Second visit to Nan Youngman collection

A couple of weeks ago I made my second visit to the Nan Youngman collection in the Special Collections at the University of Reading, and had quite a different archival experience to my first visit. Last time I spent a lot of time looking at press cuttings, catalogues and TV and radio scripts, representing external reactions and representations of Pictures for Schools, whereas this time I got more into the nitty gritty of correspondence, administration and planning.

This turned out to be a plentiful source of information to mine, particularly the correspondence, much of which consisted of letters from members of the public and external bodies, but much of which also comprised letters between individuals involved in organising the scheme. Some of the small stories contained within this correspondence gave a sense of what the exhibition was like, and what it was like to take part and be involved, from correspondence with the designer of posters for the exhibitions, who offered to accept payment in wine rather than cash, to an exchange suggesting ways of making sure the drinking at the private view did not get out of control. One long chain of correspondence is between exhibition secretary Joan Bartlett and a helper, Evelyn Atkinson. Although the letters discuss mundane aspects of organisation such as payment and the best brand of typewriter, their personalities also come through and another narrative runs through the letters, of friendships and relationships, of social activities such as visiting other exhibitions in London and making a day out of it, and the importance of the exhibition to those who were involved, not just financially in terms of income but as an annual event and social opportunity. Some of the friendships forged during the exhibitions were lasting, as a letter from a contributing artist to the Exhibition Secretary, inviting her to go and stay at her home her elsewhere in the country, shows.

Other correspondence came from education authorities and schools, much of it asking for invitations to private views (usually requesting one or two invitations, in one case requesting several if it wasn’t ‘too greedy’ and in one case requesting one for each member of the art department so there could be no accusations of favouritism). Other correspondence revealed the choices education authorities and schools had to make with regards to spending funds on art, from a letter requesting an estimation of the number of works in the next exhibition which would be available below a certain price, as that was all the school had to spend, to a letter from someone hoping to establish a county art collection who wanted details about which education authorities of a comparable size to theirs already had collections. Sometimes, schools wrote requesting artists’ addresses, whether to get in touch about repairing a sculpture or hoping to write for more information about the artist and the work which could then be used alongside the work itself in school. Galleries also did the same, requesting addresses where they could contact artists for future exhibitions, showing the part Pictures for Schools played in giving artists exposure and opportunities.

Letters in the collection also show the exhibition’s relationship with other organisations such as the Embroiderers’ Guild, which helped cross-promote the exhibition by sharing information with its members, as well as other schemes such as the Nuffield Foundation’s scheme for hospitals. The organisers of Pictures for Schools also built up relationships with art colleges – sending in forms were circulated to staff of various departments at prestigious art schools such as the Royal College and the Slade, to be given to promising students.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that in the late-1960s, a growing number of students got in touch with Nan Youngman and Exhibition Secretary Joan Bartlett requesting information about aspects of the scheme, such as the questionnaires handed out to children visiting, for research they were doing into the use of art in schools, as well as into county and museum loan services.

I also found the amount of people who supported the exhibitions and didn’t want them to end touching; there was quite a volume of letters in 1970 and 1971 (the last edition of Pictures for Schools was held in 1969) asking if there would be another instalment of Pictures for Schools, from artists who had sold a lot of work through the scheme and received exposure as well as those who looked forward to it as an annual fixture. Something which was also evident in these years was the continuing efforts of people like Kenneth Jameson, Art Inspector for the Inner London Education Authority and President of the Society for Education in Art, who had long been involved with the scheme both as a contributing artist as well as a member of the planning committee, to come up with ideas for how the exhibitions could continue. Elsewhere, chains of correspondence indicated the continued search for a venue in these years.

What’s impressive is how well-documented nearly aspect of Pictures for Schools is, particularly in the 1960s; the retaining of copies of letters sent regarding the exhibition, as well as the replies, from letters inviting artists to serve on selection and planning committees to correspondence with the Arts Council, makes it possible to piece together a picture of the organisation of the exhibitions. It is also noticeable how well-organised and efficient the organisation appeared to be in co-ordinating a large number of artists, educators and administrators spread out across the country. However, records are noticeably weighted towards the 1960s onwards. This might coincide with a change in the Exhibition Secretary in 1963, to someone who perhaps considered it more important to keep such documentation. It’s also interesting to see what Nan Youngman herself kept, and among the ephemera in the collection are many press cuttings she has cut out relating to the careers of artists who had shown with Pictures for Schools, which indicates she took a personal interest in artists’ careers, as well as newspaper articles about controversy surrounding the Arts Council and the patronage of artists.

I also spent a while reading Nan Youngman’s teaching file, which included handwritten course notes relating to her teaching and lecturing around the country, as well as suggested book and materials lists for teachers. Something else which shed a light on her personality and beliefs were numerous typewritten manuscripts of her speeches and articles on art education. I came away from Reading with a real admiration for Nan Youngman and what she stood for and tried to achieve. There was a consistent message running through all her writing and talking, which she clearly put into practice through Pictures for Schools, which emphasised that art education was important for all children, that all children were capable of natural, creative expression, not just those who would go on to be practising artists, and that art education could enhance all areass of children’s experience in schools. It was also fascinating to see Youngman’s influences emerging, through repeated references to three figures in particular: art educator Marion Richardson, who Youngman studied under at the London Day College; Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire who employed Youngman as county art advisor for ten years (a folder of photographs showed children creating and interacting with art during her visits to Morris’ network of village colleges in the county) and writer and critic Herbert Read, whose book Education through Art Youngman both reviewed and repeatedly referred to in her speeches.


A conversation about the fate of the Inner London Education Authority’s art collection

When I visited the National Arts Education Archive Leonard Bartle gave me the phone number of Trevor Rawlins, a former exhibitions and events manager for the Inner London Education Authority from 1972 until the year before it was abolished in 1990. Mr Rawlins was previously an art teacher and head of department at a school in Brixton before moving into an administrative role at the ILEA. His role there included organising exhibitions of children’s work, and Mr Rawlins was keen to talk to me about the collection of original works of art built up by the ILEA’s precursor, the London County Council, after the Second World War (in 1965 the Greater London Council was established to replace the London County Council and the ILEA was formed as a separate education authority). From what I have read about Pictures for Schools, I know that the exhibitions were one way in which artworks were purchased for the collection, both in the days of the ILEA and the LCC.

Mr Rawlins explained that those behind the collection identified young, up-and-coming artists whose work could be circulated to schools, comprising 700 or 800 works encompassing everything from oil paintings to wood block prints. A design collection of around 1,000 objects was built up in parallel (interestingly, this collection and its use in schools is currently a subject of a PhD being undertaken at Camberwell College of Arts). Schools could borrow artworks for three to six months then change around if they wanted to. Rawlins explained that this “worked very well until artists became very well-known”. Twenty or thirty years after they were first bought, some of the artists were at the top of their game and bringing in considerable amounts of money; sometimes artworks were worth £7/8,000, sometimes as much as £20,000. Eventually artworks became so valuable that the ILEA didn’t dare send them out, for example those by Elisabeth Frink, because of worries about insurance. Lots of people were going in and out of schools, and could brush up against artworks in corridor. Another worry was that works were signed so it would have been easy for anyone with a bit of nous to look up their value. Rawlins thinks those responsible got bored with the idea, and it became too much trouble.

By the time Rawlins arrived at the ILEA the collection had been in storage for many years in museum conditions – Rawlins thinks the last time it was used could have been the late-1950s. He was responsible for cataloguing the collection to be sold off by the London Residuary Body to private collectors at auction (either at Sotheby’s or Christies) when the ILEA was disbanded, and found that a lot of the artworks were missing. It seemed that a lot had been stolen, and the person who had been in charge had been given the sack. Although the money raised by the sale could have been invested in new artworks, it probably disappeared into the ether.

Mr Rawlins also mentioned a collection in Wiltshire, which is something worth looking up.