North East visit: the Ashington Group ‘pitmen painters’ and the Playground Project at the Baltic, Gateshead

14241691_1841428396078671_715717104665990861_oIn 1930s Northumbria, many young men’s last experience of school was at the age of 13. As a series of drawings by Oliver Kilbourn in the Woodhorn Museum shows, boys of 14 regularly worked long shifts down the mines, with little energy or time for leaning or leisure in between.

But this didn’t mean they weren’t interested in continuing education. One way in which miners, and other workers, could access education later in life was through the Workers’ Education Association (WEA), which offered lectures and courses using visual stimulae such as magic lantern slides.

One group of men, in the mining town of Ashington, came to the end of an illustrated WEA course on the topic of evolution and decided they should turn their attention to a subject that otherwise meant little to them: modern art.

What began as a course on art appreciation, taking in art history as well as contemporary art, taught by a lecturer from the local art college, soon became a practical group for experimenting and critique, in a makeshift studio fashioned from a First World War-era wooden hut. It became apparent that learning though doing, and seeing through doing, meant more to these men than academic study (although the men did go on organised trips to visit the London galleries).

Initially starting in 1934 with linocuts, and subject matters suggested by the tutor, the Ashington Group, as these ‘pitmen painters’ became known, spent four decades recording and documenting their lives, leisure and neighbourhoods, from the physical and emotional upheaval of moving house due to financial hardship, to payday, washday, pigeon-keeping and children’s street games.

The resulting paintings, many of which are now on display at the Woodhorn Gallery, are varied in style, medium and technique, ranging from illustrative drawings and watercolours to impressionistic, atmospheric landscapes in readily available tube paint, to detailed oil paintings showing technical aspects of industrial work. The paintings capture the mundane and the fleeting (for example advertisements on street corners) as well as tragic events that caused a lasting impression, such as accidents and their aftermath. Some of the work was done from memory, whereas other paintings responded to events, such as the Second World War. Although formed as an amateur group, the Ashington painters exhibited and were visited by the Mass-Observation project and artists such as Julian Trevelyan.

Whilst much of the detail, equipment and environments of the physical minework looks unbelievably old-fashioned now – not to mention dirty and arduous – there’s a touching ordinariness in much of the paintings. The Ashington Group collection manages to be both historical record and to capture some kind of essence of life and leisure that remains much the same – such as the night-time silhouettes and hungry anticipation of people queuing for the small pleasure of fish and ships – despite the large-scale pit closure of the late-twentieth century and the erosion of mass, communal employment and socialising.

The Playground Project

Elsewhere, in the North East, the Playground Project at the Baltic in Gateshead captures the history and evolution of international playground design through vivid photographs, drawings, diagrams and videos.

From the early twentieth century, the exhibition surveys changing forms and experiments with different materials (from natural materials such as sand and water, to elaborate rope contractions designed to introduce unpredictability to play and to test balance, to easily assemblable interlocking wooden shapes) up to the present day with Assemble’s new film of children at play in various city spaces.

The exhibition brings out the often underlooked links between playground design and radical art, architecture and pedagogy, intertwining imagery with the writing and work of writers such as Colin Ward and Marjorie Allen.

Particularly striking is varying attitudes towards play at different times of social change, from the adventure playgrounds enabled by vacant lots, which arose from the post-war rubble of British cities, in which children were allowed freedom to build, explore and problem-solve for themselves, to those which were incorporated into new, welfare state-era mass housing schemes and emulated abstract sculpture, both in their form and building material.

The exhibition’s brought to life by the incorporation of play equipment for young visitors to the gallery to explore and enjoy, but that which has made it into the gallery – with a viewing platform above – seems strikingly safe compared to the more freestyle constructions of the past. Most of those, it seems, would be outruled due to health and safety today.

The Playground Project continues until 30 October.


Fourth visit to Tate Archive (and library)

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.