The story of Isabel Alexander is by no means an uncommon one. Born into a middle-class, educated family in Birmingham in 1910, as a daughter she was denied her first choice of an education, to train at the Slade. Instead, she attended Birmingham School of Art in the 1920s before finding employment in schools and at Saffron Walden teacher training college in order to pursue her training and practice as an artist. This determination to work and exhibit enabled self-funded studies at the Slade, and a fifty-year career as an artist, pursued at the same time as being a single mother.
After the Slade Alexander went on to work in the burgeoning British documentary film movement of the 1930s and as a commercial illustrator. She designed book tokens vividly illustrating rural life and occupations in East Anglia, Kent and the Cotswolds (1953) and undertook botanical illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.
Alexander succeeds at documentary and narrative, as in her 1944 portraits of disabled miners. She also aptly captures place: highlights include ‘Pinnacle, Thaxted Church’, a 1951 linoprint of a church spire in which natural and architectural details are intertwined and ‘Bardfield Landscape III’, a subtly abstract, yellow-hued watercolour of 1950. Both are inspired by the Essex landscape; she settled in the picturesque and historic village of Thaxted, on the border with Suffolk, before relocating to North Yorkshire for the final years of her life.
In the 1960s Alexander exhibited drawings and paintings at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, selling work to schools including Godolphin and Latymer School in London and Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire education committees. She maintained a commitment not just to exhibiting herself, but to keeping up with visits to exhibitions and maintaining an ongoing interest in contemporary and historical art movements.
A new exhibition of Alexander’s work in Harrogate, bringing together work from private collections and accompanied by a book by Janet McKenzie, aims to highlight her legacy and expose the barriers she faced as a woman seeking a career as an artist. It also traces Alexander’s journey from realism to a growing focus on abstraction and experimentation with media and form.
However, the work in the exhibition suggests Alexander’s transition between realism and abstraction was not clear-cut, and a sense of abstraction and experimentation underlies much of her apparently realistic and naturalistic work. For example, the use of an unexpectedly lurid crayon introduces an ominous element into the otherwise murkily coloured landscape of ‘Condemned Houses, Blaencwm’ (1943), as does the skewed perspective of ‘Miners’ Houses, Trealaw’ (1944).
Displayed side by side at the Mercer Art Gallery, the watercolours ‘Moorland Larches, Yorkshire’ (1983) and ‘Winter Trees I’ (1971) hint at abstraction in their use of starkly outlined shape and colour, at the same time as conveying the particulars of landscape and season in a way that is sensory and atmospheric if not quite realistic and naturalistic.
Also not quite natural, but based in observable phenomena such as the flickering shapes and suggestive shadows of twilight and the transition to darkness, is the 1958 study ‘Moonlight’.
Other highlights include her pencil studies of weather phenomena and later, more large-scale and obviously abstract work in which experiences, natural phenomena and sensations elide, as in ‘Weeds and Water’ (1984) and ‘Gannet’ (1985) in which oils on newspaper explore the bird’s movement at the same time as suggesting watery flows.
Whilst much of her work documents places, landscapes and experiences close and familiar to her, Alexander maintained a commitment to travel and observation of new places, from a series inspired by the natural and manmade landscapes of the Isle of Aran to painting trips to France and Spain. Far from following the well-trodden genre of straightforward pastoralism, beneath Alexander’s work lies a tension between nature and artifice, implying a subtle critique of ways of working, living and using the landscape that that are alienating, exploitative or unnatural.
Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until 4 June.
A large number of images of Isabel Alexander’s works have been added to the Bridgeman Art Library and can be explored alongside the exhibition.
The Hampstead home of the modernist architect Ernő Goldfinger at 2 Willow Road, built for his young family in the 1930s, is chic and elegant with its parquet flooring, large windows overlooking Hampstead Heath and bespoke furnishings. Whilst giving the impression of space, light and flexibility, it’s also surprisingly homely and ordinary. It’s not overly large or flashy, but family sized and bears the marks of a place that’s been lived in and worked in, from collections of bedside books to children’s toys to scraps and pages ripped from publications and displayed on the wall of Goldfinger’s studio above his tools and plans. Aside from a catalogue for the seminal post-war exhibition This is Tomorrow, displayed on the wall, one of the indicators of the artistic and intellectual circles in which the Goldfingers moved is the art collection spread throughout the house. It’s eclectic in its style, subject matter and media, ranging from British surrealism and collage to sculpture and kinetic art to painted pebbles by Max Ernst and photographic portraiture. One of the artists Goldfinger appears to have taken a particular shine to, who also showed work at Pictures for Schools, is the painter Prunella Clough. On face value, Clough’s dense and textural studies of industrial landscapes such as slag heaps couldn’t seem further from the genteel setting of the home in suburban, villagey Hampstead.
Though much of Clough’s work depicted scenes of this nature, however, a show currently on display at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings draws out Clough’s interest in abstraction and the reuse of found objects as well as her starting point in the everyday. The viewer is invited to make connections between the murky outlined shapes of industrial towns – structures such as cooling towers, roof tops, docks and machinery, ladders and lorries – and abstract shapes, using colour and form to draw attention to these places. Clough visited factories with fellow artist (and Pictures for Schools contributor) Ghisha Koenig, and many of her figurative paintings are reminiscent of repeated movements and labour that has become second nature, dwelling on the faces and forms of those overseeing production and transportation.
Although much of her work focuses on the urban, in dark, overworked tones, the beachfront Jerwood Gallery highlights the inspiration she took from the activities and occupations of the coast. From boats and fishing equipment to fishermen cocooned against the elements in heavy waterproof clothing, here the impression is of light and transience, nets and yellow-lit beaches.
Other works make use of pattern, from the spidery black marks of ‘White’ to the swirls, soft outlines and light, off-white dribbles of ‘Electrical Installation 1’, which are reminiscent of circuits and blue jelly.
Much of the accompanying information in the show is drawn from interviews and essays by peers and critics, such as Patrick Heron, who suggest that Clough’s work is significant in the way it asks the viewer to look again at, and see the strangeness of the everyday. As Heron suggests (in a quote from the show I particularly liked), Clough’s work offers paintings as machines for seeing with, as tools to change the way we look at the world.
Prunella Clough: Unknown Paintings is on at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, until 6 July.
Right at the beginning of my PhD, one of the books that excited me most on the list of reading I was given as a starting point was David Crouch’s Flirting with Space: Journeys and Creativity. The book contains a chapter by my second supervisor, Mark Toogood, on the Cornish abstract artist Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) and the ways he experienced and engaged with landscape.
I was, therefore, excited to discover that Lanyon had exhibited paintings several times at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions – although I’ve not seen any evidence that he actually sold anything to schools through the scheme, being one of the more abstract and unconventional artists involved.
After investigating Lanyon further, I went to see his large-scale 1960 mural ‘The Conflict of Man with the Tides and the Sands’ in Fry and Drew’s Civil Engineering building at the University of Liverpool. Textured, enamelled tiles depict the forces of waves, and a sense of life, power and movement is captured not just through the use of colour and form, but through the physicality of the tiles themselves and the acts of mark-making encapsulated within them. It is one of my favourite ever pieces of public art. I saw more of Lanyon’s work at Tate St Ives, both paintings and 3D constructions of landscapes, when I visited in June 2014, where he was represented alongside other artists who had lived in, worked in and visited the town.
I finished 2015 by going to see an exhibition of Lanyon’s paintings and constructions at the Courtauld Gallery in London. Based on his experiences of gliding over the Cornish coast, they push the notion of landscape towards ‘airscapes’, depicting not just visual scenes but tracking movements through them in rich, dark blues and greens and swirling brush marks, engrossing the viewer in their colours, textures and mood.
Shortly before Christmas I also went to an exhibition of prints, sculptures and book illustrations by Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983) at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. Hermes did sell a lot of work at Pictures for Schools, as well as serving on selection committees to choose artworks, and had a long-term involvement with the scheme. I was keen to find out more about her life and work.
Much of the work in the exhibition took the form of small and very intricate engravings and wood cuts, drawing on Biblical, mythical and natural imagery, and themes of fertility, repetition and reproduction. I found much of it very strange, heavy and unsettling and preferred her less allusive and referential work. Among my favourites were the cascading angles of ‘The Waterfall’; 1924 engraving ‘The Swimmers’, where the supple organic forms of swimmers intermingle with swirls of water; and ‘Through the Wind-Screen’, a 1929 wood engraving which ably uses shading to capture the mood of night-time driving along tree-lined country roads, where branches reach out to create something resembling dense tunnels and the beams of the headlights illuminate each section of the road ahead.
Like much of the work which was popular at Pictures for Schools, the work Hermes sold to schools often depicts animals, including the wintry 1955 linocut ‘Owls’, with its sparse, icy-looking trees; the 1965 linocut ‘Starlings’, which creates delicate pattern from natural forms and activity; and her 1958 linocut ‘The Ram’. Other work sold at Pictures for Schools shows places, such as Stonehenge. In differing versions of Stonehenge shown at the Hepworth, Hermes shows a talent for animating this set of rocks and their surroundings, not just through bringing their surface to life with expressive mark-making, but by creating brooding skies that almost appear to move before the viewer’s eyes. I felt that the power of these works was in the way they surpassed the observer’s expectations. We might think we know Stonehenge, Hermes seems to be saying, as something very English, ancient and static, but in fact it is constantly changing according to not just the light, the weather and the environment around it, but the experiences and perspectives the viewer brings to it and the way in which it is seen when it is really looked at.
I particularly enjoyed those works that incorporate vivid colour, such as her larger-scale linocuts, especially the blues and purples of ‘Ring Net Fishers (1955), in which the small, anonymous figures of the eponymous fishers are rendered almost unnoticeable in comparison with the intricacies of a large net cast over the crests of a tumultuous sea.
I also found Hermes’ sculpture, for which she was less well-known, to be of great interest, particularly that which incorporated elements of the found or makeshift – including sculptures atop bowling balls, or carved from pub skittles. Her design commissions also intrigued me, from a carved lectern for a school to car mascots to a range of doorknockers – particularly one which stylistically incorporated a frog.
I have long wanted to know what happened to the artworks sold at Pictures for Schools once they had left the exhibitions, and tried to contact schools which purchased work. This always been unfruitful as many schools have closed, merged, changed name or changed location and premises since the 1960s. Though most of the buyers were local education authorities and education committees, there were a number of primary, secondary and independent schools across the country that bought work from the exhibitions. Unfortunately, those schools which do still exist are often unaware that they once owned original works of art.
I was pleased to discover, through a chance conversation with their Head of Art, Lisa Murphy, that Manchester Grammar School (MGS) is an exception and still has several, though perhaps not all, of the artworks it purchased at Pictures for Schools. Lisa, who has been at the school since 1998, is keen to use original works with students, whether through direct observation, as part of project work, or as the basis for reinterpretation.
Manchester Grammar School Art Collection Fund was suggested by an old boy in 1956 for the purchase of original and contemporary works of art, and governors, old boys and friends of the school contributed. The collection was not just limited to works on paper, but was intended to encompass ceramics and sculpture, though this was not in evidence when I visited. In 1960, an exhibition of the collection was held. The catalogue explained that:
“The aim has been to buy pictures that are good of their kind by modern artists, known and unknown.”
In the 1980s, an Ivon Hitchens work was sold to enable new purchases to be made. Aside from the Art Collection, other work belongs to the school Common Room. Some works were purchased through a bequest and some were gifts. There are also remnants of an earlier collection, and other work includes a 1945 John Skeaping print of a mare and foal which was part of the School Prints series. In addition to its own collection, the school also made use of Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston loan scheme for educational institutions in the north of England.
The Pictures for Schools invoice books held in Nan Youngman’s papers at the University of Reading, though incomplete, reveal that Manchester Grammar School was a regular buyer from Pictures for Schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Invoices were made out to the bursar on behalf of Art Master JH Bell, and on occasion on behalf of the ‘High Master’. John Henry Bell joined in 1951 and served as Head of Art from 1956-81. An Oxford-educated historian and scholar, he also painted landscapes, with a particular interest in mountains. He was known for an extensive collection of art and architecture slides, and recorded talks for BBC radio. At that time, the historical and critical aspects of art were emphasised in the school more than the practical aspects.
I recently visited MGS, a large and still academically oriented independent school in suburban south Manchester, to see what remains of the collection, and to get a sense of these artworks in a school setting, The artworks are scattered around the school, which is based around an extensive and disorientating 1930s building. In general, the school gives the impression of being filled with art and visual stimulation. Students’ work is displayed throughout the large and impressively resourced art department, as well as in the shared spaces of the school such as hallways and corridors. Changing and themed exhibitions of students’ work take place in a small gallery space next to the main reception, and there is also a small sculpture garden containing students’ work. Staff rooms, common rooms, reception, offices and classrooms also have pictures on display, ranging from formal and old-fashioned portraits of former grandees to architectural drawings of the school to work by local artists and artists who have been in residence in the school, including modern photography and graffiti-style stencil work. Some of the original mid-twentieth century works of art purchased by the school can be found among this, and highlights of the collection are on display in a wide corridor area. These include Edwin La Dell’s 1960 lithograph ‘Priddy Nine Barrows’, a green, rolling rural landscape. Though I had seen photographs of the print before, I much preferred it in ‘real life’, seeing its mark-making close-up and its colour choices appearing more vibrant.
Like many school buyers, Manchester Grammar School bought a large number of prints from Pictures for Schools, although it did also purchase paintings. Many of the artists involved in Pictures for Schools, and represented in the MGS collection, were themselves involved in art education, at secondary or university level.
Paintings at MGS include Gordon Bradshaw’s ‘Essex Landscape’ (1962), an unusual and stylised perspective on a townscape which is reminiscent of a briefly glimpsed view of a town looking down from a railway viaduct as the surrounding countryside stretches out behind it. Susan Horsfield’s ‘Boxes of Fish’ (1961) is a detailed oil painting. Horsfield met Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman through their involvement in the Women’s International Art Club and was invited by Youngman to submit work to the scheme. Peter Midgley’s humdrum oil painting ‘Still Life’ (1958), meanwhile, shows newspaper-wrapped grocery shopping in Kitchen Sink-style. Midgley taught at Beckenham School of Art.
Schools often had less money to spend on original works of art than local authorities. Prints, which could be purchased framed or unframed, were among the most affordable works of art at the exhibitions. Furthermore, prints such as linocuts had an obvious application in the classroom; they could be used to demonstrate to students what could be achieved in a medium they were likely to use themselves in school art lessons. There are also screen prints, etchings and lithographs. These include the bold 1966 screenprint ‘Blue Night Flower’ by Dennis Hawkins – who taught at Repton School and was a founding member of the Midland Group and the Printmakers’ Council’, which edges towards abstraction. Philip Greenwood’s, ‘Slate Street’ (1965) is a dark, sketchy, angular etching, while ‘Two Friends’ is a figurative lithograph by Alistair Grant, who studied with Edwin La Dell and taught at the RCA. Another print, ‘Barmouth’, from 1984, picking out the shapes of the town through exaggerated use of line and colour, is by John Brunsdon, who designed posters for Pictures for Schools as well as selling work through the scheme.
Perhaps the work I saw on my visit I liked the most was Euan Jennings’ highly stylised 1957 linocut ‘Essex Gravel Pit No 2’, a detailed reinterpretation of an everyday and workaday landscape in blue, black and yellow, in which contrasting textures and patterns are used to create contrast between different layers and areas of foliage, water, rock and stones. Jennings was Principal at Tunbridge Wells School of Art.
I also like Denys Delhanty’s 1959 gouache ‘Summer Landscape with Cow Parsley’, a more unconventional landscape that has something in its palette of black, white, greys and pale blues, and brush marks resembling surface scrapes and bubbles, of the quality of a photographic negative. Denys Delhanty was Head of Art at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and his work was extremely popular in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions.
Unsurprisingly, given their prominence in Pictures for Schools, a number of the artists in the MGS collection are associated with East Anglia. These include the Great Bardfield artist Edward Bawden – an artist’s proof of his linocut ‘Town Hall Yard’ (1957) is on display – as is a large, sweeping, abstracted, expressive linocut of an ‘East Coast Storm’ (1967) by Julia Ball who was, like Nan Youngman, a member of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors.
I was disappointed, however, not to see abstracted linocuts of farm machinery by Peter Green, one of the best-selling artists at Pictures for Schools, which once formed part of the collection. As Lisa Murphy is making a renewed effort to locate and catalogue the works to improve their visibility in the school, I’m hoping that perhaps they might be unearthed for a future visit.
 Information about the collection and the history of art teaching at MGS is largely drawn from the pamphlet Art at the Manchester Grammar School, edited by David Stockwell, 1993.
A poster about an aspect of my research for another of the annual in-school research events for members of the Grenfell Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment at the University of Central Lancashire to share what they have been working on.
I also used the Easter holidays as an opportunity to visit the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, Essex, along with the nearby village of Great Bardfield, in the north of the county. The Fry houses works by the group of artists associated with Great Bardfield from the 1930s until the 1960s, including Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Kenneth Rowntree, John Aldridge, Sheila Robinson, Michael Rothenstein, George Chapman and Walter Hoyle, with the artists famously passing on not just techniques to each other but decorating their homes and furniture. Saffron Walden is fairly close to Cambridge, where Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman lived and socialised and many of the Great Bardfield artists, along with others from across the wider area of East Anglia, were involved with and sold work through Pictures for Schools. The museum was smaller-scale than I expected, but I spotted several of the artworks which were sold at Pictures for Schools, including Sheila Robinson’s print ‘Knife Grinder’, a vivid and personable portrait of a now exotic profession, and the softer ‘Trent Bridge’, which shows her own children sitting on a bridge. One work, a busy cockerel by Michael Rothenstein, was produced for schools in collaboration with the London County Council and another of his works was sold through the School Prints. There were a lot of works depicting the local area in colourful detail, from market squares to country paths, churches and the artists’ homes – although the large, fuzzy shapes of Michael Rothenstein’s more abstract prints were among my favourites – alongside material relating to the artists’ sociable village life in Great Bardfield and the open houses that were held in the artists’ homes and studios.
As well as artworks, there were commercial products, from printed fabrics to book covers and illustrations for books such as the Shell Guides to Britain as well as the quaint Life in an English Village, which depicts places still familiar today such as local shops and the schoolroom. There were also designs for murals in public places such as ships and the Festival of Britain, along with Bawden’s humorous, cartoonish advertisements for companies such as Twinings tea and Fortnum and Mason. Among my favourites were pieces of pottery designed by Bawden and Ravilious and produced by Wedgwood, and pottery produced for P&O liners. I particularly loved a series of plates, bowls, etc themed around the garden and depicting leisurely uses of the garden in light lines and a hazy yellow palette, from weeding and picking produce to lazing under a tree, along with a set using a collection of garden implements to decorative effect.
Although I associate the eastern side of the country, and Essex in particular, with a flat landscape, the countryside around Saffron Walden was surprisingly hilly, with lots of windy country lanes. It felt unlike anywhere else I had visited in England, a small and unrepresentative pocket living up to the olde-worlde image so many people associate with England. Saffron Walden, like many of the villages around it, comprised narrow, slightly tilting, streets of old buildings, painted in pastel colours, many of them adorned with swirling patterned paint and tiles, interspersed with thatched cottages, with the centre dominated by a large church. Directly behind the museum was a large formal park with a walled garden, rose garden, ornamental hedges and greenhouses, one of several well-maintained green spaces, with others including a very large village green. Today, the narrow streets of Saffron Walden are congested with traffic, and the town centre is full of gastropubs, craft shops and clothes boutiques.
It must have been an adventure for Edward Bawden and co, when they moved into their homes without electricity in the 1930s, although they maintained one foot in London, catching the daily bus to London to teach at various art schools. For me, it felt cut off, islanded in the middle of fields. It was all very pleasant, but as a city dweller it all felt too enclosed, too pretty and picturesque, too quiet and idyllic. It felt like looking in from the outside, where one would always remain in relation to that kind of place, the type of place one goes to forget about the real world, and I found myself yearning for the life and variety of the city. Yet, conversely, maybe that is why the work of these artists and the moment in mid-twentieth century life and culture associated with them is still so appealing and in many ways still and timeless. These paintings and prints represent places and buildings that have been there for centuries, and will continue to be there long after we are gone, as life changes to a greater or lesser extent around them.
I also enjoyed this Radio 3 programme about Bawden and Ravilious’ friendship, presented by Alexandra Harris, which was on a couple of months ago.
“A marvellous scheme which was a tremendous source of encouragement in very lean times”: Fred Cuming RA on Pictures for SchoolsPosted: October 25, 2013
I had a chat on the phone this week with Fred Cuming, a painter who submitted artworks to several of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly at the Royal Academy (Cuming recalls at the time he was already interested in the Royal Academy’s work; later, in 1974, he became the youngest member to ever be elected Royal Academician). Cuming describes Pictures for Schools as a “marvellous scheme” which was “a tremendous source of encouragement in very lean times”.
Cuming became involved in Pictures for Schools in the mid-1950s as a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art, and continued to submit work until the scheme ended in 1969. He remembers that a whole generation of young painters, from London art colleges, including the Slade, the Royal Academy Schools and Goldsmiths, would send work as it was a ‘means of earning a bit of money’. He recalls: “It was common knowledge as somewhere you could sell a few pictures.” Artworks were sold at small, reasonable prices, and Cuming managed to sell an artwork or two every year. He isn’t sure where his paintings ended up, as artworks sold to the scheme went to education authorities across the country and found their way into public collections, but recalls that some work went up North to Kendal and Scunthorpe, and that one painting was purchased by the Museum of Wales.
For many young painters, Pictures for Schools was their first chance to exhibit their work and get their name known. Cuming explains: “It was very important to young painters, a lovely opportunity. It did me a world of good, that little exhibition. When you first come out of whatever college you’ve been to, not many galleries are interested in you, but lots of education authorities and a lot of the public visited, who were interested in what young artists were doing. It was also an introduction to exhibiting for local authorities. They ought to do it again.” The exhibitions also benefited children, by giving them an opportunity to see young artists’ work which was of a good quality – Cuming recalls that the standard of the exhibitions was always very good.
Cuming is primarily a painter of landscapes and interiors, often depicting the coastal landscapes of Kent, Romney Marsh and East Sussex in impressionistic, atmospheric style, with a particular interest in the effects of light. He is also interested in depicting interiors, for example in a number of paintings of his studio. He explains: “I painted the pictures I was interested in at the time – I didn’t try to paint to meet a market.” He remembers that painting was dominated by the so-called Kitchen Sink School of realist painters, centred around artists such as John Bratby, at the time, and that, although some abstract art was beginning to come in, painting was very much figurative-based. Cuming attributes this to the ‘very academic’ training painters received at art school.
To find out more and see pictures of Cuming’s work, visit www.fredcuming.com/index.html.