‘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

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Interesting Radio 4 documentary: Pevsner: Through Outsider’s Eyes

When I first read Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Englishness of English Art I was really interested in his notion that Englishness could be defined as a set of characteristics, strongly related to climate, that affected the way the nation expressed itself in its art – as seen through the eyes of an incomer, a German.

An interesting radio documentary, recently broadcast on Radio 4 in the context of Britain’s recent ‘Brexit’ vote, revisits the Englishness seen through Pevsner’s eyes as an outsider, focusing on his work of the 1940s, when ideas of Britishness and Englishness faced another major crisis – war.

Pevsner, the programme explains, took a series of field trips around the highways and byways of England, perambulating around towns and villages in order to produce a pocket guide to the nation’s architecture and places in a style that could be carried around by schoolboys in their anoraks as a way of teaching them how to look and see. The programme points out that although Pevsner had very clear ideas of what was right and wrong, he considered it important to write about everywhere, however ordinary it may have seemed.

The programme features some insightful cameos, from Jonathan Meades to geographer David Matless and, at a time when questions of a common or shared national identity seem further away than ever, it evokes some interesting debates. Listen online at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07h2v3y.


Listen online: Pictures for Schools All FM Friday Drivetime interview

I was invited to talk about my Pictures for Schools research and upcoming talk for the Manchester Centre for Regional History at Manchester Metropolitan University on Fiona Ledgard’s Friday Drivetime show on south Manchester radio station All FM.

During our discussion Fiona asked me to read a short extract from an article I have written about Pictures for Schools for the new issue of the modernist magazine.

I also picked some songs for the show, some of them tenuously related to art and artists, including Meilyr Jones, the Velvet Underground, WE, Pins, LoneLady, Sauna Youth, David Bowie and Sacred Paws.

Listen to the show online:


Interesting Radio 3 programme on Eric Ravilious (and another on the School Prints)

I recently listened to this interesting Radio 3 programme about the life, art and friendships of Eric Ravilious, presented by Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns. It was interesting to hear more about Great Bardfield artists and their life in Essex, as several of this group regularly contributed work to and sold work through Pictures for Schools (Ravilious’s wife, Tirzah Garwood, was one of the early best-sellers at Pictures for Schools, and her realist, detailed collages of village and rural life were consistently popular with child visitors to the exhibitions; other regular contributors from this group included Ravilious’ lover Helen Binyon, Bernard Cheese and Sheila Robinson, George Chapman, Michael Rothenstein and, most notably, Edward Bawden, who consistently sold well through the entire lifespan of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions).

The programme is still available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer here.

A few weeks ago I was in Leeds for the day and visited the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds, where I saw some Edward Bawden linocuts in ‘real life’ for the first time in a display drawn from the gallery’s permanent collection. I turned the corner to find them unexpectedly, and was taken aback by their bold size and scale, having assumed them to be small works on paper and not large-scale. I have a strong suspicion the two works, ‘Brighton Pier‘ and ‘Lindsell Church‘, were purchased by the West Riding School Museum Service from Pictures for Schools in the late-1950s, as the West Riding was a regular purchaser from Pictures for Schools and the accompanying labels said the works (along with some others in the gallery) were transferred from the Yorkshire Education Resource Service in 2002.

I was also recently recommended a really lovely Radio 4 programme about Brenda Rawnsley and the School Prints, a short-lived 1940s attempt to create and sell lithographs to schools by contemporary artists, chosen by a committee of experts which included people who went on to be involved in Pictures for Schools including Herbert Read and Nan Youngman. Like Pictures for Schools (and Nan Youngman), the School Prints was driven by a single-minded , determined woman, and the programme effectively told both her story and the story of the artworks through interviews with figures including her son (who recalled using unsold prints as wrapping paper at Christmas time!). Although there are key differences, such as Pictures for Schools’ emphasis on originals as opposed to reproductions, the programme covered a number of themes and issues I have been considering in relation to Pictures for Schools. These included the role of art in the classroom as a way of encouraging discussion and the skills of looking, and the presentation of a particularly positive, unchallenging version of Englishness, along with the choice of artists and subject matter for schools – subjects depicted in the School Prints, such as ploughing fields, fishermen, fairgrounds, markets and a puppet-show, wouldn’t have been out of place at Pictures for Schools (indeed, several of the artists who created work for the School Prints later contributed and sold work through Pictures for Schools, including Barbara Jones, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein, LS Lowry and Julian Trevelyan).


Visit to BBC Written Archives, Caversham, Reading

During my visits to the Nan Youngman collection at the University of Reading I had seen various references to BBC radio programmes which discussed Pictures for Schools. After following this up with archivists at the BBC I arranged a visit to the BBC Written Archives, tucked away in a bungalow in a residential area of Caversham in Reading, where they found me out several scripts on microfilm as well as material relating to other post-war BBC programming on art education.

Among the programmes was an extensive review of the 1955 Pictures for Schools exhibition on Children’s Hour by in-house art critic WR Dalzell (also a senior art master at independent Bedford School), who spent a considerable amount of time discussing and describing individual works, their subject matter and their effects – including painting, sculpture and embroidery – in detail, as well as explaining different artistic methods and media such as lithograph prints, and linking these techniques with children’s own work at school. Dalzell urged listeners to visit the exhibition for themselves, discussing the voting system for children to choose their favourite artworks, and ended by offering detailed public transport directions to get to the exhibition.

An episode of Today also included a brief segment on the 1965 Pictures for Schools exhibition, alongside an eclectic mix of items including George Melly on Nat King Cole and features on Esperanto, Dungeness Fish, falcons and an Islington building row, with Nan Youngman quizzed on students’ seeming preferences for abstract art that might be regarded as incomprehensible to their parents.

Another programme, a 1963 episode of World of Books, featured Nan Youngman interviewing Sybil Marshall about her 1963 book An Experiment in Education, which drew on her experiences in Cambridgeshire. Marshall was a teacher in a tiny village school in rural Cambridgeshire during Youngman’s time as county art advisor (1944-1954) and also attended Youngman’s classes for amateur painters and teachers. Youngman found Marshall’s work inspiring and encouraging, and took groups of overseas teachers to visit her students at school. The discussion encompassed the influence of educators such as Marion Richardson and Herbert Read, the pace of educational change and the extent to which educational innovation and experiment received acceptance or met with indifference or acceptance depending on the attitudes of individual teachers or heads.

I was also able to see correspondence regarding other programmes which were under discussion, including a proposed collaboration between writer Colin MacInnes and Nan Youngman on a programme about the British Council’s art education work overseas (Youngman acted as a lecturer and inspector for the British Council in various African and Caribbean countries) which appears never to have come to fruition.

Although I didn’t see any scripts, and it didn’t relate explicitly to Pictures for Schools, another file which absolutely fascinated me was a set of memos and reports dating from the late-1940s to the 1960s relating to a long-running radio series called Looking at Things. Designed as an educational course, the series appears to have been aimed primarily at secondary modern schools (though junior schools also made use of it) and accompanied by pamphlets which contained pictures of the ‘things’ under discussion as well as preparatory and writing activities for children to do in class. In keeping with a central theme I have identified in post-war discourse around education and reconstruction, the programme aimed to raise children’s standards of taste by encouraging them to look closely at everyday objects and places, from changes in fashion and interior decoration to modes and design of public transport, the style and function of buildings ranging from village churches and gothic cathedrals to new schools and civic centres, environments ranging from market or port towns and cathedral cities to new towns such as Peterlee, and new materials for manufacture and building. Experts were approached and enlisted to explain and present the topics under discussion, from eminent modern architects and professors to members of the Council for Industrial Design and furniture designers, although sometimes it was felt that the programme was too middle class, that experts did not fully understand the limitations of their audience, and that some of the language was unfamiliar to children, especially those from more deprived or urban backgrounds, to whom these objects or places may be out of reach. Although the programmes only occasionally seemed to refer directly to art per se, I felt that there were interesting educational parallels with Pictures for Schools, particularly in the way the programme really aimed to encourage children’s skills of close looking and seeing, particularly with reference to their future consumer purchases. There was also discussion of the series building links with Alexander Barclay Russell of the Society for Education through Art, under whose name Pictures for Schools was organised.


Archive on 4: Houses v Fields documentary

I happened across this interesting Radio 4 programme yesterday about England’s attachment to our countryside as “a guiding idea and inspiration”. The programme talks about how England’s natural landscape provided an “idea of England to be fought for” during the world wars, and explores the tensions created between preserving the English landscape and needing to expand and provide land for new homes and industries as the twentieth century progressed, taking in inter-war ribbon development, the rise of owner-occupation, prefab construction after the Second World War, New Towns on greenfield sites, satellite towns, affordable housing, the profession of planning, the rise of the car, etc. .

The programme uses interviews and archive clips, from John Betjeman on ‘Metroland’ and a clip from radio producer Olive Shapley’s 1930s Manchester slum conditions documentary the Classic Soil, to Winston Churchill on the delights of indoor bathrooms.

Find the programme on iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01j2bzr/Archive_on_4_Houses_v_Fields/ 

I found the programme’s discussion of an idealised version of a ‘deep’ or ‘lost’ England interesting in relation to my reading about modernity – as other writers have observed, modernity in Britain can be seen as clinging onto tradition and preservation, refusing to completely break with the past in its vision of the future (see Conekin, Mort and Waters 1999, Matless 2001). It is also going to be interesting to see what kind of visions of Britain were presented to children in the artworks included in Pictures for Schools, particularly in the paintings, many of which take the English landscape as their inspiration.