I’ve just returned from the conference ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’ at Oxford Brookes University. Although I wasn’t invited to speak these themes are key to my own PhD research so I went along to watch and listen.
There were some really interesting papers, including presentations by postgraduates and early career researchers in architectural history, discussing buildings such as health centres, schools, housing and theatres, as well as the discursive environments surrounding them, from the architectural press to RIBA.
Focusing on the half-century between the 1920s and the 1970s the conference set the scene for social and architectural developments in post-war Britain by looking at their roots in the interwar period. For example, Elizabeth Darling discussed the interwar Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, which was regarded as not just a health centre offering advice such as birth control but a social space and centre for the community which would bring people in. She set out one of the key themes of the conference not addressed in the title – education – showing how the centre was part of a wider aim to give people information and education, in order to better themselves.
Jessica Kelly followed this by showing how the architectural press of the 1930s and 1940s navigated between public taste and architects, who as experts and specialists had both privileges and responsibilities. The attitudes of writers in publications such as the Architects Journal and the Architectural Review moved, she explained, from condemnation of public tastes in the 1930s towards a more collaborative approach. This led to a really interesting discussion among the panel and the audience about consumerism, citizenship and class, and the idea that upper and middle-class architects and built environments could play a part in helping working-class people obtain citizenship. Another theme that began to emerge was suburban versus urban life – urban living was promoted as a route to citizenship at a time when the majority of people would have lived suburban lives.
The session on educational spaces was a particular highlight of the conference. Roy Kozlovsky explored the emotional history of school buildings, drawing a link between the family and the home in the post-war period and exploring the complex link between the home and the school, arguing that emotional performances became symbolic landscapes of reconstruction.
I particularly enjoyed Catherine Buke (previously of the Decorated School)’s presentation, which referenced innovations in school building in the United States, Italy and the UK. Cathy drew a distinction between designing for learning versus designing for living, and described how post-war schools aimed to promote learning for living and help their students live in the modern world. She drew links between the school system and the strengthening of democracy and resistance against Fascism at a time when, as she said, ‘a common vocabulary was forged between architecture and education’. I was really interested to hear about Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia infant school in northern Italy, which Cathy described as a democratic project aiming to teach its students how to be critical, ask questions and be active in their environments. Cathy also referenced a number of important UK educationalists, including Cambridgeshire Director of Education Henry Morris, with his ideas of using schools to bring art and culture to working-class and rural populations, and Alec Clegg of the West Riding. Through these figures and others Cathy explored the idea that the educational environment is a kind of ‘third teacher’ after the parent and the teacher, and the belief that children should be able to shape their own environments. She showed both buildings and furnishings as an example of the way in which furniture and crockery was desired to be not just functional but beautiful, as part of a consideration of what should be brought inside a school building, and therefore play a part in developing children’s taste.
Another highlight was Louise Campbell’s discussion of post-war educational expansion and the need for universities. She positioned access to university as a right, which had been fought for during the war, and argued that the development of new universities was part of an idealisation of the young. Focusing on the University of Sussex, she explored post-war universities’ aspirations to produce cultivated young people, to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood and to introduce students to high culture (in contrast to Brighton youth and gang culture), at the same time as breaking down traditional subject divisions. She described both how the nature of the welfare state was reflected in buildings, and the ways in which the campus absorbed European influences in its style and appearance.
Otto Saumarez Smith explored the links between the welfare state, modernism and sociology, which had its roots in the inter-war years, and the legacy of this in social democratic approaches in the 1970s. He made an interesting point about the ways in which new towns could be associated with acquisitiveness, affluence and ultimately a move towards conservatism among their inhabitants. Christine Hui-Lan Manley spoke about the picturesque principles underlying the design of Harlow.
A highlight of the conference was Alistair Fair on the development of post-war theatres. He explained that prior to 1939 theatre rarely received public funding, but after the Second World war new theatres were built across the country, often as part of civic centres, and enjoyed public subsidy. The period saw a move away from commercial theatre companies to theatre taking on a more civic function and being regarded as a public amenity, in which the public were encouraged to participate. Alistair contextualised this with reference to political developments, from the 1959 Labour manifesto ‘Leisure for Living’ to Conservative promotion of leisure as giving a sense of purpose and alleviating boredom. He explained that the Arts Council placed culture as part of the welfare state and the development of a ‘gayer and more cultivated population’, where modern citizens enjoyed culture and leisure and culture was balanced against ‘materialist impulses’. This was partly driven by motivations of egalitarianism but also partly, he said, a reaction against American culture and search for appropriate kinds of leisure as people became more affluent. Another interesting link was with suburban growth, which often lacked facilities – collective leisure pursuits could be seen as one way to counter individualist suburban drift.
It was also great to hear about Rosamund West’s research about the London County Council’s patronage of art for residential estates. Rosamund discussed the City of London plan as a discursive event, which was distributed to residents for information and education. She showed some of the types of artworks that were chosen for new estates – themes included neighbours – and some of the ways in which artworks were chosen and received, including the input of residents’ committees in the early years. Interestingly, she highlighted a tension between the Arts Council, which preferred that big names were commissioned, and the LCC, which championed new talent such as students and teachers.
After a day and a half of presentations and discussions which often came back to ideas about taste and the public, Lesley Whitworth’s presentation about the Council of Industrial Design, which developed an index of ‘well-designed’ goods certified with a label, was a fitting way to round off a conference, which took architecture as its starting point but moved beyond that to consider not just space and communities but objects and culture in a broad sense.
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’m looking forward to attending an informal launch for Modern Futures, for which I’ve written a reflection on William Mitchell’s Harlow water fountains, at King’s College London on Wednesday 16 November from 6.15pm-8pm.
The event is free and will feature brief introductions to the chapters by some of the contributors. Book online at www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/modern-futures-book-launch-tickets-28757715100.
In November, I did a tour for a group of human geography undergraduates from the University of Central Lancashire, which I have now turned into a publication. The tour aimed to offer a brief introduction to the historical context and development of public art, and some of the debates, concerns and issues surrounding it, asking questions such as ‘What is public art?’ and ‘What form does it take?’.
The tour took as its starting point the post-war era, widely regarded a time artworks began to step down from the gallery plinth to be installed in public places and buildings, though many of them used the same form and materials, and relied on the same assumed distance between artwork and viewer, and framework of interpretation, as artworks which might be seen in a traditional institutional setting. It concluded in the present-day. The resulting guide moves from a presentation of object-based artworks to highlighting artworks which are ephemeral, activity and performance-based, and may leave the viewer with little or nothing to look at on a permanent basis, but nonetheless contain the potential to transform the way their participants think about and experience the city, and interact with certain spaces and situations. On its way, the guide takes in artworks with aim to engage with communities and local people, as well as artworks linked with specific places and pieces linked with wider agendas of tourism and regeneration.
The publication also acts as an introduction to an area of Salford which has undergone several phases of development, decline and renewal and is currently undergoing transformation and attempted gentrification at an accelerated pace. It starts at the University of Salford, progressing down the Crescent and Chapel Street. The guide draws on a number of sources, including original interviews undertaken with artists, curators and others involved in public art in the area and published elsewhere, including on the Shrieking Violet blog.
Access the publication at http://issuu.com/natalieroseviolet/docs/salfordcentralpublicarttour.
Reflections on Pictures for Schools paper at International Conference of Historical Geographers, LondonPosted: July 7, 2015
My presentation at this year’s International Conference of Historical Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society was a step up from last year’s RGS-IBG summer conference. Whereas last year I presented a particular aspect of my PhD research on Pictures for Schools in a general session for post-graduates to share their ongoing research, this time I was invited to be one of five speakers contributing to a session themed ‘Making post-war Britain: Mobility, planning and the modern nation’.
Papers explored research already undertaken as well as projects in their early stages. My Director of Studies, Hannah Neate, chaired the session, linking each paper through pointing out shared themes and overlaps. Papers included Ruth Craggs on returning colonial administrators, co-written with Hannah. This attempted to direct attention away from a focus on the often-told national and domestic story towards wider international motilities and geopolitical shifts and changes, as told through the figure of one administrator, RW Phelps, as part of a bigger picture of people such as architects and planners. Ian R. Cook then spoke engagingly on post-war planners’ organised study tours abroad, and the way in which certain organisations shaped the way in which planners and policy-makers thought about post war development. Heike Jons’ work on the location and development of post-war universities was well-illustrated with maps and diagrammes. Finally, Ben Rogaly presented his ongoing work with Rebecca Taylor on the experiences of strangeness and belonging in post-war new towns, and the way in which communities were unsettled in the 1950s and 1960s due to building and redevelopment and large-scale migration from places such as London to new and expanding towns such as Peterborough.
As ever, it was hard to narrow down the focus of my research to fit a fifteen-minute slot, but I attempted to convey something of the story of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions and the way in which they aimed at – and succeeded in – distributing original artworks to not just schools but to county councils, education authorities, universities (including Imperial College, where the session took place!) and teacher training colleges across the country. My presentation was led heavily by the use of visuals and archival finds such as exhibition posters and photographs of visitors to the exhibitions, as well as a selection of representative artworks purchased by educational buyers, offering an opportunity to revisit and make use of material I hadn’t yet highlighted elsewhere. The visuals received particularly positive conference from members of the audience, unsurprisingly, particularly a series of 1960s posters advertising the exhibitions. I was also keen to demonstrate that, although Pictures for Schools was enabled by specific post-war developments such as the post-war school building programme, the formation and support of the Arts Council and Ministry of Education endorsement of the role of the arts in schools, it operated autonomously of the state and was driven by the ideas, values and experience of its founder, the painter and teacher Nan Youngman. I aimed to show how Pictures for Schools benefited particularly from the support and engagement of networks of geographically dispersed artists and organisations Youngman encountered both in her dual career as an educationalist and a painter, and in her social life, and to suggest that I have experienced the value of biographical approaches in historical geographical research.
The panel format for taking questions meant that unfortunately I wasn’t asked any questions in detail – beyond whether there was any measurement of the impact and engagement of the artworks sold through Pictures for Schools. I answered that the exhibitions must be understood on more than one level – firstly, engagement with artworks at the exhibitions themselves, by visitors to the exhibitions, which was measured to some extent through questionnaires and voting boxes, and secondly the life of the artworks once they had left the exhibitions, which strangely did not seem to be of interest to the organisers. Some interesting questions were put to the panel, including: whether it was possible to see any specific outcomes of the influences of study tours abroad on post-war British planning; the apparent tensions between a time in Britain’s history generally regarded as being dominated by leftist welfare statism, and the fact that people such as returning colonial administrators were often part of a more old-fashioned establishment and old boys’ network culture; and what motivated and drove individual reformers such as planners, and whether it was political or ideological or otherwise.
The conference was a great chance to hear from people who’d been at the previous talk I did and said I’d made interesting progress, both in my research and presentation and in the discussion of my findings. It was also great to meet researchers, elsewhere at the conference, who were interested in related figures and ideas, from Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire and founder of the county’s village colleges (who employed Youngman as a peripatetic art adviser from 1944-1954, travelling around these colleges as well as other rural schools), an influence highlighted in my presentation, to the Rosc exhibitions in 1960s Ireland, which I was told about by another delegate.
I also enjoyed the plenary from Catherine Hall, historian at UCL, on slavery and freedom, which touched on not just the ways in which the fields of history and historical geography inform and are informed by one another, but showed how historical research can frame and be framed by contemporary issues and discourses, in this case the construction and perception of race in society, though economics, society and culture.
Finally, I was pleased to receive a bursary from the Historical Geography Research Group covering half the price of my ticket, which assisted greatly in covering my conference expenses.
ICHG paper ‘Artworks in schools of every kind: the Pictures for Schools exhibitions 1947-1969’, Monday 6 JulyPosted: June 30, 2015
Next Monday (6 July) I am excited to be talking about my Pictures for Schools research at the International Conference of Historical Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society in London. I will be speaking in the session ‘Making post-war Britain: Mobility, planning and the modern nation’ (Royal School of Mines Room G05, from 2.15pm), alongside papers on subjects such as new towns and new universities.
For more information about the session, including abstracts, visit http://conference.rgs.org/ICHG/33.