Exhibition visit: Drawing the Modern, Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

In 1944, a young man named Gordon Hodkinson embarked on his architectural training at the Manchester School of Architecture (MSA). Although his training was, like many of his generation, interrupted by military service, Hodkinson graduated in 1951 and spent his working life as an architect. Now, more than seventy years later, Hodkinson’s student work has been deposited with the Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University, and a small selection has gone on display in the Special Collections gallery space.

This is thanks to the enthusiasm of Richard Brook, Reader in Architecture, who recently finished his PhD on Cruickshank and Seward, the Manchester-based architectural partnership for whom Hodkinson went to work, and who has himself taught for many years at the MSA.

At the time of Hodkinson’s training, the MSA was regarded as offering a more modern architectural education than some of the other schools, looking towards the Bauhaus for inspiration. As a student who would graduate to work on building post-war Britain, Hodkinson’s student drawings offer an insight not just into the architectural training of the time, but into the types of buildings that architects might work on – or aspire to work on – once they had graduated. Early work includes day sketches for small-scale projects such as an architect’s retreat, an author’s workroom and a fisherman’s rest pavilion. Other projects include the intriguing and generously proportioned (especially by today’s standards!) single-person bungalows and student study bedrooms, a swimming pool stepped into the landscape, a hostel, a café, a reform school for boys and, more ambitiously, a modern art museum.

These are displayed alongside the project briefs, which highlight the considerations students needed to bear in mind, from materials to contractors. Students were also encouraged to consider the types of clients and contexts that were likely to provide commissions: they were asked to design for the City of Manchester plan, which saw post-war redevelopment as an opportunity for the comprehensive redesign of large areas of the city, and the Expanded Towns project which provided infill housing in the interwar years.

Hodkinson’s student work is also contextualised by the conclusion of a number of books and journals from the time – available to students in Hodkinson’s day, and still available in the MSA library today – which highlight many of the new developments in modern architecture and building techniques taking place at the time, both in the UK and internationally, and showcase pioneer projects such as schools, offices and housing.

On leaving university, Hodkinson went on to work on buildings including universities – both in Manchester and further afield – and offices for light industry on the outskirts of the city. These are celebrated through the inclusion of photographs of the finished results; Brook brings our attention in particular to a series of elegant staircases.

Hodkinson’s student drawings are crisp and precise, yet muted in their palette, perhaps due to the constrictions of wartime restrictions in materials, which continued in the immediate post-war period. In spite of this, they’re rich in detail, from vernacular materials, landscaping and the differentiated uses of trees, to cycle parking for swimmers and washing blowing on the line, showing the mark of someone who’s not just designing for abstract futures, but for buildings to be lived in, enjoyed and used.

Drawing the Modern is at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections until Friday 5 April 2019.

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Exhibition visit: Carel Weight at Tullie House

I recently visited Tullie House to see a small exhibition of work from a collection acquired for the city of Carlisle through the Royal Academician Carel Weight, as part of nationwide events commemorating 250 years of the Royal Academy. Weight was one of the artists who was heavily involved in Pictures for Schools, and sold work through the scheme. As well as showing Weight’s own paintings, the exhibition showed work by members of Weight’s circle, including peers and students, such as Peter Blake, acquired for Tullie House. I reviewed the exhibition for Corridor8: read online here.


Enid Marx in the news

I’ve been pleased to see a couple of articles recently shining a light on the print-maker Enid Marx, who exhibited linocuts and woodcuts at Pictures for Schools in the late-1950s and early 1960s, and sold to work to schools and local education authorities through the scheme.

The Guardian and the Twentieth Society Century magazine have both featured articles on her career, which encompassed both art and design, to coincide with a new exhibition of her work at the House of Illustration in London, and a new book about her by Alan Powers.

I hope to get chance to visit the exhibition in London, which is on until 23 September.


Exhibition of Argyll County Council’s school art collection

I’ve received an email about an upcoming exhibition of work by Scottish artists from Argyll County Council’s art collection for schools, dating from the 1960s to the 1980s, organised by Cowal Open Studios.

The exhibition Paintings are for People — the Argyll Art Collection takes place at Dunoon Burgh Hall from 21 April-2 June and Tighnabruaich Gallery from 28 April-3 June.


Exhibition visit: ‘School Prints’, Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield

I recently visited a small exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield about the School Prints, which emerged at a similar time to Pictures for Schools. The School Prints commissioned work by many of the artists who sold work at Pictures for Schools, including Julian Trevelyan, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein and LS Lowry, and several of those involved in Pictures for Schools, including Nan Youngman, Herbert Read and Audrey Martin, were on its advisory panel. Ultimately, however, Pictures for Schools, and supporters such as Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, reacted against the School Prints, believing that it did not go far enough, and that ‘original’ artworks such as paintings, sculptures and textiles were of more value to schools.

Some of the prints on display at the Hepworth had been accessioned from the West Yorkshire education service, although there was no mention in the exhibition of the fact that the West Riding, under Director of Education Alec Clegg, had once been regarded as one of the leading local education authorities for the provision of artworks to schools, and had created one of the country’s largest county loan collections. However, these efforts to provide artworks to local schools clearly still played some part in the cultural memory of the area. During my visit, a woman turned to the woman she was with and reminisced about attending a brand new school which had opened in 1952, and had a large, bright work of art on the wall which, she speculated, ‘must have had something to do with this’.

I was pleased to see quotes from students from a local secondary school, who had been trained as ‘art ambassadors’, on display alongside the artworks. My favourite comes from 13-year-old Alison Alute, who said: “All the different things going on in this painting makes a little voice in my head scream with excitement!”

I have reviewed the School Prints exhibition for Corridor8 at http://corridor8.co.uk/article/school-prints.


Radical Clay: an exhibition of Bristol’s former school pottery collection

Earlier this year I was contacted by the curator of an upcoming exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery of studio pottery that was previously part of the Bristol & Avon Schools Loan Service.

Bristol was among several local authorities that bought studio pottery from Pictures for Schools in the 1950s and 1960s, by some of the period’s best known studio potters, as part of collections of works of art destined for educational use in schools. At this time Bristol amassed around 400 examples of studio pottery, from Pictures for Schools and other sources, by Bernard Leach, Hans Coper, Lucy Rie, Ruth Duckworth and Gillian Lowndes among others. These were accessioned into the main museum collection after the service stopped lending in the 1980s. Other local authorities that bought stoneware, vases, dishes, bottles, bowls and pots at Pictures for Schools included education authorities in Carlisle, Derbyshire, Cornwall and Shropshire, as well as the loan service at Leeds College of Art, the National Museum of Wales Schools Service, teacher training colleges, and schools in London and Ipswich. Another buyer was the influential Cambridgeshire educationalist Henry Morris, who bought a dish by John Eaves for the Digswell Trust, a residential studio group for artists in Welwyn Garden City which supported the practice of potters and weavers alongside sculptors and printmakers. The work of Jan Ellison, Helen Pincombe, Lucy Rie and Peter O’Malley was particularly popular among educational buyers at Pictures for Schools. However, purchases of pottery seemed to tail off from the early 1960s onwards and it’s an element of the exhibition and local education authority loan services I know less about than the more conventional ‘pictures’ in the form of prints and paintings that made up the bulk of Pictures for Schools.

Radical Clay: Teaching with the greatest potters of the 1960s is at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from Saturday 22 July 2017-8 June 2018.


Isabel Alexander (1910-1996): Artist and Illustrator, Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate

51mofsqxqjl-_sx258_bo1204203200_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.