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.

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Archive visit: Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading

Last week I spent a day and a half browsing Nan Youngman’s papers in the special collections at the University of Reading. Nan Youngman was the founder of Pictures for Schools and, as an artist and art teacher, she was heavily involved in both the Artists International Association and then the Society for Education in Art (SEA). The collection (or at least the parts I saw, which wasn’t a huge proportion of it) was concerned mainly with the history, development and documentation of Pictures for Schools over its two decades-plus existence through correspondence, scripts, exhibition catalogues, photographs and press cuttings. I had been unsure of the date when Pictures for Schools finished, although I had suspected 1969 as I hadn’t seen any references to it in archive/gallery collections after that year, and correspondence between Youngman and the president of SEA revealed that, although 1969’s exhibition was the most successful yet, Pictures for Schools was forced to draw to a close due to the difficulty of finding a venue — the Royal Academy, where the exhibition was held in preceding years, massively increased its charges for hiring rooms, a lack of financial commitment from the Arts Council, who had previously guaranteed the exhibitions against loss, and increasing financial pressures on schools at the time.

I started with an oversize scrapbook entitled ‘Nan Youngman’s Pictures for Schools file’, which contained exhibition catalogues and several pages of press cuttings per show documenting the Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place between 1947 and 1966. This gave me a really good sense of the public profile of Pictures for Schools: it appears to have received considerable press coverage, not just in specialist arts, culture and education publications, but in the national press, publications related to specific sections of society such as the Daily Worker and Jewish and Christian newspapers, and local newspapers, who often highlighted artists from their local area who had submitted or sold work through the show, and visits and acquisitions by local education authorities and particular schools. Among the writers were John Berger who, as well as submitting paintings to Pictures for Schools, wrote praising the initiative in the New Statesman, and several articles by broadsheet art critic Eric Newton who I believe may have acted as an advisor to Directors of Education in local authoritiesAs well as previewing and publicising Pictures for Schools, and reiterating the organisers’ aims of improving children’s standards of taste and judgement by helping create a stimulating environment in schools, press coverage often made a lot of children’s selections of their favourite work in the show: each year, child visitors to Pictures for Schools were given questionnaires and asked to vote for their five favourite works of art in the exhibition (broken down into girls’ favourites, boys’ favourites and overall favourites), which were then shown in a special section of the exhibition the following year. Many press reports were concerned with the question of choosing artworks for children, and the success of the selection panel in maintaining a balance between artworks which did not go beyond children’s levels of visual and emotional understanding, and at the same time ensuring that artists did not patronise or ‘talk down’ to children in their style or subject matter. The general consensus was that Pictures for Schools accomplished this with a high level of success, with some critics even praising Pictures for Schools as one of the best group exhibitions and displays of contemporary modern art of the year. However, several writers expressed concerns that Pictures for Schools relied too much on social realism, and did not show much in the way of more challenging abstract art.

Depressingly, after 1966 the next batch of press cuttings date from the 1990s, and concern local and national press coverage of lost, stolen, damaged and misplaced artworks in schools and mismanagement of local authority and county art collections in places such as West Yorkshire and Leicestershire. Youngman estimated that 10 per cent of education authorities bought work through Pictures for Schools exhibitions, and snippets of information in the collection suggest that among these were: West Riding, Nottinghamshire, Hull, Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire, London County Council, Croydon, Manchester, Oxford City Education Committee, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Essex,  Kent, West Sussex, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Worcestershire, City of Gloucester, Coventry, West Bromwich, Shropshire, Northumberland, Lancashire, Cumberland, Durham, Carlisle (and, in Wales, Glamorgan, Flintshire, Merthyr Tydfil and Monmouthshire, and in Scotland, Ross and Cromarty, Argyll, Sutherland, Banffshire, Midlothian, Fife, Edinburgh and Dunbartonshire). The Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire and Leicestershire collections still exist in some form and are listed on the BBC’S Your Paintings website which catalogues all of the country’s publicly-owned oil paintings. But, online and through email at least, it is hard to find any reference let alone any information about any other local education authority or council art collections separate from gallery and museum collections, which begs the question: if these collections existed, what happened to them, where are they now and who is responsible for them?

I was also intrigued elsewhere in the collection by several typewritten scripts and references relating to television and radio broadcasts featuring Pictures for Schools, including a transcript of the BBC’s Observation Post from May 1947, presented by Richard Bennett and featuring art teacher Vera Rambaut discussing Pictures for Schools, Elizabeth Ayrton visiting Pictures for Schools for Woman’s Hour in February 1956, an unnamed TV script dating from around 1960 featuring Nan Youngman on Pictures for Schools, a 1960s transcript of The Critics covering a debate on Pictures for Schools which took place at Whitechapel Gallery between somebody (unnamed) Allen, Malcolm Muggeridge, Denis Mathews, Philip Hope Wallace, Dilys Powell and Peter De Francia, a BBC External Services production from 1964 hosted by Henry Swanzy and an appearance by Nan Youngman on the BBC’s regional news programme ‘Town and Around’ in 1965.

Another file related to Pictures for Welsh Schools, which took place at various venues across Wales, from libraries and colleges to the National of Museum of Wales, between 1951 and at least the late-1980s, and an attempt to initiate Pictures for Scottish Schools (in the event it appears that only one exhibition was held, in the mid-1960s). These items included exhibition catalogues, artists’ notes and preview invitations, and it was interesting to see the relationship between Nan Youngman and Pictures for Schools in England, and the versions of Pictures for Schools held in Wales and Scotland. Although Nan Youngman was involved in these exhibitions, including helping select artists and artworks, and there was crossover between artists represented in the London, Wales and Scotland exhibitions, they were administered more locally under the guidance of national art galleries in Scotland and Wales.

Correspondence between Nan Youngman and the Arts Council reveals that a selection of artworks from Pictures for Schools, too (generally easily-transportable paintings), toured following the London exhibitions to regional galleries in places such as Plymouth, Cirencester, Bolton, Keighley and Hull. Another minor but interesting piece of correspondence was a letter from a young girl at a school in London, who wrote to Nan Youngman following a class visit to Pictures for Schools expressing her enjoyment of the exhibition (the back page of the letter showed pencil drawings of her favourite artworks in the show).

I finally had chance to read an elusive dissertation by Nick Arnfield, written at the University of Manchester in 1985 at undergraduate or Master’s level and presented to the Department of Art Gallery and Museum Studies. Arnfield combined archival research (I recognised several of the items referred to in the dissertation, which are now in the Nan Youngman collection) with interviews with people involved with Pictures for Schools, including Nan Youngman and Eric Woodward from the Schools Museum Service in the West Riding of Yorkshire (Woodward is now 86, and I am going to meet with him tomorrow at the National Arts Education Archive at Yorkshire Sculpture Park where he volunteers one day a week). The dissertation was annotated with comments, presumably by Nan Youngman, where she agreed, disagreed or had additions to his observations about the scheme. Arnfield contextualised Pictures for Schools with a brief history of loan schemes for schools, including the nineteenth century museum loan services of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Liverpool Museum and Sheffield City Museum, and the establishment of county art collections, assisted by financial support from the Carnegie Trust from the 1930s. He concluded the dissertation with a section on the situation of art education in the mid-1980s, the survival, status, adaptation and use of collections such as those built up by local education authorities in the post-war period through Pictures for Schools, and economic and curricular pressures on schools which threatened the place of art in the school day. Arnfield took issue with the writing of Herbert Read, and his notions of artworks in schools as static objects which conferred benefits on the students through mere ‘osmosis’, focusing largely on the life and career of Nan Youngman and the links and networks of artists, educators and teachers Youngman built up around her which allowed Pictures for Schools to thrive for twenty-two years. Interestingly, despite much reference to Pictures for Schools in the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene, and prominent references to the Society both on exhibition catalogues and in press reports, Arnfield suggests that the SEA always played a background role in the initiation, administration and development of the exhibitions, with Youngman driving the exhibitions from the start.

Among the most illuminating content in the collection was photographs of Pictures for Schools exhibitions, dating mostly from the early-1960s, which gave a glimpse into the selection and hanging process, as well as a sense of what the exhibitions were like for visitors and the variety of the work on show. Photographs of artworks ranged from the crisp, technically-accurate realism of Carel Weight’s 1963 Street Scene, the impressionistic landscape painting of Gilbert Mason and the fluid motion of Jon Patterson’s 1964 oil painting Fairground Horses to the cartoon-like rockets in Bill Maynard’s 1966 painting the Planet, the rugged relief of John Addyman’s 1964 ceramic Rock Face, the organic, smooth-worn forms of Willi Soukop, the delicate embroideries of Eirian Short and the recognisable, serene figures and expressions of children cast in Betty Rea’s sculptures Standing Girl (1963) and After School (1966). Artworks are shown hung on top of each other in a crowded, slightly-old fashioned manner that reminded me of the way in which collections of historic, important artworks are shown off in the living rooms of country houses, but the photographs are brought to life by the appearance of children, who crowd around paintings in discussion and point at particular artworks or objects, appear to debate the meaning of more abstract, non-representational sculptures, turn their heads to try and get the best angle on unfamiliar forms, cluster in conversation and are captured with pen in mouth, questionnaires in hand and deep in concentration.