The story of Isabel Alexander is by no means an uncommon one. Born into a middle-class, educated family in Birmingham in 1910, as a daughter she was denied her first choice of an education, to train at the Slade. Instead, she attended Birmingham School of Art in the 1920s before finding employment in schools and at Saffron Walden teacher training college in order to pursue her training and practice as an artist. This determination to work and exhibit enabled self-funded studies at the Slade, and a fifty-year career as an artist, pursued at the same time as being a single mother.
After the Slade Alexander went on to work in the burgeoning British documentary film movement of the 1930s and as a commercial illustrator. She designed book tokens vividly illustrating rural life and occupations in East Anglia, Kent and the Cotswolds (1953) and undertook botanical illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.
Alexander succeeds at documentary and narrative, as in her 1944 portraits of disabled miners. She also aptly captures place: highlights include ‘Pinnacle, Thaxted Church’, a 1951 linoprint of a church spire in which natural and architectural details are intertwined and ‘Bardfield Landscape III’, a subtly abstract, yellow-hued watercolour of 1950. Both are inspired by the Essex landscape; she settled in the picturesque and historic village of Thaxted, on the border with Suffolk, before relocating to North Yorkshire for the final years of her life.
In the 1960s Alexander exhibited drawings and paintings at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, selling work to schools including Godolphin and Latymer School in London and Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire education committees. She maintained a commitment not just to exhibiting herself, but to keeping up with visits to exhibitions and maintaining an ongoing interest in contemporary and historical art movements.
A new exhibition of Alexander’s work in Harrogate, bringing together work from private collections and accompanied by a book by Janet McKenzie, aims to highlight her legacy and expose the barriers she faced as a woman seeking a career as an artist. It also traces Alexander’s journey from realism to a growing focus on abstraction and experimentation with media and form.
However, the work in the exhibition suggests Alexander’s transition between realism and abstraction was not clear-cut, and a sense of abstraction and experimentation underlies much of her apparently realistic and naturalistic work. For example, the use of an unexpectedly lurid crayon introduces an ominous element into the otherwise murkily coloured landscape of ‘Condemned Houses, Blaencwm’ (1943), as does the skewed perspective of ‘Miners’ Houses, Trealaw’ (1944).
Displayed side by side at the Mercer Art Gallery, the watercolours ‘Moorland Larches, Yorkshire’ (1983) and ‘Winter Trees I’ (1971) hint at abstraction in their use of starkly outlined shape and colour, at the same time as conveying the particulars of landscape and season in a way that is sensory and atmospheric if not quite realistic and naturalistic.
Also not quite natural, but based in observable phenomena such as the flickering shapes and suggestive shadows of twilight and the transition to darkness, is the 1958 study ‘Moonlight’.
Other highlights include her pencil studies of weather phenomena and later, more large-scale and obviously abstract work in which experiences, natural phenomena and sensations elide, as in ‘Weeds and Water’ (1984) and ‘Gannet’ (1985) in which oils on newspaper explore the bird’s movement at the same time as suggesting watery flows.
Whilst much of her work documents places, landscapes and experiences close and familiar to her, Alexander maintained a commitment to travel and observation of new places, from a series inspired by the natural and manmade landscapes of the Isle of Aran to painting trips to France and Spain. Far from following the well-trodden genre of straightforward pastoralism, beneath Alexander’s work lies a tension between nature and artifice, implying a subtle critique of ways of working, living and using the landscape that that are alienating, exploitative or unnatural.
Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until 4 June.
A large number of images of Isabel Alexander’s works have been added to the Bridgeman Art Library and can be explored alongside the exhibition.
I also used the Easter holidays as an opportunity to visit the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, Essex, along with the nearby village of Great Bardfield, in the north of the county. The Fry houses works by the group of artists associated with Great Bardfield from the 1930s until the 1960s, including Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Kenneth Rowntree, John Aldridge, Sheila Robinson, Michael Rothenstein, George Chapman and Walter Hoyle, with the artists famously passing on not just techniques to each other but decorating their homes and furniture. Saffron Walden is fairly close to Cambridge, where Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman lived and socialised and many of the Great Bardfield artists, along with others from across the wider area of East Anglia, were involved with and sold work through Pictures for Schools. The museum was smaller-scale than I expected, but I spotted several of the artworks which were sold at Pictures for Schools, including Sheila Robinson’s print ‘Knife Grinder’, a vivid and personable portrait of a now exotic profession, and the softer ‘Trent Bridge’, which shows her own children sitting on a bridge. One work, a busy cockerel by Michael Rothenstein, was produced for schools in collaboration with the London County Council and another of his works was sold through the School Prints. There were a lot of works depicting the local area in colourful detail, from market squares to country paths, churches and the artists’ homes – although the large, fuzzy shapes of Michael Rothenstein’s more abstract prints were among my favourites – alongside material relating to the artists’ sociable village life in Great Bardfield and the open houses that were held in the artists’ homes and studios.
As well as artworks, there were commercial products, from printed fabrics to book covers and illustrations for books such as the Shell Guides to Britain as well as the quaint Life in an English Village, which depicts places still familiar today such as local shops and the schoolroom. There were also designs for murals in public places such as ships and the Festival of Britain, along with Bawden’s humorous, cartoonish advertisements for companies such as Twinings tea and Fortnum and Mason. Among my favourites were pieces of pottery designed by Bawden and Ravilious and produced by Wedgwood, and pottery produced for P&O liners. I particularly loved a series of plates, bowls, etc themed around the garden and depicting leisurely uses of the garden in light lines and a hazy yellow palette, from weeding and picking produce to lazing under a tree, along with a set using a collection of garden implements to decorative effect.
Although I associate the eastern side of the country, and Essex in particular, with a flat landscape, the countryside around Saffron Walden was surprisingly hilly, with lots of windy country lanes. It felt unlike anywhere else I had visited in England, a small and unrepresentative pocket living up to the olde-worlde image so many people associate with England. Saffron Walden, like many of the villages around it, comprised narrow, slightly tilting, streets of old buildings, painted in pastel colours, many of them adorned with swirling patterned paint and tiles, interspersed with thatched cottages, with the centre dominated by a large church. Directly behind the museum was a large formal park with a walled garden, rose garden, ornamental hedges and greenhouses, one of several well-maintained green spaces, with others including a very large village green. Today, the narrow streets of Saffron Walden are congested with traffic, and the town centre is full of gastropubs, craft shops and clothes boutiques.
It must have been an adventure for Edward Bawden and co, when they moved into their homes without electricity in the 1930s, although they maintained one foot in London, catching the daily bus to London to teach at various art schools. For me, it felt cut off, islanded in the middle of fields. It was all very pleasant, but as a city dweller it all felt too enclosed, too pretty and picturesque, too quiet and idyllic. It felt like looking in from the outside, where one would always remain in relation to that kind of place, the type of place one goes to forget about the real world, and I found myself yearning for the life and variety of the city. Yet, conversely, maybe that is why the work of these artists and the moment in mid-twentieth century life and culture associated with them is still so appealing and in many ways still and timeless. These paintings and prints represent places and buildings that have been there for centuries, and will continue to be there long after we are gone, as life changes to a greater or lesser extent around them.
I also enjoyed this Radio 3 programme about Bawden and Ravilious’ friendship, presented by Alexandra Harris, which was on a couple of months ago.
Last month I made a visit to sculptor John W Mills at his home of 47 years, Hinxworth Place in Hertfordshire, to follow up on correspondence via telephone and email regarding his involvement in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions and friendship with its founder, Nan Youngman. Mills started submitting sculptures and prints to Pictures for Schools as a student at the Royal College of Art in the late-1950s. Although he did not know Youngman when he first submitting artworks to Pictures for Schools, Mills later became a close friend of hers through his professional relationship and friendship with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea. Mills shared his expertise on the ciment fondu technique for casting sculpture (something he has written books on) with Rea and visited and socialised at Rea and Youngman’s studios and home in Cambridge. In the early 1960s, Mills was invited to serve on the sculpture committee which selected artworks for Pictures for Schools exhibitions alongside fellow sculptors Elisabeth Frink and Willi Soukop. He was also on the planning committee for Pictures for Schools between 1965 and 1970. This comprised a small group of artists together with educators, a local authority education officer and the scheme’s administrators, which met annually.
Hinxworth is close to the borders of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and a twenty minute drive from Cambridge. Set in three acres of land, the grounds contain Mills’ studios (Mills is still actively undertaking commissions), as well as a collection of his work on display outside; Mills welcomes visits from schools, who come to see his work in the grounds. I also met Mills’ wife of sixty years, Jo, a former ballet dancer, and it became clear that both John and Jo were part of a highly sociable network of artists and other creative people which centred around Youngman and Rea’s base at Paper Mills in Cambridge and consisted of artists, writers and academics living all across East Anglia. I showed the Mills a photo of Mills’ small bronze sculpture ‘Lion in a Cage’, which is part of the Derbyshire collection of original artworks for schools, as well as Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues for 1967 and 1969 (both years Mills contributed) to trigger memories. The couple recognised a high proportion of the names in the Pictures for Schools catalogues as friends, peers, colleagues and former tutors of Mills, describing the roster of artists as ‘quite a line-up’. The couple made exclamations and comments upon seeing the names of certain artists. These included Fred Brill, who was Principal of Chelsea School of Art in the 1960s, Cambridge painter Julia Ball, Mary Hoad, Principal of St Albans School of Art (where Mills also taught for many years), who was described as ‘a great friend of Nan Youngman’, Arnold van Praag, described as ‘a great friend of mine who became a very influential painter at Camberwell’, Ralph Brown, who Mills says was grouped together with the Kitchen Sink School, and Carel Weight, who taught Mills at Junior Art School in Hammersmith from the age of 14.
I found the visit really useful to add colour and context to my understanding of the post-war art world. Mills particularly emphasised the word ‘post-war’ in my project title, saying it was ‘the key thing’; studying at art school as a teenager among artists who had returned from fighting in the war as ‘very serious people’ clearly had a profound effect on him, as well as his emphasis on using figurative, realist sculpture as a form of storytelling and means of communication. I also enjoyed hearing more about Mills’ time as a resident of Digswell Arts Trust, a large house in Welwyn Garden City where Cambridgeshire Director of Education Henry Morris established a trust for sculptors, painters, potters and weavers which provided subsidised accommodation and studio space and aimed to remedy some of the aesthetic deficiencies Morris saw in the new towns which were built after the war.
It was also interesting to hear how Mills saw Pictures for Schools as fitting into the post-war art world – he explained that it was a decidedly populist exhibition, which aimed to have a wide appeal, something which was sometimes at odds with emerging trends in the art world in the 1960s. We also discussed how it compared with other exhibitions Mills took part in such as Young Contemporaries and the Royal Academy summer shows, and Pictures for Schools emerged as a series of exhibitions which was both very well respected and well-organised.
I also got a sense of approaches and attitudes towards art education at the time when Pictures for Schools was in operation, as well as gaining a more rounded knowledge of aspects of Pictures for Schools I had discovered through archival research. For instance, it was really interesting to hear from Mills about the process of selecting sculptures, and the criteria which were used to decide which sculptures were appropriate – Mills recalls that there was very much an emphasis on quality and craftsmanship, sometimes more so than the content or subject matter of the sculpture and what it portrayed. It was also interesting to discover that each selection committee – whether for sculpture, prints, painting or embroidery – was responsible for how the work was hung or displayed, and that artists were given a high degree of freedom by Youngman in these aspects of the exhibition.
I also got to know more about what Youngman was like as a person, and what influenced her, for example Mills said she had a great sense of fun and loved to share dirty jokes, but was also committed to her painting practice and cared passionately about art education. She also emerges as a figure who was well-liked by different sets of people. Mills paints a picture of Youngman and Rea’s base at Paper Mills as being an open, supportive environment which acted as a venue for many discussions around art and education.
One of the most important things I got from talking to Mills was a sense of how interconnected the networks of artists and educators involved in Pictures for Schools were, for example through studying and teaching at educational institutions, but also through membership of organisations such as the Artists’ International Association and living in various geographical concentrations such as East Anglia/Cambridge/Essex. I also got a strong sense of collaboration between sculptors – of sharing techniques, and helping each other with the production of sculptures – as well as a side to Pictures for Schools that was highly sociable.