I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the visual atmosphere of Pictures for Schools, which was largely dominated by realism and familiarity (though there were a few more bold or abstract artists, such as Tadek Beutlich). A high proportion of the artists who sold and exhibited work had been war artists, or involved in projects such as Recording Britain, to document places at risk of disappearing due to war and modernisation. One of them (and the best-named!) was Malvina Cheek, who primarily sold and exhibited paintings of trees at Pictures for Schools. I recently found at that she died last year, at the age of 100, making her one of the longest-surviving artists of that era. Read her obituary in the Guardian here.
The story of Isabel Alexander is by no means an uncommon one. Born into a middle-class, educated family in Birmingham in 1910, as a daughter she was denied her first choice of an education, to train at the Slade. Instead, she attended Birmingham School of Art in the 1920s before finding employment in schools and at Saffron Walden teacher training college in order to pursue her training and practice as an artist. This determination to work and exhibit enabled self-funded studies at the Slade, and a fifty-year career as an artist, pursued at the same time as being a single mother.
After the Slade Alexander went on to work in the burgeoning British documentary film movement of the 1930s and as a commercial illustrator. She designed book tokens vividly illustrating rural life and occupations in East Anglia, Kent and the Cotswolds (1953) and undertook botanical illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.
Alexander succeeds at documentary and narrative, as in her 1944 portraits of disabled miners. She also aptly captures place: highlights include ‘Pinnacle, Thaxted Church’, a 1951 linoprint of a church spire in which natural and architectural details are intertwined and ‘Bardfield Landscape III’, a subtly abstract, yellow-hued watercolour of 1950. Both are inspired by the Essex landscape; she settled in the picturesque and historic village of Thaxted, on the border with Suffolk, before relocating to North Yorkshire for the final years of her life.
In the 1960s Alexander exhibited drawings and paintings at the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, selling work to schools including Godolphin and Latymer School in London and Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire education committees. She maintained a commitment not just to exhibiting herself, but to keeping up with visits to exhibitions and maintaining an ongoing interest in contemporary and historical art movements.
A new exhibition of Alexander’s work in Harrogate, bringing together work from private collections and accompanied by a book by Janet McKenzie, aims to highlight her legacy and expose the barriers she faced as a woman seeking a career as an artist. It also traces Alexander’s journey from realism to a growing focus on abstraction and experimentation with media and form.
However, the work in the exhibition suggests Alexander’s transition between realism and abstraction was not clear-cut, and a sense of abstraction and experimentation underlies much of her apparently realistic and naturalistic work. For example, the use of an unexpectedly lurid crayon introduces an ominous element into the otherwise murkily coloured landscape of ‘Condemned Houses, Blaencwm’ (1943), as does the skewed perspective of ‘Miners’ Houses, Trealaw’ (1944).
Displayed side by side at the Mercer Art Gallery, the watercolours ‘Moorland Larches, Yorkshire’ (1983) and ‘Winter Trees I’ (1971) hint at abstraction in their use of starkly outlined shape and colour, at the same time as conveying the particulars of landscape and season in a way that is sensory and atmospheric if not quite realistic and naturalistic.
Also not quite natural, but based in observable phenomena such as the flickering shapes and suggestive shadows of twilight and the transition to darkness, is the 1958 study ‘Moonlight’.
Other highlights include her pencil studies of weather phenomena and later, more large-scale and obviously abstract work in which experiences, natural phenomena and sensations elide, as in ‘Weeds and Water’ (1984) and ‘Gannet’ (1985) in which oils on newspaper explore the bird’s movement at the same time as suggesting watery flows.
Whilst much of her work documents places, landscapes and experiences close and familiar to her, Alexander maintained a commitment to travel and observation of new places, from a series inspired by the natural and manmade landscapes of the Isle of Aran to painting trips to France and Spain. Far from following the well-trodden genre of straightforward pastoralism, beneath Alexander’s work lies a tension between nature and artifice, implying a subtle critique of ways of working, living and using the landscape that that are alienating, exploitative or unnatural.
Isabel Alexander: Artist and Illustrator is at the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until 4 June.
A large number of images of Isabel Alexander’s works have been added to the Bridgeman Art Library and can be explored alongside the exhibition.
North East visit: the Ashington Group ‘pitmen painters’ and the Playground Project at the Baltic, GatesheadPosted: September 4, 2016
In 1930s Northumbria, many young men’s last experience of school was at the age of 13. As a series of drawings by Oliver Kilbourn in the Woodhorn Museum shows, boys of 14 regularly worked long shifts down the mines, with little energy or time for leaning or leisure in between.
But this didn’t mean they weren’t interested in continuing education. One way in which miners, and other workers, could access education later in life was through the Workers’ Education Association (WEA), which offered lectures and courses using visual stimulae such as magic lantern slides.
One group of men, in the mining town of Ashington, came to the end of an illustrated WEA course on the topic of evolution and decided they should turn their attention to a subject that otherwise meant little to them: modern art.
What began as a course on art appreciation, taking in art history as well as contemporary art, taught by a lecturer from the local art college, soon became a practical group for experimenting and critique, in a makeshift studio fashioned from a First World War-era wooden hut. It became apparent that learning though doing, and seeing through doing, meant more to these men than academic study (although the men did go on organised trips to visit the London galleries).
Initially starting in 1934 with linocuts, and subject matters suggested by the tutor, the Ashington Group, as these ‘pitmen painters’ became known, spent four decades recording and documenting their lives, leisure and neighbourhoods, from the physical and emotional upheaval of moving house due to financial hardship, to payday, washday, pigeon-keeping and children’s street games.
The resulting paintings, many of which are now on display at the Woodhorn Gallery, are varied in style, medium and technique, ranging from illustrative drawings and watercolours to impressionistic, atmospheric landscapes in readily available tube paint, to detailed oil paintings showing technical aspects of industrial work. The paintings capture the mundane and the fleeting (for example advertisements on street corners) as well as tragic events that caused a lasting impression, such as accidents and their aftermath. Some of the work was done from memory, whereas other paintings responded to events, such as the Second World War. Although formed as an amateur group, the Ashington painters exhibited and were visited by the Mass-Observation project and artists such as Julian Trevelyan.
Whilst much of the detail, equipment and environments of the physical minework looks unbelievably old-fashioned now – not to mention dirty and arduous – there’s a touching ordinariness in much of the paintings. The Ashington Group collection manages to be both historical record and to capture some kind of essence of life and leisure that remains much the same – such as the night-time silhouettes and hungry anticipation of people queuing for the small pleasure of fish and ships – despite the large-scale pit closure of the late-twentieth century and the erosion of mass, communal employment and socialising.
The Playground Project
Elsewhere, in the North East, the Playground Project at the Baltic in Gateshead captures the history and evolution of international playground design through vivid photographs, drawings, diagrams and videos.
From the early twentieth century, the exhibition surveys changing forms and experiments with different materials (from natural materials such as sand and water, to elaborate rope contractions designed to introduce unpredictability to play and to test balance, to easily assemblable interlocking wooden shapes) up to the present day with Assemble’s new film of children at play in various city spaces.
The exhibition brings out the often underlooked links between playground design and radical art, architecture and pedagogy, intertwining imagery with the writing and work of writers such as Colin Ward and Marjorie Allen.
Particularly striking is varying attitudes towards play at different times of social change, from the adventure playgrounds enabled by vacant lots, which arose from the post-war rubble of British cities, in which children were allowed freedom to build, explore and problem-solve for themselves, to those which were incorporated into new, welfare state-era mass housing schemes and emulated abstract sculpture, both in their form and building material.
The exhibition’s brought to life by the incorporation of play equipment for young visitors to the gallery to explore and enjoy, but that which has made it into the gallery – with a viewing platform above – seems strikingly safe compared to the more freestyle constructions of the past. Most of those, it seems, would be outruled due to health and safety today.
The Playground Project continues until 30 October.
Growing up near Folkestone, I loved visiting the Metropole Art Gallery, situated in a huge, horseshoe-shaped late-Victorian pile with parquet floors, polished fireplaces and large windows overlooking the English Channel. Situated on Folkestone’s cliff-top Leas promenade, and bordered by lawns and a sweeping driveway, I thought it was incredibly glamorous – this was the only area of the town where you could imagine the rich and interesting may once have stayed, partied and relaxed in the town’s heyday as a Victorian and Edwardian resort.
The Metropole regularly hosted exhibitions of emerging and established artists, from the visceral paintings of Derek Jarman to the inventive and eclectic experiments of local Foundation degree students. I was sad, therefore, that it closed in 2008, with the town’s Creative Foundation focusing instead on the new Folkestone Triennial, held for the first time that year. Although the Triennial places new commissions across the town every three years, with a small number being retained as permanent exhibits, the town now lacks a major contemporary art gallery bringing changing exhibitions to the town.
Whilst I’d always known that the politician and diarist Alan Clark lived in the secluded Saltwood Castle, just up the hill from my hometown of Hythe, it was only later that I learned more about his father, the art critic and broadcaster Kenneth Clark.
Clark supported the establishment of the New Metropole Art Centre in the 1960s, and the development of a town collection of modern art in the 1960s and 1970s. This collection contains a lot of names familiar from the Pictures for Schools exhibitions – the Surrealist print-makers Michael Rothenstein and Julian Trevelyan, the Kitchen Sink painter John Bratby, the print-makers Gertrude Hermes, Valerie Thornton and Anthony Gross, Kent-based painter Fred Cuming, who was featured in Pictures for Schools as a young artist and continues to work and take an interest in the collection today, and the sculptor and print-maker Elisabeth Frink, along with Sandra Blow and Michael Stokoe.
Among the most notable is the Royal Academician Carel Weight, who was a friend of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman and helped organise and select work for the exhibitions. Like Youngman, Weight was active in the Artists International Association. As well as being professor of painting at the Royal College of Art in London, Weight periodically taught at the Adult Education Centre at the Metropole.
When the Metropole closed, it looked likely that Folkestone’s collection of modern art – which had been placed in Kent County Council storage – would be sold too, but fortunately it’s been retained by a Trust. Several paintings by Weight are now on display across the road at another huge Victorian complex – the Grand (a network of tunnels, predating both the Metropole and the Grand, linked the two buildings, and apparently treasures from the British Museum were stored for safekeeping in a tunnel underneath the Grand during the Second World War).
The Grand, with its shabby-eccentric chic, has certainly seen better days, declining in the second half of the twentieth century as Folkestone lost its status as a holiday destination for the royal and well-connected. Today, five of Weight’s works hang in the drawing room, a formal room just off the main reception and palm court restaurant with neoclassical columns, chandeliers and William Morris block-printed wallpaper featuring green-tinged birds.
Much of Weight’s work which I have seen has, like many of the artworks exhibited in Pictures for Schools, depicted very everyday places and activities, such as the small-scale excitement of a village football match. At the Grand two green-dominated country scenes, ‘Young Lovers’ and ‘Old Lovers’, offer an intimate and almost intrusive glimpse of two unassuming, guarded figures and convey the vicissitudes and tensions of a relationship at different stages of its development. ‘Portrait of a Poet’, which apparently depicts the artist in his studio, foregrounds a serious man in an overcoat. In the background are stacked paintings offering a glance of the backs of yellow-brick Georgian townhouses, viewed from their gardens.
The most interesting picture, however, is the large ‘Battersea Park Tragedy’, painted in the 1970s, split between a dark and dusky scene and a large, brushed sky sunset. Whilst at first sight portraying the mundane – the skeletal outlines of winter trees, the high fence of a tennis court, a small passageway overhung with trees and the excitement/fear-inducing twists of a deserted rollercoaster in the background – the painting introduces an element of the mystical. In one corner, an angel rises above a figure with a bowed head, blank face and clasped hands: the painting is named after the Battersea funfair disaster of 1972, in which children were killed in a fairground accident.
A small, tucked away room in a vast hotel might not be the most prominent place for these paintings, but at least they are still in a semi-public, accessible place. The paintings, created over forty years ago, and not particularly artistically adventurous or striking in their quiet realism, nevertheless form a thoughtful response, observation and reflection on then-contemporary events, public and private, as well as a document of artistic patronage and collecting at the time.
For more information about the Folkestone art collection, and to see details of upcoming exhibitions, visit http://folkestonearttrust.org.uk.
A poster about an aspect of my research for another of the annual in-school research events for members of the Grenfell Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment at the University of Central Lancashire to share what they have been working on.
During my recent sojourn in the south of England I was lucky to be able to visit a fascinating new exhibition about designer, painter and teacher Peggy Angus at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne, following a tip-off from Manchester Modernist Society’s Facebook page.
Although I didn’t previously know a great deal about Angus’ work, she was a contemporary of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman (like Youngman who lived from 1906-1995, Angus’ life spanned much of the twentieth century; she was born in 1904 and died in 1993), and regularly contributed paintings to Pictures for Schools in the first decade of the scheme, as well as linocut designs for tiles. I had previously read that Youngman first met Angus (popularly known as ‘Red’ Angus due to her left-wing beliefs, developed during a trip to Russia as a young woman, where she was inspired by the concept of art as propaganda and the idea of ‘art by the people, for the people’) on an Artists’ International Association May Day march, where Angus was carrying a banner and singing a song (conjuring up an evocative image of Angus, who the exhibition showed to be an eccentric and colourful dresser!). I had also been told that Youngman and sculptor Betty Rea, together with Rea’s two sons, used to visit Angus at her rural cottage the Furlongs in the South Downs in Sussex.
The Towner’s exhibition does a good job of evoking the atmosphere of the Furlongs and the circle of friends and contemporaries who congregated there, including Angus’ former peers at the Royal College of Art and fellow artists such as Helen Binyon, Eric Ravilious, John and Myfanwy Piper, Henry Moore, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the artist and educator Maurice de Sausmarez. Like the artistic hub based around Great Bardfield in Essex, which Angus visited, recalling that the homes were ‘wonderfully decorated’, mostly by the ‘poor wives’ of painters such as Ravilious and Edward Bawden, the rather primitive cottage was decorated with a homely combination of murals, tiles and wallpapers.
Tiles designed by Angus, as well as large-scale photographs of tiles and striking murals in situ in places such as post-war schools, universities and airports, are on display in the exhibition, alongside several of her paintings. Associated with a politically-charged socialist realist outlook, Angus’ painting focuses on landscapes and people, depicting the reality of what was around her in vivid, hyperreal shapes, textures and colours conveying light, atmosphere and experience, from cement works and train lines to the personalities and occupations of farming life. Particularly effective is collage of chopping wood. Other, more sketch-like work evokes friends, with a particularly striking example being a portrait of John Piper in front of one of his geometric paintings, the stripes of the cat on his knee, the grain of the floorboards, his pinstripe trousers and the sweep of his hair all contributing to a highly stylised image.
Just as important a focus of the exhibition is Angus’ career as an educator. Like Youngman, teaching was not Angus’s first choice of career; Angus took up employment as a teacher after the deaths of her brothers in the war. Unlike Youngman, Angus was employed by an independent school, North London Collegiate College. However, this appointment was to give Angus the opportunity to ‘revolutionise the relationship between student, teacher and school’. Like art educators such as Nan Youngman and Marion Richardson, with their focus on ‘child art’, Angus believed that children had ‘native talent’ and ‘sense of design’. However, where she differed was in her rejection of the growing trend for self-expression, which she regarded as producing outcomes where ‘everything is thrown in the wastepaper basket’. Taking her inspiration from William Morris, and aiming to break down the separation between art and life, Angus regarded children as ‘apprentices’ who would later be capable of designing their own homes and clothes. Angus appeared to have concentrated more on the practical, design-led aspect of art than conventional picture-making, encouraging students to use potato prints to come up with their own designs for tiles and wallpaper, which could be combined to great effect in different variations, and enlisting children to help create wallpapers and murals. In the less able, she endeavoured to cultivate an interest in art that would make them the patrons of the future. The exhibition discusses her notion of ‘creative patronage’, with Angus herself explaining that ‘people who are the most creative patrons are the amateurs, they’ve got to be creative themselves’ and ‘everybody’s creative if they’ve got creative patronage’. Also important in Angus’ approach to art education was the teaching of art history, with students taught in an annual, chronological progression from folk, Romany, canal and fairground art through Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic, ‘pop’, and so-on.
The exhibition is as much about Angus the woman as Angus the artist. Recorded and written reminiscences from those who knew her, whether as students or as visitors to the Furlongs, praise her inspiration and encouragement. Equally engaging are the opportunities to see Angus herself, on screen, at home and in her studio, in two documentaries played on a loop, one of which is narrated by her granddaughter Emma, herself a designer. The force of Angus’ considerable – and apparently formidable – personality, and her twin philosophies of ‘art for joy’ and ‘art for life’, permeate the show.
The exhibition runs until Sunday September 21.
“A marvellous scheme which was a tremendous source of encouragement in very lean times”: Fred Cuming RA on Pictures for SchoolsPosted: October 25, 2013
I had a chat on the phone this week with Fred Cuming, a painter who submitted artworks to several of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly at the Royal Academy (Cuming recalls at the time he was already interested in the Royal Academy’s work; later, in 1974, he became the youngest member to ever be elected Royal Academician). Cuming describes Pictures for Schools as a “marvellous scheme” which was “a tremendous source of encouragement in very lean times”.
Cuming became involved in Pictures for Schools in the mid-1950s as a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art, and continued to submit work until the scheme ended in 1969. He remembers that a whole generation of young painters, from London art colleges, including the Slade, the Royal Academy Schools and Goldsmiths, would send work as it was a ‘means of earning a bit of money’. He recalls: “It was common knowledge as somewhere you could sell a few pictures.” Artworks were sold at small, reasonable prices, and Cuming managed to sell an artwork or two every year. He isn’t sure where his paintings ended up, as artworks sold to the scheme went to education authorities across the country and found their way into public collections, but recalls that some work went up North to Kendal and Scunthorpe, and that one painting was purchased by the Museum of Wales.
For many young painters, Pictures for Schools was their first chance to exhibit their work and get their name known. Cuming explains: “It was very important to young painters, a lovely opportunity. It did me a world of good, that little exhibition. When you first come out of whatever college you’ve been to, not many galleries are interested in you, but lots of education authorities and a lot of the public visited, who were interested in what young artists were doing. It was also an introduction to exhibiting for local authorities. They ought to do it again.” The exhibitions also benefited children, by giving them an opportunity to see young artists’ work which was of a good quality – Cuming recalls that the standard of the exhibitions was always very good.
Cuming is primarily a painter of landscapes and interiors, often depicting the coastal landscapes of Kent, Romney Marsh and East Sussex in impressionistic, atmospheric style, with a particular interest in the effects of light. He is also interested in depicting interiors, for example in a number of paintings of his studio. He explains: “I painted the pictures I was interested in at the time – I didn’t try to paint to meet a market.” He remembers that painting was dominated by the so-called Kitchen Sink School of realist painters, centred around artists such as John Bratby, at the time, and that, although some abstract art was beginning to come in, painting was very much figurative-based. Cuming attributes this to the ‘very academic’ training painters received at art school.
To find out more and see pictures of Cuming’s work, visit www.fredcuming.com/index.html.