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illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.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 recently visited and wrote an article looking ahead to the reopening of the Turnpike Gallery in the former mining and mill town of Leigh, a purpose-built gallery and library building with an exterior relief by William Mitchell which opened with an exhibition by Henry Moore in 1971, and fell victim to council cuts before reopening this year with a new programme. Read about the gallery’s history and future at http://theshriekingviolets.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/the-turnpike-leigh-newold-contemporary.html.
One 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.
The Hampstead home of the modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger at 2 Willow Road, built for his young family in the 1930s, is chic and elegant with its parquet flooring, large windows overlooking Hampstead Heath and bespoke furnishings. Whilst giving the impression of space, light and flexibility, it’s also surprisingly homely and ordinary. It’s not overly large or flashy, but family sized and bears the marks of a place that’s been lived in and worked in, from collections of bedside books to children’s toys to scraps and pages ripped from publications and displayed on the wall of Goldfinger’s studio above his tools and plans. Aside from a catalogue for the seminal post-war exhibition This is Tomorrow, displayed on the wall, one of the indicators of the artistic and intellectual circles in which the Goldfingers moved is the art collection spread throughout the house. It’s eclectic in its style, subject matter and media, ranging from British surrealism and collage to sculpture and kinetic art to painted pebbles by Max Ernst and photographic portraiture. One of the artists Goldfinger appears to have taken a particular shine to, who also showed work at Pictures for Schools, is the painter Prunella Clough. On face value, Clough’s dense and textural studies of industrial landscapes such as slag heaps couldn’t seem further from the genteel setting of the home in suburban, villagey Hampstead.
Though much of Clough’s work depicted scenes of this nature, however, a show currently on display at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings draws out Clough’s interest in abstraction and the reuse of found objects as well as her starting point in the everyday. The viewer is invited to make connections between the murky outlined shapes of industrial towns – structures such as cooling towers, roof tops, docks and machinery, ladders and lorries – and abstract shapes, using colour and form to draw attention to these places. Clough visited factories with fellow artist (and Pictures for Schools contributor) Ghisha Koenig, and many of her figurative paintings are reminiscent of repeated movements and labour that has become second nature, dwelling on the faces and forms of those overseeing production and transportation.
Although much of her work focuses on the urban, in dark, overworked tones, the beachfront Jerwood Gallery highlights the inspiration she took from the activities and occupations of the coast. From boats and fishing equipment to fishermen cocooned against the elements in heavy waterproof clothing, here the impression is of light and transience, nets and yellow-lit beaches.
Other works make use of pattern, from the spidery black marks of ‘White’ to the swirls, soft outlines and light, off-white dribbles of ‘Electrical Installation 1’, which are reminiscent of circuits and blue jelly.
Much of the accompanying information in the show is drawn from interviews and essays by peers and critics, such as Patrick Heron, who suggest that Clough’s work is significant in the way it asks the viewer to look again at, and see the strangeness of the everyday. As Heron suggests (in a quote from the show I particularly liked), Clough’s work offers paintings as machines for seeing with, as tools to change the way we look at the world.
Prunella Clough: Unknown Paintings is on at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, until 6 July.
The beachfront Jerwood Gallery, which sits among black-painted, newly renovated fishing huts in the rapidly gentrifying seaside town of Hastings, is currently showing two very different exhibitions by two twentieth century artists. Both are called John, but the contrast between John Bratby and John Piper couldn’t be greater.
The starting points for John Piper’s paintings, prints and ceramics are often British places, imagery and customs, from country churches and seaside buildings and occupations to the folky Green Man and the strange foliate style of church decoration. His work presents not so much representations of things as an exploration and juxtaposition of forms, colours and sensations through effects such as collage, mosaic and marbling.
Despite his abstraction of experiences and environments and the avant-garde circles in which he moved, the exhibition shows that Piper’s work was firmly part of the establishment of twentieth century British publishing, art and music. On display are his sketchy nautical nursery prints for Contemporary Lithographs, his drawings and paintings for Recording Britain and as a war artist, Shell book designs, and a Benjamin Britten record cover, as well as collaborations with Heal’s, a book on the installation of electricity on churches (produced with John Betjeman) and stained glass commissions for churches in Harlow and Coventry. Ranging from the 1930s to the post-war decades, it’s notable that despite his popularity in private and public commissions little in way of Piper’s style of modernism made it into Pictures for Schools.
By contrast, the paintings of the other artist on show at the Jerwood, John Bratby, fit seamlessly into the type of Britain and the representations of it which predominated at Pictures for Schools; indeed, Bratby, as well as other ‘Kitchen Sink school’ artists, regularly exhibited and sold portraits and still lifes at the exhibitions.
Whereas Piper made ordinary places and images mysterious, Bratby’s paintings appear to magnify the normal, intensifying the banality of everyday life and routines through dark outlines and thick brushmarks. His paintings, in a manner reminiscent of pop-art, incorporate and highlight brand names and throwaway packaging, from cereal packets to washing up bottles, and celebrate icons of popular culture such as Paul McCartney. His subjects suggest familiarity and intimacy, from flower arrangements to family life. Lounging nudes, the bathroom sink, a muddled collection of tools, are rendered unremarkable and unnoteworthy.
Bratby’s paintings make us contemplate vantage points and perspectives, both literal and metaphorical. They invite us to look in, at the now and the past, at the domestic and comforting, and outwards, to imagine a possible future and transformation of our lives. This is Britain viewed tentatively, through net curtains and decaying window frames, from a homely setting of wooden floorboards and kitchen tables. He portrays a country which is still drab, grey and brown, poised somewhere between post-war austerity and the promise of the cultural and social freedoms of a new consumer age. Hastings, too, where Bratby spent the last years of his life living and painting (and where it is still possible to imagine him working, amid the entropy of buildings and industries that still somehow cling on despite decades of decline), is a town on the verge of becoming something very different from the rundown resort it was formerly. The Jerwood, with its £9 entry fee, is a symbol of coastal regeneration, mimicking in its appearance yet irrevocably distanced from the traditional fishing huts and occupations it overlooks.
‘John Bratby: Everything but the Kitchen Sink Including the Kitchen Sink’ is at the Jerwood Gallery until Sunday 17 April.
‘John Piper: An Eye for the Modern’ is at the Jerwood Gallery until Sunday 8 May.
Earlier this year, Historic England announced the listing of a number of major post-war public artworks. The exhibition ‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’ at London’s Somerset House celebrates this recognition of an important aspect of our social, cultural and architectural history. At the same time, the show offers some necessary context for these works of art, filling in gaps and lapses in our collective memory. As we are reminded throughout the exhibition, prevailing attitudes towards twentieth century built environments have often resulted in publicly owned artworks being damaged, lost, hidden, destroyed or neglected.
The capital is a good starting point for a retrospective on public art, from the myriad artworks commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain to the London County Council’s post-war series of outdoor sculpture shows, where the public were asked what they were thought, given tours and offered sculpture-making demonstrations. Naturally, the post-war New Town of Harlow, with its artworks in housing estates and shopping areas, also features strongly, with an entire room dedicated to ‘sculpture town’. Another room screens a cringeworthily stilted promotional film made to attract people to the town and a new way of life.
Another section is dedicated to the commissioning and purchasing of artworks for schools, with a particular focus on those counties which had strong patronage schemes and a commitment to placing artworks in schools at a county level, and the way in which this was facilitated by the dedication of a particular percentage of school building budgets to the incorporation of art.
Other artefacts include correspondence around the commissioning process and reception of public artworks, often revealing the professional and social ambitions of those involved. These include Victor Pasmore’s comment in a 1977 letter that he conceived his Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee as ‘a sort of temple to raise the quality of a housing estate to the Gods!’. Elsewhere, the use of quotes throughout the show, from artists and architects, highlights the challenges and problems, as well as ideologies and attitudes, around public art, popular culture and the post-war project of changing the masses’ relationship with art. I particularly liked Festival of Britain Director of Architecture Hugh Casson’s comment that rather than ‘high brow’ or ‘low brow’ culture he preferred to think of ‘concertina eyebrows’, which were ‘high here, low there’, prioritising art that was ‘sincere, lively and the best of its kind’.
It was also fascinating to see models and maquettes – among the most enjoyable are miniature versions of William Mitchell’s Corn King and Queen sculptures at Wexham, and a small test piece for his Lee Valley Water Company Mural at Hatfield – as well as descriptions, illustrations and interviews about the ways in which artworks were made and the often new and innovative ways in which materials were put to use.
We are reminded that publicly visible art does not always mean publicly owned art, and that corporations and businesses were among the major commissioners in the post-war period. Most importantly, as well as showing how and where post-war public artworks were commissioned, ‘Out There’ offers some reasons why publicly accessible works of art moved away from monumental statues of grand historic figures to celebrate and depict the general public in this period. Whilst it is suggested that there may have been a number of agendas at work – for example, it is argued that the prominence of sculptures depicting mothers and children in post-war places could have been part of a wider desire to reinforce women’s traditional role as wives and mothers – the exhibition also argues that post-war public art aimed to create a sense of community and spirit in new, rebuilt or broken places, create visual interest and variety and make people think about the places they were in. The conventional narrative is that these lofty ambitions have failed or been forgotten, but the exhibition also reminds us of the places in which public art has been taken to heart, and become an integral part of our post-war places for living, working, shopping and socialising. In this regard we’re brought up-to-date by the inclusion of ongoing campaigns for these artworks to be recognised, retained and appreciated, whether they are led by heritage bodies such as Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society, artists such as Bob and Roberta Smith, or concerned and interested members of the public.
‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’ is at Somerset House, London until Sunday 10 April.