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.
One 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.
This week’s Guardian newspaper has featured an article about two popular Pictures for Schools artists, Julian Trevelyan and Mary Fedden (who also collaborated on site-specific murals for schools), and plans to sell their private collection in order to raise funds to restore their studio on the Thames in Chiswick: www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/05/mary-fedden-julian-trevelyan-auction-henry-moore-pablo-picasso-durham-wharf
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.
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.