Paper at International Standing Conference for the History of Education, Porto, 19 July: Pictures for Schools: Critical education in the art gallery and the classroom

I am delighted to have had the following paper accepted for the International Standing Conference for the History of Education at the University of Porto next week.

Pictures for Schools: Critical education in the art gallery and the classroom

Pictures for Schools was founded by the artist and educationalist Nan Youngman (1906-1995) to sell affordable works of art by contemporary British artists to educational establishments across the country, including schools, teacher training colleges and local education authorities.

One aim of the scheme was to change the physical spaces in which children’s education took place by making them visually stimulating. Another, equally important motivation, was to develop children’s skills as critical observers, which could then be applied to the places which surrounded them, and the consumer choices they would make as the citizens of the future.

At the first Pictures for Schools exhibition, which took place in 1947 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, children who visited were asked to express their preferences by voting for their favourite exhibit. These preferences were later discussed in accounts of the exhibitions by the organisers, and received with great interest by the press. At later exhibitions, which took place annually at various London art galleries until 1969, visiting school groups were given questionnaires which aimed to encourage them to look closely at the artworks on show, with the questions varying slightly each year. Some questions placed the artworks in relation to children’s own experiences of creating art, encouraging respondents to identify and compare elements such as technique, media, subject matter, styles and genre. Others positioned children as critics, asking them to discuss the artworks they felt were most successful. Children were also encouraged to imagine themselves as future patrons and consumers of the arts, by stating which artwork they would like to take home with them if they were able to.

This paper will explore the ways in which Pictures for Schools offered children a critical education across two types of educational spaces, the art gallery and the classroom. It will visit a series of educational spaces where, in the decade leading up to the Second World War, Youngman established the value of the active, participatory form of art education which would be promoted through Pictures for Schools. These include Youngman’s teacher training at London Day Training College, her time teaching art in girls’ schools in the 1920s, and the decade she spent as peripatetic art advisor to Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, from 1944 onwards.

The critical education offered through Pictures for Schools will then be placed within a wider context of post-war Britain. After the Second World War, the formal education system was extended. At the same time, opportunities for informal education and cultural experiences went beyond the school, museum and art gallery to encompass public and leisure spaces such as town centres, shopping centres, libraries and housing estates, where citizens were asked to be critical observers of the places and objects which surrounded them every day. This paper will explore the role of artworks as a pedagogical tool and argue that Pictures for Schools played a part in developing the skills of future citizens who were required to play an active, critical part in post-war reconstruction and society.

For more information about the conference visit

I will be taking part in session 4.10, which takes place on Friday 19 July from 9am-11am.

Projects for Places writing workshop for UCLan MA Fine Art students

A few days ago I was invited to run a writing workshop for students on the Projects and Places pathway of the Fine Art Masters at my old university, the University of Central Lancashire.

I was asked to show the different types of writing I have done, and the different forms and approaches I have used.

It was a really nice opportunity to revisit many of the previous projects I’ve done, many of which have shared an interest in place, from self-publishing ‘zines to collaborations, research projects and public events. It was also interesting to see my PhD as part of a continuum, which had both been informed by and affected the types of writing I do.

I took along lots of examples of publications which have inspired me, and we had a really good discussion about what makes us hold on to or keep a publication in a world where we’re surrounded by printed matter and information, and what effect does good writing have on us – does it make us want to learn and research more, or go out and visit an exhibition or place?

We also discussed the form and function of art writing. How and where can you be critical, and who has the space to be critical? What is the role of conversation and dialogue in criticism?

A London public art trip: Peter Peri, Willi Soukop and the Royal Festival Hall

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to spend a day in London in the expert company of Dr Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West, two researchers with backgrounds and ongoing research interests in public art and the London County Council (LCC): Dawn’s PhD work on William Mitchell and Anthony Hollaway as design consultants for the LCC was a major catalyst for my interest in post-war public art as a subject for academic study, and Rosamund is currently undertaking a PhD at Kingston University about public art commissions on post-war LCC housing estates.

We started at the Royal Festival Hall, where we saw the collaborative ‘festival quilt’. This large (although easy to miss – I’d never seen it before, despite visiting the Festival Hall on a number of occasions) artwork is composed of squares contributed by women’s groups from across the country commemorating landmark events, figures, inventions and developments in British history, from the 1851 Great Exhibition (the Festival of Britain, for which the quilt was commissioned, followed 100 years later) to the invention of the sewing machine, to cultural phenomena such as jazz and cinema, in a variety of styles. It’s full of detail and visual appeal and has aged well; it’s one of the quirkier aspects of this landmark building, which is well worth a look as a cultural document of the interests and values of a time and as a participatory, collaborative piece of art created by ‘ordinary people’. We also saw ‘Sunbathers’, a work by the Hungarian artist Peter Peri from the Festival of Britain which, after years of being lost and neglected, has been recently restored and resited high-up in the Festival Hall following a public awareness and funding campaign. Its athletic, interlinked figures now gleam pristinely in the nude, yet are strangely anonymous in their terracotta-coloured concrete.

Although sculpture was less popular among buyers at Pictures for Schools than paintings, prints and embroideries (mainly, probably, because it was more expensive and less easy to site in the school), Peter Peri was a regular exhibitor at Pictures for Schools. His work was, in its realism and everyday subject matter, such as small-scale sculptural depictions of children at play and leisure, characteristic of the mood and style of the exhibitions.

Peri’s work was part of a wider context of realist art promoted by critics such as John Berger for its accessibility and humanism; it emerged out of a context of politicised networks of artists such as the Artists’ International Association, founded in the 1930s, which worked to promote the status of the artist in society, provide employment for artists, raise public appreciation and increase opportunities to enjoy the arts, and to create social change through art. Peri was prolific in his public commissions for patrons such as schools and local authorities; writing in the New Statesman in the 1950s, Berger argued that, far from fitting into the fashionable London art world, his work came into its own when situated in workaday settings such as the school.For me, the most effective work we saw by Peter Peri on the tour was that which was still part of the fabric of the places where it was first situated. The best work of his we saw was ‘Following the Leader’ (1949), a relief on the exterior of a central stairwell of an otherwise nondescript earlier block of flats in a now-gentrified area of Vauxhall. Utilising coloured concrete, it depicts a ring of children ascending the brickwork hand-in-hand, tendons stretched and hair and skirts blowing in the wind. Although apparently simple, the feeling with which Peri has moulded the faces of the children, and the sense of play, movement, youth and vitality, he creates, gives it a quality which is touching and timeless. His real skill was to communicate a sense of relatability and humanity in these figures, despite their scale and necessarily being viewed from a distance.Although commemorating a sombre subject, children lost in the Blitz, it has less of the naivety and idealisation of motherhood, youth and childhood that characterised much of the work of the social realist genre, and which can be seen in his ‘Children Playing’ (1951-2) and in the exaggeratedly healthy, muscular figures of ‘Boys Playing Football’ (1951-2), two exterior murals on the nearby South Lambeth Estate.

We were fortunate to be able to see all these works in situ; the significance of all these artworks, and the social, historical and political context in which they were commissioned, has now been recognised by their listing, as part of a wider drive by Historic England to recognise and promote the public art of the period. However, the scale of gentrification of the once working-class areas of south London we visited was stark – like many across London, several of the estates were awaiting or had already undergone a process of redevelopment, with former council developments replaced with housing aimed at a far wealthier demographic, and now largely removed from the social purpose for which it was intended, and the democratic and inclusive spirit in which the artworks were commissioned.

One victim of this process of rebuilding was a 1956 concrete mural by Willi Soukop (another European emigre who exhibited at Pictures for Schools), inspired by the story of the Pied Piper yet noticeably more abstract in its shapes and style than the work of Peri, previously situated on a community hall on the Elmington estate in Camberwell. Although its value had been recognised enough for it to be retained and incorporated into a new development once the hall was demolished, it had been hidden behind foliage in a new nature garden, surrounded by modern flats, where its visual impact was considerably lessened.

Pictures for Schools: children as art critics

After getting stuck into the history and operations of Pictures for Schools, the aspect of the exhibitions I currently find most interesting is the way Pictures for Schools placed children’s opinions and ideas on contemporary art at the centre of the exhibitions and repositioned children as art critics, a group of society whose opinions were worthy of consideration alongside those of adults. The organisers of Pictures for Schools did this by inviting child visitors to vote for their favourite work of art on show each year, divided into girls’ favourite, boys’ favourite and favourite overall, and the top five works were shown at the next year’s exhibition; much was made of this, and children’s tastes, in press reports of the shows, placing a new emphasis on the opinion of a section of society not usually regarded as experts on culture.

On the subject of criticism, I have been reading a collection of essays by American writer Susan Sontag, written in the mid-1960s and based around the titular essay Against Interpretation, in which she rails against what she saw as a tendency for art to be reduced to something which exists to be interpreted. This, she argues, is manifested in a tendency for form to be separated from content when viewing art, with content seen as the essential element of a work of art and form just an accessory. Art, she says, is interpreted in terms of what its content can tell the viewer – what it is about, what it is trying to say, etc. According to Sontag, interpretation works according to certain codes and rules, which involve identifying elements in an artwork and using them to translate the meanings present in the work, resulting in a ‘shadow world of meanings’. This leads to an impression that the content of a work of art is the work of art, with art being valued insofar as it says something. Interpretation, therefore, is a way of justifying and defending art’s existence, and at the same time taming it and making it manageable and conformable. Sontag defines interpretation in the modern context as ‘the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone’, and her objection to reducing a work of art to its content is that art is seen in terms of how it can be put to use, rather than being appreciated for what it is. Perhaps this is why, as Sontag identifies, so much painting of the time, from abstract art to Pop Art, seemed to flee interpretation by providing no content for analysis, as in the case of abstract art, or providing content too obvious to invite interpretation, as in the case of Pop Art.

Interestingly, Sontag draws parallels between the explosion in interpretation and the pollution of the modern world, drawing on the visual imagery of “fumes of the automobile and heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere”. She goes on to describe interpretation as “the revenge of the intellect upon art”, which has parallels in the writing of Gestalt psychologists such as Rudolph Arnheim on visual perception, who argued that the increased mediation of art by critics and others with prominent, forcible, audible opinions was stopping the viewer from feeling able to trust their own senses and judgements. This resonates with Sontag’s view of interpretation as ignoring the sensory experience of works of art, something which she also sees as being hindered by a general cultural excess of sensory experiences which leads to a deadening of sensory faculties. Sontag therefore highlights the need to ‘recover our senses’ from the crowdedness of modern life, stating: “We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”

Although the organisers of Pictures for Schools did offer guides and lectures to accompany visits to the exhibitions as a means of interpretation, questionnaires and voting forms handed out to children visiting were designed to make children really look at works of art to help identify how they really felt about them without being led towards a particular opinion influenced by external standards of taste. Instead of being told what to see, children were given the tools to approach a work of art and to ask questions of themselves and the artwork about how the artwork made them feel, see and react. Although many of the artworks included in Pictures for Schools were content-heavy in the traditional sense, often depicting recognisable scenes from everyday life such as landscapes and people, the questionnaires handed out at Pictures for Schools were worded in such as a way as to lead children to identify and make judgements about aesthetic quality. Questionnaires asked children to pick out certain features and characteristics of artworks such as colour and shapes, before asking them to choose the most effective and stimulating artworks.

In Against Interpretation Sontag also turned her attention to suggesting a new kind of art criticism which would work with art rather than take its place, identifying a need for an emphasis on form rather than content including ‘extended and more thorough descriptions of form’ and a ‘descriptive rather than prescriptive’ vocabulary to describe these forms. Sontag also suggests that ‘transparence’, which she defines as ‘experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are’, is the most liberating approach to art and criticism: content is something which must be cut back to reveal the true nature of the work of art. When Sontag states that the role of criticism is to make the work of art more real to the viewer, and to ‘show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means‘, this again brings me back to Pictures for Schools and its emphasis on original works of art having their own value which stands apart from and is superior to an experience of art obtained through reproductions, with the experience of the original central to understanding how artists had achieved the effect and impact of the work of art. Importantly, the Pictures for Schools questionnaire also asked children to define their understanding of ‘original’, in the context of artworks, ensuring that they were aware of how reproductions differed from the genuine item in their essential qualities.

This activity of asking children to develop and express critical opinions can be seen as a kind of active looking, a form of learning through experience, in this case the experience of original works of art and of making critical choices which were valued and listened to. Visiting Pictures for Schools and playing a full part in the exhibition required children to pay close attention to what was around them and develop their own visual skills, senses and descriptive vocabulary rather than merely becoming passive recipients of culture.