I recently spent some time in the store of the University of Salford Art Collection, which has been acquiring contemporary art since the university’s inauguration in the late-1960s, and finding out about its history and future plans from curator and assistant curator Lindsay Taylor and Steph Fletcher.
To read my interview visit http://theshriekingviolets.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/an-education-through-art-university-of.html.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the visual atmosphere of Pictures for Schools, which was largely dominated by realism and familiarity (though there were a few more bold or abstract artists, such as Tadek Beutlich). A high proportion of the artists who sold and exhibited work had been war artists, or involved in projects such as Recording Britain, to document places at risk of disappearing due to war and modernisation. One of them (and the best-named!) was Malvina Cheek, who primarily sold and exhibited paintings of trees at Pictures for Schools. I recently found at that she died last year, at the age of 100, making her one of the longest-surviving artists of that era. Read her obituary in the Guardian here.
Exhibition visit: Picturing Faith: An Exhibition of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, the Beaney, CanterburyPosted: March 5, 2017
Unsurprisingly for a collection of twentieth century artworks developed in the 1960s, there is some overlap in the artists represented in the Methodist Modern Art collection and Pictures for Schools. At a time when much was being down to improve the appearance of both public and corporate spaces, and attempts were being made to introduce art to a wider section of the population, the collection was developed to enhance the visual environments of Methodist churches, and to increase the church’s visual appeal. Today it tours to venues in different towns and cities, from churches to art galleries to libraries, to ensure many people can see and access it.
Much of the work in the collection isn’t exactly to my taste, being slightly intimidating to the casual viewer not overly familiar with the stories, histories and teachings depicted. Much of it is literal and narrative, depicting scenes from the Bible, although it incorporates developments in modern art.
The freer, busy shapes and spliced up watercolour imagery of Norman Adams, whose colourful Stations of the Cross are a modernist intervention into the ornate overdecoration of catholic church St Mary’s the Hidden Gem in Manchester, is interesting, but the work that engaged me most is that which steers away from storytelling to depict emotion and expression. Among the most powerful works in the collection are Elisabeth Frink’s 1956 drawing Pieta, which presents a face full of knowledge in her signature big-nosed style, framed with a subtle crown of thorns, statuesque and suffering yet stoical. In a similar way a sombre and still oil painting by Philip Le Bas, who sold work including a painting of The Last Supper at Pictures for Schools, The Stripping of Our Lord (1962) is cracked as if betraying the experiences behind its creation.
Another highlight is Theyre Lee-Elliott’s Crucified Tree Form – the Agony (1959), in a sickly, ghastly end-of-the-world yellow and black that almost has the quality of surrealist painting or a black and white photographic documentary print. The anthropomorphic tree of the title teems with the barbs created both by humans and by nature.
A more recent highlight is Maggi Hambling’s Good Friday: Walking on Water 2006, which is dominated by the churned tumult of the waves; Christ’s small, ghostly figure floats across the water, barely perceptible in contrast to natural forces.
Some of the most significant British artists of the twentieth century are represented in the collection, including the wonky perspective of Patrick Heron’s Crucifix and Candles: Night 1950, Ceri Richards’ caricature-esque The Supper at Emmaus (1958), Graham Sutherland’s skeletal, entombed Christ in the Deposition (1947) and Craigie Aicheson’s starkly floating yet pop figure on a cross, Pink Crucifixion (2004).
One artist who sold artworks at Pictures for Schools is Dennis Hawkins, long-serving art teacher at Repton School, who transforms the lid of a school desk into Pentecost I (1962) with the deceptively simple depiction of a large circle and block lines, suggesting the intervention of Christ into everyday life. Hawkins’ paintings and reliefs, inspired by subjects such as the moon landings and space travel, were among the most modern in form and subject matter sold at Pictures for Schools, making their way into educational collections in Oxford, Carlisle, Southampton and Wales in the mid to late 1960s as well as various schools and teacher training colleges; his print Blue Night Flower still hangs in Manchester Grammar School.
However my favourite work on display is The Cross Over the City (1962), a tactile relief by the architect and artist Michael Edmunds, who worked for the Greater London Council. Reminiscent of an aerial view, the piece incorporates mosaic, repetition and pattern, suggesting rooftops in its materials and dusty colours yet remaining abstract and inviting contemplation close-up and from afar. Apparently Edmunds did an exterior relief for a church in Stockport; there are several Methodist churches in Stockport so it’s going to be a challenge to track it down!
Picturing Faith is at the Beaney, Canterbury, until Sunday 23 April.
To find out more about the collection visit www.methodist.org.uk/prayer-and-worship/mmac.
The story of Isabel Alexander is by no means an uncommon one. Born into a middle-class, educated family in Birmingham in 1910, as a daughter she was denied her first choice of an education, to train at the Slade. Instead, she attended Birmingham School of Art in the 1920s before finding employment in schools and at Saffron Walden teacher training college in order to pursue her training and practice as an artist. This determination to work and exhibit enabled self-funded studies at the Slade, and a fifty-year career as an artist, pursued at the same time as being a single mother.
After the Slade Alexander went on to work in the burgeoning British documentary film movement of the 1930s and as a commercial illustrator. She designed book tokens vividly illustrating rural life and occupations in East Anglia, Kent and the Cotswolds (1953) and undertook botanical illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.
Alexander succeeds at documentary and narrative, as in her 1944 portraits of disabled miners. She also aptly captures place: highlights include ‘Pinnacle, Thaxted Church’, a 1951 linoprint of a church spire in which natural and architectural details are intertwined and ‘Bardfield Landscape III’, a subtly abstract, yellow-hued watercolour of 1950. Both are inspired by the Essex landscape; she settled in the picturesque and historic village of Thaxted, on the border with Suffolk, before relocating to North Yorkshire for the final years of her life.
In the 1960s Alexander exhibited drawings and paintings at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, selling work to schools including Godolphin and Latymer School in London and Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire education committees. She maintained a commitment not just to exhibiting herself, but to keeping up with visits to exhibitions and maintaining an ongoing interest in contemporary and historical art movements.
A new exhibition of Alexander’s work in Harrogate, bringing together work from private collections and accompanied by a book by Janet McKenzie, aims to highlight her legacy and expose the barriers she faced as a woman seeking a career as an artist. It also traces Alexander’s journey from realism to a growing focus on abstraction and experimentation with media and form.
However, the work in the exhibition suggests Alexander’s transition between realism and abstraction was not clear-cut, and a sense of abstraction and experimentation underlies much of her apparently realistic and naturalistic work. For example, the use of an unexpectedly lurid crayon introduces an ominous element into the otherwise murkily coloured landscape of ‘Condemned Houses, Blaencwm’ (1943), as does the skewed perspective of ‘Miners’ Houses, Trealaw’ (1944).
Displayed side by side at the Mercer Art Gallery, the watercolours ‘Moorland Larches, Yorkshire’ (1983) and ‘Winter Trees I’ (1971) hint at abstraction in their use of starkly outlined shape and colour, at the same time as conveying the particulars of landscape and season in a way that is sensory and atmospheric if not quite realistic and naturalistic.
Also not quite natural, but based in observable phenomena such as the flickering shapes and suggestive shadows of twilight and the transition to darkness, is the 1958 study ‘Moonlight’.
Other highlights include her pencil studies of weather phenomena and later, more large-scale and obviously abstract work in which experiences, natural phenomena and sensations elide, as in ‘Weeds and Water’ (1984) and ‘Gannet’ (1985) in which oils on newspaper explore the bird’s movement at the same time as suggesting watery flows.
Whilst much of her work documents places, landscapes and experiences close and familiar to her, Alexander maintained a commitment to travel and observation of new places, from a series inspired by the natural and manmade landscapes of the Isle of Aran to painting trips to France and Spain. Far from following the well-trodden genre of straightforward pastoralism, beneath Alexander’s work lies a tension between nature and artifice, implying a subtle critique of ways of working, living and using the landscape that that are alienating, exploitative or unnatural.
Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until 4 June.
A large number of images of Isabel Alexander’s works have been added to the Bridgeman Art Library and can be explored alongside the exhibition.
In the early years of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, to which she was a regular contributor alongside other members of the Essex-based Great Bardfield group, Tirzah Garwood’s detailed collages of scenes from village life were popular with child visitors; in 1952 (the year following her untimely death) a section of the exhibition, held at London’s Imperial Institute art gallery that year, was dedicated to her work as a tribute to her contribution to the Pictures for Schools. So I’m really looking forward to this new book, which publishes Garwood’s memoirs: www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/18/shelf-life-rachel-cooke-tirzah-garwood-long-live-great-bardfield-eric-ravilious-essex-edward-bawden
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.