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.


Telephone conversation with Ivanhoe College about the school’s original works of art

Some time after emailing the schools referred to as making use of original works of art of the type purchased through Pictures for Schools in the 1970 book In Our Experience: the changing schools of Leicestershire, I finally heard back from one of the schools, Ivanhoe College, built in 1954.

My enquiry had been batted about before reaching the relevant staff member, the Assistant Business Manager, who had a slightly more pessimistic take on the value of post-war artworks in schools than other people I had spoken to.

She confirmed that the school had 40 or 50 artworks, ten of which belonged to the county art collection and the rest of which were gifted. Most were paintings on board, although there were a few tapestries and one piece of pottery.

Although she was fairly new to the job, she suggested that the number of items on display had dwindled as the College was refurbished, and that the last items were taken down five to ten years ago. She explained that some items were broken and that the school preferred to display more topical work and that the corridors were covered in work the students had done. Another problem was that one of the paintings was ‘enormous’ and the school had nowhere to put it.

In contrast to everything else I have read about Pictures for Schools, which suggested that artworks were chosen to be appealing and stimulating for children, I was told that the paintings are “very traditional, dark, oily and old-fashioned – not very modern these days”. Today the school prefers to display instead “more modern art” and currently has ten pieces on loan as a award, including aboriginal art and 3D work.

I was hoping that the school’s links with the Leicestershire county collection, once one of the country’s largest due to the enthusiastic patronage of Director of Education Stewart Mason and his enlisting of allies and advisors such as Whitechapel Gallery Director Bryan Robertson, would enable me to contact people who knew of its status and whereabouts, but my enquiries have still met  a blank.