Visit to the University of Salford Art Collection

I recently spent some time in the store of the University of Salford Art Collection, which has been acquiring contemporary art since the university’s inauguration in the late-1960s, and finding out about its history and future plans from curator and assistant curator Lindsay Taylor and Steph Fletcher.

To read my interview visit http://theshriekingviolets.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/an-education-through-art-university-of.html.

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Exchange of texts on ‘taste’ with Visit1862 website

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Over the next two weeks, Ruth Mason (one of the editors of Visit1862.com, a collaborative research site which explores the previously overlooked Great Exhibition held in London in 1862 through its design history) and I will be entering into a conversation about the process of taste formation sparked by my paper on ‘aesthetic citizenship ‘at the RGS-IBG summer conference in London in August.

Ruth and I first met in November 2013 at the Historical Geography Research Group’s annual Practising Historical Geography conference at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. Although studying very different periods, individuals and institutions it became apparent that we were both interested in the process of taste formation and how ‘good taste’ has been considered a value that can be communicated to the general public both in the Great Exhibitions of the nineteenth century and in twentieth century projects such as Pictures for Schools.

This week my post explores Pictures for Schools and its stated aim of developing children’s taste. Next week, Ruth will consider the role of the 1862 International Exhibition in forming Britain’s taste in the nineteenth century.

Both Ruth and I will make a short response to each other’s posts and we encourage more comments, questions and further discussion points.

Read the first post, ‘Taste’ and its creators: 1962 and beyond, here.

Read the second post here.


Reflections on presentation at RGS-IBG conference

Natalie Bradbury Pictures for Schools Educating the Aesthetic citizen-1Although I talked about my PhD project at an internal research seminar for my school at UCLan (the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment) earlier this year, the paper I presented at the RGS-IBG (Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers) annual summer conference was a great opportunity to share my research and get more specialist feedback among researchers in my field – cultural and historical geography.

Despite only attending one day of the three-day conference (partly due to cost and partly so I could use my time in London to spend a day in the Tate Archives either side), which was spread out over the premises of the RGS and Imperial College around Exhibition Road in London, I was able to spend a stimulating and enjoyable day dipping in and out of other sessions. Whether or not they related directly to my research, this gave me a real flavour of the diversity of practitioners, topics and approaches encompassed within geographical research, from hearing about different methodologies such as walking, and how it can inform experiences and understandings of place, to learning more about the study of ‘childhood geographies’. I particularly enjoyed some of the sessions in smaller meeting rooms, which had a more informal feel than those which took place in lecture theatres.

The session I took part in, which was one of three entitled ‘New and emerging research in historical geography’ and organised by the Historical Geography Research Group (my Director of Studies, Dr Hannah Neate, is on the committee of this group), was specifically aimed at researchers at a similar stage to me. It was beneficial to hear and see how other PhD students both went about undertaking research in historical geography, and presenting their research – I was relieved to discover that I was not the only presenter to read from a script, although I did feel that the one paper in my session which was not read out benefited from a more natural and less stilted style, and I hope that I will have the confidence to do this in future without relying on a written-out paper. Another thing I observed was that other presentations dwelt far more on archival research and empirical findings, whereas I really tried to explicitly situate my research in a wider thematic context, in relation to previous or similar research in the field, something which other speakers seemed to focus upon less.

As my presentation was only fifteen minutes long (I think it actually lasted slightly less time than this, maybe 12/13 minutes) I aimed to really focus on one aspect of my research, calling my paper ‘Pictures for Schools: Educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969′. In this, I discussed Pictures for Schools and art education in relation to ideas of taste and aesthetic appreciation. Despite a phone going off for what seemed like ages during my paper (every presenter’s worst nightmare!) people commented that they found my paper really interesting, and I received some perceptive questions. Although I only had five minutes to answer questions, so could not provide answers as fully as I would have liked, they have given me useful points of consideration to bear in mind as I start to write up my research. These included questions about how many children were involved in Pictures for Schools over its lifespan and how the success of the project can be evaluated; whether I had looked at similar schemes such as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘Circ’ collection, and notions of engaging with art through schemes such as Pictures for Schools and how this differed from owning art; how Pictures for Schools was linked to or differed from schemes circulating reproductions of artworks and what happened to the artworks sold through Pictures for Schools. It was also great to hear from an audience member who had attended one of the Cambridgeshire Village Colleges set up by innovative Director of Education Henry Morris, who I discussed in my presentation – Comberton School – in the 1980s (the school was the last village college to be built, opening in 1960, a year before Morris’ death in 1961). He commented that he didn’t like it at the time, but that since he left the school he has had memories of being surrounded by sculptures and other artworks which gave the impression of a cared-for environment, which was crafted and designed. He asked whether there was a legacy of this kind of approach being taken forward after Morris died. I have also continued conversations started at the conference over email, and have been invited to contribute a collaborative piece of writing for the Visit 1862 research blog, drawing parallels between post-war ideas of taste and nineteenth century ideas of raising standards of taste through exhibitions of design.

All in all the RGS-IBG conference provided a really valuable and useful introduction to presenting at conferences and has given me lots of ideas and pointers to put into practice in future – I look forward to the next time!


Research poster no.2: Nan Youngman

I’ve been required to make another research poster for an upcoming event in my department, the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment at the University of Central Lancashire, for staff and post-graduate students to share what they are working on (see last year’s poster here) . This time, I decided to focus on Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman, as through my archival research and oral histories it has become apparent that her life story was intertwined with Pictures for Schools, and that a biographical focus on Nan Youngman will form a key part of my thesis. My recent PhD transfer viva also revealed that my discussions of Nan Youngman had piqued a lot of interest in her among people I have talked to about my project, both as a personality and as a central figure to Pictures for Schools.

(Click on the poster for a larger version)

Natalie Bradbury Nan Youngman poster


Second visit to Tate Archive

My most recent archive visit was another trip to see Nan Youngman’s papers at the Tate Archive. This time I focused on two sets of materials related to her time in Cambridge. The first related to her longstanding involvement in the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors from the 1950s, with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea, a small exhibiting society which aimed to help artists living around the city to feel less isolated, and to establish interest and patronage for their work among the local community. The Society continued to meet at Youngman’s home until shortly before her death in 1995, and in minutes of meetings which detail the allocated tasks for the Society’s exhibitions Youngman was generally described as ‘chief entertainer’.

The second, and more interesting set of artefacts, related to Youngman’s employment as Art Advisor in Cambridgeshire from 1944-1954 – including a speculative letter Youngman sent to Director of Education Henry Morris setting out her skills, experience and describing in detail why such a role could benefit the teachers and children of Cambridgeshire – in a nice touch she ends by pointing out that she has her own car, which would be useful for travelling around the rural schools! I have been reading some books about Henry Morris’s work and legacy, and something which comes out clearly is his difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships – his biographer, Harry Rée, suggests that he found it particularly hard to relate to women – yet there is a clear affection and respect emanating from the letters Morris and Youngman exchanged, and Morris clearly highly valued her contribution to the county. In the same folder are press cuttings relating to the local education committee’s plans to make Youngman’s role redundant as part of cost-cutting measures in 1952, going in the face of Cambridgeshire’s reputation as an enlightened county with regard to education and the arts. Youngman requested a series of letters of support arguing that she should be allowed to remain, from her local teaching trade union branch, the Society for Education in Art, Herbert Read and the warden of Sawston Village College, who stressed the practical and pragmatic value of Youngman’s support for the county’s art teachers, many of whom were previously lacking in confidence, and argued that for this reason art could not be seen as a ‘frill’. Youngman’s impact on individual teachers was manifested in several letters dating back over the years from teachers who had found encouragement and inspiration on her courses, and had been enthused to try out her teaching methods when they returned to school.

One small find which I found particularly touching was a highly personal letter from Bryan Robertson (better known as the long-running director of Whitechapel Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s) to Nan Youngman, in dense, neat handwriting, written when the former was a young man working for Heffer Gallery in Cambridge. It can only be described as fan mail, with Robertson stating his affection for Youngman as a person and as a painter (although he admits he is too intimidated by her to tell her in person), before taking an analytical look at her work in terms of colour and composition, and giving her frank and detailed advice about how her painting needs to develop. This includes telling her to start taking herself seriously as a painter, encouraging her to have a one-person exhibition and stressing the need to prioritise her painting over her role as an educator so she can take the place Robertson thinks she deserves among Britain’s great painters. Robertson’s affection for Youngman continued until she died; he writes at length on her in publications produced for exhibitions held in her 80th year and posthumously, and he appears to have been an important source of support and encouragement as well as, later, a key ally for Pictures for Schools in the post-war art world.


In Our Experience by Stewart C Mason: A small treasure of a book from the University of Manchester library store

DSC_1950Recently, I made my first foray into the University of Manchester store to retrieve a book edited by Stewart Mason, former Director of Education in Cambridgeshire. Mason was well-known for establishing a patronage scheme for schools in Leicestershire as well as promoting the value of artworks in schools, even before Pictures for Schools came into being in 1947; this collection was celebrated by exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1967 and 1980. In Our Experience: the changing schools of Leicestershire, which was published in 1970 (the year after Pictures for Schools ended), turned out to be a real hidden treasure, offering really good context for the educational backdrop against which such schemes took place. After the Second World War, the educational landscape in Leicestershire changed rapidly to cope with a large rise in population, and the county undertook a number of sometimes controversial experiments, from becoming one of the first counties to abolish the 11-plus, to introducing fully comprehensive education, making use of new ideas in architecture such as open plan schools, building larger schools which could justify purchasing specialist equipment and resources, emphasising child-centred learning, particularly in the infant school, and developing community colleges inspired by Henry Morris’s village colleges in Cambridgeshire to foster learning for all ages and all of the community.

Like Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire who promoted the idea of the educational environment as being a ‘silent teacher’, Mason also emphasised the importance of the school environment on children’s perception of their education, saying: “[School buildings] can and do exert a powerful influence on what happens inside and around them.” Mason was passionate about introducing contemporary art to schools, and saw art education as having value for the life of the whole school, not just art departments, saying the arts could “release energy and add sparkle and inventiveness to the general life of the school” and “pay for themselves by quickening the whole tempo”.

In the book, which features essays by a number of teachers and headteachers in Leicestershire schools, there is a strong emphasis on learning through doing and discovery, rather than by rote (I feel that the cover really conveys this ethos of learning!). The vision of education promoted by the book recognises that individuals learn differently and are able to take some responsibility for their own learning and promotes emotional and intuitive development as much as academic achievement. It is seen to be important that the child is educated as a ‘whole person’, fitting in with the ideas of writers such as Herbert Read. Other ideas include breaking down the boundaries between different subject areas into an ‘integrated day’, taking a view of education in which teachers are learners as much as children, and creating an environment where children feel that there they are on equal terms with their teachers and are encouraged to take a questioning approach to what is around them. The latter point is interesting in relation to Pictures for Schools, which encouraged children to look actively in order to develop skills which would help them take an interest in what was around them when they became adults. Some of these ideas, such as learning by doing, along with the idea of the school as a total society implied by community-based education, are also reminiscent of those of American educator John Dewey.

It was also interesting to hear how schools used their artworks. At Albert Road Primary School, Hinckley, for instance there was at least one original, contemporary work of art in each classroom. Children were encouraged to handle artworks, and were exposed to all kinds of artwork, including abstract art. Albert Road Primary was also home to the Clown, a piece of sculpture in the playground  which “is fondled and loved and climbed upon and sometimes even given clothing”. I’ve tried contacting the schools featured in the book to see if they still own the artworks mentioned, and if they are still in use in the school. Only one school has got back to me so far, saying the school has the artworks but they are no longer on display. They have invited me to visit, however, and I may take up the opportunity as I am keen to find out what happened to the artworks of a county once so well-known for its patronage but which has seen some of its artworks sold in recent years.


Cambridgeshire Collection of Original Artworks for Children

As part of my ongoing quest to try and discover what has become of county collections of original artworks purchased for loan to schools I have been speaking to a former art advisor in Cambridgeshire who retired a few years ago. At its peak Cambridgeshire had one of the most extensive collections of its kind, of over 400 works (the collection still exists and is operating to some degree), which is perhaps unsurprising given that Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman was employed as art advisor there for ten years under Director of Education Henry Morris, who was himself a keen advocate of art in schools, the importance of educational environments and the development of ‘good taste’ in children.

The collection was set up in 1945 (the year after Youngman started working for the county and two years before the establishment of Pictures for Schools) and followed on from schemes such as the School Prints Ltd; prints are still strongly represented because the council had very good links with Walter Hoyle, head of Printing at Cambridge School of Art, who recommended printmakers to purchase work by, for example Philip Sutton. Money was set aside by the local authority to purchase artworks (an early purchase being a painting by LS Lowry), alongside voluntary donations from schools, and secondary heads helped to select the artwork. Heads could choose what they wanted, meaning that the county ended up with a very eclectic collection, although sculptures are limited. It seems that initially there were two collections – one for the city of Cambridge and one for the county, which later merged.

Rob Howard became art advisor in Cambridgeshire part-time in 1981 after being head of art at a school in Huntingdon, and he also had experience of borrowing original works of art to use as part of school projects. Whilst this is outside the period I am directly looking at (the Pictures for Schools scheme itself only ran until 1969), it was fascinating to hear from him how a county collection was administered, but particularly how original works of art were put to use in schools. He explained that original works of art (often involving animals/portraiture as these come up a lot in secondary school art projects) were used alongside reproductions of artworks as a starting point for discussions and ideas. Howard pointed out that lots of the art curriculum is about looking, and that original works of art are a good way of showing children how artists look at things. Artworks can also be used as a way of enlarging children’s focus on a project, he said. Howard followed in the footsteps of Youngman (who he admired and met a couple of times towards the end of his life), and another of his predecessors as art advisor, Roy Bell, who took over from Nan Youngman and believed that children should talk about artwork, describe it and consider how it was put together, always starting with four questions: “What is this? How is this put together? Why and how did this work come about? What do you think about it?” One-word answers were not accepted.

The children Howard taught came from a council estate, and art wasn’t really part of their culture – they were more likely to have had pop posters, or reproductions at best, on their walls at home – so being exposed to artworks and finding out that people could hang them on their walls, and in some cases make a living from making art, ‘blew their minds’ and ‘changed their perspective’, an experience that Howard believes stayed with them. Howard believed that children needed to hold original works of art, so passed artworks around including the collection’s Lowry in its frame. Artworks were also taken around different locations in the school, touring classrooms and corridors. Howard said that primary schools made more use of artworks than secondary schools, and he remembers visiting a little village school with a Lowry hanging behind the head’s desk and a group of children sitting around on the floor copying bits of it.

Initially, the collection was free to use. Howard explained that in terms of distributing the collection it was run as an auction once a year. All the paintings were laid out in a classroom – a sight of ‘awe and wonder’ – and heads and teachers attended to take up to six pictures, or seven if there were any left over, which could be kept for a year. Howard recalls that all of the pictures went out – they had to as the classroom went back into ordinary use afterwards and there was nowhere to store them. Most Cambridgeshire schools and those in the outlying village colleges were involved, with free delivery in the city – heads from further afield could take paintings away in their cars, an arrangement which worked on trust. Howard recalls that these exhibitions attracted enthusiasts, and that it was a mini-social gathering taking place after school with coffee.

However, the problem came in the 1980s when the government decided schools had to pay for everything and the National Curriculum was introduced (in 1988), meaning that there was a very tight budget and the enjoyment was taken out of looking at paintings. Works were no longer purchased but loaned from elsewhere and the collection was mothballed in the 1990s before Howard decided to bring the collection out again and produced a catalogue with background information as part of a package that could be used as a learning tool and made available on CD. He also tried touring small exhibitions of 5 of 6 paintings. However, the schools that took this up tended to be richer schools and secondaries, who used the paintings more as decoration, and eventually works started to be lent out to go in council offices at Shire Hall.

In recent years some of the more valuable works have been sold – along with oversize works which are difficult for schools to accommodate – with a view of reinvesting the proceeds in the collection. My next task is to find out the current status of the collection and to what extent schools are still making use of it.