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.
An artist whose work was very popular at Pictures for Schools in the 1960s is the Polish-born printmaker and weaver Tadek Beutlich (1922-2011). Between 1963 and 1969 Beutlich, along with his wife Ellen, sold work to county council and school loan collections including Buckinghamshire, Manchester, West Sussex, Hertfordshire, the London County Council, Nottingham, Cambridge and the Inner London Education Authority Circulating Pictures Scheme, as well as Sion Manning School in Ladbroke Grove, London, Dunningford County Junior School in Hornchurch, Essex and Uppingham School.
Beutlich’s colourful, striking work is among my favourite to be shown at Pictures for Schools, so I loved the chance to see it in real life at two exhibitions in the picturesque and crafty village of Ditchling, East Sussex, which sits under the spectacular green hills of the South Downs, where he lived and worked for several years in the 1960s and 1970s. Tadek Beutlich ‘Beyond Craft’ is currently on at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, and shows a small selection of his prints as well as textile sculptures, drawn from the Beutlich family collection as well as the nearby Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
I was surprised by how big and vibrant the prints are when seen in person (I’d previously only seen them on a screen). Whilst some focus in on elements such as birds’ beaks, and depict insects, creating pattern from detail, many are more generalised responses to natural phenomena and processes such as radiation, germination, pollination, sun, heatwaves and sunsets, using layered relief prints from objects such as foam and wood and experimenting with the process of mark-making as the basis for imagery and composition in a limited yet effective colour palette of reds/oranges, greens and purples.
A much larger selection of Beutlich’s work and output, drawn from his studio, is on display – and for sale – for a short time only at the Jointure Studios down the road. This shows the range of Beutlich’s work and his experimentation with materials, from different types of grasses and fibres to PVA glue, to create responses to organic forms such as shoots and fungus, as well as vertical wall hangings incorporating objects such as X-Ray tape. Also on display are teaching aids used by Beutlich, who taught at Camberwell School of Art as well as later running workshops and exhibiting at the Metropole Galleries in Folkestone; his wife Ellen, a former tapestry student of his at Camberwell, still lives in the town. At Camberwell, Beutlich worked with another printmaker who sold work at Pictures for Schools, Michael Rothenstein, and devised his own inventive methods for printing that didn’t involve the use of a printing press.
Among the prints on display is Radiation II, which was sold to Buckinghamshire education committee as well as the Catholic Sion Manning School in Ladbroke Grove, London. Out of all the artists whose work was selected to hang and be sold at Pictures for Schools, Beutlich’s is the easiest to imagine capturing children’s attention and making a visual impression in post-war schools, particularly among the relatively blank slate environments of system-built schools. In its colour and bold shapes, it’s unmistakeable both as Beutlich’s work and as a product of the 1960s, when both art and science sought both new understandings of and new ways of representing the world and its natural forms.
Tadek Beutlich – Prints and Textiles is at the Jointure Studios until 12 March.
Tadek Beutlich – Beyond Craft is at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft until 16 April.
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.
Although Nan Youngman was the organiser and originator of Pictures for Schools, she had the support of long-running exhibition secretaries, who themselves had interesting backgrounds and careers.
Slade-trained painter and writer Sylvia Pollak was the first Organising Secretary. She had, like Youngman and many of their circle, links with the Artists’ International Association and the Women’s International Art Club.
She was succeeded by art historian, writer and lecturer Alison Kelly, who had a particular interest in furniture and pottery, from 1950-1957, when she resigned to spend more time lecturing; it’s unfortunate that I didn’t realise she was alive until August 2016, living to the ripe old age of 102! During the war, Kelly had been flown around the country working on camouflage schemes for possible bombing targets such as factories.
Katharine Baker, who had been treasurer for the Society for Education through Art, took over from 1958-1967. She had previously worked for the British Institute for Adult Education, which during the war organised good design exhibitions, put pictures in air raid shelters, armed services establishments and British Restaurants, and sent exhibitions to outlying districts. She received a New Year’s day MBE in 1948 for her work on the ‘Art for the People’ travelling exhibitions.
Finally, Joan Bartlett was Organising Secretary from 1967 until after the exhibitions’ close in 1969, when the exhibitions were held at the Royal Academy’s Diploma Galleries. I know little about Joan Bartlett other than that she lived in Saffron Walden.
I’ve recently been corresponding with Katharine Baker’s nephew, who has shared correspondence revealing the amount of expertise and hard work behind Pictures for Schools and the working relationships between Katharine and Nan. She was obviously held in very high regard by both Nan and the exhibiting artists and purchasers.
Artist Tirzah Garwood’s autobiography Long Live Great Bardfield, republished by Persephone Books in 2016 more than 60 years after her death with a new introduction by her daughter Anne Ullmann and illustrated with photographs and engravings, is a weighty and satisfying read. Born in 1908 and brought up in an upper-middle-class family in genteel Eastbourne, it’s a glimpse into a different time, when middle-class women’s main role was to marry well.
Often snobbish in her descriptions of those she meets, and strange and apparently naïve in some of the ways she looked at the world – for example, Garwood was keen to have children in order to stop the monthly inconveniences of menstruation – at other times Garwood writes about sex and relationships with a surprising frankness, even going as far as to liken the birth of her third child to orgasm. She also writes honestly and maturely about her husband, Eric Ravilious’ love affairs. The book is made poignant not just by Ravilious’ loss in a plane over Iceland in 1942, but by Garwood’s documentation of operations for recurrent breast cancer, from which she eventually died at the age of 43, leaving behind three young children.
Though Garwood writes little about her practice as an artist in her own right – she was too busy being a wife, mother and lover – her autobiography places her at the heart of an artistic circle that included the Great Bardfield group of artists in Essex, as well as the friendship group based around Peggy Angus’ country cottage the Furlongs in East Sussex.
Ullman makes a brief reference at the end to her mother’s contributions to Pictures for Schools towards the end of her life; she took up painting and collaging, creating 3D works in boxes inspired by houses in Essex villages. These works were popular at Pictures for Schools, and the 1952 exhibition paid tribute to her with a special display of her work.
To buy Long Live Great Bardfield visit www.persephonebooks.co.uk/long-live-great-bardfield.html.