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illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.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.
Growing up near Folkestone, I loved visiting the Metropole Art Gallery, situated in a huge, horseshoe-shaped late-Victorian pile with parquet floors, polished fireplaces and large windows overlooking the English Channel. Situated on Folkestone’s cliff-top Leas promenade, and bordered by lawns and a sweeping driveway, I thought it was incredibly glamorous – this was the only area of the town where you could imagine the rich and interesting may once have stayed, partied and relaxed in the town’s heyday as a Victorian and Edwardian resort.
The Metropole regularly hosted exhibitions of emerging and established artists, from the visceral paintings of Derek Jarman to the inventive and eclectic experiments of local Foundation degree students. I was sad, therefore, that it closed in 2008, with the town’s Creative Foundation focusing instead on the new Folkestone Triennial, held for the first time that year. Although the Triennial places new commissions across the town every three years, with a small number being retained as permanent exhibits, the town now lacks a major contemporary art gallery bringing changing exhibitions to the town.
Whilst I’d always known that the politician and diarist Alan Clark lived in the secluded Saltwood Castle, just up the hill from my hometown of Hythe, it was only later that I learned more about his father, the art critic and broadcaster Kenneth Clark.
Clark supported the establishment of the New Metropole Art Centre in the 1960s, and the development of a town collection of modern art in the 1960s and 1970s. This collection contains a lot of names familiar from the Pictures for Schools exhibitions – the Surrealist print-makers Michael Rothenstein and Julian Trevelyan, the Kitchen Sink painter John Bratby, the print-makers Gertrude Hermes, Valerie Thornton and Anthony Gross, Kent-based painter Fred Cuming, who was featured in Pictures for Schools as a young artist and continues to work and take an interest in the collection today, and the sculptor and print-maker Elisabeth Frink, along with Sandra Blow and Michael Stokoe.
Among the most notable is the Royal Academician Carel Weight, who was a friend of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman and helped organise and select work for the exhibitions. Like Youngman, Weight was active in the Artists International Association. As well as being professor of painting at the Royal College of Art in London, Weight periodically taught at the Adult Education Centre at the Metropole.
When the Metropole closed, it looked likely that Folkestone’s collection of modern art – which had been placed in Kent County Council storage – would be sold too, but fortunately it’s been retained by a Trust. Several paintings by Weight are now on display across the road at another huge Victorian complex – the Grand (a network of tunnels, predating both the Metropole and the Grand, linked the two buildings, and apparently treasures from the British Museum were stored for safekeeping in a tunnel underneath the Grand during the Second World War).
The Grand, with its shabby-eccentric chic, has certainly seen better days, declining in the second half of the twentieth century as Folkestone lost its status as a holiday destination for the royal and well-connected. Today, five of Weight’s works hang in the drawing room, a formal room just off the main reception and palm court restaurant with neoclassical columns, chandeliers and William Morris block-printed wallpaper featuring green-tinged birds.
Much of Weight’s work which I have seen has, like many of the artworks exhibited in Pictures for Schools, depicted very everyday places and activities, such as the small-scale excitement of a village football match. At the Grand two green-dominated country scenes, ‘Young Lovers’ and ‘Old Lovers’, offer an intimate and almost intrusive glimpse of two unassuming, guarded figures and convey the vicissitudes and tensions of a relationship at different stages of its development. ‘Portrait of a Poet’, which apparently depicts the artist in his studio, foregrounds a serious man in an overcoat. In the background are stacked paintings offering a glance of the backs of yellow-brick Georgian townhouses, viewed from their gardens.
The most interesting picture, however, is the large ‘Battersea Park Tragedy’, painted in the 1970s, split between a dark and dusky scene and a large, brushed sky sunset. Whilst at first sight portraying the mundane – the skeletal outlines of winter trees, the high fence of a tennis court, a small passageway overhung with trees and the excitement/fear-inducing twists of a deserted rollercoaster in the background – the painting introduces an element of the mystical. In one corner, an angel rises above a figure with a bowed head, blank face and clasped hands: the painting is named after the Battersea funfair disaster of 1972, in which children were killed in a fairground accident.
A small, tucked away room in a vast hotel might not be the most prominent place for these paintings, but at least they are still in a semi-public, accessible place. The paintings, created over forty years ago, and not particularly artistically adventurous or striking in their quiet realism, nevertheless form a thoughtful response, observation and reflection on then-contemporary events, public and private, as well as a document of artistic patronage and collecting at the time.
For more information about the Folkestone art collection, and to see details of upcoming exhibitions, visit http://folkestonearttrust.org.uk.
Though I’m loath to fan the flames of publicity for a celebrity artist, some of the comments surrounding Jake Chapman’s recent assertion that taking children to art galleries is ‘a waste of time’ saddened and dismayed me (even in a poll run by the Guardian, one in five people agreed with his statement).
Whilst I don’t believe anyone who describes his children as ‘not human yet’ warrants much of a response, I find Chapman’s comments wrong-headed on a lot of levels. I find it strange that Chapman reduces the value of an art experience to mere ‘understanding’, ignoring the potential for art to be something which can be ‘experienced’ even if not fully grasped (the artists cited in press coverage of Chapman’s statement, Rothko and Pollock, seem to me to be a perfect example of this. Do I find their work intricate, interesting and worthy of spending some time with? Yes. Can I, or do I want to, tell you what they are ‘about’, and I do I think that this is important? No).
There is clearly a great deal more that an eight-year-old can get out of visiting a gallery than, say, a one-year-old, yet I’ve seen first-hand that valuable work is being done by education officers in making collections fun, friendly and accessible to families and providing a way in to what can sometimes be an intimidating environment.
I believe Chapman patronises children’s abilities to take visual interest in artworks, or to enjoy details of artworks: the way art looks can still provide visual/intellectual interest, enjoyment and stimulation even without being ‘understood’ on an intellectual level. For children who experience making artwork of their own in school, furthermore, seeing the work of practising artists can provide a talking point and a comparison, as demonstrated by Pictures for Schools, which gave children visiting its exhibitions questionnaires to complete as they looked at the artworks to ensure they really thought about and engaged with what they saw. Some of the responses indicated that children had given some deal of thought to how the artists whose work they were looking at had achieved their effect, and identified similarities with their own approach to making art. Pictures for Schools did not aim to replace the creation of art by the appreciation of art, but its organisers believed that being able to see original works of art could help children approach their own art with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.
At the start of my project I was given two exhibition catalogues for Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place at the Royal Academy Diploma Gallery in 1967 and 1969. I was interested to see what types of subjects were considered to be appropriate to schools and schoolchildren and flicking through the catalogues, it struck me that a large number of the artworks appeared had titles referring to landscapes/places or still-lifes, and that certain words such as ‘garden’ or words relating to seasons came up over and over again, which I think of as being fairly conventional subject matters. It also seemed that the exhibitions were skewed towards painting, with relatively few sculptures or 3D works. On my induction training we were shown a website called Wordle which could be used to visualise the frequency of words in documents, so I decided to use it to make some illustrations showing the frequency of different subject matters and media in the 1967 Pictures for Schools exhibition, to give a sense of the type of work the scheme promoted.
Pictures for Schools, 1967 exhibition catalogue, frequency of words appearing in titles of artworks:
Pictures for Schools, 1967 exhibition catalogue, frequency of media:
I also decided to break the subject matter down further, by medium. Oil paintings subject matter:
Drawings, watercolours and gouaches subject matter:
Embroideries and collages subject matter (interestingly, there are more references to ‘abstract’ subject matters):
In her book Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, Alexandra Harris (2010) explores the ways in which a return to depicting a traditional version of England coexisted with notions of modernity in English art from the late 1930s onwards, as modern artists took it upon themselves to safeguard images of Englishness which were under threat from both war and wider changes in society. She identifies a time of ‘national self-discovery’ as the country was faced with the prospect of the destruction of another world war. Artists took a ‘turn towards home’ which involved retreating towards the “crowded, detailed, old-fashioned, whimsical” and acting as ‘pilgrims’ gathering “souvenirs from an old country that might not survive the fighting”. She attributes this ‘imaginative claiming of England’, and the artistic quest to find an essential Englishness, partly to a reaction against the experimental ethos of high modernism, which set out to forge new beginnings set apart from any precedent, and partly as an expression of responsibility towards people, places and histories who needed to remain visible (unlike abstract art, which represented nothing, was tethered to no kind of meaning and so was free to promote aesthetic and social liberty).
Unlike the revolutionary art of the 1910s and 1920s which sought ‘universal myths’, a common, international language of form and the abolition of roots, Harris argues that from the 1930s artists moved away from this so-called ‘heroic’ modernism to once again embrace eccentricity, difference, the particular and the local. She identifies an acute sense of place in the art of the 1930s and 1940s, and a preoccupation with processes rather than finished products, with art of the period often giving away something about where it is made, perhaps by the artist leaving the studio and working in the open air or in a church (Harris, 2010).
Harris also discusses the thousands of paintings undertaken as part of the Recording Britain project – produced, she notes, in the same quantities as armaments during the war – which recorded small-scale details of England such as roads and barns between 1939-1945, with paintings lent to regional galleries around the country on the grounds of their local interest. These paintings showed not just areas vulnerable to war but areas where agriculture was being overtaken by industry and suburban development (Harris, 2010).