Loughborough is a market town in Leicestershire – a county that, under longstanding Director of Education Stewart Mason, embraced patronage of the arts in educational settings in the post-war period in a big way. As well as purchasing and commissioning site-specific works for individual schools, Leicestershire’s loan collection was one of the largest in the country, and purchased artworks from Pictures for Schools among other sources. Mason advised and guided Loughborough University on some of its purchases, and his influence in the county is acknowledged in the Stewart Mason building on campus.
The university’s sculpture collection punctuates the sports grounds that dominate the campus (Loughborough has a reputation for attracting sporty students). Given university status in 1966, the campus architecture has a strong modernist feel, although it’s undergone significant expansion since then. Known as Loughborough University of Technology until 1996, there’s a strong theme of science and technology in many of the artworks, particularly around the science buildings, which feature a number of steel artworks by Paul Wagner. There was also a tradition of students producing their own furniture, much of which is still in use around campus.
Many well-known and lesser artists of the post-war period are represented on campus, including Willi Soukop, who undertook many commissions for public and educational settings; his Spirit of Adventure, which resembles an aeroplane, is the first artwork encountered on approach to the campus from the town centre, and points the way to a place of learning, discovery and enquiry. Perhaps the most famous sculptor is Lynn Chadwick, whose solemn trio of angular figures The Watchers commemorates three influential figures in the history of the university. However, my favourite artworks were those which were less conspicuous, such as Austin Wright’s kinetic sculpture, nestled in a quiet pond area between two buildings, which resembles a calmly bubbling fountain, and Peter Peri’s Spirit of Technology, a man leaping into the unknown from the side of a student residence dining hall.
The sculptures are merely the most public-facing element of a much bigger collection, which includes wall-mounted works such as prints, paintings and textiles, displayed in areas such as boardrooms, corridors and waiting areas. I managed to see a couple of works inside buildings, including prints by Bridget Riley and John Piper, as well as a number of portraits of university grandees which showed their influence on the university.
Loughborough University and the former teacher training college Loughborough Training College, which became part of the university in 1977, both purchased work from Pictures for Schools, although the only one I managed to see was Michael Stokoe’s bold, colourful silkscreen Circles & Stripes.
The collection is not static and continues to evolve, commissioning and acquiring work by students alongside established artists. One of the highlights is one of the most recent works, an interior design scheme by Giles Round for the RADAR office. Alongside furniture and Round’s selection of artworks from the collection, this includes a wallpaper which repeats images of tools from a former catalogue across the walls. Round’s design scheme acts as a subtle reminder of the university’s past and enters into dialogue with work purchased and commissioned during previous eras of the life of the institution.
To find out more about the collection visit https://www.lboro.ac.uk/arts/arts-collection/.
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).