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.


Visit to BBC Written Archives, Caversham, Reading

During my visits to the Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading I had seen various references to BBC radio programmes which discussed Pictures for Schools. After following this up with archivists at the BBC I arranged a visit to the BBC Written Archives, tucked away in a bungalow in a residential area of Caversham in Reading, where they found me out several scripts on microfilm as well as material relating to other post-war BBC programming on art education.

Among the programmes was an extensive review of the 1955 Pictures for Schools exhibition on Children’s Hour by in-house art critic WR Dalzell (also a senior art master at independent Bedford School), who spent a considerable amount of time discussing and describing individual works, their subject matter and their effects – including painting, sculpture and embroidery – in detail, as well as explaining different artistic methods and media such as lithograph prints, and linking these techniques with children’s own work at school. Dalzell urged listeners to visit the exhibition for themselves, discussing the voting system for children to choose their favourite artworks, and ended by offering detailed public transport directions to get to the exhibition.

An episode of Today also included a brief segment on the 1965 Pictures for Schools exhibition, alongside an eclectic mix of items including George Melly on Nat King Cole and features on Esperanto, Dungeness Fish, falcons and an Islington building row, with Nan Youngman quizzed on students’ seeming preferences for abstract art that might be regarded as incomprehensible to their parents.

Another programme, a 1963 episode of World of Books, featured Nan Youngman interviewing Sybil Marshall about her 1963 book An Experiment in Education, which drew on her experiences in Cambridgeshire. Marshall was a teacher in a tiny village school in rural Cambridgeshire during Youngman’s time as county art advisor (1944-1954) and also attended Youngman’s classes for amateur painters and teachers. Youngman found Marshall’s work inspiring and encouraging, and took groups of overseas teachers to visit her students at school. The discussion encompassed the influence of educators such as Marion Richardson and Herbert Read, the pace of educational change and the extent to which educational innovation and experiment received acceptance or met with indifference or acceptance depending on the attitudes of individual teachers or heads.

I was also able to see correspondence regarding other programmes which were under discussion, including a proposed collaboration between writer Colin MacInnes and Nan Youngman on a programme about the British Council’s art education work overseas (Youngman acted as a lecturer and inspector for the British Council in various African and Caribbean countries) which appears never to have come to fruition.

Although I didn’t see any scripts, and it didn’t relate explicitly to Pictures for Schools, another file which absolutely fascinated me was a set of memos and reports dating from the late-1940s to the 1960s relating to a long-running radio series called Looking at Things. Designed as an educational course, the series appears to have been aimed primarily at secondary modern schools (though junior schools also made use of it) and accompanied by pamphlets which contained pictures of the ‘things’ under discussion as well as preparatory and writing activities for children to do in class. In keeping with a central theme I have identified in post-war discourse around education and reconstruction, the programme aimed to raise children’s standards of taste by encouraging them to look closely at everyday objects and places, from changes in fashion and interior decoration to modes and design of public transport, the style and function of buildings ranging from village churches and gothic cathedrals to new schools and civic centres, environments ranging from market or port towns and cathedral cities to new towns such as Peterlee, and new materials for manufacture and building. Experts were approached and enlisted to explain and present the topics under discussion, from eminent modern architects and professors to members of the Council for Industrial Design and furniture designers, although sometimes it was felt that the programme was too middle class, that experts did not fully understand the limitations of their audience, and that some of the language was unfamiliar to children, especially those from more deprived or urban backgrounds, to whom these objects or places may be out of reach. Although the programmes only occasionally seemed to refer directly to art per se, I felt that there were interesting educational parallels with Pictures for Schools, particularly in the way the programme really aimed to encourage children’s skills of close looking and seeing, particularly with reference to their future consumer purchases. There was also discussion of the series building links with Alexander Barclay Russell of the Society for Education through Art, under whose name Pictures for Schools was organised.


Exhibition visit: Peggy Angus: Designer, Painter, Teacher, Towner, Eastbourne

During my recent sojourn in the south of England I was lucky to be able to visit a fascinating new exhibition about designer, painter and teacher Peggy Angus at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne, following a tip-off from Manchester Modernist Society’s Facebook page.

Although I didn’t previously know a great deal about Angus’ work, she was a contemporary of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman (like Youngman who lived from 1906-1995, Angus’ life spanned much of the twentieth century; she was born in 1904 and died in 1993), and regularly contributed paintings to Pictures for Schools in the first decade of the scheme, as well as linocut designs for tiles. I had previously read that Youngman first met Angus (popularly known as ‘Red’ Angus due to her left-wing beliefs, developed during a trip to Russia as a young woman, where she was inspired by the concept of art as propaganda and the idea of ‘art by the people, for the people’) on an Artists’ International Association May Day march, where Angus was carrying a banner and singing a song (conjuring up an evocative image of Angus, who the exhibition showed to be an eccentric and colourful dresser!). I had also been told that Youngman and sculptor Betty Rea, together with Rea’s two sons, used to visit Angus at her rural cottage the Furlongs in the South Downs in Sussex.

The Towner’s exhibition does a good job of evoking the atmosphere of the Furlongs and the circle of friends and contemporaries who congregated there, including Angus’ former peers at the Royal College of Art and fellow artists such as Helen Binyon, Eric Ravilious, John and Myfanwy Piper, Henry Moore, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the artist and educator Maurice de Sausmarez. Like the artistic hub based around Great Bardfield in Essex, which Angus visited, recalling that the homes were ‘wonderfully decorated’, mostly by the ‘poor wives’ of painters such as Ravilious and Edward Bawden, the rather primitive cottage was decorated with a homely combination of murals, tiles and wallpapers.

Tiles designed by Angus, as well as large-scale photographs of tiles and striking murals in situ in places such as post-war schools, universities and airports, are on display in the exhibition, alongside several of her paintings. Associated with a politically-charged socialist realist outlook, Angus’ painting focuses on landscapes and people, depicting the reality of what was around her in vivid, hyperreal shapes, textures and colours conveying light, atmosphere and experience, from cement works and train lines to the personalities and occupations of farming life. Particularly effective is collage of chopping wood. Other, more sketch-like work evokes friends, with a particularly striking example being a portrait of John Piper in front of one of his geometric paintings, the stripes of the cat on his knee, the grain of the floorboards, his pinstripe trousers and the sweep of his hair all contributing to a highly stylised image.

Just as important a focus of the exhibition is Angus’ career as an educator. Like Youngman, teaching was not Angus’s first choice of career; Angus took up employment as a teacher after the deaths of her brothers in the war. Unlike Youngman, Angus was employed by an independent school, North London Collegiate College. However, this appointment was to give Angus the opportunity to ‘revolutionise the relationship between student, teacher and school’. Like art educators such as Nan Youngman and Marion Richardson, with their focus on ‘child art’, Angus believed that children had ‘native talent’ and ‘sense of design’. However, where she differed was in her rejection of the growing trend for self-expression, which she regarded as producing outcomes where ‘everything is thrown in the wastepaper basket’. Taking her inspiration from William Morris, and aiming to break down the separation between art and life, Angus regarded children as ‘apprentices’ who would later be capable of designing their own homes and clothes. Angus appeared to have concentrated more on the practical, design-led aspect of art than conventional picture-making, encouraging students to use potato prints to come up with their own designs for tiles and wallpaper, which could be combined to great effect in different variations, and enlisting children to help create wallpapers and murals. In the less able, she endeavoured to cultivate an interest in art that would make them the patrons of the future. The exhibition discusses her notion of ‘creative patronage’, with Angus herself explaining that ‘people who are the most creative patrons are the amateurs, they’ve got to be creative themselves’ and ‘everybody’s creative if they’ve got creative patronage’. Also important in Angus’ approach to art education was the teaching of art history, with students taught in an annual, chronological progression from folk, Romany, canal and fairground art through Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic, ‘pop’, and so-on.

The exhibition is as much about Angus the woman as Angus the artist. Recorded and written reminiscences from those who knew her, whether as students or as visitors to the Furlongs, praise her inspiration and encouragement. Equally engaging are the opportunities to see Angus herself, on screen, at home and in her studio, in two documentaries played on a loop, one of which is narrated by her granddaughter Emma, herself a designer. The force of Angus’ considerable – and apparently formidable – personality, and her twin philosophies of ‘art for joy’ and ‘art for life’, permeate the show.

The exhibition runs until Sunday September 21.


Research blog – making connections: Circ

Sometimes I wonder about the purpose of having a PhD blog and who, if anyone, is my audience, but I recently received a worthwhile email from another researcher in a related area, based at the University of Brighton, who had come across my blog and sent me some interesting links.

Joanna Wedell is researching the Circulation Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum,  known as Circ, and its post-war activity circulating items from the museum’s collection, along with exhibitions and art demonstration sets, to institutions in regions across the UK, including secondary schools, art colleges and museums. I had read about the V&A’s circulation department in issues of the Society for Education through Art’s journal, Athene, dating back to the early-1940s when they were calling for a nationwide scheme to get artworks into schools and discussing the schemes which already existed. However, Joanna informed me that the V&A phased out shows for secondary schools post-war, after an initial government plan to extend the scheme was dropped, although the Keeper of Circulation from 1947-60, Peter Floud, was particularly interested in children’s art education.

Something of particular interest was a video clip Joanna sent me showing the ceramicist Emmanuel Cooper talking about being influenced by seeing ceramics whilst he was at school (in a Circ exhibition): www.vam.ac.uk/content/videos/e/video-emmanuel-cooper-on-william-newland. I was intruiged to hear Derbyshire mentioned as Derbyshire was also a council which made extensive use of Pictures for Schools and still has a county art collection for loan to schools.

Another article related to Essex artist Edward Bawden, known as being a pioneer of printing methods such as linocut and creating distinctive images of Britain’s landscapes, both rural and urban. In addition to being represented in Circ, Bawden was a regular contributor to Pictures for Schools. A former war artist, Bawden’s many public and private commissioned ranged from packaging and advertising designs to murals for public places such as the Festival of Britain and Cunard liners.