Visit to BBC Written Archives, Caversham, Reading

During my visits to the Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading I had seen various references to BBC radio programmes which discussed Pictures for Schools. After following this up with archivists at the BBC I arranged a visit to the BBC Written Archives, tucked away in a bungalow in a residential area of Caversham in Reading, where they found me out several scripts on microfilm as well as material relating to other post-war BBC programming on art education.

Among the programmes was an extensive review of the 1955 Pictures for Schools exhibition on Children’s Hour by in-house art critic WR Dalzell (also a senior art master at independent Bedford School), who spent a considerable amount of time discussing and describing individual works, their subject matter and their effects – including painting, sculpture and embroidery – in detail, as well as explaining different artistic methods and media such as lithograph prints, and linking these techniques with children’s own work at school. Dalzell urged listeners to visit the exhibition for themselves, discussing the voting system for children to choose their favourite artworks, and ended by offering detailed public transport directions to get to the exhibition.

An episode of Today also included a brief segment on the 1965 Pictures for Schools exhibition, alongside an eclectic mix of items including George Melly on Nat King Cole and features on Esperanto, Dungeness Fish, falcons and an Islington building row, with Nan Youngman quizzed on students’ seeming preferences for abstract art that might be regarded as incomprehensible to their parents.

Another programme, a 1963 episode of World of Books, featured Nan Youngman interviewing Sybil Marshall about her 1963 book An Experiment in Education, which drew on her experiences in Cambridgeshire. Marshall was a teacher in a tiny village school in rural Cambridgeshire during Youngman’s time as county art advisor (1944-1954) and also attended Youngman’s classes for amateur painters and teachers. Youngman found Marshall’s work inspiring and encouraging, and took groups of overseas teachers to visit her students at school. The discussion encompassed the influence of educators such as Marion Richardson and Herbert Read, the pace of educational change and the extent to which educational innovation and experiment received acceptance or met with indifference or acceptance depending on the attitudes of individual teachers or heads.

I was also able to see correspondence regarding other programmes which were under discussion, including a proposed collaboration between writer Colin MacInnes and Nan Youngman on a programme about the British Council’s art education work overseas (Youngman acted as a lecturer and inspector for the British Council in various African and Caribbean countries) which appears never to have come to fruition.

Although I didn’t see any scripts, and it didn’t relate explicitly to Pictures for Schools, another file which absolutely fascinated me was a set of memos and reports dating from the late-1940s to the 1960s relating to a long-running radio series called Looking at Things. Designed as an educational course, the series appears to have been aimed primarily at secondary modern schools (though junior schools also made use of it) and accompanied by pamphlets which contained pictures of the ‘things’ under discussion as well as preparatory and writing activities for children to do in class. In keeping with a central theme I have identified in post-war discourse around education and reconstruction, the programme aimed to raise children’s standards of taste by encouraging them to look closely at everyday objects and places, from changes in fashion and interior decoration to modes and design of public transport, the style and function of buildings ranging from village churches and gothic cathedrals to new schools and civic centres, environments ranging from market or port towns and cathedral cities to new towns such as Peterlee, and new materials for manufacture and building. Experts were approached and enlisted to explain and present the topics under discussion, from eminent modern architects and professors to members of the Council for Industrial Design and furniture designers, although sometimes it was felt that the programme was too middle class, that experts did not fully understand the limitations of their audience, and that some of the language was unfamiliar to children, especially those from more deprived or urban backgrounds, to whom these objects or places may be out of reach. Although the programmes only occasionally seemed to refer directly to art per se, I felt that there were interesting educational parallels with Pictures for Schools, particularly in the way the programme really aimed to encourage children’s skills of close looking and seeing, particularly with reference to their future consumer purchases. There was also discussion of the series building links with Alexander Barclay Russell of the Society for Education through Art, under whose name Pictures for Schools was organised.


Third visit to Nan Youngman collection

I recently made my third visit to the Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading, and I now feel like what I look at is more about filling in the details and adding to a more complete picture of Pictures for Schools than helping to build my general understanding of Pictures for Schools and Nan Youngman.

Some of the interesting things I found during this visit included correspondence with the auctioneers Bonham’s regarding artwork which had been left unsold and uncollected after Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the 1960s: after debating whether it should be destroyed (it seems to me to be a real shame that this was even an option, if it was considered to be of good enough quality to have been selected for the exhibitions in the first place!), it was put up for auction. I also read correspondence between the Pictures for Schools organisers and Manchester Art Galley regarding the Rutherston Collection which was lent to educational establishments in the North of England. The keeper of the collection visited the Pictures for Schools exhibitions each year and reserved artworks which, if they were not sold first, were sent to Manchester to be approved for purchase for the collection by committee. I would love to know if the collection, which purchased work by Elisabeth Frink among other artists from Pictures for Schools, still exists. Another interesting set of correspondence related to the guide lecturers – who were seconded from Whitechapel Gallery’s Upper Gallery, or were Directors of Education – who took school parties around the Pictures for Schools exhibitions. There was some debate over how to provide the best experience for school parties and it was concluded that schools usually got more out of the visits if they had time to explore for themselves and ask questions rather than having each artwork explained to them. A large volume of correspondence from schools booking school visits and talks demonstrated the large volume of school visits which were made to the exhibition, with groups typically bringing between 20 and 30 and sometimes up to 70 children. Often, letters were followed up by notes of thanks saying how much the visits had been appreciated, but occasionally letters also expressed regret that the behaviour of students had got out of hand.

Shortly after reading Nan Youngman’s autobiography in the Tate Archive in London, which described a difference of opinion between Youngman and the rest of the Society for Education in Art when the Society voted to move overwhelmingly towards Herbert Read‘s ideas after 1945, it was interesting to find a chain of correspondence between Pictures for Schools exhibition treasurer Katharine Baker and Organising Secretary Joan Bartlett, and between Youngman and Joan Bartlett, in which some parties could barely conceal their frustration about the perceived inefficiency of the SEA and the lack of understanding it showed about its role in relation to the exhibition. Something else which backed up what I read in Nan Youngman’s autobiography, where she described the influence of Marion Richardson and her visualisation method, was a set of ‘O’ Level exam papers Youngman set for the Oxford Local Examination Board in the 1950s and 1960s, which asked examinees to choose a title from the list to help them conjure up a visual image.

Of tangential interest were photographs and reports relating to courses Youngman ran for the British Council both overseas and for overseas teachers in the UK. It was also nice to see another photo of Nan Youngman, this time holding a student’s work at the 1931 exhibition she held of children’s art at Wertheim Gallery. One curio was a bag filled with plastic discs which were used to draw lots at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions when more than one buyer was interested in the same artwork.

Something I am increasingly finding is that even if the basic information given in a catalogue listing does not seem promising, it is still worth looking at everything if possible as often information seems to have been put together in folders that does not seem to belong together – for example, a folder might seem to based on one topic, but then some interesting press cuttings have also crept in which show the critical attitude towards the exhibitions at different times. I had hoped to have finished looking at the collection during this visit, but it seems that I will need to return to Reading again to get a complete idea of what is there.