Viva survivor

I’m really pleased to announce that I passed my viva on Friday, at the University of Central Lancashire.

I was examined by Dr Sarah Mills from the University of Loughborough, who has done a lot of work about the history of twentieth century British youth movements in relationship to informal education and citizenship, and Dr Keith Vernon from UCLan, whose work I had come across in the context of adult education and the co-operative movement.

I talked them through my research and methodologies, at the same time as giving them more detail about how the scheme worked in practice, including the voluntary involvement of the artists involved and the ways in which the artists chose the pictures that they submitted to be exhibited. They asked me some interesting questions about the ways in which I framed my research – including the extent to which the ideas which informed Pictures for Schools were new ideas, or the extent to which they were older ideas that found a receptive environment for implementation in the post-war period; and the extent to which I maintained a critical distance from Nan Youngman, despite my admiration of her as the founder of Pictures for Schools.

I spoke to several former PhD students before my viva, and the best bit of advice I was given was to try to enjoy my viva, and to bear in mind that it was a one-off opportunity to discuss my work in-depth with people who had read it more thoroughly than it is likely to be read by anyone else. I certainly felt really encouraged by my examiners’ interest in and enthusiasm for Pictures for Schools.

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Consultations on the future of art loan services in Derbyshire and Hertfordshire

I was dismayed to hear last week that two of the (very few) remaining local authority art loan collections for schools, in Hertfordshire and Derbyshire, are currently consulting on their future and are at risk of closure.

Both are significant collections of twentieth century art, encompassing paintings, prints, sculptures, textiles and ceramics, with a particular strength in post-war British art. Both collections are also closely linked to significant figures in the history of British education, who took a keen interest in their development and use as part of an education and educational environment in which art was valued not just in its own right, but for its potential to enrich the child culturally, socially and emotionally.

Both LEAs purchased work from Pictures for Schools and supported the scheme in other ways, such as assisting with the selection of the artworks; in the post-war period, both Hertfordshire and Derbyshire were regarded as running flagship museum services for other local education authorities to emulate. Both collections have continued to actively acquire new work from contemporary artists.

Hertfordshire’s collection was established alongside an extensive and highly regarded school building programme which took place after the Second World War, which used innovative building techniques and saw artworks bought and commissioned for new school buildings. Director of Education Sir John Newsom, author of the 1963 Newsom Report, was an influential figure in post-war educational reform, who advocated for the importance of the arts in schools as part of a rounded education. Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman turned down a job as Newsom’s art adviser in order to work for Henry Morris in Cambridgeshire; this position was held instead by artists Audrey Martin and Mary Hoad, both of whom were active in the Society for Education through Art and interested in new ideas about art education (Hoad was also Principal of St Albans School of Art). For more about the history of the collection see www.hertsmemories.org.uk/content/herts-history/topics/art-and-artists/hertfordshires-county-art-collection/the-hertfordshire-county-art-collection.

Derbyshire’s collection dates back to a Carnegie Trust grant in the 1930s, yet reached its heyday in the post-war period under another progressive Director of Education, Jack Longland, who had been Newsom’s deputy in Hertfordshire and was inspired by Henry Morris’ village colleges model, and Museum Service Organiser Barbara Winstanley. Both Longland and Winstanley took an active interest in Pictures for Schools, by serving on organising, planning and selection committees, and giving feedback and other support to the scheme.

Sadly, it appears that the collections have fallen victim to the challenges that have faced such services in other locations. These include a squeeze on school finances, pressures on council budgets, and the rising values and associated insurance costs of many of the artworks, coupled with a lack of specialist understanding and staff resources to enable schools to make optimal use of these artworks.

For more information about the potential sale of the Hertfordshire collection, much of which has been in storage for several years, visit www.hertfordshiremercury.co.uk/news/hertfordshire-news/council-dispose-of-over-1600-1106692.

The consultation about the ‘disposal’ of Hertfordshire’s work is being done in stages; the first round of the consultation shuts on Sunday 4 February. The council proposes selling those artworks which are not considered to have ‘relevance’ to Hertfordshire. For more information, and to add your views, visit www.hertfordshire.gov.uk/about-the-council/consultations/property/art-collection-consultation.aspx#.

The Derbyshire consultation closes on Sunday 11 February.


A London public art trip: Peter Peri, Willi Soukop and the Royal Festival Hall

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.


Exhibition visit: Ghisha Koenig: Machines Restrict their Movement, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

One of the sculptors who exhibited most frequently at Pictures for Schools was Ghisha Koenig, who contributed reliefs and sculptures inspired by factory work, labour and movement, as well as a maquette for a work in St John’s Church in Earlsfield, London.

An exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute displays some highlights of her work, as well as the sketch books and large-scale drawings on which they were based, which entailed hours of observation in local factories. Like other sculpture displayed at Pictures for Schools, Koenig’s sculptures are small in scale. They depict both workers and machinery; materials and products, from paper to expanses of tent fabric, delicately represented in sheets of bronze, are as prominent as the workers themselves, who are often presented as just one among many, sitting in uniformed rows and all engaged in the same repeated sets of movements.

Like many of the artists at Pictures for Schools, Koenig’s work was drawn from a narrative, realist tradition, depicting recognisable places and activities in an accessible, relatable style grounded in close observation and everyday life.

Ghisha Koenig: Machines Restrict their Movement is at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds until Sunday 13 August. For more information visit www.henry-moore.org/whats-on/2017/05/25/ghisha-koenig-machines-restrict-their-movement.


Radical Clay: an exhibition of Bristol’s former school pottery collection

Earlier this year I was contacted by the curator of an upcoming exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery of studio pottery that was previously part of the Bristol & Avon Schools Loan Service.

Bristol was among several local authorities that bought studio pottery from Pictures for Schools in the 1950s and 1960s, by some of the period’s best known studio potters, as part of collections of works of art destined for educational use in schools. At this time Bristol amassed around 400 examples of studio pottery, from Pictures for Schools and other sources, by Bernard Leach, Hans Coper, Lucy Rie, Ruth Duckworth and Gillian Lowndes among others. These were accessioned into the main museum collection after the service stopped lending in the 1980s. Other local authorities that bought stoneware, vases, dishes, bottles, bowls and pots at Pictures for Schools included education authorities in Carlisle, Derbyshire, Cornwall and Shropshire, as well as the loan service at Leeds College of Art, the National Museum of Wales Schools Service, teacher training colleges, and schools in London and Ipswich. Another buyer was the influential Cambridgeshire educationalist Henry Morris, who bought a dish by John Eaves for the Digswell Trust, a residential studio group for artists in Welwyn Garden City which supported the practice of potters and weavers alongside sculptors and printmakers. The work of Jan Ellison, Helen Pincombe, Lucy Rie and Peter O’Malley was particularly popular among educational buyers at Pictures for Schools. However, purchases of pottery seemed to tail off from the early 1960s onwards and it’s an element of the exhibition and local education authority loan services I know less about than the more conventional ‘pictures’ in the form of prints and paintings that made up the bulk of Pictures for Schools.

Radical Clay: Teaching with the greatest potters of the 1960s is at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from Saturday 22 July 2017-8 June 2018.


Sale of the Cambridgeshire Collection of Original Artworks for Schools

I was recently contacted by Cheffins Fine Art of Cambridge with the news that they are handling the sale of the Cambridgeshire local authority collection, which includes 400 pictures by artists including Malvina Cheek, Robert Tavener and Tirzah Garwood.

The collection was established in 1947 – the year the first Pictures for Schools exhibition took place – under the aegis of Pictures for Schools Chairman Nan Youngman, who worked for Director of Education Henry Morris as the county’s art adviser from 1944 to 1954.

Although not entirely unexpected – since I started my PhD I’ve had a lot of difficulty finding out about the location and status of the collection, and I understand that individual works from it have been sold previously – it’s sad if it’s true that not enough schools in Cambridgeshire are interested in making use of the service, especially as Derbyshire School Library and Museum Service is still lending pictures to schools and has been reaching out of late via a social media presence.

Read more about the rationale behind the sale in this Cambs Times article from August 2015.


Recording Britain artist Malvina Cheek

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.