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.
One of the sculptors who exhibited most frequently at Pictures for Schools was Ghisha Koenig, who contributed reliefs and sculptures inspired by factory work, labour and movement, as well as a maquette for a work in St John’s Church in Earlsfield, London.
An exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute displays some highlights of her work, as well as the sketch books and large-scale drawings on which they were based, which entailed hours of observation in local factories. Like other sculpture displayed at Pictures for Schools, Koenig’s sculptures are small in scale. They depict both workers and machinery; materials and products, from paper to expanses of tent fabric, delicately represented in sheets of bronze, are as prominent as the workers themselves, who are often presented as just one among many, sitting in uniformed rows and all engaged in the same repeated sets of movements.
Like many of the artists at Pictures for Schools, Koenig’s work was drawn from a narrative, realist tradition, depicting recognisable places and activities in an accessible, relatable style grounded in close observation and everyday life.
Ghisha Koenig: Machines Restrict their Movement is at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds until Sunday 13 August. For more information visit www.henry-moore.org/whats-on/2017/05/25/ghisha-koenig-machines-restrict-their-movement.
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.