A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to spend a day in London in the expert company of Dr Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West, two researchers with backgrounds and ongoing research interests in public art and the London County Council (LCC): Dawn’s PhD work on William Mitchell and Anthony Hollaway as design consultants for the LCC was a major catalyst for my interest in post-war public art as a subject for academic study, and Rosamund is currently undertaking a PhD at Kingston University about public art commissions on post-war LCC housing estates.
We started at the Royal Festival Hall, where we saw the collaborative ‘festival quilt’. This large (although easy to miss – I’d never seen it before, despite visiting the Festival Hall on a number of occasions) artwork is composed of squares contributed by women’s groups from across the country commemorating landmark events, figures, inventions and developments in British history, from the 1851 Great Exhibition (the Festival of Britain, for which the quilt was commissioned, followed 100 years later) to the invention of the sewing machine, to cultural phenomena such as jazz and cinema, in a variety of styles. It’s full of detail and visual appeal and has aged well; it’s one of the quirkier aspects of this landmark building, which is well worth a look as a cultural document of the interests and values of a time and as a participatory, collaborative piece of art created by ‘ordinary people’. We also saw ‘Sunbathers’, a work by the Hungarian artist Peter Peri from the Festival of Britain which, after years of being lost and neglected, has been recently restored and resited high-up in the Festival Hall following a public awareness and funding campaign. Its athletic, interlinked figures now gleam pristinely in the nude, yet are strangely anonymous in their terracotta-coloured concrete.
Although sculpture was less popular among buyers at Pictures for Schools than paintings, prints and embroideries (mainly, probably, because it was more expensive and less easy to site in the school), Peter Peri was a regular exhibitor at Pictures for Schools. His work was, in its realism and everyday subject matter, such as small-scale sculptural depictions of children at play and leisure, characteristic of the mood and style of the exhibitions.
Peri’s work was part of a wider context of realist art promoted by critics such as John Berger for its accessibility and humanism; it emerged out of a context of politicised networks of artists such as the Artists’ International Association, founded in the 1930s, which worked to promote the status of the artist in society, provide employment for artists, raise public appreciation and increase opportunities to enjoy the arts, and to create social change through art. Peri was prolific in his public commissions for patrons such as schools and local authorities; writing in the New Statesman in the 1950s, Berger argued that, far from fitting into the fashionable London art world, his work came into its own when situated in workaday settings such as the school.For me, the most effective work we saw by Peter Peri on the tour was that which was still part of the fabric of the places where it was first situated. The best work of his we saw was ‘Following the Leader’ (1949), a relief on the exterior of a central stairwell of an otherwise nondescript earlier block of flats in a now-gentrified area of Vauxhall. Utilising coloured concrete, it depicts a ring of children ascending the brickwork hand-in-hand, tendons stretched and hair and skirts blowing in the wind. Although apparently simple, the feeling with which Peri has moulded the faces of the children, and the sense of play, movement, youth and vitality, he creates, gives it a quality which is touching and timeless. His real skill was to communicate a sense of relatability and humanity in these figures, despite their scale and necessarily being viewed from a distance.Although commemorating a sombre subject, children lost in the Blitz, it has less of the naivety and idealisation of motherhood, youth and childhood that characterised much of the work of the social realist genre, and which can be seen in his ‘Children Playing’ (1951-2) and in the exaggeratedly healthy, muscular figures of ‘Boys Playing Football’ (1951-2), two exterior murals on the nearby South Lambeth Estate.
We were fortunate to be able to see all these works in situ; the significance of all these artworks, and the social, historical and political context in which they were commissioned, has now been recognised by their listing, as part of a wider drive by Historic England to recognise and promote the public art of the period. However, the scale of gentrification of the once working-class areas of south London we visited was stark – like many across London, several of the estates were awaiting or had already undergone a process of redevelopment, with former council developments replaced with housing aimed at a far wealthier demographic, and now largely removed from the social purpose for which it was intended, and the democratic and inclusive spirit in which the artworks were commissioned.
One victim of this process of rebuilding was a 1956 concrete mural by Willi Soukop (another European emigre who exhibited at Pictures for Schools), inspired by the story of the Pied Piper yet noticeably more abstract in its shapes and style than the work of Peri, previously situated on a community hall on the Elmington estate in Camberwell. Although its value had been recognised enough for it to be retained and incorporated into a new development once the hall was demolished, it had been hidden behind foliage in a new nature garden, surrounded by modern flats, where its visual impact was considerably lessened.
I’ve just returned from the conference ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’ at Oxford Brookes University. Although I wasn’t invited to speak these themes are key to my own PhD research so I went along to watch and listen.
There were some really interesting papers, including presentations by postgraduates and early career researchers in architectural history, discussing buildings such as health centres, schools, housing and theatres, as well as the discursive environments surrounding them, from the architectural press to RIBA.
Focusing on the half-century between the 1920s and the 1970s the conference set the scene for social and architectural developments in post-war Britain by looking at their roots in the interwar period. For example, Elizabeth Darling discussed the interwar Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, which was regarded as not just a health centre offering advice such as birth control but a social space and centre for the community which would bring people in. She set out one of the key themes of the conference not addressed in the title – education – showing how the centre was part of a wider aim to give people information and education, in order to better themselves.
Jessica Kelly followed this by showing how the architectural press of the 1930s and 1940s navigated between public taste and architects, who as experts and specialists had both privileges and responsibilities. The attitudes of writers in publications such as the Architects Journal and the Architectural Review moved, she explained, from condemnation of public tastes in the 1930s towards a more collaborative approach. This led to a really interesting discussion among the panel and the audience about consumerism, citizenship and class, and the idea that upper and middle-class architects and built environments could play a part in helping working-class people obtain citizenship. Another theme that began to emerge was suburban versus urban life – urban living was promoted as a route to citizenship at a time when the majority of people would have lived suburban lives.
The session on educational spaces was a particular highlight of the conference. Roy Kozlovsky explored the emotional history of school buildings, drawing a link between the family and the home in the post-war period and exploring the complex link between the home and the school, arguing that emotional performances became symbolic landscapes of reconstruction.
I particularly enjoyed Catherine Buke (previously of the Decorated School)’s presentation, which referenced innovations in school building in the United States, Italy and the UK. Cathy drew a distinction between designing for learning versus designing for living, and described how post-war schools aimed to promote learning for living and help their students live in the modern world. She drew links between the school system and the strengthening of democracy and resistance against Fascism at a time when, as she said, ‘a common vocabulary was forged between architecture and education’. I was really interested to hear about Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia infant school in northern Italy, which Cathy described as a democratic project aiming to teach its students how to be critical, ask questions and be active in their environments. Cathy also referenced a number of important UK educationalists, including Cambridgeshire Director of Education Henry Morris, with his ideas of using schools to bring art and culture to working-class and rural populations, and Alec Clegg of the West Riding. Through these figures and others Cathy explored the idea that the educational environment is a kind of ‘third teacher’ after the parent and the teacher, and the belief that children should be able to shape their own environments. She showed both buildings and furnishings as an example of the way in which furniture and crockery was desired to be not just functional but beautiful, as part of a consideration of what should be brought inside a school building, and therefore play a part in developing children’s taste.
Another highlight was Louise Campbell’s discussion of post-war educational expansion and the need for universities. She positioned access to university as a right, which had been fought for during the war, and argued that the development of new universities was part of an idealisation of the young. Focusing on the University of Sussex, she explored post-war universities’ aspirations to produce cultivated young people, to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood and to introduce students to high culture (in contrast to Brighton youth and gang culture), at the same time as breaking down traditional subject divisions. She described both how the nature of the welfare state was reflected in buildings, and the ways in which the campus absorbed European influences in its style and appearance.
Otto Saumarez Smith explored the links between the welfare state, modernism and sociology, which had its roots in the inter-war years, and the legacy of this in social democratic approaches in the 1970s. He made an interesting point about the ways in which new towns could be associated with acquisitiveness, affluence and ultimately a move towards conservatism among their inhabitants. Christine Hui-Lan Manley spoke about the picturesque principles underlying the design of Harlow.
A highlight of the conference was Alistair Fair on the development of post-war theatres. He explained that prior to 1939 theatre rarely received public funding, but after the Second World war new theatres were built across the country, often as part of civic centres, and enjoyed public subsidy. The period saw a move away from commercial theatre companies to theatre taking on a more civic function and being regarded as a public amenity, in which the public were encouraged to participate. Alistair contextualised this with reference to political developments, from the 1959 Labour manifesto ‘Leisure for Living’ to Conservative promotion of leisure as giving a sense of purpose and alleviating boredom. He explained that the Arts Council placed culture as part of the welfare state and the development of a ‘gayer and more cultivated population’, where modern citizens enjoyed culture and leisure and culture was balanced against ‘materialist impulses’. This was partly driven by motivations of egalitarianism but also partly, he said, a reaction against American culture and search for appropriate kinds of leisure as people became more affluent. Another interesting link was with suburban growth, which often lacked facilities – collective leisure pursuits could be seen as one way to counter individualist suburban drift.
It was also great to hear about Rosamund West’s research about the London County Council’s patronage of art for residential estates. Rosamund discussed the City of London plan as a discursive event, which was distributed to residents for information and education. She showed some of the types of artworks that were chosen for new estates – themes included neighbours – and some of the ways in which artworks were chosen and received, including the input of residents’ committees in the early years. Interestingly, she highlighted a tension between the Arts Council, which preferred that big names were commissioned, and the LCC, which championed new talent such as students and teachers.
After a day and a half of presentations and discussions which often came back to ideas about taste and the public, Lesley Whitworth’s presentation about the Council of Industrial Design, which developed an index of ‘well-designed’ goods certified with a label, was a fitting way to round off a conference, which took architecture as its starting point but moved beyond that to consider not just space and communities but objects and culture in a broad sense.
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.