Exhibition visit: Drawing the Modern, Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections

In 1944, a young man named Gordon Hodkinson embarked on his architectural training at the Manchester School of Architecture (MSA). Although his training was, like many of his generation, interrupted by military service, Hodkinson graduated in 1951 and spent his working life as an architect. Now, more than seventy years later, Hodkinson’s student work has been deposited with the Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University, and a small selection has gone on display in the Special Collections gallery space.

This is thanks to the enthusiasm of Richard Brook, Reader in Architecture, who recently finished his PhD on Cruickshank and Seward, the Manchester-based architectural partnership for whom Hodkinson went to work, and who has himself taught for many years at the MSA.

At the time of Hodkinson’s training, the MSA was regarded as offering a more modern architectural education than some of the other schools, looking towards the Bauhaus for inspiration. As a student who would graduate to work on building post-war Britain, Hodkinson’s student drawings offer an insight not just into the architectural training of the time, but into the types of buildings that architects might work on – or aspire to work on – once they had graduated. Early work includes day sketches for small-scale projects such as an architect’s retreat, an author’s workroom and a fisherman’s rest pavilion. Other projects include the intriguing and generously proportioned (especially by today’s standards!) single-person bungalows and student study bedrooms, a swimming pool stepped into the landscape, a hostel, a café, a reform school for boys and, more ambitiously, a modern art museum.

These are displayed alongside the project briefs, which highlight the considerations students needed to bear in mind, from materials to contractors. Students were also encouraged to consider the types of clients and contexts that were likely to provide commissions: they were asked to design for the City of Manchester plan, which saw post-war redevelopment as an opportunity for the comprehensive redesign of large areas of the city, and the Expanded Towns project which provided infill housing in the interwar years.

Hodkinson’s student work is also contextualised by the conclusion of a number of books and journals from the time – available to students in Hodkinson’s day, and still available in the MSA library today – which highlight many of the new developments in modern architecture and building techniques taking place at the time, both in the UK and internationally, and showcase pioneer projects such as schools, offices and housing.

On leaving university, Hodkinson went on to work on buildings including universities – both in Manchester and further afield – and offices for light industry on the outskirts of the city. These are celebrated through the inclusion of photographs of the finished results; Brook brings our attention in particular to a series of elegant staircases.

Hodkinson’s student drawings are crisp and precise, yet muted in their palette, perhaps due to the constrictions of wartime restrictions in materials, which continued in the immediate post-war period. In spite of this, they’re rich in detail, from vernacular materials, landscaping and the differentiated uses of trees, to cycle parking for swimmers and washing blowing on the line, showing the mark of someone who’s not just designing for abstract futures, but for buildings to be lived in, enjoyed and used.

Drawing the Modern is at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections until Friday 5 April 2019.

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Pictures for Schools talk, Manchester Metropolitan University, Wednesday March 16, 6.30pm

MCRH posterI will be doing a talk about my PhD research for the March meeting of the Friends of the Manchester Centre for Regional History.

Pictures for Schools: Bringing art to Manchester’s post-war classrooms

Pictures for Schools was a scheme founded in 1947, which aimed to get original works of art into ‘schools of every kind’ so children could grow up with art as part of their everyday environments.

Between 1947 and 1969, annual Pictures for Schools exhibitions were held in London (with the exception of 1957, when a venue in London could not be found and the exhibition was instead held at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery). Here, contemporary artworks by living British artists were displayed and sold at prices affordable to educational buyers. Contributors ranged from well-known names such as LS Lowry to students who were obscure at the time but later went on to make a name for themselves.

Local education authorities, education committees and museum services across the country made the annual trip from London to make purchases from the scheme, and extensive collections of artworks were built up in towns, cities and counties large and small for loan to schools. Several schools in Manchester benefited from the opportunity to buy work, and education committees in Lancashire, Rochdale and Manchester were among the regular buyers from Pictures for Schools. Another purchaser was Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston Loan Collection for educational institutions in the north of England.

However, over the decades schools have closed, changed name or merged, and local authorities have come under pressures such as boundary changes and financial constraints. Many of these collections have now disappeared with little or no acknowledgment that such a service once existed. Does Pictures for Schools have a legacy in Manchester today, and can these artworks still have any relevance in the twentieth-first-century classroom?

The talk will take place on Wednesday March 16, 6.30pm, in Room 307, 3rd floor, Geoffrey Manton Building, Manchester Metropolitan University, Oxford Road, Manchester M15.

Free; all welcome

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Exhibition visit: We Want People Who Can Draw: Instruction and Dissent in the British Art School, Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections (until 31 July)

Ruskin plaque in the entrance to Manchester School of Art

Ruskin plaque in the entrance to Manchester School of Art

Though it’s not directly related to schools, as part of the contextual reading for my PhD I have also read a lot about the history and development of art education, specifically art schools and colleges in Britain, from the municipal colleges of art that were set up in industrial towns and cities in the nineteenth century, to the changing status of provincial schools of art and art degrees following the Coldstream Report of 1960, to the student protests and occupations sparked by that at Hornsey in 1968, where students demanded more say in the direction of their education.

The current exhibition at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections brings together an impressive, stimulating and inspiring range of materials relating to the last of these aspects of the history of British art education, borrowed from individuals and institutions including the Women’s Art Library in London. They encompass manifestos, books, magazines, pamphlets and student journals, including material from Art & Language in Coventry and King Mob at Goldsmiths in London, along with exhibition publicity, films, some evocative photographs of demonstrations and occupations, and prints and posters relating to these demonstrations, and correspondence between students and university officials. Through these artefacts, the exhibition draws out links with wider and international movements for change such as the Situationist International and radical feminism. Many of the publications were amassed and distributed by Ron Hunt, the librarian at Newcastle University, who must have some tales to tell!

Many of the objects, as well as being fascinating documents of the time and a particular educational and social moment, raised important questions about the purpose and uses of art in the post-war context, a period in which the government and other authorities had started by promoting the potential and responsibility of art to take on an explicitly social role in both educating and improving the lives and leisure of the masses. Should art, and the critical and technical skills students developed at art schools, be used for the good of society, as in the street theatre workshops discussed in the exhibition, or should it be enlisted into the commercial services of advertising, against which students at Hornsey were partly protesting? One of the most intriguing items in this regard was Ken Garland’s 1964 First Things First manifesto, recently updated fifty years on, which enlisted the signatures of several designers to rail against advertising and call for design which worked for the public good. It would be interesting to know what came of the signatories, and where their future careers led them …

At a time when the value – and cost – of studying arts subjects, not just at school but at degree level, is being questioned, and when university buildings are still being occupied through student protests, it was strange not to see present-day imagery and examples in the exhibition, despite this providing the starting point for the exhibition catalogue.

The catalogue is well worth a read and is accessible as PDF at www.specialcollections.mmu.ac.uk/files/wewantpeople_guide.pdf.