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.
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.
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.