I was pleased to spot some post-war murals in the entrances to some educational buildings on a recent short break in Reykjavik – a city where the sun rarely breaks through a sky filled with low-hanging clouds, yet which is still full of visual interest and colour in the form of colourful and inventive contemporary street art murals.
There are post-war murals in two separate entrances to the technical school in the centre of Reykjavik, in the shadow of grand lava-inspired church Hallgrímskirkja, which towers over the city – through the windows of the school you can see rooms full of mannequins, wigs and hair dressers’ equipment. You can also just about make out some colourful, painted pop-style murals on the walls of the entrance and staircase.
Dating from 1954, and signed Ferró, I assume the mosaics outside are by the Icelandic pop artist Erró, who studied mosaic technique in Italy in the 1950s and apparently had to change his name while living in France due to ‘Ferró”s similarity to the pronunciation of the name of another artist, Ferraud.
A recent large-scale, comic-strip style mural by Erró can be seen in Keflavik airport, but I much prefer the abstract, textural shapes of the technical school mosaics, and the imagery of many hands at work, although sadly tagged over in places, which brighten the entrance ways to an otherwise grey and unremarkable building.
In suburban Reykjavik, meanwhile – next to this 1950s church (one of many quirky and unusual twentieth century churches in suburban Reykjavik) I found a 1964 mosaic attributed to Valtyr in the foyer of Iceland’s Institute of Education. I assume ‘Valtyr’ is the Icelandic geometric abstractionist painter Valtýr Pétursson who, like Erró, studied mosaic technique abroad.
My latest day trip around the towns, villages and cities of England was to the city of Lincoln, in the north-eastern half of England.
Lincoln is an unusual combination of the hard-edged aesthetics and feel of a northern town (redbrick terraces, austere churches and canals) and the prettiness of a cathedral city (sweeping crescents, cobbles and green spaces), particularly in quaintly named, sloping streets such as the aptly named ‘Steep Hill’. It feels both buzzing and lively – as a market town during the day and a university city by night – and old-fashioned, with an overwhelming sense of geographical and cultural isolation from the rest of the country. It’s simultaneously shabby – a strange array of traders make a sparse impression in a market hall that must once have been very grand – and twee, with a scattering of boutique food and clothing shops between the empty shop units.
Lincoln Cathedral, which stands atop the city, has a scale and grandeur which seems completely out of proportion to the provincial city below. Inside, it’s hard not to feel overawed by its scale and presence. I know cathedrals as a genre of buildings are meant to wow you into hushed reverence and give an impression of something much bigger than you (literally, architecturally and spiritually) but Lincoln Cathedral is particularly jaw-dropping. It has the appearance and atmosphere of a huge space yet its smaller chapels also create an impression of intimacy. I was drawn towards the Russell Chantry and the 1950s murals of Duncan Grant who, along with his companion Vanessa Bell, contributed to Pictures for Schools in the early years of the scheme. Grant’s narrative frescoes depict the patron saint of wool workers – and some blue sheep amid the flat country landscape which surrounds Lincoln – at the same time as envisaging Lincoln’s Mediaeval waterfront as a bustling trade centre, pointing towards both the city’s rural location and its past wealth and significance.
I was disappointed to have missed a display of twentieth century artworks from the Methodist Art Collection in the chapter house, but it was interesting to see sketches from the development of the Russell Chantry murals in an accompanying display at the Collection in Lincoln, and to hear that this mid-twentieth century intervention into an ancient, sacred building was deemed inappropriate due to the personal nature of its content (incorporating lithe young men modelled on Grant’s own lover), and hidden away for four decades.
I also caught a glimpse of another mid-twentieth century intervention into the cathedral, on a smaller scale, by another Pictures for Schools contributor, the renowned and innovative embroiderer and teacher Constance Howard. Both Howard’s own embroideries, and that of students associated with her embroidery course at Goldsmiths, were popular at Pictures for Schools. Howard’s Lincoln work is a subtly glittering, textural Mothers’ Union banner depicting a mother and child in a stylised manner that reminded me of the work of Steven Sykes in Coventry and elsewhere. It is unmistakably of its time yet also seems to fit effortlessly and timelessly with the other religious works around it.
Right at the beginning of my PhD, one of the books that excited me most on the list of reading I was given as a starting point was David Crouch’s Flirting with Space: Journeys and Creativity. The book contains a chapter by my second supervisor, Mark Toogood, on the Cornish abstract artist Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) and the ways he experienced and engaged with landscape.
I was, therefore, excited to discover that Lanyon had exhibited paintings several times at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions – although I’ve not seen any evidence that he actually sold anything to schools through the scheme, being one of the more abstract and unconventional artists involved.
After investigating Lanyon further, I went to see his large-scale 1960 mural ‘The Conflict of Man with the Tides and the Sands’ in Fry and Drew’s Civil Engineering building at the University of Liverpool. Textured, enamelled tiles depict the forces of waves, and a sense of life, power and movement is captured not just through the use of colour and form, but through the physicality of the tiles themselves and the acts of mark-making encapsulated within them. It is one of my favourite ever pieces of public art. I saw more of Lanyon’s work at Tate St Ives, both paintings and 3D constructions of landscapes, when I visited in June 2014, where he was represented alongside other artists who had lived in, worked in and visited the town.
I finished 2015 by going to see an exhibition of Lanyon’s paintings and constructions at the Courtauld Gallery in London. Based on his experiences of gliding over the Cornish coast, they push the notion of landscape towards ‘airscapes’, depicting not just visual scenes but tracking movements through them in rich, dark blues and greens and swirling brush marks, engrossing the viewer in their colours, textures and mood.
Shortly before Christmas I also went to an exhibition of prints, sculptures and book illustrations by Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983) at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. Hermes did sell a lot of work at Pictures for Schools, as well as serving on selection committees to choose artworks, and had a long-term involvement with the scheme. I was keen to find out more about her life and work.
Much of the work in the exhibition took the form of small and very intricate engravings and wood cuts, drawing on Biblical, mythical and natural imagery, and themes of fertility, repetition and reproduction. I found much of it very strange, heavy and unsettling and preferred her less allusive and referential work. Among my favourites were the cascading angles of ‘The Waterfall’; 1924 engraving ‘The Swimmers’, where the supple organic forms of swimmers intermingle with swirls of water; and ‘Through the Wind-Screen’, a 1929 wood engraving which ably uses shading to capture the mood of night-time driving along tree-lined country roads, where branches reach out to create something resembling dense tunnels and the beams of the headlights illuminate each section of the road ahead.
Like much of the work which was popular at Pictures for Schools, the work Hermes sold to schools often depicts animals, including the wintry 1955 linocut ‘Owls’, with its sparse, icy-looking trees; the 1965 linocut ‘Starlings’, which creates delicate pattern from natural forms and activity; and her 1958 linocut ‘The Ram’. Other work sold at Pictures for Schools shows places, such as Stonehenge. In differing versions of Stonehenge shown at the Hepworth, Hermes shows a talent for animating this set of rocks and their surroundings, not just through bringing their surface to life with expressive mark-making, but by creating brooding skies that almost appear to move before the viewer’s eyes. I felt that the power of these works was in the way they surpassed the observer’s expectations. We might think we know Stonehenge, Hermes seems to be saying, as something very English, ancient and static, but in fact it is constantly changing according to not just the light, the weather and the environment around it, but the experiences and perspectives the viewer brings to it and the way in which it is seen when it is really looked at.
I particularly enjoyed those works that incorporate vivid colour, such as her larger-scale linocuts, especially the blues and purples of ‘Ring Net Fishers (1955), in which the small, anonymous figures of the eponymous fishers are rendered almost unnoticeable in comparison with the intricacies of a large net cast over the crests of a tumultuous sea.
I also found Hermes’ sculpture, for which she was less well-known, to be of great interest, particularly that which incorporated elements of the found or makeshift – including sculptures atop bowling balls, or carved from pub skittles. Her design commissions also intrigued me, from a carved lectern for a school to car mascots to a range of doorknockers – particularly one which stylistically incorporated a frog.
I recently went on a long-awaited trip to Peterlee, County Durham, a new town built in 1948 to house the area’s mining communities (photos by Steve Hanson), enabled by the government’s 1946 New Towns Act. I had long wanted to visit Peterlee as an example of the way in which architecture and art were brought closer together in the post-war period, and due to the involvement of the artist Victor Pasmore in the development of the town. Pasmore’s involvement encompassed landscaping as well as, most famously, the sculptural concrete Apollo Pavilion which was named in honour of the 1969 moon landing and provides a focal point for the Sunny Blunts area of the town.
I was really struck by the contrast between Peterlee and other nearby villages such as Blackhall Colliery, as well as the large town of Hartlepool, where the predominantly terraced and Victorian housing was extremely dense and packed together. In contrast, Peterlee had a real feeling of spaciousness and greenery about it. Whilst remaining part of an overall coherence of design (despite the near-universal replacement of the original flat roofs and several instances of infill new-build development), a mix of housing styles – from flats and maisonettes to semi-detached and larger detached houses – were distributed in a way that seemed to complement and interact with the gently undulating landscape and give an overall impression of openness. Although many of the original post-war schools seemed to have been replaced, I was also struck by the number of modernist churches distributed throughout the estate, in wildly differing architectural styles, and noticed that some of the original pubs and facilities had been retained.
Despite the hope and optimism it was meant to symbolise, Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion soon became neglected, vandalised and unloved; there is a great clip of Pasmore returning to Peterlee in the 1980s in this documentary about British abstract artists, and remaining defiant in the face of angry residents who wish to see it pulled down (from around 17 minutes in). Thankfully, the Pavilion has undergone a restoration in recent years, with its murals repainted and lighting reinstated. In common with an increasing number of post-war public artworks, it is now listed. On the day I visited I was pleased to see groups of local young people using it and for a variety of purposes, from a space for meeting, gathering and chatting and interacting with it in different ways including climbing on it and even doing press-ups.
More information about Peterlee and the Apollo Pavilion can be found at www.apollopavilion.info/Pages/default.aspx.
This week I took advantage of travelling down south on family business to visit the Tate Archive on my way back. During this visit, I spent some time looking at an extensive photographic collection, which mainly consisted of photographs of Nan Youngman’s work, both in colour and in black and white. Although I had seen Youngman’s work reproduced in books, and several original paintings and sketches, I was really struck by the volume and diversity of her work, including early portraits of her friends and acquaintances, a wartime sketch of an air-raid shelter, later, slightly dreamy, hazy seascapes in pastel hues capturing children and families playing, paintings of technology such as radio telescopes, and striking paintings and drawings of industrial scenes, including one of a kiln belching black smoke in Stoke-on-Trent, a painting of a steelworks, a derelict-looking pigeon loft captured in sharp detail and one work depicting a traditional, small-scale house incongruously nestled next to a huge gas tower, as well as some touching drawings and paintings of family life and a photograph of a mural at Youngman and Rea’s Cambridge home the Hawks, painted by Youngman, Rea and Elizabeth Vellacott, inspired by a restaurant garden in France. It was also great to discover a folder of photographs of Youngman’s Christmas cards – including one casting herself as a mischievous pirate in 1985, when she would have been nearly eighty – as well as of Christmas pantomimes, comic strips (‘comichawks’, based on Christmas at her home at the Hawks near Cambridge) and limericks inspired by the Rea family (‘Hawkericks’).
I also saw some photographs of Nan Youngman at her retrospective exhibition at the Minories in Colchester in 1971 (although, interestingly, the press release for the show, and newspaper cuttings, all started by highlighting Youngman’s work as an educationalist, often with reference to her relationship to Marion Richardson and then Pictures for Schools, before moving on to discuss her work as a painter). Also tucked in among the photos were press cuttings relating to the 1992 exhibition Ten decades of women artists, curated by Katy Deepwell, which focused on ten artists born between 1897 and 1906, showing how they had had to fit the production of art around family ties and asking why women had been marginalised in the study of art history. As well as Barbara Hepworth, the exhibition included Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, as well as the art educator Evelyn Gibbs and Youngman and Rea’s friend from Artists’ International Association days, Mary Adshead (apparently less well-known than her husband, Stephen Bone – both were regular Pictures for Schools contributors), and there was extensive press coverage, both locally and nationally, of Youngman’s involvement in the exhibition.
I also spent some time in the Tate Library, looking at four exhibition catalogues for Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place elsewhere in the country than the longstanding series in London and Wales. Three of these related to exhibitions held at the Laing Art Gallery and Museum in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1956-58, which were direct spin-offs of the London exhibitions, organised by the North East Branch of the Society for Education through Art, in whose name Pictures for Schools was organised. Although far smaller in scale – they contained only 45-50 pictures and 8-10 sculptures each time, along with textiles such as printed wall hangings – they replicated some aspects of the London exhibitions such as asking children to vote for their favourite work, with encouraging children to form their own opinions on modern art a stated aim of the exhibitions. The exhibitions also explicitly set out to have a ‘local character’, with artists living and working in the area well-represented, as well as, intriguingly, a section dedicated to ‘Costume designs for ‘Northumberland teachers’ opera group’ production of Prince Igor held at the Theatre Royal, 1957′. It was interesting to see Richard Hamilton and Harry Thubron represented in the first exhibition, as both were associated with the Basic Design courses being developed in Newcastle and elsewhere in the North East. Some other names, such as Sadie Allen, an embroidery artist, I recognised from the catalogues of the London Pictures for Schools exhibitions, although most were unknown to me. Like its London counterparts, the work seemed to be dominated by still-lifes and landscapes, often based on the mundane, industrial or everyday, such as a brick factory, furnace slag heaps, docks, old men and a bus stop.
It was more difficult to gauge the relationship between the Pictures for Schools exhibition held at the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham in 1963 and the London exhibitions. Although works had been borrowed from directors of London galleries, including the AIA Gallery, for the exhibition, no reference was made to the London exhibitions in the catalogues. However, regular Pictures for Schools contributors such as Mary Fedden, Sandra Blow, Fred Uhlam and Philip Sutton were represented, along with Nottingham painter and gallerist Dorothie Field, who had been among Nan Youngman’s students at Highbury Hill High School and went on to receive renown as a socialist realist painter. The exhibition was divided into two parts – more costly invited works, and members’ works. Interestingly, a tiny minority of the works could also be hired. My interest was also piqued by an invitation at the back of the catalogue to a discussion entitled ‘Children as patrons’, featuring painters Michael Granger and Dennis Hawkins, and sculptor LR Rogers, at which questions were welcomed. However, it was unclear whether the exhibition was a regular occurrence, or a one-off.