I recently listened to this interesting Radio 3 programme about the life, art and friendships of Eric Ravilious, presented by Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns. It was interesting to hear more about Great Bardfield artists and their life in Essex, as several of this group regularly contributed work to and sold work through Pictures for Schools (Ravilious’s wife, Tirzah Garwood, was one of the early best-sellers at Pictures for Schools, and her realist, detailed collages of village and rural life were consistently popular with child visitors to the exhibitions; other regular contributors from this group included Ravilious’ lover Helen Binyon, Bernard Cheese and Sheila Robinson, George Chapman, Michael Rothenstein and, most notably, Edward Bawden, who consistently sold well through the entire lifespan of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions).
The programme is still available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer here.
A few weeks ago I was in Leeds for the day and visited the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds, where I saw some Edward Bawden linocuts in ‘real life’ for the first time in a display drawn from the gallery’s permanent collection. I turned the corner to find them unexpectedly, and was taken aback by their bold size and scale, having assumed them to be small works on paper and not large-scale. I have a strong suspicion the two works, ‘Brighton Pier‘ and ‘Lindsell Church‘, were purchased by the West Riding School Museum Service from Pictures for Schools in the late-1950s, as the West Riding was a regular purchaser from Pictures for Schools and the accompanying labels said the works (along with some others in the gallery) were transferred from the Yorkshire Education Resource Service in 2002.
I was also recently recommended a really lovely Radio 4 programme about Brenda Rawnsley and the School Prints, a short-lived 1940s attempt to create and sell lithographs to schools by contemporary artists, chosen by a committee of experts which included people who went on to be involved in Pictures for Schools including Herbert Read and Nan Youngman. Like Pictures for Schools (and Nan Youngman), the School Prints was driven by a single-minded , determined woman, and the programme effectively told both her story and the story of the artworks through interviews with figures including her son (who recalled using unsold prints as wrapping paper at Christmas time!). Although there are key differences, such as Pictures for Schools’ emphasis on originals as opposed to reproductions, the programme covered a number of themes and issues I have been considering in relation to Pictures for Schools. These included the role of art in the classroom as a way of encouraging discussion and the skills of looking, and the presentation of a particularly positive, unchallenging version of Englishness, along with the choice of artists and subject matter for schools – subjects depicted in the School Prints, such as ploughing fields, fishermen, fairgrounds, markets and a puppet-show, wouldn’t have been out of place at Pictures for Schools (indeed, several of the artists who created work for the School Prints later contributed and sold work through Pictures for Schools, including Barbara Jones, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein, LS Lowry and Julian Trevelyan).
For the past couple of years I have been following the Decorated School, an interdisciplinary research network which has been considering the implications of embedding art in schools, often through the incorporation into buildings of site-specific work such as murals. Building on the ideas of twentieth century educator Henry Morris (Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, who in the 1940s employed Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman as his art advisor), the basic interest is in the idea of an educational environment which is itself part of the child’s education. Having attended a couple of their events, a research seminar and a final conference in London, I was pleased to be able to buy a new collection of essays which has arisen from the project over its two-year life span.
Like the eventual reach of the project and the network of researchers which grew up around it, The Decorated School: Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling is wide in its scope, ranging from interwar Scotland to post-war Britain to France, the United States, Japan, Denmark, Kyrgyzstan and Northern Ireland. Although some essays were familiar from being presented at Decorated School research events, others were new to me, with a particular highlight being Shona Kallestrup’s essay on Danish artist and writer Asger Jorn’s site-specific works for the Arhus Statsgymnasium, which highlights the difficulty of reconciling his vibrant, experimental murals with the academic formalism of the educational environment and building in which they were to be situated.
Early in the book, Annie Renonciat sets the scene really well for the following essays, detailing some of the goals outlined historically by those aiming to get art into schools. In the French context Reconciat focuses on, as elsewhere, these encompass the interrelated goals of educating an ‘aesthetic sense’ in children, enabling France to compete with other industrialised nations in the field of design, educating of the taste of the masses, and using art to uphold certain moral standards. Focusing on the period from 1880 to 1939, she provides an illuminating glimpse onto the efforts of bodies such as the L’Art a L’Ecole to create a visual environment in schools. Jeremy Howard’s chapter on 1930s Edinburgh is also really good background context for considering art in schools, introducing some of the individuals and ideas which laid the ground for art in schools later in the twentieth century: the words of William McKechnie, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Education Department, quoted here, reveal that access to art and design is a privilege of the citizen of modern, democratic Scotland, and something to be proud of, which will help the Scot to become a citizen of the world, explaining that the awakening of the ‘aesthetic sense’ will enable young people to practise critical discernment. Another highlight is Dawn Pereira‘s examination of the London County Council’s post-war patronage scheme with regards to schools, with particular reference to what types of artworks were considered to be suitable for schools, and the tensions which arose between head teachers, governors, artists and committees in the choosing and siting of artworks for schools.
Featuring individual artworks which have been rediscovered and reevaluated in recent years, in Hertfordshire, Edinburgh and elsewhere, the book is beautifully designed and illustrated, with colour photos throughout of artwork in situ in schools as well as in close-up detail, which really brings home how vibrant an educational resource art can be in a school context (I absolutely LOVE the cover image, a detail of a mural in Barclay School in Stevenage, Hertfordshire by Kenneth Rowntree, who also contributed to Pictures for Schools, which combines abstract forms referencing mathematical concepts with elements suggestive of storytelling and landscape, in bold block colours). The visual imagery is backed up by an engaging overview of how art education, artwork in schools and the concept and aims of visual appreciation has developed over the past century and a half, and how it can continue to be a fruitful area for both educators and researchers in the future.