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.