Sarah Nechamkin, a student of Nan Youngman

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:


Third visit to Tate Archive

As I was in London for the RGS-IBG conference, I jumped on the opportunity to spend a couple more days looking at Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s papers in the Tate Archive. This time, I ended up looking at three sets of materials. The first comprised references written by Nan Youngman about her work as a teacher, from those who had taught her at school, at art school and at teacher training college – including art educator Marion Richardson, as well as her former employers at schools and art colleges.

The second was extracts from a Master’s dissertation written by Pauline Lucas focusing on Nan Youngman alongside two other woman artists, the artist and art educator Evelyn Gibbs (a regular contributor of work to Pictures for Schools) and Dorothie Field, a former student of Youngman’s who went on to found the 359 Gallery in Nottingham, showing how these women combined ‘public responsibilities’ with the production of artwork. It was interesting to see how Lucas had embarked on writing about Youngman’s life and work, including her ‘great art educational crusade’, and highligted aspects of her life and career including art education and the Artists’ International Association, both of which are given their own chapters. I also enjoyed Lucas’ discussion of the war years and the opportunities offered by evacuation to use education to offer comfort and familiarity to children far from home, as well as to experiment with different methods of teaching, for example painting outdoors. Something else which Lucas conveys well is the importance of individual personality and charisma, including Marion Richardson’s near-hypnotic influence over her child painting students and her subsequent influence on Youngman as a teacher. As well as drawing on sources I have looked at such as the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene, Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues and Nan Youngman’s autobiography, Lucas also had the advantage of being able to visit and speak to Youngman in her studio at her home near Cambridgeshire.

Finally, I rooted through a couple of folders of correspondence, particularly a large volume of ‘fan-mail’ – including a handwritten post-it note passed to Youngman during a lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club – sent to Youngman from former students and teachers who benefited from her support. What is striking is the number of former students who felt compelled to write to Nan Youngman, in many cases decades after they had left school and on taking up art again in their retirement. Many had been members of the Art Club run by Youngman at Highbury Hill High School in Islington in the 1920s and 1930s. Whilst some admitted they had no specific talent for art, they said that they had enjoyed her lessons and benefited from self-expression, gaining an ‘appreciation’ of art and developing their ‘taste’ in art and objects. One thing which was mentioned over and over again was the way in which art was applied beyond the art room, whether painting murals in school, designing sets and costumes for ballets and plays choreographed and performed by students, or creating ambitious puppet shows. A minority of correspondents had gone on to art college – although several reported that their careers had been curtailed by marriage and children – and become professional artists, whereas several others had become teachers. Whilst in later years Youngman invited this correspondence by publishing her address in the Highbury Hill old girls’ news letter, most correspondence was sparked in response to articles Youngman had written, or chance meetings with acquaintances. Although several remarked that they were too in awe of or intimidated by Youngman to talk to her much at the time, all thanked Youngman for ‘sowing the seed’ for an interest in art which had stayed with them across their lives and careers.

Hidden amongst the correspondence was another curiosity, photocopied pages from a 1936 school report for Highbury Hill High School for Girls, presumably written by London County Council’s inspector RR Tomlinson, an advocate of child art and new methods in art teaching. Although he painted a picture of art being squeezed for time during the school day, he was full of praise for Youngman’s teaching and the way in which an artistic ethos pervaded the school.


Second visit to Nan Youngman collection

A couple of weeks ago I made my second visit to the Nan Youngman collection in the Special Collections at the University of Reading, and had quite a different archival experience to my first visit. Last time I spent a lot of time looking at press cuttings, catalogues and TV and radio scripts, representing external reactions and representations of Pictures for Schools, whereas this time I got more into the nitty gritty of correspondence, administration and planning.

This turned out to be a plentiful source of information to mine, particularly the correspondence, much of which consisted of letters from members of the public and external bodies, but much of which also comprised letters between individuals involved in organising the scheme. Some of the small stories contained within this correspondence gave a sense of what the exhibition was like, and what it was like to take part and be involved, from correspondence with the designer of posters for the exhibitions, who offered to accept payment in wine rather than cash, to an exchange suggesting ways of making sure the drinking at the private view did not get out of control. One long chain of correspondence is between exhibition secretary Joan Bartlett and a helper, Evelyn Atkinson. Although the letters discuss mundane aspects of organisation such as payment and the best brand of typewriter, their personalities also come through and another narrative runs through the letters, of friendships and relationships, of social activities such as visiting other exhibitions in London and making a day out of it, and the importance of the exhibition to those who were involved, not just financially in terms of income but as an annual event and social opportunity. Some of the friendships forged during the exhibitions were lasting, as a letter from a contributing artist to the Exhibition Secretary, inviting her to go and stay at her home her elsewhere in the country, shows.

Other correspondence came from education authorities and schools, much of it asking for invitations to private views (usually requesting one or two invitations, in one case requesting several if it wasn’t ‘too greedy’ and in one case requesting one for each member of the art department so there could be no accusations of favouritism). Other correspondence revealed the choices education authorities and schools had to make with regards to spending funds on art, from a letter requesting an estimation of the number of works in the next exhibition which would be available below a certain price, as that was all the school had to spend, to a letter from someone hoping to establish a county art collection who wanted details about which education authorities of a comparable size to theirs already had collections. Sometimes, schools wrote requesting artists’ addresses, whether to get in touch about repairing a sculpture or hoping to write for more information about the artist and the work which could then be used alongside the work itself in school. Galleries also did the same, requesting addresses where they could contact artists for future exhibitions, showing the part Pictures for Schools played in giving artists exposure and opportunities.

Letters in the collection also show the exhibition’s relationship with other organisations such as the Embroiderers’ Guild, which helped cross-promote the exhibition by sharing information with its members, as well as other schemes such as the Nuffield Foundation’s scheme for hospitals. The organisers of Pictures for Schools also built up relationships with art colleges – sending in forms were circulated to staff of various departments at prestigious art schools such as the Royal College and the Slade, to be given to promising students.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that in the late-1960s, a growing number of students got in touch with Nan Youngman and Exhibition Secretary Joan Bartlett requesting information about aspects of the scheme, such as the questionnaires handed out to children visiting, for research they were doing into the use of art in schools, as well as into county and museum loan services.

I also found the amount of people who supported the exhibitions and didn’t want them to end touching; there was quite a volume of letters in 1970 and 1971 (the last edition of Pictures for Schools was held in 1969) asking if there would be another instalment of Pictures for Schools, from artists who had sold a lot of work through the scheme and received exposure as well as those who looked forward to it as an annual fixture. Something which was also evident in these years was the continuing efforts of people like Kenneth Jameson, Art Inspector for the Inner London Education Authority and President of the Society for Education in Art, who had long been involved with the scheme both as a contributing artist as well as a member of the planning committee, to come up with ideas for how the exhibitions could continue. Elsewhere, chains of correspondence indicated the continued search for a venue in these years.

What’s impressive is how well-documented nearly aspect of Pictures for Schools is, particularly in the 1960s; the retaining of copies of letters sent regarding the exhibition, as well as the replies, from letters inviting artists to serve on selection and planning committees to correspondence with the Arts Council, makes it possible to piece together a picture of the organisation of the exhibitions. It is also noticeable how well-organised and efficient the organisation appeared to be in co-ordinating a large number of artists, educators and administrators spread out across the country. However, records are noticeably weighted towards the 1960s onwards. This might coincide with a change in the Exhibition Secretary in 1963, to someone who perhaps considered it more important to keep such documentation. It’s also interesting to see what Nan Youngman herself kept, and among the ephemera in the collection are many press cuttings she has cut out relating to the careers of artists who had shown with Pictures for Schools, which indicates she took a personal interest in artists’ careers, as well as newspaper articles about controversy surrounding the Arts Council and the patronage of artists.

I also spent a while reading Nan Youngman’s teaching file, which included handwritten course notes relating to her teaching and lecturing around the country, as well as suggested book and materials lists for teachers. Something else which shed a light on her personality and beliefs were numerous typewritten manuscripts of her speeches and articles on art education. I came away from Reading with a real admiration for Nan Youngman and what she stood for and tried to achieve. There was a consistent message running through all her writing and talking, which she clearly put into practice through Pictures for Schools, which emphasised that art education was important for all children, that all children were capable of natural, creative expression, not just those who would go on to be practising artists, and that art education could enhance all areass of children’s experience in schools. It was also fascinating to see Youngman’s influences emerging, through repeated references to three figures in particular: art educator Marion Richardson, who Youngman studied under at the London Day College; Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire who employed Youngman as county art advisor for ten years (a folder of photographs showed children creating and interacting with art during her visits to Morris’ network of village colleges in the county) and writer and critic Herbert Read, whose book Education through Art Youngman both reviewed and repeatedly referred to in her speeches.