Loughborough is a market town in Leicestershire – a county that, under longstanding Director of Education Stewart Mason, embraced patronage of the arts in educational settings in the post-war period in a big way. As well as purchasing and commissioning site-specific works for individual schools, Leicestershire’s loan collection was one of the largest in the country, and purchased artworks from Pictures for Schools among other sources. Mason advised and guided Loughborough University on some of its purchases, and his influence in the county is acknowledged in the Stewart Mason building on campus.
The university’s sculpture collection punctuates the sports grounds that dominate the campus (Loughborough has a reputation for attracting sporty students). Given university status in 1966, the campus architecture has a strong modernist feel, although it’s undergone significant expansion since then. Known as Loughborough University of Technology until 1996, there’s a strong theme of science and technology in many of the artworks, particularly around the science buildings, which feature a number of steel artworks by Paul Wagner. There was also a tradition of students producing their own furniture, much of which is still in use around campus.
Many well-known and lesser artists of the post-war period are represented on campus, including Willi Soukop, who undertook many commissions for public and educational settings; his Spirit of Adventure, which resembles an aeroplane, is the first artwork encountered on approach to the campus from the town centre, and points the way to a place of learning, discovery and enquiry. Perhaps the most famous sculptor is Lynn Chadwick, whose solemn trio of angular figures The Watchers commemorates three influential figures in the history of the university. However, my favourite artworks were those which were less conspicuous, such as Austin Wright’s kinetic sculpture, nestled in a quiet pond area between two buildings, which resembles a calmly bubbling fountain, and Peter Peri’s Spirit of Technology, a man leaping into the unknown from the side of a student residence dining hall.
The sculptures are merely the most public-facing element of a much bigger collection, which includes wall-mounted works such as prints, paintings and textiles, displayed in areas such as boardrooms, corridors and waiting areas. I managed to see a couple of works inside buildings, including prints by Bridget Riley and John Piper, as well as a number of portraits of university grandees which showed their influence on the university.
Loughborough University and the former teacher training college Loughborough Training College, which became part of the university in 1977, both purchased work from Pictures for Schools, although the only one I managed to see was Michael Stokoe’s bold, colourful silkscreen Circles & Stripes.
The collection is not static and continues to evolve, commissioning and acquiring work by students alongside established artists. One of the highlights is one of the most recent works, an interior design scheme by Giles Round for the RADAR office. Alongside furniture and Round’s selection of artworks from the collection, this includes a wallpaper which repeats images of tools from a former catalogue across the walls. Round’s design scheme acts as a subtle reminder of the university’s past and enters into dialogue with work purchased and commissioned during previous eras of the life of the institution.
To find out more about the collection visit https://www.lboro.ac.uk/arts/arts-collection/.
I recently went to the launch of a new exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester showcasing the museum’s art collection, which has been developed with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Peri was one of several artists who exhibited at Pictures for Schools whose work has been acquired by the museum; football, particularly local and amateur matches, was one of the aspects of everyday life captured in the pictures shown at Pictures for Schools and bought by local education authorities for school loan collections (see Carel Weight’s lively ‘Village Cup Tie’, purchased by the London County Council, and apparently later sold to the football museum, although not on display in this exhibition and Fred Uhlman’s atmospheric painting of a game on a winter evening, recently sold at auction as part of the disposal of Hertfordshire County Council’s art collection). Like many of the artists at Pictures for Schools, as a member of the Artists’ International Association he was interested in depicting and reflecting relatable aspects of people’s lives, and presenting his art in places that was familiar and accessible to them.
The exhibition encompassed a wide variety of styles and genres, from Lowry’s iconic images of northern life, to delicate illustration by Paul Nash, to contemporary British artists such as Rose Wylie and digital artworks, to fashion and textiles, to vintage posters and advertising, to portraits of footballers and artworks by famous footballers such as George Best, and even a sculpture by Piccasso.
Far from the glitz of today’s game, with its superstar footballers on multi-million pound salaries, many of the works I liked best depicted the quieter, more personal aspect of the game and its individual and collective meanings to people as part of their sense of identity, leisure, routine, community and belonging: crowds huddled loyally in the cold of a snowy day, as in Alistair Grant’s lithograph ‘Snow at Stamford Bridge’, or behind the scenes of the game as in the Mass-Observation documentary photographer Humphrey Spender’s 1930s images of changing rooms, which suggested some of the tension and anticipation of the game.
Mid-twentieth century British art was particularly well-represented in the exhibition. I was interested to find out that several of the works had been exhibited in the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition, held in 1953, and organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Football Association in order to mark the latter’s 90th anniversary. One of the highlights was the Great Bardfield artist Michael Rothenstein’s prize-winning etching and aquatint ‘Moment of Victory’, an abstract set of shapes which appeared to represent little in a literal sense, but suggested movement and celebration. Another highlight was the robotic stacked shapes of surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun’s colourful oil painting ‘The Game of the Year’, dating from the same year as the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition.
Football Is Art is at the National Football Museum until Sunday 27 October: www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/whatson/football-is-art/
Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is holding three talks this month which look like they’ll be of great interest to fans of twentieth century art and design. The first, on Wednesday 13 June at 6pm, is by Lynda Nead, author of the recent, excellent book Tiger in the Smoke. The second, on Wednesday 20 June, is by Margaret Garlake, author of the essential book New Art, New World, and concerns emigre artists and their work for patrons such as the London County Council as part of the post-war reconstruction effort in Britain. Finally, on Wednesday 27 September, Gordon Johnston will discuss the work of the sculptor Peter Peri, whose work was exhibited at Pictures for Schools as well as in numerous public contexts.
A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to spend a day in London in the expert company of Dr Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West, two researchers with backgrounds and ongoing research interests in public art and the London County Council (LCC): Dawn’s PhD work on William Mitchell and Anthony Hollaway as design consultants for the LCC was a major catalyst for my interest in post-war public art as a subject for academic study, and Rosamund is currently undertaking a PhD at Kingston University about public art commissions on post-war LCC housing estates.
We started at the Royal Festival Hall, where we saw the collaborative ‘festival quilt’. This large (although easy to miss – I’d never seen it before, despite visiting the Festival Hall on a number of occasions) artwork is composed of squares contributed by women’s groups from across the country commemorating landmark events, figures, inventions and developments in British history, from the 1851 Great Exhibition (the Festival of Britain, for which the quilt was commissioned, followed 100 years later) to the invention of the sewing machine, to cultural phenomena such as jazz and cinema, in a variety of styles. It’s full of detail and visual appeal and has aged well; it’s one of the quirkier aspects of this landmark building, which is well worth a look as a cultural document of the interests and values of a time and as a participatory, collaborative piece of art created by ‘ordinary people’. We also saw ‘Sunbathers’, a work by the Hungarian artist Peter Peri from the Festival of Britain which, after years of being lost and neglected, has been recently restored and resited high-up in the Festival Hall following a public awareness and funding campaign. Its athletic, interlinked figures now gleam pristinely in the nude, yet are strangely anonymous in their terracotta-coloured concrete.
Although sculpture was less popular among buyers at Pictures for Schools than paintings, prints and embroideries (mainly, probably, because it was more expensive and less easy to site in the school), Peter Peri was a regular exhibitor at Pictures for Schools. His work was, in its realism and everyday subject matter, such as small-scale sculptural depictions of children at play and leisure, characteristic of the mood and style of the exhibitions.
Peri’s work was part of a wider context of realist art promoted by critics such as John Berger for its accessibility and humanism; it emerged out of a context of politicised networks of artists such as the Artists’ International Association, founded in the 1930s, which worked to promote the status of the artist in society, provide employment for artists, raise public appreciation and increase opportunities to enjoy the arts, and to create social change through art. Peri was prolific in his public commissions for patrons such as schools and local authorities; writing in the New Statesman in the 1950s, Berger argued that, far from fitting into the fashionable London art world, his work came into its own when situated in workaday settings such as the school.For me, the most effective work we saw by Peter Peri on the tour was that which was still part of the fabric of the places where it was first situated. The best work of his we saw was ‘Following the Leader’ (1949), a relief on the exterior of a central stairwell of an otherwise nondescript earlier block of flats in a now-gentrified area of Vauxhall. Utilising coloured concrete, it depicts a ring of children ascending the brickwork hand-in-hand, tendons stretched and hair and skirts blowing in the wind. Although apparently simple, the feeling with which Peri has moulded the faces of the children, and the sense of play, movement, youth and vitality, he creates, gives it a quality which is touching and timeless. His real skill was to communicate a sense of relatability and humanity in these figures, despite their scale and necessarily being viewed from a distance.Although commemorating a sombre subject, children lost in the Blitz, it has less of the naivety and idealisation of motherhood, youth and childhood that characterised much of the work of the social realist genre, and which can be seen in his ‘Children Playing’ (1951-2) and in the exaggeratedly healthy, muscular figures of ‘Boys Playing Football’ (1951-2), two exterior murals on the nearby South Lambeth Estate.
We were fortunate to be able to see all these works in situ; the significance of all these artworks, and the social, historical and political context in which they were commissioned, has now been recognised by their listing, as part of a wider drive by Historic England to recognise and promote the public art of the period. However, the scale of gentrification of the once working-class areas of south London we visited was stark – like many across London, several of the estates were awaiting or had already undergone a process of redevelopment, with former council developments replaced with housing aimed at a far wealthier demographic, and now largely removed from the social purpose for which it was intended, and the democratic and inclusive spirit in which the artworks were commissioned.
One victim of this process of rebuilding was a 1956 concrete mural by Willi Soukop (another European emigre who exhibited at Pictures for Schools), inspired by the story of the Pied Piper yet noticeably more abstract in its shapes and style than the work of Peri, previously situated on a community hall on the Elmington estate in Camberwell. Although its value had been recognised enough for it to be retained and incorporated into a new development once the hall was demolished, it had been hidden behind foliage in a new nature garden, surrounded by modern flats, where its visual impact was considerably lessened.
An article in the New Statesman magazine from July 1957, by eminent art critic John Berger, shows both the reaction of critics towards the emphasis on placing original works of art in schools, as seen in counties such as Leicester, and an evaluation of the artists and artworks involved in such schemes. In his New Statesman article, ‘Artists and Schools’, Berger describes a trip to Leicestershire, starting by contrasting old-fashioned church schools with the new, modern schools which were built in Leicestershire after the war. He outlines Leicestershire’s aim to create a visual environment for schoolchildren, most of whom would otherwise leave school without ever having seen a modern oil painting. Berger explains that Leicestershire’s county collection of artworks was funded using royalties from a school book produced by the county, building and decorating allocations, and school materials allowances, saying that the scheme relied on the enthusiasm, confidence and initiative of the county’s Director of Education, who organised an annual sale of works collected from London and persuaded artists to accept relatively low fees in return for having their artwork shown in a ‘living context’. If more Directors of Education had his vision, says Berger, a “minor revolution in the appreciation of the visual arts” could be achieved. Berger praises the standard of artworks by lesser-known artists who were represented in Leicestershire’s collection, especially singling out the sculptor Peter Peri for attention. Berger says that works such as Peri’s come into their own when seen not as part of the London art scene, but juxtaposed with the architecture of schools, exhibited next to a football pitch or gymnasium (Berger, 1957).
The final Decorated School conference, which brought to an end a two-year project funded by the AHRC, took place at Prendergast Hilly-Fields College in Lewisham, London. The Decorated School was a joint project between the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and Art History at the University of St Andrews which looked at at how art has been made an essential part of the fabric of school buildings and their immediate environments, with a focus on England and Scotland. The project considered how artworks were commissioned, used and appreciated, and what ideas about childhood they were intended to convey, as well as plotting changing ideas about education and the school environment. The venue for the final conference was, fittingly, a decorated school featuring a series of early-twentieth century murals in the school hall, depicting verdant garden scenes, by Cyril Mahoney, Evelyn Dunbar, Violet Martin and Mildred Elsie Eldridge.
The conference started with an impromptu presentation by Christopher Marsden, Conservation secretary of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, postgraduate researcher into artworks in market halls and chair of Huddersfield Civic Society. Marsden gave an impassioned plea for any support members of the audience – who included academics and educators as well as relatives of artists who have undertaken work in schools and representatives from bodies such as English Heritage – could give in his ongoing fight to rescue Hungarian-British artist Peter Peri’s 1961 artwork Welcome, which was mounted on an exterior wall of Greenfield College, Huddersfield when the school was built, and remained there for more than fifty years. The sculpture, which is popularly known as Gladys, was taken down by the school following the building of an extension, as it was found to have cracks. Gladys, who is made of a mixture of concrete and polyester (an innovation by Peri known as ‘pericrete’) covering a steel armature, was sliced off at her ankles and the school has plans to re-erect her on a plinth in a flowerbed. Marsden is trying to convince the school to give her to him so he can place her in a more fitting, and still educational, environment – perhaps at Huddersfield University – where she will be less exposed. Marsden also showed a number of tiled artworks in schools by Dorothy Annan, many of which have been covered over or removed over the years by headteachers who did not appreciate the artworks (they are now wishing they hadn’t, as some of the artworks are now very valuable!).
The conference then continued with presentations from schools built in the mid-twentieth century which have recently rediscovered and started to restore murals painted at the time, including three murals dating back to 1950 by Pat Tew at Templewood School in Welwyn Garden City, a new town in Hertfordshire, where each school was given a small bursary for art. Soo Hitchen, a parent of three children who attended the school, who was involved in research into the history of the murals, explained that the murals were inspired by eastern-European fairytales and said that “children remember them as an integral part of their experience at the school” – even if some of them found the fairytale monster scary! Whilst Pat Tew had died shortly before the school could contact her, correspondence was made with her daughters, who were unaware of the existence of the murals.
Another parent, Kate Fishenden, whose daughter attends Greenside Primary School in Shepherd’s Bush, described the rediscovery of a mural (1952-53) by celebrated architect and artist Gordon Cullen, depicting scenes such as a castle, sea ship, aeroplane and railway, which had been hidden behind a red curtain at the school for twenty years after it was deemed unfashionable. The school was built by Erno Goldfinger, one of two schools built to the same design, and Fishenden said that it is Cullen’s mural which earns the school the ‘*’ in its Grade II* listing. Research into the mural’s history has been undertaken in the RIBA archives and efforts are being made to raise funds from grants and local businesses to restore it so the school can become “an artistic hub”.
Finally, Robin Cops from St Crispin’s in Wokingham, Surrey described the restoration of murals by Fred Millet (1953) which had been covered over by paint and emulsion (the paint can not be removed from one of the murals, but it will be repainted so that the three murals can be seen in context). Cops said that Millet’s wife is still alive and very active, and was a great source of information. Children queue against the murals and barriers have now been erected to prevent further damage – the merits of this enforced separation between children and artworks was debated later in the conference!
Artwork in schools has previously been neglected as an area of study, but the subject has now been incorporated into undergraduate courses at the institutions which undertook the research project, and the conference heard from students at St Andrew’s university on their research into the implications of artworks in school contexts: the role of children’s artworks in bridging Northern Ireland’s political divide, and Soviet and post-Soviet decoration of a school in Kyrgyzstan.
The Decorated School project has also made links with researchers in other parts of the world, including North America, and the conference heard from Sylvia Rhor, who discussed murals in schools in Chicago where there are over 500 (known) artworks of this type. Early murals in schools were initiated by women’s groups and public art societies, who aimed to show an idealised version of children, and to create ‘satellite’ museums in neighbourhoods. Many murals were in technical and vocational schools, and depicted factories, perhaps a way of training the children to become workers. Later, murals were painted in schools as part of the New Deal in depression-era America, and by groups of leftwing artists aiming to communicate social messages.
Bringing the Decorated School up to date, artist and architect Bruce and Will McLean shared their efforts to make art and design an integral part of a new school building – Dalry Primary School – in Ayrshire, Scotland, which was completed in 2007. Working over a period of several years with those who would be using the building – students, staff and parents – and using the concept of ’embedded intelligence’, the team aimed to create a “machine for learning”, with facts and figures integrated into the structure, forming an immersive educational environment. Bruce McLean also referred to a scheme he called ‘Prints for Schools’, conceived during the second world war, which gave schools an affordable way to purchase original artworks, in the forms of prints by well-known artists. McClean has long had an ambition to resurrect the scheme.
The conference finished with a discussion of where next for the Decorated Schools network. Andrew Saint, author of Towards a Social Architecture: Role of School Buildings in Post-war England, said art and architecture had “all got to be thought of as one”. He made a plea for visual imagery of artworks in schools and the type of research being undertaken to be archived, and called for the scope of the project to be extended so further education colleges can be considered next.
The conference enabled me to meet other researchers interested in the subject of artwork in schools, find out about some of the problems which face researchers working on the subject – for example, lost or damaged murals, lack of documentation of murals and their history in the past – and hear about some of the work which is being done to document, investigate and, in many cases, restore these artworks, which as the conference demonstrated have a renewed value and place in education today. The Decorated School has produced a database listing artworks in schools, together with any other information known about them, which will be a useful resource. The conference also enabled me to find out about some of the potential resources available for research – such as the possibility to interview artists and their families, as well as children who experience the artworks in schools, both today and in the past – and some of the archives which may be useful, for example the Courtauld Institute archive, RIBA archive, Nan Youngman’s archive at the University of Reading. Furthermore, I was also introduced in passing to programmes such as Prints for Schools, which may well have parallels with my research area. Other researchers at the event seemed familiar with the Pictures for Schools programme, suggesting that it had origins in the 1930s with Herbert Read and village colleges.