This week I made my fourth and final visit to see Nan Youngman’s papers at the University of Reading. It felt very much like a finishing up and plugging the gaps visit, and I know feel like I’ve looked at everything in the collection and seen the full scope of what’s there. I found out about some more minor details of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions such as how they were publicised – this included advertising at underground stations, and writing to London borough libraries to ask them to display leaflets.
One of the things I got from the trip was a real sense of who the educational buyers were from Pictures for Schools, and what types of artworks and which artists were particularly popular, through looking at a series of invoice books from 1949 to 1968 (although there are some gaps where invoice books are missing, including a long period in the 1950s).
Schools of all kinds, including secondary moderns, grammars, junior schools and independent schools purchased work from Pictures for Schools, sometimes on a one-off basis and sometimes as repeat buyers, with Manchester Grammar School being a particularly regular buyer (this interested me as Mrs Rutherston was frustrated that it failed to make use of Manchester Art Gallery’s Rutherston Loan Scheme, and seemed generally unimpressed with the quality of art teaching at the school). Other regular buyers included Greenwich Library in the 1960s, as well as various training colleges around the country, and occasionally adult, further and higher education establishments. Other buyers included county or city loan services linked with museums, including Reading Museum and Art Gallery (this service is still in operation and embroideries by artists including Constance Howard and Sadie Allen purchased through Pictures for Schools in the 1960s are still available for schools to borrow), Ferens Art Gallery, who made purchases on behalf of Hull Education Committee and the Leeds Loan Collection which was linked both with Leeds College of Art and Leeds Art Gallery.
Although, as I already knew, Derbyshire Museum Service made regular and extensive purchases, I revised my opinion a little about the number of local authorities making use of the scheme, who seem to be slightly less numerous and widespread than I thought, although Essex County Council, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Great Yarmouth, Cumberland/Carlisle, Northumberland/Newcastle, Lancashire, City of Coventry, Cambridgeshire/City of Cambridge, West Bromwich, City of Manchester, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Buckinghamshire, Oxford, Rochdale, the London County Council and later Nottingham and Scunthorpe and Bromley were enthusiastic and regular buyers from the scheme, with West Sussex, East Sussex, Norfolk, Bristol, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, East Yorkshire, Gloucester, Southampton, Bradford, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Rotherham, Birmingham and Harrow Schools Art Library making purchases more intermittently. I also realised I may have overstated the links between Pictures for Schools and counties such as the West Riding, Hertfordshire and Leicestershire, who I know to have had extensive loan collections and to have valued art in schools. Whilst they did certainly support Pictures for Schools in its early years, they appear to have stopped being regular purchasers by the late-1950s and 1960s, perhaps because they had become accustomed to buying art on a more year-round basis and approaching and liaising with artists and galleries direct. Educational buyers from Wales (and very occasionally Scotland) also made occasional purchases, although Wales had its own Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions from 1951 and a one-off Pictures for Scottish Schools exhibition was held in 1967. One thing I am interested in finding out more about are the art advisers who visited Pictures for Schools on behalf of county education committees, some of whom seem to have had interesting artistic careers and involvement in their own right, including Robert Washington, long-running art advisor for Essex.
I noticed that prints were by far the most popular item, probably due to their affordability (many buyers purchased prints unframed) with embroidery also popular and sculpture noticeably unpopular. One name which really stood out was the print-maker Peter Green, who seemed to make extensive sales at each exhibition, as did fellow print-makers Philip Greenwood, Michael Stokoe and Richard Tavener. Something else I noticed was that buyers often stuck with one artist and continued to collect their work year on year. As I’d observed previously, I also came across more correspondence from schools and local authorities which had purchased work from artists and wished to follow up by contacting the artists to ask for biographical or other information to complement the use of the works as learning resources, and sometimes to arrange local exhibitions of particular artists’ work.
Putting a modern face on an ancient technique: Noel Dyrenforth’s batik submissions to Pictures for SchoolsPosted: November 3, 2013
This week I spoke to a really interesting batik artist, Noel Dyrenforth, who submitted artwork to the Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the scheme’s final years in the 1960s, as well as to the Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions which were ongoing in the 1970s and 1980s [Dyrenforth has records relating to 1974-83]. He remembers it as a ‘valuable cultural scheme’ which was contributed to by top-quality artists, and that ‘original art was freely circulated and hung in corridors for the benefit of everyone to access’.
Batik is a wax-resist dye technique for fabric. Dyrenforth’s work was included in the ‘Embroideries, fabric collages and batiks’ section of the exhibitions (this is a category of works that particularly interests me, as it seems that several of the artists who exhibited were at the forefront of pioneering new techniques in areas such as machine sewing; interestingly, though, on the subject of craft, a 1965 planning meeting of Pictures for Schools considered an enquiry about whether decorative woven wall hangings could be included in the exhibition, but it was decided that they were too close to craft and it was suggested to craftspeople that they consider starting their own ‘Crafts for Schools’ exhibitions instead).
Dyrenforth recalled that he was travelling around a lot at the time and was very prolific. He used to send in five or six pieces to each Pictures for Schools exhibition, and typically sold four or five each time, particularly to Leicestershire Education Authority which has around 40 of his pieces. Dyrneforth remembers that their buyer was a ‘wily character’ who was particularly keen, and often approached artists who were in their final year or were just coming out of the Royal College and had a future in the art world, meaning that they built up a very large collection of now very valuable artworks. Dyrenforth’s work was also purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum Circulation Department.
Dyrenforth had a traditional, classical art school education, which included life drawing and ‘training the eye’, but found oil painting ‘awful’ so quickly turned to abstraction after leaving art college as it ‘leaves more to the imagination’. He saw himself as part of the 1960s counterculture, which went against all traditional aspects of technique and materials, remembering that it was a very open, easy time and a good time for art as ‘everyone was much more open to new things’. The 1960s was well-known as a time when artists were experimenting with different materials such as glass, rubber and plastic, but Dyrenforth though ‘what can I do that is different to everyone else?’ and decided to go the other way by looking back to the ancient technique of batik, which is 2,000 years old, trying to put a modern face on it and find a new approach. Although batik was more associated with fashion and had no legacy in art (although there was a craze for it in the early-1900s) he always looked on it as art, and thought the division between art and craft was superficial; there was a big tie-up between art and other forms in the 1960s, and a breaking down of traditional divisions. Dyrenforth explained that his work didn’t really look like conventional batik, and he preferred to see them as paintings. Typically, works were around 1.5 metres high, meaning they looked good on walls. At that time, there weren’t many other people working in batik, but in the early-1960s it had started to become popular and was taught in schools. In 1975, Dyrenforth wrote the popular book Batik with Noel Dyrenforth, and has since taught all over the world.
Dyrenforth, who has always been interested in politics and social change, points out that there were great changes in the sixties, and everything became political. It was a time when art seemed to have great promise, particularly American art. He remembers: “There was rebellion in the mind and in the street. We thought there was going to be a revolution in 1968 but it didn’t quite happen.” One of the artworks Dyrenforth submitted to Pictures for Schools in 1969 was called ‘Contact’, and he explains: “We thought contact with new ideas was a vital thing, to communicate ideas to change the system.”
To find out more and see examples of Dyrenforth’s work visit www.noel-dyrenforth.com.