Exhibition visit: Picturing Faith: An Exhibition of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, the Beaney, CanterburyPosted: March 5, 2017
Unsurprisingly for a collection of twentieth century artworks developed in the 1960s, there is some overlap in the artists represented in the Methodist Modern Art collection and Pictures for Schools. At a time when much was being down to improve the appearance of both public and corporate spaces, and attempts were being made to introduce art to a wider section of the population, the collection was developed to enhance the visual environments of Methodist churches, and to increase the church’s visual appeal. Today it tours to venues in different towns and cities, from churches to art galleries to libraries, to ensure many people can see and access it.
Much of the work in the collection isn’t exactly to my taste, being slightly intimidating to the casual viewer not overly familiar with the stories, histories and teachings depicted. Much of it is literal and narrative, depicting scenes from the Bible, although it incorporates developments in modern art.
The freer, busy shapes and spliced up watercolour imagery of Norman Adams, whose colourful Stations of the Cross are a modernist intervention into the ornate overdecoration of catholic church St Mary’s the Hidden Gem in Manchester, is interesting, but the work that engaged me most is that which steers away from storytelling to depict emotion and expression. Among the most powerful works in the collection are Elisabeth Frink’s 1956 drawing Pieta, which presents a face full of knowledge in her signature big-nosed style, framed with a subtle crown of thorns, statuesque and suffering yet stoical. In a similar way a sombre and still oil painting by Philip Le Bas, who sold work including a painting of The Last Supper at Pictures for Schools, The Stripping of Our Lord (1962) is cracked as if betraying the experiences behind its creation.
Another highlight is Theyre Lee-Elliott’s Crucified Tree Form – the Agony (1959), in a sickly, ghastly end-of-the-world yellow and black that almost has the quality of surrealist painting or a black and white photographic documentary print. The anthropomorphic tree of the title teems with the barbs created both by humans and by nature.
A more recent highlight is Maggi Hambling’s Good Friday: Walking on Water 2006, which is dominated by the churned tumult of the waves; Christ’s small, ghostly figure floats across the water, barely perceptible in contrast to natural forces.
Some of the most significant British artists of the twentieth century are represented in the collection, including the wonky perspective of Patrick Heron’s Crucifix and Candles: Night 1950, Ceri Richards’ caricature-esque The Supper at Emmaus (1958), Graham Sutherland’s skeletal, entombed Christ in the Deposition (1947) and Craigie Aicheson’s starkly floating yet pop figure on a cross, Pink Crucifixion (2004).
One artist who sold artworks at Pictures for Schools is Dennis Hawkins, long-serving art teacher at Repton School, who transforms the lid of a school desk into Pentecost I (1962) with the deceptively simple depiction of a large circle and block lines, suggesting the intervention of Christ into everyday life. Hawkins’ paintings and reliefs, inspired by subjects such as the moon landings and space travel, were among the most modern in form and subject matter sold at Pictures for Schools, making their way into educational collections in Oxford, Carlisle, Southampton and Wales in the mid to late 1960s as well as various schools and teacher training colleges; his print Blue Night Flower still hangs in Manchester Grammar School.
However my favourite work on display is The Cross Over the City (1962), a tactile relief by the architect and artist Michael Edmunds, who worked for the Greater London Council. Reminiscent of an aerial view, the piece incorporates mosaic, repetition and pattern, suggesting rooftops in its materials and dusty colours yet remaining abstract and inviting contemplation close-up and from afar. Apparently Edmunds did an exterior relief for a church in Stockport; there are several Methodist churches in Stockport so it’s going to be a challenge to track it down!
Picturing Faith is at the Beaney, Canterbury, until Sunday 23 April.
To find out more about the collection visit www.methodist.org.uk/prayer-and-worship/mmac.
The work of Pictures for Schools contributing artists Gerda Rubinstein, Betty Rea and Elisabeth Frink in situ, outside the civic centre, in Harlow Old Town, and in the extensive Gibberd Garden, created by Frederick Gibberd, designer of the New Town, on the outskirts of Harlow.
I was delighted to stumble across an exhibition of sculptures by Elisabeth Frink during a daytrip to Nottingham at the weekend, at the university’s Lakeside gallery. Frink was one of the best-known British artists to be involved in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, and served on selection committees to select sculptures for the exhibitions for a number of years. She also submitted sculptures to Pictures for Schools, and sold works on paper through the scheme, including drawings from her Spinning Man series.
Entitled ‘The Presence of Sculpture’, the Nottingham show focused largely on Frink’s post-war commissions and drew attention to themes and subject matter, from heads (many displaying a smooth serenity), horses and birds to movement, change, uncertainty and the lightness and heaviness of flight. Works and studies on display included large-scale sculptures for corporate companies such as WH Smith, and work in the Battersea outdoor sculpture exhibition, as well as religious and public commissions, including her angular, roughly textured eagle lectern for Coventry cathedral and her controversial tribute at Manchester airport to Alcock and Brown’s non-stop Atlantic flight, which somehow manages to retain a sense of grace despite the flailing, tapering descent of the legs and the contrast between the smoothness of the man-made wings and the awkwardness of the human body. Much was made of the ways in which her artworks were encountered in people’s everyday lives.
However, my favourite works were those depicting boars, including a spindly-tailed bronze in which the bulk of the animal has been arrested in movement, seemingly coming to a sudden stop. I also loved the washed-out colour and hairy detail of the 1967 lithograph ‘Wild Boar’.
‘The Presence of Sculpture’ finishes on Sunday February 28.
Last week I finally had chance to follow up a reference from my last visit to the Nan Youngman collection in Reading: a trail of correspondence between the organisers of Pictures for Schools and the keepers of the Rutherston Loan Scheme at Manchester Art Gallery. The correspondence dated back to the 1960s, when Keepers of the Rutherston scheme were visitors to the Pictures for Schools exhibitions in London each year and made a number of purchases of sculptures, drawings, paintings and prints. At the exhibitions, the Keeper made a list of reserved artworks which, if they were not sold to schools or education authorities first, were sent to Manchester to be approved for purchase for the collection by a council committee.
The Rutherston Loan Scheme was aimed at educational institutions and art galleries in the North of England. I am curious to find out what happened to some of the artworks and how they were used once they left Pictures for Schools, yet I could find very little reference to the scheme on the art gallery’s website. I made an enquiry about whether the scheme and collection was still in existence, and what kind of records existed relating to its history and was informed that the scheme ran until the late-1970s, when a public aspect was introduced to the scheme, with local ratepayers able to borrow works for their homes. Later, in the 1980s, the scheme became a community scheme with exhibitions lent to schools and community centres. The scheme finally came to an end in the early-’90s, following rate caps and a resultant reduction in staffing levels, and artworks were accessioned into the main collection. Like many other instances of loan collections, insurance too was increasingly problematic. Today, the gallery has corporate loan schemes, which lend work suitable for the offices of local firms such as barristers’ offices. New work is acquired for this collection, often by young talent, which can later be accessioned into the main collection. Following an exhibition about nineteenth century philanthropist and Ancoats museum founder Thomas Horsfall, which worked alongside a local primary, it is encouraging to hear that artworks will once again be going into schools.
Manchester Art Gallery gallery has a useful set of records relating to the Rutherston Loan Scheme, dating back to the 1920s when the collection was founded by Bradford businessman and art collector Charles Rutherston. A transcript of a speech made at Manchester Art Gallery in 1926 reveals that after searching for a place to house his collection, he settled on Manchester due to the need for the provinces to have access to art, the good example set by existing levels of cultural provision in the city, and a pre-existing relationship with curator Lawrence Haward and his interest in modern layouts for art galleries. Manchester was also chosen because of its relative proximity to Rutherston’s home city of Bradford, which would enable circulation to institutions across Lancashire and Yorkshire. Rutherston considered it to be important that the collection could be circulated rather than having a permanent home at one gallery, acting as an educational aid, and initially anticipated that schools of art would be the most regular borrowers (it turned out that secondary schools in fact made most use of the scheme). The Arts Council later picked up on this, and circulated the collection regionally to stimulate interest in similar schemes in other parts of the country.
The pilot version of the scheme loaned artworks for one year, although this was felt to be too long to maintain students’ interest and termly loans were initiated instead. The scheme worked by lending groups of pictures to borrowers, either grouped by artistic theme or by ‘different methods of approach to artistic problems’, which could be supplemented from a pool of pictures. Borrowers could visit the collection to make a choice for themselves, or the Keeper could make a choice on their behalf, and the Keeper was also available for illustrated talks. Borrowers had to pay for transport by road or rail, and insurance arranged at ‘reasonable rates’ through the Manchester Corporation. The art gallery has lists of local schools which made use of the scheme, as well as annual reports, which reveal that the scheme was used extensively by elementary and secondary schools throughout Manchester and Salford, along with those in towns in the surrounding area such as Warrington and Bury, as well as specialist schools such as a school in the countryside for epileptics and an experimental boarding school near Clitheroe for children from Salford where students would otherwise have had little opportunity of seeing art. Schools of art made use of loans by displaying examples of work from the collection in the dedicated studios in which that medium was taught – for example, figurative work was shown in the life drawing room. Exhibitions of selections from the collection were also held at Platt Hall, the art gallery’s south Manchester outpost in Fallowfield.
Rutherston was first inspired to collect art by his brother, the painter Will Rothenstein, and, through Will, become part of a social circle that included members of the New English Art Club. This group was drawn on heavily for the collection, along with other groups of artists such as the London Group and the Camden Town Group. Although Rutherson also collected examples of ‘ancient Oriental Pottery, Bronzes and Carvings’, and the collection contained a few examples of foreign artists, his aim was the ‘cultivation of the Modern School of English Art’. In this way, like Pictures for Schools, the scheme offered support for young and unrecognised artists alongside more established names (albeit supplemented by reproductions of masterpieces if it was found to be necessary). The acquisition of work by living artists continued throughout the collection’s existence, with an emphasis on the modern, contemporary and progressive, and the collection aimed to provide a wide survey of twentieth century art and the ‘modern outlook’, aiming to stimulate interest in ‘new forms of visual expression’ among borrowers. Rutherston saw his gift as the ‘nucleus’ of a collection which would grow with gifts and further acquisitions, and a number of donations came from the Contemporary Art Society. Other artworks were purchased at exhibitions of local artists. During the Second World War, the Rutherston Scheme had links with CEMA (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Art), and works were acquired from the War Artists’ Advisory Council. Other works in the collection were humbler forms, such as linocuts, which were thought to be of particular interest to schools as students often made linocuts in art classes.
I was able to view a few of the works which were purchased through Pictures for Schools in the 1960s in the art gallery’s store. Although sculpture is stored elsewhere in Manchester (the curator mentioned that much of the gallery’s post-war sculpture is small in scale, something which fits in with my observations of the sculpture in the Derbyshire County Council school loan collection), I was able to view an extraordinary (yet probably slightly disturbing for schoolchildren) drawing by Elisabeth Frink, Bird Man (1963), which depicts movement through an unusual drawing technique and diagonal composition. Another artwork, Studies in Line (1964), a print by Conrad Atkinson, appeared to be a snapshot of an endless variation of experiments into the possibilities of line and form which drew the eye back again and again. An artwork by Pauline Smith, Museum Study (1968), was a real curiosity, a proscenium arch drawn on graph paper in the luminous oranges and purples characteristic of the era. Unframed, it appeared to be more of a study or demonstration exercise to be shown to students than something designed to beautify a wall. One of the artworks purchased through Pictures for Schools, however, is currently on loan to the office of Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council.
One of the most interesting chapters of the Rutherston collection’s history relates to the Second World War and the continuing importance of the arts at that time. Despite difficulties such as transport limitations, the evacuation of Manchester schools and the storage of some of the more valuable works safely away from Manchester, the collection was in high demand and schools continued to make good use of artworks even in temporary accommodation. Loans from the collection were also distributed to YMCAs, service camps, factory hostels, hospitals, factories and local firms, as well as the local Juvenile Employment Bureau where children discussed the pictures informally amongst themselves whilst waiting to be seen.
Another interesting aspect to the scheme was the lively interest taken by Rutherston’s widow, Essil R. Elmslie (1880–1952), an artist and owner of the Redfern Gallery in London, after his death in 1927. A steady stream of correspondence between Mrs Rutherston and the Keeper of the collection reveals that she made regular visits to Manchester, and was keen to visit schools and other borrowers to see how they were making use of the collection (as well as trying to encourage those schools which weren’t making use of the collection, such as Manchester Grammar, where paintings were only displayed in the Masters’ areas, to do so, and giving suggestions for schools which felt they had nowhere to display artwork). Mrs Rutherston made regular purchases for the scheme, both from gallery exhibitions as well as student potters at the school of art local to her in Farnham.
Along with the artworks purchased from Pictures for Schools for the Rutherston Loan Scheme, there are other interesting links between the schemes. ‘Rutherston’ was an anglicised version of the surname ‘Rothenstein’, and Charles Rutherston was the uncle of John Rothenstein, director of the Tate Gallery from 1938-1964, who was involved in selecting artworks for early instalments of Pictures for Schools. Youngman also knew John Rothenstein’s brother, the painter Michael Rothenstein, socially as part of a group of East Anglian painters. Another possible link with Nan Youngman is through the Society for Education in Art, under whose name Pictures for Schools was organised: Mrs Rutherston was actively involved in the local branch at Farnham in Surrey, helping to organise a wartime exhibition in aid of the Red Cross, and wrote with enthusiasm about attending an SEA conference at Somerville College, Oxford, addressed by Herbert Read and the art critic Eric Newton (a Manchester man who wrote regularly about Pictures for Schools in the press), where she tried to spread the word about the Rutherston Loan Scheme among those she met.
It is hoped that there will eventually be an exhibition of work from the Rutherston Loan Collection at Manchester Art Gallery, which I think is a great idea given its long and fascinating history.
After speaking to people who were in the past involved in school museum services, I wanted to visit one of the few which is still in action to see first-hand the type of materials which are in a county council collection and how it operates. Last week I made a trip to Derby to see the collection of original artworks for schools held in the Derby & Derbyshire School Library Service. This service was started in 1936, with a grant from the Carnegie Trust, and was for many years run by Museum Organiser Barbara Winstanley under the Derbyshire Director of Education J. Longland. In the post-war period, artworks were chosen with the assistance of Philip James, who was involved with the Arts Council and its predecessor CEMA (The Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), artist Mary Hoad, and artist and educator Evelyn Gibbs.
Barbara Winstanley was clearly a pivotal figure in the history of the development of school loan collections, as well as to the Derbyshire collection. She wrote a handbook for school-loan services for the Museums Association in 1959, and the museum service’s annual reports reveal that representatives from local authorities all over the county (and even around the world) visited the Derbyshire collection to see how they could achieve something similar (watch a 1962 clip from Midland Montage, featuring the Museum Service, on the Midland Archive for Central England website). Furthermore her Director of Education, J. Longland, wrote the foreword for one of the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues, showing the high regard in which the Derbyshire model was held. Winstanley’s vision continues to inspire those responsible for running the service today, who “try to stick to her ethos of maintaining real materials for real people”.
Having moved since its early days elsewhere in the city, the collection is housed on the first floor of a big, grand, ornate old girls’ school building built in 1917 (which, it is fair to say, has seen better days) and is now combined with a library service. The School Museum Service was closed and mothballed in 1990; paintings were stored in the old school gym, which can now only be entered with a hard hat on. Luckily those who ran it believed it was an important service to keep and caused enough of a ruckus that it was reopened in 1993 (partly, perhaps, to keep them quiet). Today, the service is run as a traded service which must compete for schools’ attention and funding with other services such as school meals. Schools subscribe a couple of hundred pounds a year for use of the museum service (paying a slightly higher price for the inclusion of paintings), then a very small sum per term per painting.
Rather surreally hundreds of framed paintings and prints are stacked in the tiled cubicles of the school toilets (one even still has the ubiquitous ‘so and so loves so and so’ graffiti on the ceiling!), ranging from a highly-stylised Henry Moore hand-printed textile showing a reclining figure, to paintings and prints by famous figures of British post-war art including Jacob Epstein and Elisabeth Frink, to graphic architectural prints by Edward Bawden, to oils by Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman. The collection is strong on prints by Clifford Webb, as well as Ronald Pope, who lived in Derbyshire and collaborated with architect Basil Spence on artworks for cathedrals. Many of the paintings and prints depict local scenes, or geological or architectural details of the landscape such as rock faces, roads or mines. A minority are entirely abstract. One of my favourites was a large, busy, brightly-coloured lithograph by Eduardo Paolozzi (though it dates from slightly later than the period covered by Pictures for Schools), which draws the eye back again and again to explore different details of a collage-style composition which references everything from mosaics to idealised, children’s book-style imagery of children to technology, the space race and pop advertising. Paintings, drawings, fabric collages and sculptures are also dotted on display about the building, from John Lally’s undulating, abstracted, pastel-hued take on Derbyshire landmark Haddon Hall to a lovely 1960 textile piece in autumnal shades of brown and grey by Sadie M Allen, depicting in detail a lively, hilly view of a traditional Welsh village.
In a story now familiar from elsewhere, artwork by Lowry was sold off long ago, but the majority of the collection remains. After the painting collection’s listing on the BBC/Public Catalogue Foundation’s website Your Paintings, which has compiled photographs of all of the country’s publicly-owned oil paintings, a number of artists have been in touch with stories about how their artwork was acquired, and in some cases now-elderly artists have visited the collection to see artworks they made at the start of their careers, after which their style changed a lot. The service is also contacted by organisers of retrospectives of certain artists, as well as relatives and collectors, and lends paintings to galleries and universities in the county.
However, it was the sculpture collection which I found especially interesting, containing wooden, stone, resin, concrete and bronze objects by artists including Peter Peri, Willi Soukop and Betty Rea, all of whom are known for their work for schools and public places. Housed next to the service’s collection of museum objects such as models, animal specimens and stuffed birds, each sculpture is contained within its own made-to-size wooden box, created when the service had in-house carpenters, with a carry handle and sliding front panel. Each sculpture stands on a wooden base which slides snugly into the box. I wasn’t prepared for how small the sculptures would be: most were on an intimate, hand-holdable scale that seemed to invite close and tactile interaction. Though some were abstract compositions, or offered fairly straightforward representations of animals, several depicted humble, familiar subjects – a young girl sitting forward on a chair, a grandmother combing a granddaughter’s hair and, most evocatively, a ‘little girl shouting’ – and it was clear that these were well-crafted, thoughtful objects showing a high level of workmanship.
Service Manager Denise Pritchard is incredibly passionate about the collection and service, and proud of its innovative heritage. Ahead of my visit she had found me out the boxes of record cards listing individual works in the collection, their artist and medium, as well as their method of acquisition. This revealed that, as well as buying directly from the artist, the museum service had acquired artworks from organisations such as the Crafts Centre of Great Britain, Arts & Crafts Society and Embroiderer’s Guild, shops such as Fortnum and Mason and Liberty, another museum service, Nottingham, and exhibitions such as the Contemporary Hanging Exhibition. Really helpfully, Denise had pulled out all the cards relating to works acquired through Pictures for Schools and Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions (Denise noticed a strong Welsh theme in the collection, for no apparent reason – could this partly be attributed to buying work from Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions?), which numbered well over 100. This policy of visiting exhibitions, guilds and artists’ studios continues today, and the museum service is still a patron of, often local, artists. Denise had also gathered together the museum service’s annual reports, which referred to Barbara Winstanley being on the Pictures for Schools selection committee, and mentioned visits made to Pictures for Schools exhibitions and purchases being made there.
Although a good proportion of schools in Derbyshire still subscribe to the School Museum Service, unfortunately it appears that schools are reluctant to borrow original works of art even though Denise is clear it is “something they can get so much from”. Primary schools tend to make more use of the service than secondary schools and, although sculpture is more popular than paintings and prints, the most popular artefacts tend to be things like African masks which can be used as drawing aids. By the 1980s, the service was tending to send out more reproductions of classic artworks such as paintings by Monet than original artworks, which Denise considers unsatisfactory because “they all a had similar shade of green going through them, and everything was reduced to the same size, which would make you think artists only paint in one certain size … schools didn’t really want them and they were pleased when we came and got them”. Today, schools are concerned about where to hang original paintings, and about insurance and security, and there is a lack of knowledge about how to use original works of art. Where schools do make use of the artworks, it is often due to an innovative head – even when individual art teachers are interested, it can often be a tough job to convince heads to release school funds. This is a situation which Denise thinks will only get worse as the curriculum changes and schools are forced to focus on other sides of the curriculum; art, she says, needs to be promoted as benefiting all sorts of areas of education. Part of the problem is that some of aspects of the collection are now dated; nowadays museum materials are often offered as part of a bigger package containing extra, printed material. Although paintings are interesting and fascinating in their own right, Denise thinks there is a need to offer in-service training on how to ‘use’ paintings. Schools need to be encouraged to use artworks which will capture children’s attention and prompt them to look and gain an understanding of what the artists did and why they did it.
Denise fears that the collection will be dismantled and no longer be together as a collection with a history, but hopes that future solutions could include touring exhibitions or lending artworks to local businesses. However, there are still examples of schools making good use of the collection, including a recent exhibition where school students visited and selected artworks from the service based on five defined themes.