A day in Coventry (on the trail of Steven Sykes and Pictures for Schools)

My interest in the artists who contributed to and sold work through Pictures for Schools, as well as the education authorities that purchased work from Pictures for Schools (and an enthusiasm for visiting and understanding more about post-war built environments more generally) recently led me on a day trip to Coventry.

I was on the trail of the artist Steven Sykes, whose work was very popular at Pictures for Schools, during which time Sykes also taught at Chelsea School of Art. He regularly submitted both drawings and works on paper to the scheme, as well as reliefs and sculptures. Many of them were themed around animals, and proved to be popular with child visitors. I first became interested in Sykes because he designed two large murals either side of the stage in New Century Hall, a concert and conference venue in the Co-operative’s former tower block headquarters at New Century House in Manchester, dating from 1963.

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New Century Hall is a large ballroom with a sprung dance floor and charismatic 1960s light fittings, and many famous bands played there over the decades. Sykes’ tall murals are stylised depictions of musicians, which sparkle when the light hits them. Like other regular Pictures for Schools contributor Julian Trevelyan, Sykes was a camouflage artist during the war, and a war artist. In the 1960s, he turned his garden and home in Sussex into an ornate work of art.

 

 

 

Sykes was also responsible for the Gethsemane chapel in Basil Spence’s modernist ‘new’ Coventry Cathedral, the winning candidate for a replacement after the medieval cathedral was bombed in the Coventry Blitz of 1940. The Gethsemane chapel, which dates from 1959-60, is a glittering room featuring an angel in richly decorated concrete inlaid with mosaic which gleams like gemstones, against a golden backdrop.

Sykes angelSteven Sykes angel headSteven Sykes angel cup

 

 

 

 

 

Steven Sykes Coventry Angel

 

Steven Sykes chapel

It’s the most opulent and luxuriant piece of art in the building, most of which is far more sparse and restrained, from John Piper’s angular stained glass windows to the muted tones of Graham Sutherland’s giant Christ tapestry to John Hutton’s etched glass angels and saints, both still and suspended in action, which catch the light from the large windows to dramatic and striking effect.

Etched glass angel

Despite its vast scale, the cathedral, with its polished concrete, fossil stone floor (like that of the Royal Festival Hall in London) and decorative and functional use of wood, feels warm and human-scale. This struck me as a great contrast to the other 20th century cathedrals I have visited, in Liverpool (particularly the Anglican cathedral), which seem designed to strike the fear of god into the visitor with their oversize scale and austere atmospheres.

The cathedral, which interacts and is juxtaposed effectively with the ruins of the old cathedral, is an ideal place to get a sense of the two sides of Coventry, old and new, and to get an idea of the cityscape that Coventry’s 20th century reconstruction replaced. It stands on a hill-top, from which narrow streets descend, filled with cosy shops and restaurants. As the autumn leaves swirl to the ground, for a moment you think you could be in Canterbury, or in Montmartre, even, as a busker plays the accordion

Cathedral BrutalismThe round, light-filled Chapel of Christ the Servant, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, on the other hand, looks out onto the brutalist architecture of Coventry university, including a high-rise accommodation block, though the modernist campus is effectively landscaped with green space.

Also in the vicinity of the cathedral is the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, opened in 1960 and extended and modernised in recent years. Like many of Coventry’s buildings, its municipal modernism incorporates light-filled areas and large windows, notably in the stairwell. I understand that the Herbert’s collection includes a number of artworks purchased by Coventry Education Committee, as well as a former schools loan collection. City of Coventry Education Committee was one of two major Coventry buyers at Pictures for Schools, the other being City of Coventry Training College, whose collection is now on display at the University of Warwick. There was much crossover in both the artists and the types of artworks chosen for the respective collections, with artists including Kenneth Long, Mary Fedden and George Chapman.

On display in the Herbert are many artists and artworks dating from the era of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, and representing some of the most popular artists as well as the type of urban, everyday social realism that predominated at Pictures for Schools. These included the ‘kitchen sink’ painter John Bratby, whose 1959 painting ‘Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day’ layers thick paint onto the canvas to create exaggerated net curtains looking out over suburban back gardens. LS Lowry offers views of gravestones outside a village church, and Ebbw Vale in Wales. ‘Landscape with Tank’ by Prunella Clough, meanwhile, from 1957, is an unconventional landscape depicting stark, geometric shapes in shiny, dark shades of grey, including the gas tank of the title. George Chapman, one of the artists associated with Great Bardfield in Essex, is represented by ‘Miner Returning Home from Work’ (dating from ‘before 1960’), a large and tall urban scene depicting a miner descending a hill through jagged streets, angular roofs, stairs and sharp edges, overlooked by TV aerials. Another very popular artist was Kenneth Long. Long’s ‘Huntingdon Street Bus Station, Nottingham’, from 1957, depicts sketchy figures in drab greens, highlighting humdrum details such as pigeons and chip wrappers. In common with Joan Eardley’s ‘Glasgow Boy With a Milk Bottle’ (1948) and the grimy, dark face of Chapman’s miner, the impression given of life in post-war Britain in these paintings is drab, poor and restrictive, a far cry from the modern world suggested by the architecture of rebuilt central Coventry and conventional, hopeful narratives of reconstruction.

Betty Rea CoventryPeter Peri Coventry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was also very pleased to see a fairly large sculpture by Betty Rea, the partner of Nan Youngman, depicting a woman stretching in bronze fibreglass. Other sculpture included John Greaves’ women chatting on a church bench, and a girl waiting for a bus. The most extraordinary sculpture on display is ‘Coventry Sculpture’ by Peter Peri, another artist who submitted work to Pictures for Schools and was renowned for his work in educational settings, dating from 1958-59. The large sculpture captures pinched, rust-coloured clay figures in action, interacting with a metal tower structure. The figures capture both light and strength, suggesting sport, movement and height. They’re running, doing, jumping, climbing, throwing, building, carrying, passing, lifting, stretching, interacting and collaborating. Peri is himself in the sculpture, as a bearded figure – and the only still character!

MitchellCullen touchingGordon Cullen bicyclesGordon Cullen reconstruction

Elsewhere, Coventry’s post-war architecture boasts an impressive range of murals, many of which are tactile and seem to invite sensory exploration. These include William Mitchell’s 1966 characteristic concrete doodles on the front of the former Three Tuns pub (now a fried chicken shop), and Gordon Cullen’s large, tiled mural of 1958, now restored and relocated in the Lower Precinct of Coventry Shopping centre, which makes effective use of both pattern and abstract forms and colours, as well as narrative details from Coventry’s history and industries, from clock and bicycle manufacture to post-war planning and rebuilding.

Sainsbury's muralSainsbury's mural 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another 1960s mural, in Sainsbury’s, shows the expansion of Coventry, and seems to be held in high regard by staff. Another effective retail mural is carved detailing outside the large Coventry Co-operative premises, built in 1956, depicting aspects of co-operative history and symbolism, as well as products. Unfortunately the building, which still retains its original lettering as well as a plaque for the CWS (Co-operative Wholesale Society) architects’ department, is soon to be vacated by Heart of England Co-operative Society and probably demolished.

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As well as faith, education, art and retail, the people of post-war Coventry were catered for in leisure. However, another piece of Coventry’s post-war cityscape whose days are numbered is the 1960s Olympic-size pool. Like much of Coventry, its light-filled windows, which envelop swimmers in sensations of space, spectacle and modernity, are now grimy and neglected.

Coventry pipe repairsAs a whole, the centre of Coventry feels very un-English. The cathedral, and the city centre as a whole, feel like transplants from Northern Europe, from Scandinavia, from Rotterdam, where cities are more mixed use, and living in maisonettes above shops, or in blocks towering above the city centre, is normal. The city centre is dominated by 20th century structures and street patterns. Despite a number of empty shops, the central shopping area feels lively and public spaces are pleasant. Coventry, with its lingering independent and specialist shops, also feels strangely retro, a city from a different decade. The type of place where a specialist pipe repair shop can survive, and a remnant from a different time and society. Visiting really gave me a sense of the context into which artworks in Pictures for Schools were received, the priorities and cultural attitudes of the time, and the types of environments to which they belonged.

Photographs by Natalie Bradbury and Steve Hanson.

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Alexandra Harris: Modernity and tradition in twentieth century English art

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).