A visit to see Manchester Grammar School’s art collection: the final piece of the jigsaw

MGS mezzanineI have long wanted to know what happened to the artworks sold at Pictures for Schools once they had left the exhibitions, and tried to contact schools which purchased work. This always been unfruitful as many schools have closed, merged, changed name or changed location and premises since the 1960s. Though most of the buyers were local education authorities and education committees, there were a number of primary, secondary and independent schools across the country that bought work from the exhibitions. Unfortunately, those schools which do still exist are often unaware that they once owned original works of art.

I was pleased to discover, through a chance conversation with their Head of Art, Lisa Murphy, that Manchester Grammar School (MGS) is an exception and still has several, though perhaps not all, of the artworks it purchased at Pictures for Schools. Lisa, who has been at the school since 1998, is keen to use original works with students, whether through direct observation, as part of project work, or as the basis for reinterpretation.

Manchester Grammar School Art Collection Fund was suggested by an old boy in 1956 for the purchase of original and contemporary works of art, and governors, old boys and friends of the school contributed. The collection was not just limited to works on paper, but was intended to encompass ceramics and sculpture, though this was not in evidence when I visited. In 1960, an exhibition of the collection was held. The catalogue explained that:

“The aim has been to buy pictures that are good of their kind by modern artists, known and unknown.”[1]

In the 1980s, an Ivon Hitchens work was sold to enable new purchases to be made. Aside from the Art Collection, other work belongs to the school Common Room. Some works were purchased through a bequest and some were gifts. There are also remnants of an earlier collection, and other work includes a 1945 John Skeaping print of a mare and foal which was part of the School Prints series. In addition to its own collection, the school also made use of Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston loan scheme for educational institutions in the north of England.

The Pictures for Schools invoice books held in Nan Youngman’s papers at the University of Reading, though incomplete, reveal that Manchester Grammar School was a regular buyer from Pictures for Schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Invoices were made out to the bursar on behalf of Art Master JH Bell, and on occasion on behalf of the ‘High Master’. John Henry Bell joined in 1951 and served as Head of Art from 1956-81. An Oxford-educated historian and scholar, he also painted landscapes, with a particular interest in mountains. He was known for an extensive collection of art and architecture slides, and recorded talks for BBC radio. At that time, the historical and critical aspects of art were emphasised in the school more than the practical aspects.

MGS corridorI recently visited MGS, a large and still academically oriented independent school in suburban south Manchester, to see what remains of the collection, and to get a sense of these artworks in a school setting, The artworks are scattered around the school, which is based around an extensive and disorientating 1930s building. In general, the school gives the impression of being filled with art and visual stimulation. Students’ work is displayed throughout the large and impressively resourced art department, as well as in the shared spaces of the school such as hallways and corridors. Changing and themed exhibitions of students’ work take place in a small gallery space next to the main reception, and there is also a small sculpture garden containing students’ work. Staff rooms, common rooms, reception, offices and classrooms also have pictures on display, ranging from formal and old-fashioned portraits of former grandees to architectural drawings of the school to work by local artists and artists who have been in residence in the school, including modern photography and graffiti-style stencil work. Some of the original mid-twentieth century Priddy 9 Barrows La Dellworks of art purchased by the school can be found among this, and highlights of the collection are on display in a wide corridor area. These include Edwin La Dell’s 1960 lithograph ‘Priddy Nine Barrows’, a green, rolling rural landscape. Though I had seen photographs of the print before, I much preferred it in ‘real life’, seeing its mark-making close-up and its colour choices appearing more vibrant.

Like many school buyers, Manchester Grammar School bought a large number of prints from Pictures for Schools, although it did also purchase paintings. Many of the artists involved in Pictures for Schools, and represented in the MGS collection, were themselves involved in art education, at secondary or university level.

Susan Horsfield Boxes of Fish MezzaninePaintings at MGS include Gordon Bradshaw’s ‘Essex Landscape’ (1962), an unusual and stylised perspective on a townscape which is reminiscent of a briefly glimpsed view of a town looking down from a railway viaduct as the surrounding countryside stretches out behind it. Susan Horsfield’s ‘Boxes of Fish’ (1961) is a detailed oil painting. Horsfield met Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman through their involvement in the Women’s International Art Club and was invited by Youngman to submit work to the scheme. Peter Midgley’s humdrum oil painting ‘Still Life’ (1958), meanwhile, shows newspaper-wrapped grocery shopping in Kitchen Sink-style. Midgley taught at Beckenham School of Art.Peter Midgley Still Life Oil 1958

Philip GreenwoodSchools often had less money to spend on original works of art than local authorities. Prints, which could be purchased framed or unframed, were among the most affordable works of art at the exhibitions. Furthermore, prints such as linocuts had an obvious application in the classroom; they could be used to demonstrate to students what could be achieved in a medium they were likely to use themselves in school art lessons. There are also screen prints, etchings and lithographs. These include the bold 1966 screenprint ‘Blue Night Flower’ by Dennis Hawkins – who taught at Repton School and was a founding member of the Midland Group and the Printmakers’ Council’, which edges towards abstraction. Philip Greenwood’s, ‘Slate Street’ (1965) is a dark, sketchy, angular etching, while ‘Two Friends’ is a figurative lithograph by Alistair Grant, who studied with Edwin La Dell and taught at the RCA. Another print, ‘Barmouth’, from 1984, picking out the shapes of the town through exaggerated use of line and colour, is by John Brunsdon, who designed posters for Pictures for Schools as well as selling work through the scheme.

Euan Jennings Essex Gravel Pit No 2 Linocut 1957Perhaps the work I saw on my visit I liked the most was Euan Jennings’ highly stylised 1957 linocut ‘Essex Gravel Pit No 2’, a detailed reinterpretation of an everyday and workaday landscape in blue, black and yellow, in which contrasting textures and patterns are used to create contrast between different layers and areas of foliage, water, rock and stones. Jennings’ father was Principal at Tunbridge Wells School of Art.

Delhanty Summer Landscape with Cow Parsley gouache 1959I also like Denys Delhanty’s 1959 gouache ‘Summer Landscape with Cow Parsley’, a more unconventional landscape that has something in its palette of black, white, greys and pale blues, and brush marks resembling surface scrapes and bubbles, of the quality of a photographic negative. Denys Delhanty was Head of Art at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and his work was extremely popular in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions.

Town Hall Yard BawdenUnsurprisingly, given their prominence in Pictures for Schools, a number of the artists in the MGS collection are associated with East Anglia. These include the Great Bardfield artist Edward Bawden – an artist’s proof of his linocut ‘Town Hall Yard’ (1957) is on display – as is a large, sweeping, abstracted, expressive linocut of an ‘East Coast Storm’ (1967) by Julia Ball who was, like Nan Youngman, a member of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors.

Julia Ball East Coast Storm linocut 1967I was disappointed, however, not to see abstracted linocuts of farm machinery by Peter Green, one of the best-selling artists at Pictures for Schools, which once formed part of the collection. As Lisa Murphy is making a renewed effort to locate and catalogue the works to improve their visibility in the school, I’m hoping that perhaps they might be unearthed for a future visit.

[1] Information about the collection and the history of art teaching at MGS is largely drawn from the pamphlet Art at the Manchester Grammar School, edited by David Stockwell, 1993.

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Interview with Nan Youngman’s nephew, John Youngman

A couple of weeks ago I did my first oral history interview in a while, this time with Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s nephew, John Youngman, a former architect who moved to Totnes in Devon a few years ago after thirty years of living in Cambridge.

John is the son of Nan Youngman’s brother, Harold, to whom she was very close (just as I had read about in Nan Youngman’s autobiography, John discussed her love of dancing with his father when they were young), and her friend from the Slade, a South African called Lynda Burnett. He is around the same age as (although a couple of years younger than) Julian Rea, the son of Betty Rea, who was brought up by Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, who I interviewed earlier in the year. In a lot of ways, John’s life path is similar to that of the Rea children – they were sent to boarding school as young children, sent to live in America during the war and attended Cambridge. However, despite John growing up in Cambridge he did not see his aunt particularly regularly, although he did design a studio for her at her long-term home the Hawks in Waterbeach near Cambridge.

John’s wife Philippa, a copy editor for Cambridge University Press, was very fond of Nan Youngman, who she got to know after becoming engaged to John in the 1960s. Philippa told me that she wanted to be like Nan Youngman when she grew up, telling me that she admired her personal integrity and relish for life and what she was doing – although she was disappointed that notorious trouser-wearer Nan Youngman wore a skirt to her wedding! The picture I got from both John and Philippa was of a woman who was principled and impulsive, hard-working and sociable but could be fiercely critical and intolerant of perceived weaknesses in people.

Like the Reas, John and Philippa Youngman had some artworks by Nan Youngman on their walls, along with some abstract paintings by John’s mother, Linda, who, like Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, was a member of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors. It was really interesting to hear about John’s discussions with Nan about abstract art – John saw her as being a very academic painter – and to talk to someone who had clearly thought a lot about her paintings and had identified a narrative and humorous element in her work.

I found it amazing how vivid some of John’s memories were regarding people and places, and how much he had experienced in his life – like Betty Rea’s children, he was sent to America during the war on a steamer. Another early childhood memory was being sent to stay with his aunt and Betty Rea in London, and sleeping in Betty spacious studio surrounded by the ghostly outline of sculptures covered in sheets. Something thing which came across strongly was the childhood preoccupations of his generation, from fishing to iceskating. John’s description of his childhood in Cambridge gave me a real idea of the social background people like Nan Youngman came from. John, whose father was a doctor but whose grandfather (Nan Youngman’s father) was a corn merchant in Maidstone, was sent away to boarding school in Essex at the age of five before briefly being evacuated to experimental boarding school Dartington Hall in Essex. John also showed me a photograph of him and his older sister, Gilly, as children, with their nanny and under-nanny – his parents initially had several staff – although he said that things started to change after the war.

Although we didn’t talk about Pictures for Schools much – Philippa recalls attending a preview in the late-1960s, but more for the party than the art – the interview really made me realise how complex people and family relations can be and how differently people can feel about the same people and events. One small anecdote is that I had heard that Nan Youngman wasn’t a great cook, which surprised Philippa, as she remembers eating at Nan Youngman’s and inheriting a frying pan when she died.


Research poster no.2: Nan Youngman

I’ve been required to make another research poster for an upcoming event in my department, the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment at the University of Central Lancashire, for staff and post-graduate students to share what they are working on (see last year’s poster here) . This time, I decided to focus on Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman, as through my archival research and oral histories it has become apparent that her life story was intertwined with Pictures for Schools, and that a biographical focus on Nan Youngman will form a key part of my thesis. My recent PhD transfer viva also revealed that my discussions of Nan Youngman had piqued a lot of interest in her among people I have talked to about my project, both as a personality and as a central figure to Pictures for Schools.

(Click on the poster for a larger version)

Natalie Bradbury Nan Youngman poster


Second visit to Tate Archive

My most recent archive visit was another trip to see Nan Youngman’s papers at the Tate Archive. This time I focused on two sets of materials related to her time in Cambridge. The first related to her longstanding involvement in the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors from the 1950s, with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea, a small exhibiting society which aimed to help artists living around the city to feel less isolated, and to establish interest and patronage for their work among the local community. The Society continued to meet at Youngman’s home until shortly before her death in 1995, and in minutes of meetings which detail the allocated tasks for the Society’s exhibitions Youngman was generally described as ‘chief entertainer’.

The second, and more interesting set of artefacts, related to Youngman’s employment as Art Advisor in Cambridgeshire from 1944-1954 – including a speculative letter Youngman sent to Director of Education Henry Morris setting out her skills, experience and describing in detail why such a role could benefit the teachers and children of Cambridgeshire – in a nice touch she ends by pointing out that she has her own car, which would be useful for travelling around the rural schools! I have been reading some books about Henry Morris’s work and legacy, and something which comes out clearly is his difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships – his biographer, Harry Rée, suggests that he found it particularly hard to relate to women – yet there is a clear affection and respect emanating from the letters Morris and Youngman exchanged, and Morris clearly highly valued her contribution to the county. In the same folder are press cuttings relating to the local education committee’s plans to make Youngman’s role redundant as part of cost-cutting measures in 1952, going in the face of Cambridgeshire’s reputation as an enlightened county with regard to education and the arts. Youngman requested a series of letters of support arguing that she should be allowed to remain, from her local teaching trade union branch, the Society for Education in Art, Herbert Read and the warden of Sawston Village College, who stressed the practical and pragmatic value of Youngman’s support for the county’s art teachers, many of whom were previously lacking in confidence, and argued that for this reason art could not be seen as a ‘frill’. Youngman’s impact on individual teachers was manifested in several letters dating back over the years from teachers who had found encouragement and inspiration on her courses, and had been enthused to try out her teaching methods when they returned to school.

One small find which I found particularly touching was a highly personal letter from Bryan Robertson (better known as the long-running director of Whitechapel Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s) to Nan Youngman, in dense, neat handwriting, written when the former was a young man working for Heffer Gallery in Cambridge. It can only be described as fan mail, with Robertson stating his affection for Youngman as a person and as a painter (although he admits he is too intimidated by her to tell her in person), before taking an analytical look at her work in terms of colour and composition, and giving her frank and detailed advice about how her painting needs to develop. This includes telling her to start taking herself seriously as a painter, encouraging her to have a one-person exhibition and stressing the need to prioritise her painting over her role as an educator so she can take the place Robertson thinks she deserves among Britain’s great painters. Robertson’s affection for Youngman continued until she died; he writes at length on her in publications produced for exhibitions held in her 80th year and posthumously, and he appears to have been an important source of support and encouragement as well as, later, a key ally for Pictures for Schools in the post-war art world.