Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.
The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.
My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.
For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?
I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.
The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.
One of the first books I read when I started my PhD, to gain some context of the experiences of interwar women artists and art education, was Pauline Lucas’s Evelyn Gibbs: Artist and Traveller. It’s a biography of the painter and art educationalist Evelyn Gibbs, a contemporary of Nan Youngman’s who was involved in Pictures for Schools as a submitting artist as well as a member of the organising and selection committees in early years.
Gibbs settled in Nottingham after evacuation during the war and was a founder of the Midland Group, which organised travelling exhibitions around workplaces, such as ‘Art for All’, as well as producing murals in public and commercial settings such as factory canteens. She also, like Youngman and many Pictures for Schools contributors, exhibited with the Artists’ International Association, including a still life of cake treats lined up on a canteen counter included in the ‘For Liberty’ exhibition in the basement canteen of the Blitzed John Lewis.
Lucas has now co-curated an exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery focusing on two periods of Gibbs’ work. The first highlights her time studying in Rome in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where she produced delicate etchings exuding human experience and emotion. The second is a body of work produced as a war artist, documenting women’s work at the Raleigh Factory in Nottingham, in a blood transfusion unit, and in a women’s voluntary centre in Leicester which encompassed activities such as a swap shop and clothes exchange. Elsewhere, she documented the jumbled disruption of bomb sites.
It’s the latter set of works that I find more compelling. In the Raleigh factory, women workers are dwarfed by machinery, towering stacks of boxes and components. Other paintings created during the 1940s capture the more mundane: streets, reflections, facades, trees, windows and huddled figures.
Gibbs’ work is represented in county collections including Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and London. Nottingham Castle, too, contains a body of mid-twentieth century paintings in its collection, in which several names familiar from Pictures for Schools are represented, including John Piper, LS Lowry and Ben Nicholson. Men of Straw demonstrates Richard Eurich’s strange, narrative storytelling, which was popular with child visitors to Pictures for Schools. Marion Adnams lines up the backs of terraced houses and rows of gravestones, overlooked by the tall order of a church spire. Carel Weight’s African Girl 2 is a striking portrait of a model in an artist’s studio. It’s here, too, that I found the Gibbs work I liked the best: Industrial View of 1953, in which a blur of blue, red and grey chimneys, swept with wispy smoke, blend into an overhanging dusky sky.
Evelyn Gibbs in Peace and Wartime continues until Sunday 9 October.
For more information visit www.nottinghamcastle.org.uk/explore/exhibitions/evelyn-gibbs.
One of the books I have most enjoyed reading recently has been the artist Julian Trevelyan’s memoir, Indigo Days, first published in the 1950s. Trevelyan, along with his wife, the painter Mary Fedden, was one of the best-selling artists at Pictures for Schools from the early days right until its close, selling etchings, prints and paintings displaying varying degrees of abstraction and depicting subjects ranging from London streetscapes and landscapes in Gozo to oxen to forests (one of my favourites is this painting, ‘Forest‘, in the Derbyshire collection). Trevelyan was also involved in Pictures for Schools planning and selection committees, helping select artworks for display at the exhibitions.
Indigo Days is a really fascinating account of Trevelyan’s life and development as an artist, detailing the literary, artistic and political scenes he moved in, both in the UK and abroad, from his early involvement with the Surrealists to the Artists’ International Association, as well as evoking vividly places at home and abroad, from early education and school art teachers to his home and studio on the Thames at Hammersmith to foreign climes visited during the war. Particularly useful for my research were sections on Treveylan’s involvement as an artist in the Mass Observation project in Bolton, and his wartime work as a camouflage officer (alongside other Pictures for Schools artists such as Steven Sykes), along with his creative process and the inspiration he found in ordinary, everyday scenery, from a life-long preoccupation with smoking chimneys to the landscapes and distinctive architecture of the Potteries. It’s just a shame Trevelyan’s memoir comes to an abrupt halt after the war and doesn’t detail his later work and career. Although the book is now expensive to buy, I was fortunate to find a reprinted edition from the 1990s (with a beautiful cover) in my university library. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in twentieth century British art, design and culture, and artistic and intellectual life.
This week I made my fourth and final visit to see Nan Youngman’s papers at the University of Reading. It felt very much like a finishing up and plugging the gaps visit, and I know feel like I’ve looked at everything in the collection and seen the full scope of what’s there. I found out about some more minor details of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions such as how they were publicised – this included advertising at underground stations, and writing to London borough libraries to ask them to display leaflets.
One of the things I got from the trip was a real sense of who the educational buyers were from Pictures for Schools, and what types of artworks and which artists were particularly popular, through looking at a series of invoice books from 1949 to 1968 (although there are some gaps where invoice books are missing, including a long period in the 1950s).
Schools of all kinds, including secondary moderns, grammars, junior schools and independent schools purchased work from Pictures for Schools, sometimes on a one-off basis and sometimes as repeat buyers, with Manchester Grammar School being a particularly regular buyer (this interested me as Mrs Rutherston was frustrated that it failed to make use of Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston Loan Scheme, and seemed generally unimpressed with the quality of art teaching at the school). Other regular buyers included Greenwich Library in the 1960s, as well as various training colleges around the country, and occasionally adult, further and higher education establishments. Other buyers included county or city loan services linked with museums, including Reading Museum and Art Gallery (this service is still in operation and embroideries by artists including Constance Howard and Sadie Allen purchased through Pictures for Schools in the 1960s are still available for schools to borrow), Ferens Art Gallery, who made purchases on behalf of Hull Education Committee and the Leeds Loan Collection which was linked both with Leeds College of Art and Leeds Art Gallery.
Although, as I already knew, Derbyshire Museum Service made regular and extensive purchases, I revised my opinion a little about the number of local authorities making use of the scheme, who seem to be slightly less numerous and widespread than I thought, although Essex County Council, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Great Yarmouth, Cumberland/Carlisle, Northumberland/Newcastle, Lancashire, City of Coventry, Cambridgeshire/City of Cambridge, West Bromwich, City of Manchester, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Buckinghamshire, Oxford, Rochdale, the London County Council and later Nottingham and Scunthorpe and Bromley were enthusiastic and regular buyers from the scheme, with West Sussex, East Sussex, Norfolk, Bristol, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, East Yorkshire, Gloucester, Southampton, Bradford, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Rotherham, Birmingham and Harrow Schools Art Library making purchases more intermittently. I also realised I may have overstated the links between Pictures for Schools and counties such as the West Riding, Hertfordshire and Leicestershire, who I know to have had extensive loan collections and to have valued art in schools. Whilst they did certainly support Pictures for Schools in its early years, they appear to have stopped being regular purchasers by the late-1950s and 1960s, perhaps because they had become accustomed to buying art on a more year-round basis and approaching and liaising with artists and galleries direct. Educational buyers from Wales (and very occasionally Scotland) also made occasional purchases, although Wales had its own Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions from 1951 and a one-off Pictures for Scottish Schools exhibition was held in 1967. One thing I am interested in finding out more about are the art advisers who visited Pictures for Schools on behalf of county education committees, some of whom seem to have had interesting artistic careers and involvement in their own right, including Robert Washington, long-running art advisor for Essex.
I noticed that prints were by far the most popular item, probably due to their affordability (many buyers purchased prints unframed) with embroidery also popular and sculpture noticeably unpopular. One name which really stood out was the print-maker Peter Green, who seemed to make extensive sales at each exhibition, as did fellow print-makers Philip Greenwood, Michael Stokoe and Richard Tavener. Something else I noticed was that buyers often stuck with one artist and continued to collect their work year on year. As I’d observed previously, I also came across more correspondence from schools and local authorities which had purchased work from artists and wished to follow up by contacting the artists to ask for biographical or other information to complement the use of the works as learning resources, and sometimes to arrange local exhibitions of particular artists’ work.