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.

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Interesting upcoming talks in Leeds for fans of twentieth century art and design

Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is holding three talks this month which look like they’ll be of great interest to fans of twentieth century art and design. The first, on Wednesday 13 June at 6pm, is by Lynda Nead, author of the recent, excellent book Tiger in the Smoke. The second, on Wednesday 20 June, is by Margaret Garlake, author of the essential book New Art, New World, and concerns emigre artists and their work for patrons such as the London County Council as part of the post-war reconstruction effort in Britain. Finally, on Wednesday 27 September, Gordon Johnston will discuss the work of the sculptor Peter Peri, whose work was exhibited at Pictures for Schools as well as in numerous public contexts.


‘The Lost Art of Churches’: Radio 4 Extra programme on modernist and modern art in churches

‘The Lost Art of Churches’, an excellent short documentary on Radio 4 Extra, which explores the challenges of maintaining and restoring twentieth century commissions by artists in churches (and also visits the Methodist Art Collection), is well worth a listen: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01hl41c


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.


Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, 15 November: ‘The Campus as Art Gallery: The Past, Present and Future of Educational Art Collections’

Bradford College posterI will be doing a guest lecture at Bradford School of Art at 12 noon on Wednesday 15 November, drawing on an emerging interest in further/higher educational art collections, which has arisen from my PhD research into Pictures for Schools and post-war art education. The lecture, which takes place as part of the ‘Random Lecture series’, is free and all are welcome.

The Campus as Art Gallery: The Past, Present and Future of Educational Art Collections

Like many institutions, universities and colleges often publicly display portraits of grandees such as chancellors and vice-chancellors in order to convey a sense of tradition, heritage and prestige. Less common but more interesting are those further and higher education establishments which have sought to display works of modern art around campus, turning the educational environment into a gallery space. Universities that have chosen to collect and display contemporary art range from modern, post-war universities, where brutalist 1960s architecture is offset by landscaped grounds filled with sculpture by artists such as Henry Moore, to redbrick Victorian universities, to former technical colleges which attained university status in the 1960s. Here (primarily) paintings were purchased for display in communal areas such as corridors and lecture rooms, as well as more privately in staff offices. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, many teacher training colleges also became enthusiastic buyers of contemporary art as part of a broader culture of artistic patronage among educational establishments such as schools, and art became a part of the training context for a future generation of educators.

Some educational establishments continue to take pride in these collections, make a point of promoting public awareness and access, and continue to actively acquire work. In other cases artworks have been lost, faded into the background or become hidden in the everyday fabric of the institution as universities and colleges have merged, been expanded, modernised and redeveloped over time. This has been due to insufficient documentation and knowledge about the optimum conditions for the display of artworks, a lack of dedicated resource and staff time, or a lack of planning around care and maintenance for the future.

This lecture will explore the historical establishment and development of some of these educational art collections in colleges and universities in the twentieth century. It will explore their perceived educational impact and appeal, the types of artworks that were considered to be of value and use for display in educational settings, and what this says about changing ideas about the nature and purpose of education. It will ask what an educational art collection might look like now and what it might add to the educational experience of today’s students.


Article about Henry Collins and Joyce Pallot’s BHS murals in the latest modernist magazine

DSC_4359For the latest issue of the modernist magazine, themed ‘Gone’, I’ve written about the visual legacy of the (now-gone) BHS in the form of a series of murals by the Colchester-based husband and wife team Henry Collins and Joyce Pallot. Together they made a prolific team, creating work for the Festival of Britain as well as other high-profile locations.IMG_0185I’ve spent the past eighteen months or so visiting their murals for BHS and Sainsbury’s in Harlow, Colchester, Stockport, Newcastle and Bexhill (there are others I’ve not seen in places including Oxford, Gloucester and Southampton), which incorporate shopping imagery as well as visual references to the history of the town in which they are situated.

12983371_1775660349322143_8265186271096196655_oBoth Collins and Pallot were practising artists and members of Colchester Art Society outside of their collaborative practice and exhibited paintings at Pictures for Schools; Collins sold work, including Essex scenes, to Essex Education Committee.

11016115_1716968421858003_2888935922560100705_oTo buy the magazine click here.


Reflections on ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’

I’ve just returned from the conference ‘Architecture, Citizenship, Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s’ at Oxford Brookes University. Although I wasn’t invited to speak these themes are key to my own PhD research so I went along to watch and listen.

There were some really interesting papers, including presentations by postgraduates and early career researchers in architectural history, discussing buildings such as health centres, schools, housing and theatres, as well as the discursive environments surrounding them, from the architectural press to RIBA.

Focusing on the half-century between the 1920s and the 1970s the conference set the scene for social and architectural developments in post-war Britain by looking at their roots in the interwar period. For example, Elizabeth Darling discussed the interwar Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham, which was regarded as not just a health centre offering advice such as birth control but a social space and centre for the community which would bring people in. She set out one of the key themes of the conference not addressed in the title – education – showing how the centre was part of a wider aim to give people information and education, in order to better themselves.

Jessica Kelly followed this by showing how the architectural press of the 1930s and 1940s navigated between public taste and architects, who as experts and specialists had both privileges and responsibilities. The attitudes of writers in publications such as the Architects Journal and the Architectural Review moved, she explained, from condemnation of public tastes in the 1930s towards a more collaborative approach. This led to a really interesting discussion among the panel and the audience about consumerism, citizenship and class, and the idea that upper and middle-class architects and built environments could play a part in helping working-class people obtain citizenship. Another theme that began to emerge was suburban versus urban life – urban living was promoted as a route to citizenship at a time when the majority of people would have lived suburban lives.

The session on educational spaces was a particular highlight of the conference. Roy Kozlovsky explored the emotional history of school buildings, drawing a link between the family and the home in the post-war period and exploring the complex link between the home and the school, arguing that emotional performances became symbolic landscapes of reconstruction.

I particularly enjoyed Catherine Buke (previously of the Decorated School)’s presentation, which referenced innovations in school building in the United States, Italy and the UK. Cathy drew a distinction between designing for learning versus designing for living, and described how post-war schools aimed to promote learning for living and help their students live in the modern world. She drew links between the school system and the strengthening of democracy and resistance against Fascism at a time when, as she said, ‘a common vocabulary was forged between architecture and education’. I was really interested to hear about Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia infant school in northern Italy, which Cathy described as a democratic project aiming to teach its students how to be critical, ask questions and be active in their environments. Cathy also referenced a number of important UK educationalists, including Cambridgeshire Director of Education Henry Morris, with his ideas of using schools to bring art and culture to working-class and rural populations, and Alec Clegg of the West Riding. Through these figures and others Cathy explored the idea that the educational environment is a kind of ‘third teacher’ after the parent and the teacher, and the belief that children should be able to shape their own environments. She showed both buildings and furnishings as an example of the way in which furniture and crockery was desired to be not just functional but beautiful, as part of a consideration of what should be brought inside a school building, and therefore play a part in developing children’s taste.

Another highlight was Louise Campbell’s discussion of post-war educational expansion and the need for universities. She positioned access to university as a right, which had been fought for during the war, and argued that the development of new universities was part of an idealisation of the young. Focusing on the University of Sussex, she explored post-war universities’ aspirations to produce cultivated young people, to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood and to introduce students to high culture (in contrast to Brighton youth and gang culture), at the same time as breaking down traditional subject divisions. She described both how the nature of the welfare state was reflected in buildings, and the ways in which the campus absorbed European influences in its style and appearance.

Otto Saumarez Smith explored the links between the welfare state, modernism and sociology, which had its roots in the inter-war years, and the legacy of this in social democratic approaches in the 1970s. He made an interesting point about the ways in which new towns could be associated with acquisitiveness, affluence and ultimately a move towards conservatism among their inhabitants. Christine Hui-Lan Manley spoke about the picturesque principles underlying the design of Harlow.

A highlight of the conference was Alistair Fair on the development of post-war theatres. He explained that prior to 1939 theatre rarely received public funding, but after the Second World war new theatres were built across the country, often as part of civic centres, and enjoyed public subsidy. The period saw a move away from commercial theatre companies to theatre taking on a more civic function and being regarded as a public amenity, in which the public were encouraged to participate. Alistair contextualised this with reference to political developments, from the 1959 Labour manifesto ‘Leisure for Living’ to Conservative promotion of leisure as giving a sense of purpose and alleviating boredom. He explained that the Arts Council placed culture as part of the welfare state and the development of a ‘gayer and more cultivated population’, where modern citizens enjoyed culture and leisure and culture was balanced against ‘materialist impulses’. This was partly driven by motivations of egalitarianism but also partly, he said, a reaction against American culture and search for appropriate kinds of leisure as people became more affluent. Another interesting link was with suburban growth, which often lacked facilities – collective leisure pursuits could be seen as one way to counter individualist suburban drift.

It was also great to hear about Rosamund West’s research about the London County Council’s patronage of art for residential estates. Rosamund discussed the City of London plan as a discursive event, which was distributed to residents for information and education. She showed some of the types of artworks that were chosen for new estates – themes included neighbours – and some of the ways in which artworks were chosen and received, including the input of residents’ committees in the early years. Interestingly, she highlighted a tension between the Arts Council, which preferred that big names were commissioned, and the LCC, which championed new talent such as students and teachers.

After a day and a half of presentations and discussions which often came back to ideas about taste and the public, Lesley Whitworth’s presentation about the Council of Industrial Design, which developed an index of ‘well-designed’ goods certified with a label, was a fitting way to round off a conference, which took architecture as its starting point but moved beyond that to consider not just space and communities but objects and culture in a broad sense.