Exhibition visit: Evelyn Gibbs in Peace and Wartime, Nottingham Castle

13923546_1826265707594940_8409612827567881721_oOne 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.

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Fourth visit to Tate Archive (and library)

This week I took advantage of travelling down south on family business to visit the Tate Archive on my way back. During this visit, I spent some time looking at an extensive photographic collection, which mainly consisted of photographs of Nan Youngman’s work, both in colour and in black and white. Although I had seen Youngman’s work reproduced in books, and several original paintings and sketches, I was really struck by the volume and diversity of her work, including early portraits of her friends and acquaintances, a wartime sketch of an air-raid shelter, later, slightly dreamy, hazy seascapes in pastel hues capturing children and families playing, paintings of technology such as radio telescopes, and striking paintings and drawings of industrial scenes, including one of a kiln belching black smoke in Stoke-on-Trent, a painting of a steelworks, a derelict-looking pigeon loft captured in sharp detail and one work depicting a traditional, small-scale house incongruously nestled next to a huge gas tower, as well as some touching drawings and paintings of family life and a photograph of a mural at Youngman and Rea’s Cambridge home the Hawks, painted by Youngman, Rea and Elizabeth Vellacott, inspired by a restaurant garden in France. It was also great to discover a folder of photographs of Youngman’s Christmas cards – including one casting herself as a mischievous pirate in 1985, when she would have been nearly eighty – as well as of Christmas pantomimes, comic strips (‘comichawks’, based on Christmas at her home at the Hawks near Cambridge) and limericks inspired by the Rea family (‘Hawkericks’).

I also saw some photographs of Nan Youngman at her retrospective exhibition at the Minories in Colchester in 1971 (although, interestingly, the press release for the show, and newspaper cuttings, all started by highlighting Youngman’s work as an educationalist, often with reference to her relationship to Marion Richardson and then Pictures for Schools, before moving on to discuss her work as a painter). Also tucked in among the photos were press cuttings relating to the 1992 exhibition Ten decades of women artists, curated by Katy Deepwell, which focused on ten artists born between 1897 and 1906, showing how they had had to fit the production of art around family ties and asking why women had been marginalised in the study of art history. As well as Barbara Hepworth, the exhibition included Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, as well as the art educator Evelyn Gibbs and Youngman and Rea’s friend from Artists’ International Association days, Mary Adshead (apparently less well-known than her husband, Stephen Bone – both were regular Pictures for Schools contributors), and there was extensive press coverage, both locally and nationally, of Youngman’s involvement in the exhibition.

I also spent some time in the Tate Library, looking at four exhibition catalogues for Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place elsewhere in the country than the longstanding series in London and Wales. Three of these related to exhibitions held at the Laing Art Gallery and Museum in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1956-58, which were direct spin-offs of the London exhibitions, organised by the North East Branch of the Society for Education through Art, in whose name Pictures for Schools was organised. Although far smaller in scale – they contained only 45-50 pictures and 8-10 sculptures each time, along with textiles such as printed wall hangings – they replicated some aspects of the London exhibitions such as asking children to vote for their favourite work, with encouraging children to form their own opinions on modern art a stated aim of the exhibitions. The exhibitions also explicitly set out to have a ‘local character’, with artists living and working in the area well-represented, as well as, intriguingly, a section dedicated to ‘Costume designs for ‘Northumberland teachers’ opera group’ production of Prince Igor held at the Theatre Royal, 1957′. It was interesting to see Richard Hamilton and Harry Thubron represented in the first exhibition, as both were associated with the Basic Design courses being developed in Newcastle and elsewhere in the North East. Some other names, such as Sadie Allen, an embroidery artist, I recognised from the catalogues of the London Pictures for Schools exhibitions, although most were unknown to me. Like its London counterparts, the work seemed to be dominated by still-lifes and landscapes, often based on the mundane, industrial or everyday, such as a brick factory, furnace slag heaps, docks, old men and a bus stop.

It was more difficult to gauge the relationship between the Pictures for Schools exhibition held at the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham in 1963 and the London exhibitions. Although works had been borrowed from directors of London galleries, including the AIA Gallery, for the exhibition, no reference was made to the London exhibitions in the catalogues. However, regular Pictures for Schools contributors such as Mary Fedden, Sandra Blow, Fred Uhlam and Philip Sutton were represented, along with Nottingham painter and gallerist Dorothie Field, who had been among Nan Youngman’s students at Highbury Hill High School and went on to receive renown as a socialist realist painter. The exhibition was divided into two parts – more costly invited works, and members’ works. Interestingly, a tiny minority of the works could also be hired. My interest was also piqued by an invitation at the back of the catalogue to a discussion entitled ‘Children as patrons’, featuring painters Michael Granger and Dennis Hawkins, and sculptor LR Rogers, at which questions were welcomed. However, it was unclear whether the exhibition was a regular occurrence, or a one-off.


Third visit to Tate Archive

As I was in London for the RGS-IBG conference, I jumped on the opportunity to spend a couple more days looking at Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s papers in the Tate Archive. This time, I ended up looking at three sets of materials. The first comprised references written by Nan Youngman about her work as a teacher, from those who had taught her at school, at art school and at teacher training college – including art educator Marion Richardson, as well as her former employers at schools and art colleges.

The second was extracts from a Master’s dissertation written by Pauline Lucas focusing on Nan Youngman alongside two other woman artists, the artist and art educator Evelyn Gibbs (a regular contributor of work to Pictures for Schools) and Dorothie Field, a former student of Youngman’s who went on to found the 359 Gallery in Nottingham, showing how these women combined ‘public responsibilities’ with the production of artwork. It was interesting to see how Lucas had embarked on writing about Youngman’s life and work, including her ‘great art educational crusade’, and highligted aspects of her life and career including art education and the Artists’ International Association, both of which are given their own chapters. I also enjoyed Lucas’ discussion of the war years and the opportunities offered by evacuation to use education to offer comfort and familiarity to children far from home, as well as to experiment with different methods of teaching, for example painting outdoors. Something else which Lucas conveys well is the importance of individual personality and charisma, including Marion Richardson’s near-hypnotic influence over her child painting students and her subsequent influence on Youngman as a teacher. As well as drawing on sources I have looked at such as the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene, Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues and Nan Youngman’s autobiography, Lucas also had the advantage of being able to visit and speak to Youngman in her studio at her home near Cambridgeshire.

Finally, I rooted through a couple of folders of correspondence, particularly a large volume of ‘fan-mail’ – including a handwritten post-it note passed to Youngman during a lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club – sent to Youngman from former students and teachers who benefited from her support. What is striking is the number of former students who felt compelled to write to Nan Youngman, in many cases decades after they had left school and on taking up art again in their retirement. Many had been members of the Art Club run by Youngman at Highbury Hill High School in Islington in the 1920s and 1930s. Whilst some admitted they had no specific talent for art, they said that they had enjoyed her lessons and benefited from self-expression, gaining an ‘appreciation’ of art and developing their ‘taste’ in art and objects. One thing which was mentioned over and over again was the way in which art was applied beyond the art room, whether painting murals in school, designing sets and costumes for ballets and plays choreographed and performed by students, or creating ambitious puppet shows. A minority of correspondents had gone on to art college – although several reported that their careers had been curtailed by marriage and children – and become professional artists, whereas several others had become teachers. Whilst in later years Youngman invited this correspondence by publishing her address in the Highbury Hill old girls’ news letter, most correspondence was sparked in response to articles Youngman had written, or chance meetings with acquaintances. Although several remarked that they were too in awe of or intimidated by Youngman to talk to her much at the time, all thanked Youngman for ‘sowing the seed’ for an interest in art which had stayed with them across their lives and careers.

Hidden amongst the correspondence was another curiosity, photocopied pages from a 1936 school report for Highbury Hill High School for Girls, presumably written by London County Council’s inspector RR Tomlinson, an advocate of child art and new methods in art teaching. Although he painted a picture of art being squeezed for time during the school day, he was full of praise for Youngman’s teaching and the way in which an artistic ethos pervaded the school.


Visit to the amazing Derby & Derbyshire School Library Service

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.

Paintings stacked in toilets

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.

Sculpture boxesHowever, 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.

Little girl shouting Peter Peri box

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.

Record cards

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.


Art for everyman: The Artists’ International Association

One of the aspects of Pictures for Schools I will be looking at is the networks of artists, educators and administrators involved, and some of the links between these figures and other initiatives and movements. One network I have started reading about is the Artists’ International Association in which Nan Youngman, a driving force behind Pictures for Schools was highly active, as well as art critic Herbert Read (all information below is based on Robert Radford and Lynda Morris’s A.I.A.: Story of the Artists’ International Association,1933-53 (Modern Art Oxford,1983)).

There are interesting parallels between initiatives to introduce examples of good art and design to children through, for example, the School Prints and Pictures for Schools schemes, and AIA projects such as Everyman Prints (which was available for purchase from selected branches of M&S) and Small Pictures for Small Prices, which aimed to bring affordable art ownership to a wide section of the population and benefited both artists by providing employment and the public by raising popular standards of taste. The AIA also had links with other movements I may look at such as Mass Observation, and it anticipated the development of state-led bodies such as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Art (CEMA) which was set up during the war (a precursor to the Arts Council of Great Britain in its art patronage and championing of the position of the artist in society).

The AIA was founded as the Artists’ International in 1933 and grew out of the anti-Fascist and anti-war political climate of the 1930s. Artists resented money being spent on the development of arms rather than culture and the AIA aimed to mobilise ‘the international unity of artists against Imperialist War on the Soviet Union, Fascism and Colonial oppression’. Several members, including Nan Youngman, had been members of the Communist Party’s artists’ wing the Hogarth Group and several AIA members joined the International Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War. By the late 1930s, the AIA was a mass organisation with many hundreds of members, not just artists and designers, but art teachers, students and non-professionals. Exhibitions took a political slant, whether depicting topical subjects such as hunger marchers or aiming to raise support for anti-Fascist and anti-war causes. The AIA invited submissions from European artists with similar aims, and assisted refugee artists escaping Fascist and Nazi oppression with work permits, homes and visas. The group also had a social function, with members, for example, travelling abroad and going on holiday together.

The AIA’s exhibitions reflected and responded to major concerns, changes and events in society, and exhibitions were held in a range of public venues which enabled them to be seen by a mass audience, for example an exhibition of War Painting was held at Charing Cross tube station, and another wartime exhibition was held in the bombed-out basement of John Lewis. Exhibitions such as Art for the People, held at Whitechapel Gallery in 1939 and visited by 400,000 people, aimed to educate the public in modern art, hanging artworks in sections such as surrealism, abstraction and realism and encouraging artists to talk to visitors and answer questions, as well as inviting visits by school teachers. There was little access to contemporary art in provincial Britain, so exhibitions also toured to factories, civic centres and barracks.

The AIA also had sub-groups, and worked with other types of creative practitioners, from photographers and architects to writers, dramatists and musicians, and held exhibitions of art by unprofessional painters, including a group of miners. Whilst the artists who belonged to the AIA were not universally linked by one style, and the organisation helped break down the divide between fine artists and commercial artists such as silk screen printers and cartoonists, one of the things which stood out to me was the debate between realism or abstraction; in the 1930s, many artists moved back towards realism as they felt it enabled them to respond more effectively to the times in which they were living, at the same time as appealing to a wider audience. This led to a distinction between ‘free’ artists, and ‘engaged’ artists who leaned more towards propaganda. In 1938, the AIA organised a debate about realism versus surrealism, pitting Graham Bell, William Coldstream and Peter Peri against Roland Penrose, Julian Trevelyan and Humphrey Jennings. Whilst this tension between realism and formalism/abstraction is a product of the particular circumstances of its time, it may tie in with debates still going on when Pictures for Schools was in operation, about whether children responded best to styles and subject matters with which they were familiar, such as landscapes and still lifes, or whether they should be exposed to abstraction and contemporary innovations in modes of expression.

As well as its explicitly political aims, the AIA’s emphasis on the social role of art is of great interest, particularly the AIA’s attempt to improve the position of the artist in society through pragmatic and practical initiatives at a time when artists were facing great challenges surviving in a tough economic climate. Through the establishment of ‘working units’, the AIA put the skills of its members at the disposal of anyone needing a mural, banner, illustration, cartoon, stage decoration, tableaux or poster which could be put to use in anti-Fascist or anti-government protests. The AIA was involved in the Council Institute for Art and Design (CIAD), which brought together art and design institutions, and promoted schemes for the full employment of artists. During the Second World War, artists were employed to paint murals in temporary buildings such as bunkers, barracks and British restaurants, and commissioned to paint portraits of young men about to go away to war. AIA members such as Evelyn Gibbs and Carel Weight acted as unofficial war artists, painting wartime scenes such as evacuation.

The AIA functioned in a way similar to a Trade Union for artists or a professional lobbying body, using subscriptions to provide legal counselling, debt collection, credit advice, war work advice, unemployment and sickness benefit. Assisted by Nan Youngman, it published recommendations for the reform of art education in schools and colleges and the establishment of government-backed bodies. It also initiated a circulation scheme of 500 pictures by its members, with artists having the chance to sell their work; the AIA negotiated an annual royalty fee of £5 per picture per year with the government.

By 1953, the AIA’s political clause had been removed, reflecting a more general shift towards apolitical art. The pictures of industrial Britain which had previously been popular began to be replaced by a new type of realism depicting escapist Cornish and Mediterranean scenes, and it will be interesting to see to what extent this trend permeated the pictures chosen for Pictures for Schools.


Haul of secondhand books on art and art education

I cycled to an amazing, vast secondhand bookshop on an industrial estate in Sharston, on the outskirts of Manchester, today, and spent a good while with my head in the art books section.

Image

I came away with a few books which could well be of relevance to my project: The Englishness of English Art by Nikolaus Pevsner, which I read about in Alexandra Harris’ book Romantic Moderns and is based on a series of lectures for the BBC, a Tom Wolfe book about ‘hideous’ modern architecture and a 1946 Ministry of Education pamphlet about art education, with the cover featuring a lovely print by an art student. Perhaps most excitingly, I also got a 1934 book by Evelyn Gibbs, an artist and art educator who was friendly with Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman and was art advisor for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire education authorities, entitled The Teaching of Art in Schools.