Exhibition visit: This Is Just What I Saw, Radar, Loughborough University

Today she is best known for a method of teaching handwriting, but in the interwar years Marion Richardson’s work in the field of child art was well-known. Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman undertook teacher training with her at London Day Training College (forerunner of the Institute of Education) and helped her to organise large exhibitions of children’s work. Richardson’s art teaching was focused on developing children’s confidence and powers of self-expression and critique, aiming to train their ‘inner eye’ and ways of looking as much as their technical skills. One way in which she did this was through the ‘visualisation’ method, where children listened to a description of a place or scene and used it as the basis for their own work. In doing so, Richardson hoped to encourage to see pictures in the places around them, even industrial and everyday scenes not conventionally considered picturesque. Richardson also undertook pattern-making and activities such as fabric design with her students and aimed to encourage children to think about how they furnished their homes. She believed children should be exposed to good examples of art and craft, and have opportunities to discuss these and their own work.Richardson died prematurely in 1946, but her work and ideas inspired Youngman’s work throughout the rest of her career. Youngman continued to defend them even when they had become regarded as old-fashioned and were superseded among progressive educationalists in the 1960s in favour of more modern ideas about teaching art.A new installation at Radar in Loughborough, by Berlin-based artist Katarina Hruskova, bears the fruits of an arts-research collaboration with Dr Sarah Mills, Reader in Human Geography at Loughborough University, which involved spending time in the archives at Birmingham City University, where Richardson’s papers are held; the title, This is Just What I Saw, comes from words written on the back of children’s pictures.Drawing on aspects of Richardson’s teaching and her students’ work, including visual description, Mills and Hruskova held a series of workshops with young people in schools and other educational settings in the Midlands today. The resulting artworks, on show at Radar, translate images from these children’s work into a trio of colourful carpets. Whilst abstract they’re also suggestive of elements of place and natural forms, such as trees and water. Displayed next to them are condensed versions of the texts which were read to children to inspire the images; in the background plays an audio recording of Hruskova reading these same words, an effect that is both poetic and hypnotic. We’re taken on a journey through first an industrial scene and then a forest, where our attention is drawn to details such as the time of day, the weather around us; our senses can’t help but be aroused, our imaginations fired and our memories taken back to places we’ve known and things we’ve seen.Alongside this is a small selection of images giving a glimpse into Richardson’s own classroom, and her students’ art practice. Whilst in some ways these images appear formal by today’s standards, with children seated at rows of wooden desks, the children are surrounded by their own pictures and patterns, which hang on the walls, giving an impression of a visually rich and engaging environment.Ideas about childhood, and the nature and purpose of schooling, education and even art have changed considerably since Richardson’s day. By reimagining and reanimating the ideas of this forgotten educationalist, Mills and Hruskova have brought the art teaching of the past powerfully into dialogue with children’s education and experiences today, showing the potential of words and images to inspire creativity and make us look again at how and what we see in the world around us.

This Is Just What I Saw is at the Martin Hall Exhibition Space, Loughborough until Friday 25 October: https://radar.lboro.ac.uk/events/this-is-just-what-i-saw-exhibition/

 


Reflections on History of Education conference

I was really pleased to be able to discuss my Pictures for Schools work at the History of Education Society annual conference over the weekend, and to hear about the work of other researchers.

I particularly enjoyed the opening keynote by Jane O’Dea from the University of Lethbridge, Canada who, as well as discussing the social, cultural and political forces that have shaped education and the distribution of literature in Ireland historically, reflected on the place, form and nature of academic writing and the work of the historian. Her advice to find your voice, be yourself, avoid jargon and prioritise quality over quantity – as well as the notion of the historian as a kind of artist – certainly resonated with me.

I was pleased to hear from Laura Newman at Royal Holloway University, who discussed some of the findings from an ongoing research project in collaboration with Kew Gardens looking at nineteenth-century school museums. Newman focused on the teacher-curators who drove the collection and display of objects, as well as writing articles advising teachers on the care and use of collections. Newman described how some teachers collected not just botanical specimens, but took opportunities to obtain items relating to manufacturing. They encouraged a culture of collecting in students and their families, and got former students to send artefacts relating to their eventual careers. However, the use of such museum objects varied – whilst some students were taken out onto nature rambles, and given object lessons, others were not allowed to touch!

Also fascinating was a talk by Catherine Sloan, a PhD student at the University of Oxford, about nineteenth-century school magazines. Sloan described in detail the operations of one magazine in particular, relating to a middle-class and hierarchical Quaker school in Croydon in the mid-nineteenth century, which was created, distributed and subscribed to by pupils, who encouraged each other to take responsibility for its content. She showed how school magazines were a means by which students obtained status in schools as cultural producers and ‘autonomous sculptors of school culture’, circulating knowledge and creating a ‘juvenile archive’. Although some researchers have debated the extent to which school magazines are a valid resource and encapsulate students’ authentic voices, she showed the value of such school magazines.

I got several really interesting comments and questions relating to my paper, including comments about how the need to teach critical skills is important now more than ever. One question prompted me to consider something I had never thought about before, and didn’t really know how to answer: were the organisers of Pictures for Schools concerned with the illustrations in textbooks, as part of a wider culture of visual communication, and did the exhibiting artists get any such commissions on the back of the scheme? Other questions related to aspects of the operations of Pictures for Schools that I should perhaps have made clearer: did the scheme cover the whole of Britain, or just England, and were northern schools beneficiaries or did schools in London and the south east benefit in the main? I was asked about the focus on Nan Youngman, and whether her work as an artist and an educationalist was equally important (the answer is that this was due to the availability and focus of archival material, and the stories that emerged from it – and that despite a split in the material between Youngman’s work as an artist and an educationalist, I believed these two sources of material benefited from being read alongside one another as part of a wider career trajectory). Finally, it was interesting to hear from a woman who was surprised to hear about Marion Richardson’s work in the sphere of art education, as she knew of her only as a ‘victim’ of her methods for teaching handwriting, for which she is better known!


Viva survivor

I’m really pleased to announce that I passed my viva on Friday, at the University of Central Lancashire.

I was examined by Dr Sarah Mills from the University of Loughborough, who has done a lot of work about the history of twentieth century British youth movements in relationship to informal education and citizenship, and Dr Keith Vernon from UCLan, whose work I had come across in the context of adult education and the co-operative movement.

I talked them through my research and methodologies, at the same time as giving them more detail about how the scheme worked in practice, including the voluntary involvement of the artists involved and the ways in which the artists chose the pictures that they submitted to be exhibited. They asked me some interesting questions about the ways in which I framed my research – including the extent to which the ideas which informed Pictures for Schools were new ideas, or the extent to which they were older ideas that found a receptive environment for implementation in the post-war period; the extent to which the recent interest in post-war Britain is informed by nostalgia; and critical reactions to Pictures for Schools, and the extent to which I maintained a critical distance from Nan Youngman, despite my admiration of her as the founder of the scheme.

I spoke to several former PhD students before my viva, and the best bit of advice I was given was to try to enjoy my viva, and to bear in mind that it was a one-off opportunity to discuss my work in-depth with people who had read it more thoroughly than it is likely to be read by anyone else. I certainly felt really encouraged by my examiners’ interest in and enthusiasm for Pictures for Schools.


Dorothy Annan and Trevor Tennant discussion at Henry Moore Institute, Wednesday 21 January

I’m not involved, but I am looking forward to attending a seminar about Dorothy Annan and Trevor Tennant at the wonderful Henry Moore Institute in Leeds next week (and visiting the accompanying exhibition, which displays materials related to these two artists from HMI’s archive). I’m looking forward to hearing from Dawn Pereira, who wrote her PhD thesis on the London County Council’s post-war patronage scheme and is the recipient of a Henry Moore research fellowship, and Jeremy Howard of the Decorated School project.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to identify, look in more detail at and, if possible, speak to the artists who regularly submitted and sold work through Pictures for Schools. Although it is difficult to find much information about lots of the artists, many of the individuals have fascinating personal stories as artists and educators. Dorothy Annan, along with her husband Trevor Tennant, was among the artists who submitted and sold work through Pictures for Schools, and was one of a number of artists in the scheme who was also involved in the Artists’ International Association. She also went on to design murals and other artworks for schools. In my spare time, I publish my own small publication, the Shrieking Violet, and architect and blogger Joe Austin contributed an article featuring Dorothy Annan’s Farringon murals alongside other post-war murals a couple of years ago.

The seminar is free and can be booked here.


Practising Historical Geography conference, Preston

This week I attended the Practising Historical Geography one-day conference, which is held annually by the Historical Geography Research Group of the Institute of British Geographers and Royal Geographical Society, the first such event I have attended. This year it took place this year at my home university, the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

The conference was a chance for new and established researchers in the field of historical geography to share and discuss what they are working on. It was really good to meet and chat to students from all over the country who have recently started PhDs, on topics ranging from methodist spaces to development journalism. Like me, many of them come from a different academic background but have found themselves within a cultural geography department. It was interesting to hear how they are utilising the tools and theories of cultural geographers, such as writing on space, for their research.

It was telling that the first keynote speaker, too, was not a geographer. Alan Rice is a professor of English and American Studies at UCLan, yet there were overlaps with geography evident in his approach to undertaking, interpreting and articulating historical research, which for Rice sometimes takes the form of tours of Lancaster’s slave trade-related sites, where participants on the tour share and contribute in the making and disseminating of knowledge. Rice’s paper centred on a cultural object, a mummified black slave’s hand, and traced the hand’s existence, use and significance, a set of meanings which has shifted across several sites and centuries. He also touched upon the memorialisation of such sites and stories, which can elevate them from the forgotten status of hidden histories to having a continuing presence and significance, from officially-sanctioned artworks to ‘guerilla’ acts, interventions, reimaginations and tributes.

It was also good to hear from a postgraduate researcher, Rebecca Ford, who is finishing a PhD on the landscape and culture of watercress production and shared her experiences of gaining access to ‘hidden’ archives in a very specialist subject area. She also gave tips for finding and pinpointing material and contacts, even if they may not appear significant to the people who hold them (such as scrapbooks, which show what was important to the person or organisation who compiled them, as in the case of ‘Nan Youngman’s Pictures for Schools file’ which I have been looking at in the University of Reading).

Although I have a lifelong fear of taxidermy (an existential phobia relating to what I see as a particularly gruesome exercise of clinging onto the outer shell of something once all sentient life and therefore meaning/purpose has been removed), Merle Patchett’s workshop on the feather and plumage trade was an interesting way of thinking about the geographic journey of production and networks such as trade, labour, community, use and fashion which surround archival objects. Patchett had brought along an ostrich feather, a bird’s head and a bird’s wing as examples of objects which can reveal more than is first apparent, and reminded us that when we encounter such objects in an archive they are always surrounded by wider histories, drawing on a quote by Gosford and Knowles that suggests artefacts should be approached as being ‘always in a state of becoming’. Although I have been thinking about Pictures for Schools as a scheme more broadly than focusing on specific objects, and thinking about the networks and relationships that exist around the scheme and its social and historical context, and between the scheme and key agents such local education authorities, schools, educators, writers and artists, it reminded me that Pictures for Schools also involved a series of artefacts, in the form of artworks, and that these objects themselves are part of wider trajectories and networks of use and significance whether within the exhibitions, within the London art circuit, within an individual school or as part of a larger council collection.

Also interesting was a workshop by my Director of Studies, Hannah Neate, who took us out of the lecture theatre for a ‘field trip’ to local landmark Preston bus station, a huge piece of modernist architecture, complete with period decor such as clocks, tiles, flooring, fittings and typography, which has been subject to several years of both controversy and celebration in the town, as artists, academics and members of the public have fought a long battle against the council’s intention to demolish the bus station and replace it with a private development of shops as part of a regeneration scheme. The workshop was designed to stimulate thought and discussion about what historical geographers can get from field visits, interviews, conversation and other ethnographic methods, asking what ‘participating’ in a place can add to research and understanding, and considering the role of heritage in research (and vice versa). Although my research has so far been mainly archival, I hope to be able to do oral history interviews and visits with people who were involved in Pictures for Schools, to not just develop my understanding of the scheme and its significance, but to help me gain a wider understanding of the period and context in which it was situated than can be obtained from books and documents.