Reflections on Marion Adnams Symposium, University of Derby

Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.

The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.

My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.

For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?

I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.

The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.


Exhibition visit: ‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’, Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Yesterday I went to visit an exhibition at Derby Art Gallery of a selection of artworks by the artist Marion Adnams, and an accompanying talk by the independent researcher Val Wood, who co-curated the exhibition. Spending most of her life in Derby, Adnams has been billed as something of a ‘forgotten’ artist. Like many women of her generation, Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman included, Adnams went into teaching; she taught art for many years at a girls’ school in Derby, where she borrowed artworks to hold an exhibition in school, and later became head of art at a teacher training college in Derby.

The work shown in Derby, primarily paintings, fits into a surrealist lineage. Demonstrating great technical skill, Adnams created fantastical imagery and imagined landscapes from found objects such as rocks and branches (a selection of these objects were on display alongside the paintings), and museum objects from Derby Museum, as well as everyday buildings such as a gas tower, and aspects of country life such as wagons, showing how the mysterious could be found in the everyday. One series incorporates model-like figures based on paper dolls she made as a child. Several of these paintings are on loan from public collections, including Salford Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery – where they were purchased as part of the Rutherston Collection for loan to schools (two of these paintings were displayed in Manchester Art Gallery’s 2010 exhibition of women surrealists, ‘Angels of Anarchy’) – and the Derbyshire School Museum Service, where one of the paintings was purchased by Evelyn Gibbs, who acted as art adviser to several local education authorities.

Although Adnams’ life was grounded in Derby, Woods focused on the wider artistic milieu of which she was part, which included friendships with other artists as well as with writers and poets such as John Betjeman – whom she advised on church buildings in Derbyshire, the subject of several early woodcuts – and the socialist and feminist poet Audrey Beecham. She exhibited in London, with the support of the gallerist Jack Bilbo. From 1939, she was supported by the friendship and encouragement of the director and curator at Manchester Art Gallery. She exhibited with the Artists’ International Association in 1945. She forged connections more locally, too; in 1946-47, she joined the Midland Group, which was set up by the artist-educationalist Evelyn Gibbs, and which aimed to educate and develop the public’s appreciation of art – this included running a picture hire scheme for businesses, schools and universities, as well as holding a Nottingham edition of Pictures for Schools. Adnams exhibited alongside artists such as Dorothie Field, who had been a student of Nan Youngman’s at Highbury Hill High School for Girls. Field was highly politically engaged and painted social realist scenes inspired by mining communities and incidents such as the Aberfan disaster. Later, Adnams developed a friendship with the writer and broadcaster Ray Gosling, who wrote a catalogue essay for a 1971 retrospective.

Adnams studied modern foreign languages at university as a young woman and embraced foreign travel; objects found in Mediterranean destinations such as Provence were also the inspiration for her work.

Adnams’ work was sold to a number of educational collections, in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Manchester. I will be exploring the history and ethos of some of these collections in a talk at a symposium to be held about Adnams in Derby on Wednesday 7 March. For more information visit

‘Marion Adnams: A Singular Woman’ is at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 4 March. For more information visit

Exhibition visit: Evelyn Gibbs in Peace and Wartime, Nottingham Castle

13923546_1826265707594940_8409612827567881721_oOne 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


Exhibition visit: ‘Elisabeth Frink: The Presence of Sculpture’, Nottingham Lakeside Arts

12747398_1754251194796392_4287106086323443259_oI was delighted to stumble across an exhibition of sculptures by Elisabeth Frink during a daytrip to Nottingham at the weekend, at the university’s Lakeside gallery. Frink was one of the best-known British artists to be involved in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, and served on selection committees to select sculptures for the exhibitions for a number of years. She also submitted sculptures to Pictures for Schools, and sold works on paper through the scheme, including drawings from her Spinning Man series.

1899760_1754251118129733_6850419545249478624_oEntitled ‘The Presence of Sculpture’, the Nottingham show focused largely on Frink’s post-war commissions and drew attention to themes and subject matter, from heads (many displaying a smooth serenity), horses and birds to movement, change, uncertainty and the lightness and heaviness of flight. Works and studies on display included large-scale sculptures for corporate companies such as WH Smith, and work in the Battersea outdoor sculpture exhibition, as well as religious and public commissions, including her angular, roughly textured eagle lectern for Coventry cathedral and her controversial tribute at Manchester airport to Alcock and Brown’s non-stop Atlantic flight, which somehow manages to retain a sense of grace despite the flailing, tapering descent of the legs and the contrast between the smoothness of the man-made wings and the awkwardness of the human body. Much was made of the ways in which her artworks were encountered in people’s everyday lives.

10688127_1754251131463065_3655730160085344987_oHowever, my favourite works were those depicting boars, including a spindly-tailed bronze in which the bulk of the animal has been arrested in movement, seemingly coming to a sudden stop. I also loved the washed-out colour and hairy detail of the 1967 lithograph ‘Wild Boar’.

‘The Presence of Sculpture’ finishes on Sunday February 28.


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.