Paper at International Standing Conference for the History of Education, Porto, 19 July: Pictures for Schools: Critical education in the art gallery and the classroom

I am delighted to have had the following paper accepted for the International Standing Conference for the History of Education at the University of Porto next week.

Pictures for Schools: Critical education in the art gallery and the classroom

Pictures for Schools was founded by the artist and educationalist Nan Youngman (1906-1995) to sell affordable works of art by contemporary British artists to educational establishments across the country, including schools, teacher training colleges and local education authorities.

One aim of the scheme was to change the physical spaces in which children’s education took place by making them visually stimulating. Another, equally important motivation, was to develop children’s skills as critical observers, which could then be applied to the places which surrounded them, and the consumer choices they would make as the citizens of the future.

At the first Pictures for Schools exhibition, which took place in 1947 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, children who visited were asked to express their preferences by voting for their favourite exhibit. These preferences were later discussed in accounts of the exhibitions by the organisers, and received with great interest by the press. At later exhibitions, which took place annually at various London art galleries until 1969, visiting school groups were given questionnaires which aimed to encourage them to look closely at the artworks on show, with the questions varying slightly each year. Some questions placed the artworks in relation to children’s own experiences of creating art, encouraging respondents to identify and compare elements such as technique, media, subject matter, styles and genre. Others positioned children as critics, asking them to discuss the artworks they felt were most successful. Children were also encouraged to imagine themselves as future patrons and consumers of the arts, by stating which artwork they would like to take home with them if they were able to.

This paper will explore the ways in which Pictures for Schools offered children a critical education across two types of educational spaces, the art gallery and the classroom. It will visit a series of educational spaces where, in the decade leading up to the Second World War, Youngman established the value of the active, participatory form of art education which would be promoted through Pictures for Schools. These include Youngman’s teacher training at London Day Training College, her time teaching art in girls’ schools in the 1920s, and the decade she spent as peripatetic art advisor to Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, from 1944 onwards.

The critical education offered through Pictures for Schools will then be placed within a wider context of post-war Britain. After the Second World War, the formal education system was extended. At the same time, opportunities for informal education and cultural experiences went beyond the school, museum and art gallery to encompass public and leisure spaces such as town centres, shopping centres, libraries and housing estates, where citizens were asked to be critical observers of the places and objects which surrounded them every day. This paper will explore the role of artworks as a pedagogical tool and argue that Pictures for Schools played a part in developing the skills of future citizens who were required to play an active, critical part in post-war reconstruction and society.

For more information about the conference visit http://www.fpce.up.pt/ische2019.

I will be taking part in session 4.10, which takes place on Friday 19 July from 9am-11am.

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The Fourdrinier

Jenny Steele's wallpaperIn 2019 I am one of six writers based in the north of England who are writing for new arts writing platform the Fourdrinier, which focuses on art on paper. My latest article, in June’s issue, is an interview with Manchester-based artist Jenny Steele about her new wallpaper for Crosby’s modernist library, which draws on the history of the building and discusses the changing uses of libraries and their importance as social and educational centres. Read it here.

For the April issue I interviewed Jade Montserrat about her commission for Art on the Underground, which was installed across the London Underground network. Read it here.


Exhibition visit: ‘But what if we tried?’, Touchstones, Rochdale

‘But what if we tried?’ by Harry Meadley at Touchstones in Rochdale is an illuminating experiment to display as much of town’s 1,500-strong art collection at once as possible (there’s only space to show about 300 pieces within its Edwardian galleries, it turns out).

At a time when public ownership and funding of art, and issues around access and storage, are more contentious than ever, this timely exhibition explores the curatorial and logistical processes behind the scenes of programming a municipal gallery which is resource-poor but rich in artworks and heritage.

Piled high in the largest gallery are a selection of artworks acquired since the gallery first started collecting, displayed in accession order and giving an insight into how the collection has evolved and grown over time, and the types of artists and artworks acquired during different eras.

Some of the collection has clearly been acquired due to local interest and connections, from portraits of local dignitaries and paintings and drawings depicting the town and its surroundings, to artworks by locally based printmakers. Other work has been acquired through bequests, meaning it cannot be sold. Other artworks have come into the collection through changes in local government; for example, when the nearby towns of Middleton and Heywood were incorporated into the borough in the early 1970s, their collections were merged with Rochdale’s.

The collection also reflects developments in modern art and contains works by major artists such as Patrick Caulfield, Gillian Ayres and Lubaina Himid (though, as elsewhere, woman artists are underrepresented in the collection, comprising around 8 per cent), and the gallery is still collecting today. Works by well-known artists are frequently lent to other galleries – enabling them to both be seen by a wider range of people and providing a source of income for the gallery. This is such an important part of the life of such a collection that one wall of the exhibition is filled with carefully packaged artworks ready to be shipped off to other destinations.

Displayed alongside the artworks are a series of thoughtful, behind-the-scenes films showing in detail how a gallery such as Touchstones actually works, taking us into the stores and through staff meetings, curatorial decision-making, PR planning and installation. Staff, including curators, technicians and the council’s Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods, Community & Culture, are interviewed with a refreshing candour about their work, including the challenges and responsibilities of conservation and care. Rochdale today is a very different place to the cotton-rich manufacturing town it was when the museum and art gallery was established, but the interviews reveal a wealth of knowledge, passion and expertise about the collection and its place in the town.

This exhibition is a must-see for anyone who can make it to Rochdale before it closes on Saturday 1 June. www.contemporaryforwardrochdaleartgallery.org/projects/harry-meadley-but-what-if-we-tried/


Football Is Art at the National Football Museum

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.

One of the works which has been acquired is a maquette for Peter Peri’s ‘Boys Playing Football’ (I went to see the original on the wall of an estate in Lambeth back in 2017).

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/

 


Willi Soukop’s Donkey in Harlow

I was briefly in Harlow earlier this week, and took the opportunity to track down a couple of sculptures on residential estates, which I didn’t manage to get to on my previous visit to Harlow.

One of the sculptures I was most excited about seeing was Willi Soukop’s bronze donkey, which sits in a quiet residential estate called Pittman’s Fields.

One of the reasons I was so keen to see the donkey was that I have seen a photo of a cast of the sculpture that was exhibited at the 1949 Pictures for Schools exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery. Soukop was involved in Pictures for Schools for many years, and was a member of the committees that selected sculptures for display at the exhibitions.

The Donkey sculpture was originally commissioned for Dartington Hall; Soukop taught sculpture at the independent Dartington Hall School, as well as other private schools and art colleges. I believe it was installed as a play sculpture in Harlow 1955.

The sculpture was smaller than I expected, but rather sweet, and I was encouraged that local people were well aware of its existence (it was quite hidden; after walking around in circles for some time, I was directed to it by three different people).


Decorated schools (and other buildings) in France

I recently spent ten days in France as a post-PhD treat. During that time I spotted a couple of reliefs/mosaics on school buildings – and several other interesting pieces of public art on French buildings such as churches and apartment blocks – as well as staying in Corbusier’s monumental and highly atmospheric Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, which could be seen as a giant, functioning artwork in its own right (complete with its own school)!


Unité aside, highlights included murals and mosaics by the poet, artist and film-maker Jean Cocteau, including his murals for the wedding hall in Menton town hall and beautifully decorated churches in Fréjus, and Villefranche-Sur-Mer, which blurred human profiles and figures with animal life, and depicted aspects of everyday life such as traditional clothing, work and socialising.

In Menton, a beautiful, Italian-influenced fishing town, he adapted the traditional technique of creating mosaics from locally found stones.

I also spotted some huge bas relief concrete panels by the prolific French artist Denis Morog (the French version of William Mitchell!), using abstracted shapes and patterns reminiscent of the sun and of the movement of water, at the library in the centre of Lyon, and on an apartment block in Nice.

The first school piece I spotted, a mosaic depicting a map of the countries of Europe in a jigsaw puzzle-style, is in the Etats Unis area of Lyon, close to Tony Garnier’s early twentieth century planned housing settlement to improve living conditions in industrial Lyon.

The second, two large reliefs on facing sides of a college, depicting in a stylised fashion the subjects studied inside, are near the Marc Chagall museum in Nice.

At the Chagall museum itself, I realised I vastly preferred his paintings when translated into other media such as mosaics, stained glass and tapestry. There was an interesting exhibition on, though, about the work of prominent twentieth century artists such as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse for churches, and the post-war desire to beautify the buildings that others wanted to bomb.


New Town Utopia

For some time, I followed with interest on Twitter the development of New Town Utopia, a new documentary about the new town of Basildon in Essex.

Although I’ve visited Harlow, another Essex new town, I’m not familiar with Basildon. I found the documentary, which I watched this week, to provide a remarkably even-handed portrayal of the town. Rather than merely dwelling on or aestheticising the town’s architecture, or condemning its social failures, it matched the aspirations for the town’s development up to the experiences of those who had moved there from the East End of London, and those who were born and grew up there.

The words of Lewis Silkin, the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, run through the film, setting out the context from which new towns such as Basildon emerged in the post-war period. Silkin explains that they aimed not just to alleviate the ‘grossly congested and overcrowded’ living conditions of the inner-city, but to ‘produce a new type of citizen, a healthy, self-respecting, dignified type of person, with a healthy sense of beauty, culture and civic pride’. By being well-designed and filled with artworks and cultural centres, he hoped that new towns would play their part in fostering an ‘appreciation of beauty’. The film questioned the extent to which new towns such as Basildon lived up to this. Whilst their new residents were delighted with new homes with conveniences such as indoor bathrooms, the improvement in living conditions did not always correspond to the changes in citizens which politicians and planners such as Silkin envisaged; Basildon, like the areas of East London from which many of its residents came, retained a reputation for toughness, and its interviewees categorised the town’s pubs according to the violence of the welcome one was likely to receive.

Whilst the shopping areas and public spaces of Basildon, like other post-war new towns, were populated with artworks such as large-scale sculptures and mosaics, what was most striking in New Town Utopia was the culture that emerged outside of the mainstream culture of the town, and these municipal gestures (or perhaps as an escape from it) – from the electronic bands of the 1980s (most famously Depeche Mode and Alison Moyet) to later generations of rock and indie promoters, to poets, painters, pupeteers and street artists.

To find out more about New Town Utopia visit www.newtownutopia.com.