Recommended event: Modernist Society and Paul Mellon event For the People

I can’t attend, but very much recommend the symposium For the People, a day focused on modernism and everyday design, which takes place in Manchester on Saturday 9 November. It features Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West talking about the work of William Mitchell, and public art commissioned by the London County Council for the city’s housing estates, among a stellar line-up of speakers.

For more information visit http://modernist-society.org/events/paul-mellon-talks.


Exhibition visit: Ruth Ewan – Asking Out, Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Working across a variety of media to explore historical narratives and representations, and bring to light untold figures and stories, Ruth Ewan has long been one of my favourite contemporary artists. I was very excited, therefore, when I heard she had been working with the National Arts Education Archive to develop new work for a show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Asking Out is an installation in the Longside Gallery which explores the work of Muriel Pyrah, an untrained teacher in Airedale Middle School in Castleford. Whilst Pyrah was not necessarily immersed in the latest ideas about teaching, appearing to base her work on her own experiences of teaching and ideas about students’ needs in the classroom, her work fitted with the progressive agenda of the West Riding Education Authority, who celebrated and promoted her ideas as an example of then-fashionable modes of non-hierarchical, child-centred learning which encompassed learning through doing and direct experience.

The exhibition takes as its starting point the concept of ‘asking out’: Pyrah’s students were required to contribute verbally to her classroom, to articulate their work and ideas, to ask questions and to critique each other’s work. From a relatively deprived town in the Yorkshire coalfield, Pyrah’s students were taken out to explore the world beyond the classroom – into local streetscapes, landscapes and industries, further afield to sites of historical interest and even to London.The aim was to develop confidence in Pyrah’s students, both in themselves and their surroundings. We can see this for ourselves in a set of films made in the early 1970s, towards the end of Pyrah’s career, when the cameras were invited into the classroom in order to share Pyrah’s work, and observe discussions among the children about what they’d seen, learned and experienced. The students appear lively and engaged, if sometimes a little awkwardly formal.An accompanying publication to Asking Out, containing essays and interviews with some of Pyrah’s former students, complicates the narrative, suggesting that her unorthodox methods did not work for or include everyone. Whilst some students thrived from being expected to talk in front of the class others, perhaps unsurprisingly, found the experience difficult and stressful. Pyrah also appeared to have very particular ideas about the ‘correct’ way of talking; use of local dialect was discouraged, adding to a sense of distance from other students in the school.Ewan has reactivated and brought to life Pyrah’s ideas, asking us to experience them for ourselves and inviting visitors to participate in and contribute to a reconstruction of her 1970s classroom. The overall impression is stimulating and colourful: the eye is constantly drawn towards text and images. As well as familiar wooden schooldesks, the room is full of artefacts to explore: a piano and songbooks; a nature table, full of tactile objects; maps and photographs showing features of the landscape; books and posters about how everyday goods are made; and a blackboard for writing, sharing and learning the meaning of interesting, unusual, difficult and favourite words.Above all, what comes across is the sense that the children were encouraged to look. Much of the children’s work, hung up around the classroom, is based on close and careful observation – of nature, of places, of the effect of the seasons.These historical artefacts are given added poignancy and power through their proximity to another installation encouraging, prioritising and revealing children’s ways of seeing. Frequencies by Colombian artist Oscar Murillo – who is currently nominated for the Turner Prize – brings together canvases on which children from schools across the world have been invited to doodle, as if drawing on their desks like generations of children before them. Displayed flat on table-tops, they reveal the preoccupations of children in very different countries, cities and contexts.Another complementary exhibition Transformations: Cloth & Clay at the National Arts Education Archive explores tensions between crafts and design, changing ideas about what these mean, and how they interacted with developments in the ways in which art was taught in schools, universities and experimental establishments such as Dartington Hall across the twentieth century.

What became clear to me across both Ewan’s installation and the NAEA exhibition was how many individuals were pioneering creative approaches to learning in post-war schools, and how much more I have to read, learn and think about.

Asking Out is at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/ruth-ewan-and-oscar-murillo

Transformations: Cloth & Clay is at the National Arts Education Archive, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/transformations-cloth-and-clay


Interesting upcoming talks in Leeds for fans of twentieth century art and design

Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is holding three talks this month which look like they’ll be of great interest to fans of twentieth century art and design. The first, on Wednesday 13 June at 6pm, is by Lynda Nead, author of the recent, excellent book Tiger in the Smoke. The second, on Wednesday 20 June, is by Margaret Garlake, author of the essential book New Art, New World, and concerns emigre artists and their work for patrons such as the London County Council as part of the post-war reconstruction effort in Britain. Finally, on Wednesday 27 September, Gordon Johnston will discuss the work of the sculptor Peter Peri, whose work was exhibited at Pictures for Schools as well as in numerous public contexts.


Enid Marx in the news

I’ve been pleased to see a couple of articles recently shining a light on the print-maker Enid Marx, who exhibited linocuts and woodcuts at Pictures for Schools in the late-1950s and early 1960s, and sold to work to schools and local education authorities through the scheme.

The Guardian and the Twentieth Society Century magazine have both featured articles on her career, which encompassed both art and design, to coincide with a new exhibition of her work at the House of Illustration in London, and a new book about her by Alan Powers.

I hope to get chance to visit the exhibition in London, which is on until 23 September.


North East visit: the Ashington Group ‘pitmen painters’ and the Playground Project at the Baltic, Gateshead

14241691_1841428396078671_715717104665990861_oIn 1930s Northumbria, many young men’s last experience of school was at the age of 13. As a series of drawings by Oliver Kilbourn in the Woodhorn Museum shows, boys of 14 regularly worked long shifts down the mines, with little energy or time for leaning or leisure in between.

But this didn’t mean they weren’t interested in continuing education. One way in which miners, and other workers, could access education later in life was through the Workers’ Education Association (WEA), which offered lectures and courses using visual stimulae such as magic lantern slides.

One group of men, in the mining town of Ashington, came to the end of an illustrated WEA course on the topic of evolution and decided they should turn their attention to a subject that otherwise meant little to them: modern art.

What began as a course on art appreciation, taking in art history as well as contemporary art, taught by a lecturer from the local art college, soon became a practical group for experimenting and critique, in a makeshift studio fashioned from a First World War-era wooden hut. It became apparent that learning though doing, and seeing through doing, meant more to these men than academic study (although the men did go on organised trips to visit the London galleries).

Initially starting in 1934 with linocuts, and subject matters suggested by the tutor, the Ashington Group, as these ‘pitmen painters’ became known, spent four decades recording and documenting their lives, leisure and neighbourhoods, from the physical and emotional upheaval of moving house due to financial hardship, to payday, washday, pigeon-keeping and children’s street games.

The resulting paintings, many of which are now on display at the Woodhorn Gallery, are varied in style, medium and technique, ranging from illustrative drawings and watercolours to impressionistic, atmospheric landscapes in readily available tube paint, to detailed oil paintings showing technical aspects of industrial work. The paintings capture the mundane and the fleeting (for example advertisements on street corners) as well as tragic events that caused a lasting impression, such as accidents and their aftermath. Some of the work was done from memory, whereas other paintings responded to events, such as the Second World War. Although formed as an amateur group, the Ashington painters exhibited and were visited by the Mass-Observation project and artists such as Julian Trevelyan.

Whilst much of the detail, equipment and environments of the physical minework looks unbelievably old-fashioned now – not to mention dirty and arduous – there’s a touching ordinariness in much of the paintings. The Ashington Group collection manages to be both historical record and to capture some kind of essence of life and leisure that remains much the same – such as the night-time silhouettes and hungry anticipation of people queuing for the small pleasure of fish and ships – despite the large-scale pit closure of the late-twentieth century and the erosion of mass, communal employment and socialising.

The Playground Project

Elsewhere, in the North East, the Playground Project at the Baltic in Gateshead captures the history and evolution of international playground design through vivid photographs, drawings, diagrams and videos.

From the early twentieth century, the exhibition surveys changing forms and experiments with different materials (from natural materials such as sand and water, to elaborate rope contractions designed to introduce unpredictability to play and to test balance, to easily assemblable interlocking wooden shapes) up to the present day with Assemble’s new film of children at play in various city spaces.

The exhibition brings out the often underlooked links between playground design and radical art, architecture and pedagogy, intertwining imagery with the writing and work of writers such as Colin Ward and Marjorie Allen.

Particularly striking is varying attitudes towards play at different times of social change, from the adventure playgrounds enabled by vacant lots, which arose from the post-war rubble of British cities, in which children were allowed freedom to build, explore and problem-solve for themselves, to those which were incorporated into new, welfare state-era mass housing schemes and emulated abstract sculpture, both in their form and building material.

The exhibition’s brought to life by the incorporation of play equipment for young visitors to the gallery to explore and enjoy, but that which has made it into the gallery – with a viewing platform above – seems strikingly safe compared to the more freestyle constructions of the past. Most of those, it seems, would be outruled due to health and safety today.

The Playground Project continues until 30 October.


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:


Exchange of texts on ‘taste’ with Visit1862 website

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Over the next two weeks, Ruth Mason (one of the editors of Visit1862.com, a collaborative research site which explores the previously overlooked Great Exhibition held in London in 1862 through its design history) and I will be entering into a conversation about the process of taste formation sparked by my paper on ‘aesthetic citizenship ‘at the RGS-IBG summer conference in London in August.

Ruth and I first met in November 2013 at the Historical Geography Research Group’s annual Practising Historical Geography conference at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. Although studying very different periods, individuals and institutions it became apparent that we were both interested in the process of taste formation and how ‘good taste’ has been considered a value that can be communicated to the general public both in the Great Exhibitions of the nineteenth century and in twentieth century projects such as Pictures for Schools.

This week my post explores Pictures for Schools and its stated aim of developing children’s taste. Next week, Ruth will consider the role of the 1862 International Exhibition in forming Britain’s taste in the nineteenth century.

Both Ruth and I will make a short response to each other’s posts and we encourage more comments, questions and further discussion points.

Read the first post, ‘Taste’ and its creators: 1962 and beyond, here.

Read the second post here.