Earlier this year, Historic England announced the listing of a number of major post-war public artworks. The exhibition ‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’ at London’s Somerset House celebrates this recognition of an important aspect of our social, cultural and architectural history. At the same time, the show offers some necessary context for these works of art, filling in gaps and lapses in our collective memory. As we are reminded throughout the exhibition, prevailing attitudes towards twentieth century built environments have often resulted in publicly owned artworks being damaged, lost, hidden, destroyed or neglected.
The capital is a good starting point for a retrospective on public art, from the myriad artworks commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain to the London County Council’s post-war series of outdoor sculpture shows, where the public were asked what they were thought, given tours and offered sculpture-making demonstrations. Naturally, the post-war New Town of Harlow, with its artworks in housing estates and shopping areas, also features strongly, with an entire room dedicated to ‘sculpture town’. Another room screens a cringeworthily stilted promotional film made to attract people to the town and a new way of life.
Another section is dedicated to the commissioning and purchasing of artworks for schools, with a particular focus on those counties which had strong patronage schemes and a commitment to placing artworks in schools at a county level, and the way in which this was facilitated by the dedication of a particular percentage of school building budgets to the incorporation of art.
Other artefacts include correspondence around the commissioning process and reception of public artworks, often revealing the professional and social ambitions of those involved. These include Victor Pasmore’s comment in a 1977 letter that he conceived his Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee as ‘a sort of temple to raise the quality of a housing estate to the Gods!’. Elsewhere, the use of quotes throughout the show, from artists and architects, highlights the challenges and problems, as well as ideologies and attitudes, around public art, popular culture and the post-war project of changing the masses’ relationship with art. I particularly liked Festival of Britain Director of Architecture Hugh Casson’s comment that rather than ‘high brow’ or ‘low brow’ culture he preferred to think of ‘concertina eyebrows’, which were ‘high here, low there’, prioritising art that was ‘sincere, lively and the best of its kind’.
It was also fascinating to see models and maquettes – among the most enjoyable are miniature versions of William Mitchell’s Corn King and Queen sculptures at Wexham, and a small test piece for his Lee Valley Water Company Mural at Hatfield – as well as descriptions, illustrations and interviews about the ways in which artworks were made and the often new and innovative ways in which materials were put to use.
We are reminded that publicly visible art does not always mean publicly owned art, and that corporations and businesses were among the major commissioners in the post-war period. Most importantly, as well as showing how and where post-war public artworks were commissioned, ‘Out There’ offers some reasons why publicly accessible works of art moved away from monumental statues of grand historic figures to celebrate and depict the general public in this period. Whilst it is suggested that there may have been a number of agendas at work – for example, it is argued that the prominence of sculptures depicting mothers and children in post-war places could have been part of a wider desire to reinforce women’s traditional role as wives and mothers – the exhibition also argues that post-war public art aimed to create a sense of community and spirit in new, rebuilt or broken places, create visual interest and variety and make people think about the places they were in. The conventional narrative is that these lofty ambitions have failed or been forgotten, but the exhibition also reminds us of the places in which public art has been taken to heart, and become an integral part of our post-war places for living, working, shopping and socialising. In this regard we’re brought up-to-date by the inclusion of ongoing campaigns for these artworks to be recognised, retained and appreciated, whether they are led by heritage bodies such as Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society, artists such as Bob and Roberta Smith, or concerned and interested members of the public.
‘Out There: Our Post-War Public Art’ is at Somerset House, London until Sunday 10 April.
I’m not involved, but I am looking forward to attending a seminar about Dorothy Annan and Trevor Tennant at the wonderful Henry Moore Institute in Leeds next week (and visiting the accompanying exhibition, which displays materials related to these two artists from HMI’s archive). I’m looking forward to hearing from Dawn Pereira, who wrote her PhD thesis on the London County Council’s post-war patronage scheme and is the recipient of a Henry Moore research fellowship, and Jeremy Howard of the Decorated School project.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to identify, look in more detail at and, if possible, speak to the artists who regularly submitted and sold work through Pictures for Schools. Although it is difficult to find much information about lots of the artists, many of the individuals have fascinating personal stories as artists and educators. Dorothy Annan, along with her husband Trevor Tennant, was among the artists who submitted and sold work through Pictures for Schools, and was one of a number of artists in the scheme who was also involved in the Artists’ International Association. She also went on to design murals and other artworks for schools. In my spare time, I publish my own small publication, the Shrieking Violet, and architect and blogger Joe Austin contributed an article featuring Dorothy Annan’s Farringon murals alongside other post-war murals a couple of years ago.
The seminar is free and can be booked here.
As I was in London for the RGS-IBG conference, I jumped on the opportunity to spend a couple more days looking at Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s papers in the Tate Archive. This time, I ended up looking at three sets of materials. The first comprised references written by Nan Youngman about her work as a teacher, from those who had taught her at school, at art school and at teacher training college – including art educator Marion Richardson, as well as her former employers at schools and art colleges.
The second was extracts from a Master’s dissertation written by Pauline Lucas focusing on Nan Youngman alongside two other woman artists, the artist and art educator Evelyn Gibbs (a regular contributor of work to Pictures for Schools) and Dorothie Field, a former student of Youngman’s who went on to found the 359 Gallery in Nottingham, showing how these women combined ‘public responsibilities’ with the production of artwork. It was interesting to see how Lucas had embarked on writing about Youngman’s life and work, including her ‘great art educational crusade’, and highligted aspects of her life and career including art education and the Artists’ International Association, both of which are given their own chapters. I also enjoyed Lucas’ discussion of the war years and the opportunities offered by evacuation to use education to offer comfort and familiarity to children far from home, as well as to experiment with different methods of teaching, for example painting outdoors. Something else which Lucas conveys well is the importance of individual personality and charisma, including Marion Richardson’s near-hypnotic influence over her child painting students and her subsequent influence on Youngman as a teacher. As well as drawing on sources I have looked at such as the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene, Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues and Nan Youngman’s autobiography, Lucas also had the advantage of being able to visit and speak to Youngman in her studio at her home near Cambridgeshire.
Finally, I rooted through a couple of folders of correspondence, particularly a large volume of ‘fan-mail’ – including a handwritten post-it note passed to Youngman during a lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club – sent to Youngman from former students and teachers who benefited from her support. What is striking is the number of former students who felt compelled to write to Nan Youngman, in many cases decades after they had left school and on taking up art again in their retirement. Many had been members of the Art Club run by Youngman at Highbury Hill High School in Islington in the 1920s and 1930s. Whilst some admitted they had no specific talent for art, they said that they had enjoyed her lessons and benefited from self-expression, gaining an ‘appreciation’ of art and developing their ‘taste’ in art and objects. One thing which was mentioned over and over again was the way in which art was applied beyond the art room, whether painting murals in school, designing sets and costumes for ballets and plays choreographed and performed by students, or creating ambitious puppet shows. A minority of correspondents had gone on to art college – although several reported that their careers had been curtailed by marriage and children – and become professional artists, whereas several others had become teachers. Whilst in later years Youngman invited this correspondence by publishing her address in the Highbury Hill old girls’ news letter, most correspondence was sparked in response to articles Youngman had written, or chance meetings with acquaintances. Although several remarked that they were too in awe of or intimidated by Youngman to talk to her much at the time, all thanked Youngman for ‘sowing the seed’ for an interest in art which had stayed with them across their lives and careers.
Hidden amongst the correspondence was another curiosity, photocopied pages from a 1936 school report for Highbury Hill High School for Girls, presumably written by London County Council’s inspector RR Tomlinson, an advocate of child art and new methods in art teaching. Although he painted a picture of art being squeezed for time during the school day, he was full of praise for Youngman’s teaching and the way in which an artistic ethos pervaded the school.
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.
Dawn Pereira’s PhD thesis: Art for the ‘common man’: the role of the artist within the London County Council 1957-1965Posted: June 11, 2013
I first became aware of Dawn Pereira’s research into twentieth century public art a couple of years ago when I became a fan of the prolific architectural sculptor William Mitchell, and came across a paper Pereira wrote on his ‘concrete legacy‘ (later, I also saw Pereira deliver a paper at the Decorated School’s one-day seminar in Leeds). Pereira’s article opened my eyes to this area of art and social history as a rich field for research, and made me think I would like to do some research in a similar vein in the future, combining my interest in how artists such as Mitchell developed new uses for materials and utilised decorative textures in otherwise ordinary public places to great effect, and the perceived social benefits of such work. I later had the opportunity to visit William Mitchell and interview him at his home in London, where he proudly showed me a bound copy of a thesis Pereira completed at the University of East London in 2008, entitled Art for the ‘common man’: the role of the artist within the London County Council 1957-1965, which focuses for a large part on Mitchell and Antony Hollaway’s employment as design consultants for the London County Council in the post-war era, working on innovative large-scale artworks for public building projects such as schools and housing developments. Through my interest in Mitchell’s work I came across Joe Austin, a fellow blogger with an interest in the period and love of Mitchell’s art, and he too got in contact with Pereira, asking for the opportunity to read her thesis electronically. Austin was kind enough to break Pereira’s thesis down into chapters and share it with me over the internet. I had never read a PhD thesis before, but found Pereira’s thesis to be very readable and accessible, making great use of archive sources from the London Metropolitan Archive, in addition to interviews with Mitchell and others, as well as documenting the state of artworks commissioned by the LCC today, which have often neglected and fallen into a disrepair or have disappeared altogether.
Whilst there are clear differences between Pereira’s area of research and my own – Pereira is looking at the commissioning of artworks in a geographically defined area, within a relatively narrow timeframe – there was much of interest as a backdrop to my research (indeed, Pictures for Schools gets a mention near the start, and several of the artists commissioned by the LCC – including Karin Jonzen, Sir John Verney, Willi Soukop and John W MIlls, detailed in a useful ‘biography’ section at the end, are names that are familiar to me from their inclusion in late-1960s Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues!).
Of particular interest are the links Pereira outlines between the Arts Council, which was set up in the post-war period, and art commissioning schemes such as that run by the London County Council. The LCC, Pereira suggests, had money to spend on art but not necessarily knowledge about which artists and artworks were suitable, allowing the Arts Council, which had expertise but lacked funding, to adopt a consultancy role.
Pereira’s thesis also touches on how art commissioning schemes, and commitment to dedicating part of a local council’s budget to art, were taken up in areas such as Hertfordshire and Leicestershire and promoted by the ‘single vision’ of Directors of Education such as John Newsom and Stewart Mason. Leicestershire in particular was willing to take risks by purchasing artworks by relatively unknown artists, but also purchased work from established London galleries such as Redfern and Piccadilly. One of the things I will need to bear in mind during my research is the relationship and differences between works acquired through exhibitions such as Pictures for Schools, works acquired directly from artists or galleries, and commissioned, site-specific artworks for schools, and their relative prevalence and status in county council collections. The Pictures for Schools catalogues I have indicate that the Pictures for Schools exhibitions worked as a way of introducing schools and local education authorities to artists and their typical styles and subject matters, who could then be commissioned to make further, site-specific works if required.
Pereira suggests that animal and family themes were popular subject matters among artists working in schools at that time, although other artists embraced abstract painting and sculpture. One of the areas of Pictures for Schools I am potentially interested in exploring further in relation to ideas about Britishness is the nationality of the artists who contributed work to the scheme, as several of them arrived in Britain as refugees having to flee their own countries. Pereira suggests that community-based themes were common among these émigré artists.
I also picked up on a few books which may be useful for my project, including writing on the public art of the period by Margaret Garlake.
One project which aimed to embed art in schools in the post-war period was the School Prints scheme, which was started in 1946 under the direction of Brenda Rawnsley, who built upon a company started by her late husband Derek Rawnsley which rented reproductions of famous artworks to both state and private schools with accompanying notes. Artists were invited to submit sketches for School Prints, and successful submissions were reproduced in return for a fee and ongoing royalties. Subscribers to School Prints received four lithograph prints per term, or twelve per year, and prints were also available to the public at a slightly higher price. Like many attempts to expose schoolchildren to art, School Prints relied upon the enthusiasm and dedication of an individual: Brenda Rawnsley, whom Ruth Artmonsky portrays in her history of the scheme as a “feisty, energetic, enthusiastic woman finding her way in the post-war art world” (Artmonsky, 2010). Artmonsky places School Prints within a zeitgeist of bringing ‘good’ art to the people, and educating people’s ‘aesthetic discernment’. Like other attempts to take original artworks into schools, the School Prints scheme was guided by a committee of ‘experts’, the Art Advisory Council, which included Herbert Read and Nan Youngman as well as a representative from the Arts Council, a child psychologist, the Chief Art Inspector to the London County Council, Audrey Martin, Art advisor for Hertfordshire and Alex Barclay-Russell, art master at Charterhouse.
However, there are clear differences between the School Prints project and Pictures for Schools. Unlike Pictures for Schools, which encompassed a variety of art forms, artworks were confined to lithographs, and there was ongoing uncertainty on the part of Rawnsley about the extent to which artworks reproduced in editions in the thousands could be sold as original artworks. Unlike Pictures for Schools, School Printswas aimed solely at primary schools. School Prints met with limited success as, although Artmonsky characterises the artists involved as being largely ‘parochial and conventional’, the artworks and their subject matters were nevertheless found to be too ‘novel and advanced’ for schools, and the project extended only to three series of prints; a later scheme, initiated by Rawnsley in the 1950s, which involved selling schools moulds of artists’ sculptures through the Victoria and Albert Museum, which they could reproduce themselves, was similarly a commercial failure. Whereas Pictures for Schools often featured the work of young artists and recent graduates, School Prints invited contributions from more established artists, several of whom had been part of the state-sponsored ‘Recording Britain’ scheme in wartime – this type of subject matter was considered suitable for children. Finally, the scope of School Prints was not geographically limited to schools in England and Wales as with Pictures for Schools, nor featured solely British artists, as Pictures for Schools did: Rawnsley aimed to eventually extend the project to the countries across the Empire, as well as the United States, and prints were sold as far away as Antigua, South Africa, Kenya and India. Furthermore, the final instalment of School Prints featured the work of famous European artists such as Picasso who were reaching the end of their careers (Artmonsky, 2010).
School Prints followed on from earlier schemes to introduce original artworks to schools in the form of prints, such as prints given to schools as part of a series produced by the Post Office. Another print series for educational establishments, Contemporary Lithographs, ran between 1937 and 1938 and aimed to sensitise students to really looking at pictures and inspire their own creativity, in line with contemporary ideas that people had an innate desire to learn and respond if they were given the opportunity. Contemporary Lithographs focused on original prints by living artists, working on the assumption that good pictures did not always belong in museums, and considering prints to be better value for schools than watercolours and oil paintings. Its unique selling points were ‘quality, accessibility and originality’. However, like other schemes for aesthetic education, the public and schools often did not share the taste of those behind Contemporary Lithographs and found the abstract and non-representational artwork included in the scheme challenging (Artmonsky, 2010).