During my recent sojourn in the south of England I was lucky to be able to visit a fascinating new exhibition about designer, painter and teacher Peggy Angus at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne, following a tip-off from Manchester Modernist Society’s Facebook page.
Although I didn’t previously know a great deal about Angus’ work, she was a contemporary of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman (like Youngman who lived from 1906-1995, Angus’ life spanned much of the twentieth century; she was born in 1904 and died in 1993), and regularly contributed paintings to Pictures for Schools in the first decade of the scheme, as well as linocut designs for tiles. I had previously read that Youngman first met Angus (popularly known as ‘Red’ Angus due to her left-wing beliefs, developed during a trip to Russia as a young woman, where she was inspired by the concept of art as propaganda and the idea of ‘art by the people, for the people’) on an Artists’ International Association May Day march, where Angus was carrying a banner and singing a song (conjuring up an evocative image of Angus, who the exhibition showed to be an eccentric and colourful dresser!). I had also been told that Youngman and sculptor Betty Rea, together with Rea’s two sons, used to visit Angus at her rural cottage the Furlongs in the South Downs in Sussex.
The Towner’s exhibition does a good job of evoking the atmosphere of the Furlongs and the circle of friends and contemporaries who congregated there, including Angus’ former peers at the Royal College of Art and fellow artists such as Helen Binyon, Eric Ravilious, John and Myfanwy Piper, Henry Moore, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the artist and educator Maurice de Sausmarez. Like the artistic hub based around Great Bardfield in Essex, which Angus visited, recalling that the homes were ‘wonderfully decorated’, mostly by the ‘poor wives’ of painters such as Ravilious and Edward Bawden, the rather primitive cottage was decorated with a homely combination of murals, tiles and wallpapers.
Tiles designed by Angus, as well as large-scale photographs of tiles and striking murals in situ in places such as post-war schools, universities and airports, are on display in the exhibition, alongside several of her paintings. Associated with a politically-charged socialist realist outlook, Angus’ painting focuses on landscapes and people, depicting the reality of what was around her in vivid, hyperreal shapes, textures and colours conveying light, atmosphere and experience, from cement works and train lines to the personalities and occupations of farming life. Particularly effective is collage of chopping wood. Other, more sketch-like work evokes friends, with a particularly striking example being a portrait of John Piper in front of one of his geometric paintings, the stripes of the cat on his knee, the grain of the floorboards, his pinstripe trousers and the sweep of his hair all contributing to a highly stylised image.
Just as important a focus of the exhibition is Angus’ career as an educator. Like Youngman, teaching was not Angus’s first choice of career; Angus took up employment as a teacher after the deaths of her brothers in the war. Unlike Youngman, Angus was employed by an independent school, North London Collegiate College. However, this appointment was to give Angus the opportunity to ‘revolutionise the relationship between student, teacher and school’. Like art educators such as Nan Youngman and Marion Richardson, with their focus on ‘child art’, Angus believed that children had ‘native talent’ and ‘sense of design’. However, where she differed was in her rejection of the growing trend for self-expression, which she regarded as producing outcomes where ‘everything is thrown in the wastepaper basket’. Taking her inspiration from William Morris, and aiming to break down the separation between art and life, Angus regarded children as ‘apprentices’ who would later be capable of designing their own homes and clothes. Angus appeared to have concentrated more on the practical, design-led aspect of art than conventional picture-making, encouraging students to use potato prints to come up with their own designs for tiles and wallpaper, which could be combined to great effect in different variations, and enlisting children to help create wallpapers and murals. In the less able, she endeavoured to cultivate an interest in art that would make them the patrons of the future. The exhibition discusses her notion of ‘creative patronage’, with Angus herself explaining that ‘people who are the most creative patrons are the amateurs, they’ve got to be creative themselves’ and ‘everybody’s creative if they’ve got creative patronage’. Also important in Angus’ approach to art education was the teaching of art history, with students taught in an annual, chronological progression from folk, Romany, canal and fairground art through Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic, ‘pop’, and so-on.
The exhibition is as much about Angus the woman as Angus the artist. Recorded and written reminiscences from those who knew her, whether as students or as visitors to the Furlongs, praise her inspiration and encouragement. Equally engaging are the opportunities to see Angus herself, on screen, at home and in her studio, in two documentaries played on a loop, one of which is narrated by her granddaughter Emma, herself a designer. The force of Angus’ considerable – and apparently formidable – personality, and her twin philosophies of ‘art for joy’ and ‘art for life’, permeate the show.
The exhibition runs until Sunday September 21.
After visiting the Rea family in London, I spent a full day reading a typewritten copy of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s (unpublished) autobiography in the Tate Archive, which was written in the mid-to-late-1980s. I found it to be highly readable and entertaining, written in a strong and engaging voice. It was interesting to hear where Youngman came from, from her early, comfortable middle class life in Maidstone, Kent with a mother who, like Youngman, had a penchant for organising things, to her miserable time at boarding school under the restrictive regimes which helped foster her non-conformist attitude later in life, to her days as a student at the Slade in the 1920s where she attended riotous parties, smoked, learned to play the tenor ukulele, formed close friendships with both men and women and, like many Slade students, looked down on students at the RCA. One surprise from this time is the detail with which Youngman recalls her outfits on different occasions, especially for a woman who was known for her pudding bowl haircut and almost always wore trousers!
Particularly relevant to my research were sections discussing Youngman’s teacher training under the art educator Marion Richardson post-Slade in the 1920s, which revealed the high esteem in which Youngman held both Richardson and her approach to teaching, such as the visualisation method which Youngman went on to replicate at the art clubs she ran for her own students. It was also great to be introduced to other characters who have cropped up a lot in my research into the art educational context around Pictures for Schools, such as Herbert Read, who Youngman suggests was inspired to write Education through Art by an exhibition of children’s work she held at Wertheim Gallery in 1931 and later visited the caravan in the orchard of Hitchingbrooke House in Huntingdon where Youngman lived during the war.
I appreciated being able to find out more about Youngman’s political beliefs, from the death of her friend Felicia Browne in the Spanish Civil War which made her realise “I was living in history”, to her involvement in the Artists’ International Association where she met Betty Rea in the 1930s and was involved in organising exhibitions and going on artists’ trips abroad, along with the rhetoric and posturing of those around her which eventually caused her to become disillusioned with Communist organisations. Something which came across strongly was Youngman’s relationships with those around her, from detailing love affairs to capturing the vitality of Betty Rea and discussing the numerous friendship groups she was part of, comprising artists, writers and academics, complete with their affairs and intrigue.
A particular adventure was a trip aboard a boat to spend some time with a friend in South Africa. Excitement of a different kind came during the war years, when the school at which Youngman taught art, Highbury Hill Girls’ School, was evacuated to rural Cambridgeshire. Youngman captures both the privation and sense of apprehension and excitement of the time, where she painted out of doors and, with Betty, ran local events to support Anglo-Soviet relations. One of the most touching areas of the autobiography is an appendix which reproduces a diary detailing the development of Owen Bell, a young baby who was entrusted to Youngman and Rea’s care during the war by a Communist friend of theirs who had gone away to fight and whose wife had died soon after childbirth. Youngman clearly doted on Bell, who returned to his father after he returned from the war with a new partner, and correspondence I’ve come across related to Pictures for Schools indicates that she continued to be very fond of him once he had reached adulthood.
Unfortunately, however, the autobiography only goes up to 1945. After a really useful section discussing the tension between Nan Youngman and other members of the Society of Education in Art such as Alexander Barclay Russell, who were divided over what Youngman saw as the high-minded, overly-academic theories of Herbert Read, it left me on a bit of a cliff hanger! I hope to find out if there is a more complete version elsewhere, as it stops before Pictures for Schools was founded in 1947, and I am keen to find out more not just about how central it was to Youngman’s life, but what she did after the exhibitions finished in 1969 and how she felt about them coming to an end.