the war. I visited Jane in London earlier this year and she told me that he was good friends with Herbert Read and Betty Rea, and admired her as an artist. He also lived in a caravan at Peggy Angus’ home in Firle, Sussex, and made melon and ginger jam in return for paying rent. He was one of the many artistic and intellectual visitors to Firle to be painted by Angus. Jane met Maurice in 1960. She taught in the textiles department one day a week, under Constance Howard, who had malachite green hair. Howard’s work, along with other artists in the department, was very popular at Pictures for Schools and Jane recalls that people went to the Goldsmiths degree show especially for the textiles.
Like several of the other Pictures for Schools artists, de Sausmarez was involved in the Recording Britain project. He was also an influential figure in art education. His book Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form, published in 1964, influenced the way art is taught in universities, and he taught in Leeds for many years. Jane pointed out several of his former students in the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues I showed her, including at Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting in London, where he was Principal in the 1950s.
Among the work on display at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery are works shown with the AIA. These include ‘A Garden – God Wot!’, from 1939, which was shown at Picture Hire Gallery as part of the Everyman Prints series, a small, black and white zinc lithograph depicting an air raid shelter in a back garden. Another, ‘Red Cross Nurses, Long Liston Practices’, is a study for a painting in the AIA exhibition For Liberty.
There were also some pictures exhibited at Pictures for Schools in 1967, including ‘Faceted Still Life’ (1961/1962), a linear and fragmented still life. Most of the works in the exhibition are either still lifes or landscapes, depicting places in France and Italy as well as the coast of the North East, together with a few portraits. There is a noticeable contrast between those which are representational in a relatively straightforward way, and those which use colour, form, patterns, light and movement in a distinctive palette of purples, greens, yellows, oranges, pinks and blues to create varying degrees of abstraction. On display alongside the paintings were a number of studies, suggesting a process before which works became abstracted. Interestingly, some of the more the abstract works made their way into schools, including ‘Head Form’ and ‘Abstract’, both of which can still be borrowed today via the Artemis scheme.
Also on display were materials relating to de Sausmarez’s involvement in education. This included a pamphlet detailing ‘Talks for 6th Forms’, broadcast by the BBC to schools in Spring 1960. De Sausmarez was among the speakers, introducing the series with a lecture on ‘art and public’, with Carel Weight, Ceri Richards, Reg Butler and Denys Lasdun following, prior to a series introducing children to trade unions.
I was struck by De Sausmarez’s skill as both a draughtsman and a painter, and his distinctive style, and wondered why he is not a more widely known figure today. I hope that both this exhibition, and the accompanying catalogue, will help raise his profile and find him a new audience.
Whilst in Leeds I also stumbled upon a selection day for the Leeds picture hire scheme, which is open to the public. A selection of paintings and prints were propped up on chairs for perusal in a small room at Leeds Art Gallery, and could be taken home in special carry bags. It is amazing what you can get for £4 a month, including prints by Pictures for Schools artists Julian Trevelyan, John Addyman and Edwin la Dell, and it made me wish there were such schemes were more common.
One of the books I have most enjoyed reading recently has been the artist Julian Trevelyan’s memoir, Indigo Days, first published in the 1950s. Trevelyan, along with his wife, the painter Mary Fedden, was one of the best-selling artists at Pictures for Schools from the early days right until its close, selling etchings, prints and paintings displaying varying degrees of abstraction and depicting subjects ranging from London streetscapes and landscapes in Gozo to oxen to forests (one of my favourites is this painting, ‘Forest‘, in the Derbyshire collection). Trevelyan was also involved in Pictures for Schools planning and selection committees, helping select artworks for display at the exhibitions.
Indigo Days is a really fascinating account of Trevelyan’s life and development as an artist, detailing the literary, artistic and political scenes he moved in, both in the UK and abroad, from his early involvement with the Surrealists to the Artists’ International Association, as well as evoking vividly places at home and abroad, from early education and school art teachers to his home and studio on the Thames at Hammersmith to foreign climes visited during the war. Particularly useful for my research were sections on Treveylan’s involvement as an artist in the Mass Observation project in Bolton, and his wartime work as a camouflage officer (alongside other Pictures for Schools artists such as Steven Sykes), along with his creative process and the inspiration he found in ordinary, everyday scenery, from a life-long preoccupation with smoking chimneys to the landscapes and distinctive architecture of the Potteries. It’s just a shame Trevelyan’s memoir comes to an abrupt halt after the war and doesn’t detail his later work and career. Although the book is now expensive to buy, I was fortunate to find a reprinted edition from the 1990s (with a beautiful cover) in my university library. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in twentieth century British art, design and culture, and artistic and intellectual life.