I’ve written a shortish reflection on my pilgrimage to the ‘sculpture town’ of Harlow, a mid-twentieth century new town in Essex, earlier this year, focusing on the redeveloped Water Gardens in the town centre and the architectural sculptor William Mitchell‘s gargoyle fountains, as a chapter for the new Modern Futures book.
Modern Futures, which is published by Uniformbooks, is edited by Hannah Neate (my Director of Studies) and Ruth Craggs and is an outcome of the Modern Futures research network, which brought together academics, writers, artists, photographers and practitioners for a series of events and workshops around the country exploring questions around changing perceptions of the experience, appreciation and preservation of modern architecture. The book brings together contributions prompted, explored and developed through these events, as well as reflections from a few familiar projects from Manchester such as Angela Connelly and Matthew Steele’s Sacred Suburbs survey and Manchester Modernist Society.
The book can be purchased online for £12 at www.colinsackett.co.uk/modernfutures.php.
I also used the Easter holidays as an opportunity to visit the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, Essex, along with the nearby village of Great Bardfield, in the north of the county. The Fry houses works by the group of artists associated with Great Bardfield from the 1930s until the 1960s, including Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Kenneth Rowntree, John Aldridge, Sheila Robinson, Michael Rothenstein, George Chapman and Walter Hoyle, with the artists famously passing on not just techniques to each other but decorating their homes and furniture. Saffron Walden is fairly close to Cambridge, where Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman lived and socialised and many of the Great Bardfield artists, along with others from across the wider area of East Anglia, were involved with and sold work through Pictures for Schools. The museum was smaller-scale than I expected, but I spotted several of the artworks which were sold at Pictures for Schools, including Sheila Robinson’s print ‘Knife Grinder’, a vivid and personable portrait of a now exotic profession, and the softer ‘Trent Bridge’, which shows her own children sitting on a bridge. One work, a busy cockerel by Michael Rothenstein, was produced for schools in collaboration with the London County Council and another of his works was sold through the School Prints. There were a lot of works depicting the local area in colourful detail, from market squares to country paths, churches and the artists’ homes – although the large, fuzzy shapes of Michael Rothenstein’s more abstract prints were among my favourites – alongside material relating to the artists’ sociable village life in Great Bardfield and the open houses that were held in the artists’ homes and studios.
As well as artworks, there were commercial products, from printed fabrics to book covers and illustrations for books such as the Shell Guides to Britain as well as the quaint Life in an English Village, which depicts places still familiar today such as local shops and the schoolroom. There were also designs for murals in public places such as ships and the Festival of Britain, along with Bawden’s humorous, cartoonish advertisements for companies such as Twinings tea and Fortnum and Mason. Among my favourites were pieces of pottery designed by Bawden and Ravilious and produced by Wedgwood, and pottery produced for P&O liners. I particularly loved a series of plates, bowls, etc themed around the garden and depicting leisurely uses of the garden in light lines and a hazy yellow palette, from weeding and picking produce to lazing under a tree, along with a set using a collection of garden implements to decorative effect.
Although I associate the eastern side of the country, and Essex in particular, with a flat landscape, the countryside around Saffron Walden was surprisingly hilly, with lots of windy country lanes. It felt unlike anywhere else I had visited in England, a small and unrepresentative pocket living up to the olde-worlde image so many people associate with England. Saffron Walden, like many of the villages around it, comprised narrow, slightly tilting, streets of old buildings, painted in pastel colours, many of them adorned with swirling patterned paint and tiles, interspersed with thatched cottages, with the centre dominated by a large church. Directly behind the museum was a large formal park with a walled garden, rose garden, ornamental hedges and greenhouses, one of several well-maintained green spaces, with others including a very large village green. Today, the narrow streets of Saffron Walden are congested with traffic, and the town centre is full of gastropubs, craft shops and clothes boutiques.
It must have been an adventure for Edward Bawden and co, when they moved into their homes without electricity in the 1930s, although they maintained one foot in London, catching the daily bus to London to teach at various art schools. For me, it felt cut off, islanded in the middle of fields. It was all very pleasant, but as a city dweller it all felt too enclosed, too pretty and picturesque, too quiet and idyllic. It felt like looking in from the outside, where one would always remain in relation to that kind of place, the type of place one goes to forget about the real world, and I found myself yearning for the life and variety of the city. Yet, conversely, maybe that is why the work of these artists and the moment in mid-twentieth century life and culture associated with them is still so appealing and in many ways still and timeless. These paintings and prints represent places and buildings that have been there for centuries, and will continue to be there long after we are gone, as life changes to a greater or lesser extent around them.
I also enjoyed this Radio 3 programme about Bawden and Ravilious’ friendship, presented by Alexandra Harris, which was on a couple of months ago.
This Easter I went to the exhibition Ladybird by Design at the modernist, seaside De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex, to catch a glimpse into another aspect of popular post-war education.
Through numerous original artworks and drawings from the books, the exhibition demonstrated the ways in which Ladybird sought to develop children’s knowledge about the world around them through simple, eye-catching words and images. Whereas other forms of post-war education I have looked at previously prioritised seeing and looking, Ladybird was all about reading as the ‘gateway to all future knowledge’, although there was still a strong visual appeal. The books’ subjects emphasised the ordinary, ranging from the natural world and its inhabitants (my personal favourite as a child was a guide to marine life at the seashore) to everyday activities such as shopping with mother, work occupations, the inner workings of machines such as aircraft and the application of science such as the use of nuclear power. The books also aimed to influence children in their own actions, promoting hobbies and activities such as experiments, crafts and card tricks through images of improbably neat, formally dressed children in jumpers, shirts and ties.
The most impressive thing about the exhibition was the number and scope of the subjects covered in the prolific range of Ladybird books. However, it was an exhibition whose interest laid mainly in its nostalgic value, providing ample opportunity for reminiscence by the three generations of my family in attendance.
I’ve recently been speaking to some friends of the painter Sarah Nechamkin, now 97, who was a student of Nan Youngman at Highbury Hill High School for Girls in London in the early 1930s. Sarah sold and exhibited work at Pictures for Schools in the late-1940s and early-1950s, to buyers including the West Riding of Yorkshire, and exhibited as recently as 2013.
Nan Youngman’s art teaching in Highbury Hill, which included a sketch club Sarah was a member of, was a big influence on Sarah’s artistic career. Apparently Nechamkin still talks about the role Youngman played in her career: as she says in a film made by her goddaughter, Siân Cwper, “it was the biggest piece of luck in my life … I owe everything to her”, and she recalls that Nan Youngman taught her how to “set free my imagination” at school. With Nan Youngman’s encouragement, Nechamkin went on to Chelsea School of Art, later returning there to teach as well as designing and illustrating books for the Curwen Press and Penguin, and she is one of the former students whose subsequent artistic careers and development Youngman highlights in her autobiography. The two also stayed in touch, as there is correspondence from Nechamkin in Youngman’s papers at the Tate, among much other correspondence from former students of Youngman’s, decades on, reminiscing about her distinctive art classes.
Watch Siân Cwper’s short film about Nechamkin, which was filmed at her home in Ibiza a few years ago:
Book review: The Architectures of Childhood: Children, Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Postwar England by Roy KozlovskyPosted: September 16, 2014
I recently reviewed Roy Kozlovsky’s book The Architectures of Childhood: Children, Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Postwar England (Ashgate, Farnham, 2013) for the Journal of Historical Geography and the review can now be read online at http://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S0305748814001376.
For the past couple of years I have been following the Decorated School, an interdisciplinary research network which has been considering the implications of embedding art in schools, often through the incorporation into buildings of site-specific work such as murals. Building on the ideas of twentieth century educator Henry Morris (Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, who in the 1940s employed Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman as his art advisor), the basic interest is in the idea of an educational environment which is itself part of the child’s education. Having attended a couple of their events, a research seminar and a final conference in London, I was pleased to be able to buy a new collection of essays which has arisen from the project over its two-year life span.
Like the eventual reach of the project and the network of researchers which grew up around it, The Decorated School: Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling is wide in its scope, ranging from interwar Scotland to post-war Britain to France, the United States, Japan, Denmark, Kyrgyzstan and Northern Ireland. Although some essays were familiar from being presented at Decorated School research events, others were new to me, with a particular highlight being Shona Kallestrup’s essay on Danish artist and writer Asger Jorn’s site-specific works for the Arhus Statsgymnasium, which highlights the difficulty of reconciling his vibrant, experimental murals with the academic formalism of the educational environment and building in which they were to be situated.
Early in the book, Annie Renonciat sets the scene really well for the following essays, detailing some of the goals outlined historically by those aiming to get art into schools. In the French context Reconciat focuses on, as elsewhere, these encompass the interrelated goals of educating an ‘aesthetic sense’ in children, enabling France to compete with other industrialised nations in the field of design, educating of the taste of the masses, and using art to uphold certain moral standards. Focusing on the period from 1880 to 1939, she provides an illuminating glimpse onto the efforts of bodies such as the L’Art a L’Ecole to create a visual environment in schools. Jeremy Howard’s chapter on 1930s Edinburgh is also really good background context for considering art in schools, introducing some of the individuals and ideas which laid the ground for art in schools later in the twentieth century: the words of William McKechnie, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Education Department, quoted here, reveal that access to art and design is a privilege of the citizen of modern, democratic Scotland, and something to be proud of, which will help the Scot to become a citizen of the world, explaining that the awakening of the ‘aesthetic sense’ will enable young people to practise critical discernment. Another highlight is Dawn Pereira‘s examination of the London County Council’s post-war patronage scheme with regards to schools, with particular reference to what types of artworks were considered to be suitable for schools, and the tensions which arose between head teachers, governors, artists and committees in the choosing and siting of artworks for schools.
Featuring individual artworks which have been rediscovered and reevaluated in recent years, in Hertfordshire, Edinburgh and elsewhere, the book is beautifully designed and illustrated, with colour photos throughout of artwork in situ in schools as well as in close-up detail, which really brings home how vibrant an educational resource art can be in a school context (I absolutely LOVE the cover image, a detail of a mural in Barclay School in Stevenage, Hertfordshire by Kenneth Rowntree, who also contributed to Pictures for Schools, which combines abstract forms referencing mathematical concepts with elements suggestive of storytelling and landscape, in bold block colours). The visual imagery is backed up by an engaging overview of how art education, artwork in schools and the concept and aims of visual appreciation has developed over the past century and a half, and how it can continue to be a fruitful area for both educators and researchers in the future.