Reflections on Marion Adnams Symposium, University of Derby

Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.

The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.

My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.

For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?

I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.

The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.

Advertisements

Exhibition visit: ‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’, Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Yesterday I went to visit an exhibition at Derby Art Gallery of a selection of artworks by the artist Marion Adnams, and an accompanying talk by the independent researcher Val Wood, who co-curated the exhibition. Spending most of her life in Derby, Adnams has been billed as something of a ‘forgotten’ artist. Like many women of her generation, Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman included, Adnams went into teaching; she taught art for many years at a girls’ school in Derby, where she borrowed artworks to hold an exhibition in school, and later became head of art at a teacher training college in Derby.

The work shown in Derby, primarily paintings, fits into a surrealist lineage. Demonstrating great technical skill, Adnams created fantastical imagery and imagined landscapes from found objects such as rocks and branches (a selection of these objects were on display alongside the paintings), and museum objects from Derby Museum, as well as everyday buildings such as a gas tower, and aspects of country life such as wagons, showing how the mysterious could be found in the everyday. One series incorporates model-like figures based on paper dolls she made as a child. Several of these paintings are on loan from public collections, including Salford Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery – where they were purchased as part of the Rutherston Collection for loan to schools (two of these paintings were displayed in Manchester Art Gallery’s 2010 exhibition of women surrealists, ‘Angels of Anarchy’) – and the Derbyshire School Museum Service, where one of the paintings was purchased by Evelyn Gibbs, who acted as art adviser to several local education authorities.

Although Adnams’ life was grounded in Derby, Woods focused on the wider artistic milieu of which she was part, which included friendships with other artists as well as with writers and poets such as John Betjeman – whom she advised on church buildings in Derbyshire, the subject of several early woodcuts – and the socialist and feminist poet Audrey Beecham. She exhibited in London, with the support of the gallerist Jack Bilbo. From 1939, she was supported by the friendship and encouragement of the director and curator at Manchester Art Gallery. She exhibited with the Artists’ International Association in 1945. She forged connections more locally, too; in 1946-47, she joined the Midland Group, which was set up by the artist-educationalist Evelyn Gibbs, and which aimed to educate and develop the public’s appreciation of art – this included running a picture hire scheme for businesses, schools and universities, as well as holding a Nottingham edition of Pictures for Schools. Adnams exhibited alongside artists such as Dorothie Field, who had been a student of Nan Youngman’s at Highbury Hill High School for Girls. Field was highly politically engaged and painted social realist scenes inspired by mining communities and incidents such as the Aberfan disaster. Later, Adnams developed a friendship with the writer and broadcaster Ray Gosling, who wrote a catalogue essay for a 1971 retrospective.

Adnams studied modern foreign languages at university as a young woman and embraced foreign travel; objects found in Mediterranean destinations such as Provence were also the inspiration for her work.

Adnams’ work was sold to a number of educational collections, in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Manchester. I will be exploring the history and ethos of some of these collections in a talk at a symposium to be held about Adnams in Derby on Wednesday 7 March. For more information visit www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/marion-adnams-symposium-tickets-42085404578.

‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’ is at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 4 March. For more information visit www.derbymuseums.org/whats-on/marion-adnams-a-singular-woman.


Exhibition visit: Evelyn Gibbs in Peace and Wartime, Nottingham Castle

13923546_1826265707594940_8409612827567881721_oOne of the first books I read when I started my PhD, to gain some context of the experiences of interwar women artists and art education, was Pauline Lucas’s Evelyn Gibbs: Artist and Traveller. It’s a biography of the painter and art educationalist Evelyn Gibbs, a contemporary of Nan Youngman’s who was involved in Pictures for Schools as a submitting artist as well as a member of the organising and selection committees in early years.

Gibbs settled in Nottingham after evacuation during the war and was a founder of the Midland Group, which organised travelling exhibitions around workplaces, such as ‘Art for All’, as well as producing murals in public and commercial settings such as factory canteens. She also, like Youngman and many Pictures for Schools contributors, exhibited with the Artists’ International Association, including a still life of cake treats lined up on a canteen counter included in the ‘For Liberty’ exhibition in the basement canteen of the Blitzed John Lewis.

Lucas has now co-curated an exhibition at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery focusing on two periods of Gibbs’ work. The first highlights her time studying in Rome in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where she produced delicate etchings exuding human experience and emotion. The second is a body of work produced as a war artist, documenting women’s work at the Raleigh Factory in Nottingham, in a blood transfusion unit, and in a women’s voluntary centre in Leicester which encompassed activities such as a swap shop and clothes exchange. Elsewhere, she documented the jumbled disruption of bomb sites.

It’s the latter set of works that I find more compelling. In the Raleigh factory, women workers are dwarfed by machinery, towering stacks of boxes and components. Other paintings created during the 1940s capture the more mundane: streets, reflections, facades, trees, windows and huddled figures.

Gibbs’ work is represented in county collections including Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and London. Nottingham Castle, too, contains a body of mid-twentieth century paintings in its collection, in which several names familiar from Pictures for Schools are represented, including John Piper, LS Lowry and Ben Nicholson. Men of Straw demonstrates Richard Eurich’s strange, narrative storytelling, which was popular with child visitors to Pictures for Schools. Marion Adnams lines up the backs of terraced houses and rows of gravestones, overlooked by the tall order of a church spire. Carel Weight’s African Girl 2 is a striking portrait of a model in an artist’s studio. It’s here, too, that I found the Gibbs work I liked the best: Industrial View of 1953, in which a blur of blue, red and grey chimneys, swept with wispy smoke, blend into an overhanging dusky sky.

Evelyn Gibbs in Peace and Wartime continues until Sunday 9 October.

For more information visit www.nottinghamcastle.org.uk/explore/exhibitions/evelyn-gibbs.


Final visit to Nan Youngman collection, University of Reading

This week I made my fourth and final visit to see Nan Youngman’s papers at the University of Reading. It felt very much like a finishing up and plugging the gaps visit, and I know feel like I’ve looked at everything in the collection and seen the full scope of what’s there. I found out about some more minor details of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions such as how they were publicised – this included advertising at underground stations, and writing to London borough libraries to ask them to display leaflets.

One of the things I got from the trip was a real sense of who the educational buyers were from Pictures for Schools, and what types of artworks and which artists were particularly popular, through looking at a series of invoice books from 1949 to 1968 (although there are some gaps where invoice books are missing, including a long period in the 1950s).

Schools of all kinds, including secondary moderns, grammars, junior schools and independent schools purchased work from Pictures for Schools, sometimes on a one-off basis and sometimes as repeat buyers, with Manchester Grammar School being a particularly regular buyer (this interested me as Mrs Rutherston was frustrated that it failed to make use of Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston Loan Scheme, and seemed generally unimpressed with the quality of art teaching at the school). Other regular buyers included Greenwich Library in the 1960s, as well as various training colleges around the country, and occasionally adult, further and higher education establishments. Other buyers included county or city loan services linked with museums, including Reading Museum and Art Gallery (this service is still in operation and embroideries by artists including Constance Howard and Sadie Allen purchased through Pictures for Schools in the 1960s are still available for schools to borrow), Ferens Art Gallery, who made purchases on behalf of Hull Education Committee and the Leeds Loan Collection which was linked both with Leeds College of Art and Leeds Art Gallery.

Although, as I already knew, Derbyshire Museum Service made regular and extensive purchases, I revised my opinion a little about the number of local authorities making use of the scheme, who seem to be slightly less numerous and widespread than I thought, although Essex County Council, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Great Yarmouth, Cumberland/Carlisle, Northumberland/Newcastle, Lancashire, City of Coventry, Cambridgeshire/City of Cambridge, West Bromwich, City of Manchester, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Buckinghamshire, Oxford, Rochdale, the London County Council and later Nottingham and Scunthorpe and Bromley were enthusiastic and regular buyers from the scheme, with West Sussex, East Sussex, Norfolk, Bristol, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, East Yorkshire, Gloucester, Southampton, Bradford, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Rotherham, Birmingham and Harrow Schools Art Library making purchases more intermittently. I also realised I may have overstated the links between Pictures for Schools and counties such as the West Riding, Hertfordshire and Leicestershire, who I know to have had extensive loan collections and to have valued art in schools. Whilst they did certainly support Pictures for Schools in its early years, they appear to have stopped being regular purchasers by the late-1950s and 1960s, perhaps because they had become accustomed to buying art on a more year-round basis and approaching and liaising with artists and galleries direct. Educational buyers from Wales (and very occasionally Scotland) also made occasional purchases, although Wales had its own Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions from 1951 and a one-off Pictures for Scottish Schools exhibition was held in 1967. One thing I am interested in finding out more about are the art advisers who visited Pictures for Schools on behalf of county education committees, some of whom seem to have had interesting artistic careers and involvement in their own right, including Robert Washington, long-running art advisor for Essex.

I noticed that prints were by far the most popular item, probably due to their affordability (many buyers purchased prints unframed) with embroidery also popular and sculpture noticeably unpopular. One name which really stood out was the print-maker Peter Green, who seemed to make extensive sales at each exhibition, as did fellow print-makers Philip Greenwood, Michael Stokoe and Richard Tavener. Something else I noticed was that buyers often stuck with one artist and continued to collect their work year on year. As I’d observed previously, I also came across more correspondence from schools and local authorities which had purchased work from artists and wished to follow up by contacting the artists to ask for biographical or other information to complement the use of the works as learning resources, and sometimes to arrange local exhibitions of particular artists’ work.


Telephone conversation with Ivanhoe College about the school’s original works of art

Some time after emailing the schools referred to as making use of original works of art of the type purchased through Pictures for Schools in the 1970 book In Our Experience: the changing schools of Leicestershire, I finally heard back from one of the schools, Ivanhoe College, built in 1954.

My enquiry had been batted about before reaching the relevant staff member, the Assistant Business Manager, who had a slightly more pessimistic take on the value of post-war artworks in schools than other people I had spoken to.

She confirmed that the school had 40 or 50 artworks, ten of which belonged to the county art collection and the rest of which were gifted. Most were paintings on board, although there were a few tapestries and one piece of pottery.

Although she was fairly new to the job, she suggested that the number of items on display had dwindled as the College was refurbished, and that the last items were taken down five to ten years ago. She explained that some items were broken and that the school preferred to display more topical work and that the corridors were covered in work the students had done. Another problem was that one of the paintings was ‘enormous’ and the school had nowhere to put it.

In contrast to everything else I have read about Pictures for Schools, which suggested that artworks were chosen to be appealing and stimulating for children, I was told that the paintings are “very traditional, dark, oily and old-fashioned – not very modern these days”. Today the school prefers to display instead “more modern art” and currently has ten pieces on loan as a award, including aboriginal art and 3D work.

I was hoping that the school’s links with the Leicestershire county collection, once one of the country’s largest due to the enthusiastic patronage of Director of Education Stewart Mason and his enlisting of allies and advisors such as Whitechapel Gallery Director Bryan Robertson, would enable me to contact people who knew of its status and whereabouts, but my enquiries have still met  a blank.


In Our Experience by Stewart C Mason: A small treasure of a book from the University of Manchester library store

DSC_1950Recently, I made my first foray into the University of Manchester store to retrieve a book edited by Stewart Mason, former Director of Education in Cambridgeshire. Mason was well-known for establishing a patronage scheme for schools in Leicestershire as well as promoting the value of artworks in schools, even before Pictures for Schools came into being in 1947; this collection was celebrated by exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1967 and 1980. In Our Experience: the changing schools of Leicestershire, which was published in 1970 (the year after Pictures for Schools ended), turned out to be a real hidden treasure, offering really good context for the educational backdrop against which such schemes took place. After the Second World War, the educational landscape in Leicestershire changed rapidly to cope with a large rise in population, and the county undertook a number of sometimes controversial experiments, from becoming one of the first counties to abolish the 11-plus, to introducing fully comprehensive education, making use of new ideas in architecture such as open plan schools, building larger schools which could justify purchasing specialist equipment and resources, emphasising child-centred learning, particularly in the infant school, and developing community colleges inspired by Henry Morris’s village colleges in Cambridgeshire to foster learning for all ages and all of the community.

Like Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire who promoted the idea of the educational environment as being a ‘silent teacher’, Mason also emphasised the importance of the school environment on children’s perception of their education, saying: “[School buildings] can and do exert a powerful influence on what happens inside and around them.” Mason was passionate about introducing contemporary art to schools, and saw art education as having value for the life of the whole school, not just art departments, saying the arts could “release energy and add sparkle and inventiveness to the general life of the school” and “pay for themselves by quickening the whole tempo”.

In the book, which features essays by a number of teachers and headteachers in Leicestershire schools, there is a strong emphasis on learning through doing and discovery, rather than by rote (I feel that the cover really conveys this ethos of learning!). The vision of education promoted by the book recognises that individuals learn differently and are able to take some responsibility for their own learning and promotes emotional and intuitive development as much as academic achievement. It is seen to be important that the child is educated as a ‘whole person’, fitting in with the ideas of writers such as Herbert Read. Other ideas include breaking down the boundaries between different subject areas into an ‘integrated day’, taking a view of education in which teachers are learners as much as children, and creating an environment where children feel that there they are on equal terms with their teachers and are encouraged to take a questioning approach to what is around them. The latter point is interesting in relation to Pictures for Schools, which encouraged children to look actively in order to develop skills which would help them take an interest in what was around them when they became adults. Some of these ideas, such as learning by doing, along with the idea of the school as a total society implied by community-based education, are also reminiscent of those of American educator John Dewey.

It was also interesting to hear how schools used their artworks. At Albert Road Primary School, Hinckley, for instance there was at least one original, contemporary work of art in each classroom. Children were encouraged to handle artworks, and were exposed to all kinds of artwork, including abstract art. Albert Road Primary was also home to the Clown, a piece of sculpture in the playground  which “is fondled and loved and climbed upon and sometimes even given clothing”. I’ve tried contacting the schools featured in the book to see if they still own the artworks mentioned, and if they are still in use in the school. Only one school has got back to me so far, saying the school has the artworks but they are no longer on display. They have invited me to visit, however, and I may take up the opportunity as I am keen to find out what happened to the artworks of a county once so well-known for its patronage but which has seen some of its artworks sold in recent years.


Art in schools: the critical reaction (an article by John Berger)

An article in the New Statesman magazine from July 1957, by eminent art critic John Berger, shows both the reaction of critics towards the emphasis on placing original works of art in schools, as seen in counties such as Leicester, and an evaluation of the artists and artworks involved in such schemes. In his New Statesman article, ‘Artists and Schools’, Berger describes a trip to Leicestershire, starting by contrasting old-fashioned church schools with the new, modern schools which were built in Leicestershire after the war. He outlines Leicestershire’s aim to create a visual environment for schoolchildren, most of whom would otherwise leave school without ever having seen a modern oil painting. Berger explains that Leicestershire’s county collection of artworks was funded using royalties from a school book produced by the county, building and decorating allocations, and school materials allowances, saying that the scheme relied on the enthusiasm, confidence and initiative of the county’s Director of Education, who organised an annual sale of works collected from London and persuaded artists to accept relatively low fees in return for having their artwork shown in a ‘living context’. If more Directors of Education had his vision, says Berger, a “minor revolution in the appreciation of the visual arts” could be achieved. Berger praises the standard of artworks by lesser-known artists who were represented in Leicestershire’s collection, especially singling out the sculptor Peter Peri for attention. Berger says that works such as Peri’s come into their own when seen not as part of the London art scene, but juxtaposed with the architecture of schools, exhibited next to a football pitch or gymnasium (Berger, 1957).