Interesting upcoming talks in Leeds for fans of twentieth century art and design

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.

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Enid Marx in the news

I’ve been pleased to see a couple of articles recently shining a light on the print-maker Enid Marx, who exhibited linocuts and woodcuts at Pictures for Schools in the late-1950s and early 1960s, and sold to work to schools and local education authorities through the scheme.

The Guardian and the Twentieth Society Century magazine have both featured articles on her career, which encompassed both art and design, to coincide with a new exhibition of her work at the House of Illustration in London, and a new book about her by Alan Powers.

I hope to get chance to visit the exhibition in London, which is on until 23 September.


Warpaint by Alicia Foster

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.

 


Reflections on Marion Adnams Symposium, University of Derby

Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.

The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.

My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.

For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?

I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.

The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.


Viva survivor

I’m really pleased to announce that I passed my viva on Friday, at the University of Central Lancashire.

I was examined by Dr Sarah Mills from the University of Loughborough, who has done a lot of work about the history of twentieth century British youth movements in relationship to informal education and citizenship, and Dr Keith Vernon from UCLan, whose work I had come across in the context of adult education and the co-operative movement.

I talked them through my research and methodologies, at the same time as giving them more detail about how the scheme worked in practice, including the voluntary involvement of the artists involved and the ways in which the artists chose the pictures that they submitted to be exhibited. They asked me some interesting questions about the ways in which I framed my research – including the extent to which the ideas which informed Pictures for Schools were new ideas, or the extent to which they were older ideas that found a receptive environment for implementation in the post-war period; the extent to which the recent interest in post-war Britain is informed by nostalgia; and critical reactions to Pictures for Schools, and the extent to which I maintained a critical distance from Nan Youngman, despite my admiration of her as the founder of the scheme.

I spoke to several former PhD students before my viva, and the best bit of advice I was given was to try to enjoy my viva, and to bear in mind that it was a one-off opportunity to discuss my work in-depth with people who had read it more thoroughly than it is likely to be read by anyone else. I certainly felt really encouraged by my examiners’ interest in and enthusiasm for Pictures for Schools.


Exhibition visit: ‘School Prints’, Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield

I recently visited a small exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield about the School Prints, which emerged at a similar time to Pictures for Schools. The School Prints commissioned work by many of the artists who sold work at Pictures for Schools, including Julian Trevelyan, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein and LS Lowry, and several of those involved in Pictures for Schools, including Nan Youngman, Herbert Read and Audrey Martin, were on its advisory panel. Ultimately, however, Pictures for Schools, and supporters such as Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, reacted against the School Prints, believing that it did not go far enough, and that ‘original’ artworks such as paintings, sculptures and textiles were of more value to schools.

Some of the prints on display at the Hepworth had been accessioned from the West Yorkshire education service, although there was no mention in the exhibition of the fact that the West Riding, under Director of Education Alec Clegg, had once been regarded as one of the leading local education authorities for the provision of artworks to schools, and had created one of the country’s largest county loan collections. However, these efforts to provide artworks to local schools clearly still played some part in the cultural memory of the area. During my visit, a woman turned to the woman she was with and reminisced about attending a brand new school which had opened in 1952, and had a large, bright work of art on the wall which, she speculated, ‘must have had something to do with this’.

I was pleased to see quotes from students from a local secondary school, who had been trained as ‘art ambassadors’, on display alongside the artworks. My favourite comes from 13-year-old Alison Alute, who said: “All the different things going on in this painting makes a little voice in my head scream with excitement!”

I have reviewed the School Prints exhibition for Corridor8 at http://corridor8.co.uk/article/school-prints.


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.