After speaking to people who were in the past involved in school museum services, I wanted to visit one of the few which is still in action to see first-hand the type of materials which are in a county council collection and how it operates. Last week I made a trip to Derby to see the collection of original artworks for schools held in the Derby & Derbyshire School Library Service. This service was started in 1936, with a grant from the Carnegie Trust, and was for many years run by Museum Organiser Barbara Winstanley under the Derbyshire Director of Education J. Longland. In the post-war period, artworks were chosen with the assistance of Philip James, who was involved with the Arts Council and its predecessor CEMA (The Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), artist Mary Hoad, and artist and educator Evelyn Gibbs.
Barbara Winstanley was clearly a pivotal figure in the history of the development of school loan collections, as well as to the Derbyshire collection. She wrote a handbook for school-loan services for the Museums Association in 1959, and the museum service’s annual reports reveal that representatives from local authorities all over the county (and even around the world) visited the Derbyshire collection to see how they could achieve something similar (watch a 1962 clip from Midland Montage, featuring the Museum Service, on the Midland Archive for Central England website). Furthermore her Director of Education, J. Longland, wrote the foreword for one of the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues, showing the high regard in which the Derbyshire model was held. Winstanley’s vision continues to inspire those responsible for running the service today, who “try to stick to her ethos of maintaining real materials for real people”.
Having moved since its early days elsewhere in the city, the collection is housed on the first floor of a big, grand, ornate old girls’ school building built in 1917 (which, it is fair to say, has seen better days) and is now combined with a library service. The School Museum Service was closed and mothballed in 1990; paintings were stored in the old school gym, which can now only be entered with a hard hat on. Luckily those who ran it believed it was an important service to keep and caused enough of a ruckus that it was reopened in 1993 (partly, perhaps, to keep them quiet). Today, the service is run as a traded service which must compete for schools’ attention and funding with other services such as school meals. Schools subscribe a couple of hundred pounds a year for use of the museum service (paying a slightly higher price for the inclusion of paintings), then a very small sum per term per painting.
Rather surreally hundreds of framed paintings and prints are stacked in the tiled cubicles of the school toilets (one even still has the ubiquitous ‘so and so loves so and so’ graffiti on the ceiling!), ranging from a highly-stylised Henry Moore hand-printed textile showing a reclining figure, to paintings and prints by famous figures of British post-war art including Jacob Epstein and Elisabeth Frink, to graphic architectural prints by Edward Bawden, to oils by Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman. The collection is strong on prints by Clifford Webb, as well as Ronald Pope, who lived in Derbyshire and collaborated with architect Basil Spence on artworks for cathedrals. Many of the paintings and prints depict local scenes, or geological or architectural details of the landscape such as rock faces, roads or mines. A minority are entirely abstract. One of my favourites was a large, busy, brightly-coloured lithograph by Eduardo Paolozzi (though it dates from slightly later than the period covered by Pictures for Schools), which draws the eye back again and again to explore different details of a collage-style composition which references everything from mosaics to idealised, children’s book-style imagery of children to technology, the space race and pop advertising. Paintings, drawings, fabric collages and sculptures are also dotted on display about the building, from John Lally’s undulating, abstracted, pastel-hued take on Derbyshire landmark Haddon Hall to a lovely 1960 textile piece in autumnal shades of brown and grey by Sadie M Allen, depicting in detail a lively, hilly view of a traditional Welsh village.
In a story now familiar from elsewhere, artwork by Lowry was sold off long ago, but the majority of the collection remains. After the painting collection’s listing on the BBC/Public Catalogue Foundation’s website Your Paintings, which has compiled photographs of all of the country’s publicly-owned oil paintings, a number of artists have been in touch with stories about how their artwork was acquired, and in some cases now-elderly artists have visited the collection to see artworks they made at the start of their careers, after which their style changed a lot. The service is also contacted by organisers of retrospectives of certain artists, as well as relatives and collectors, and lends paintings to galleries and universities in the county.
However, it was the sculpture collection which I found especially interesting, containing wooden, stone, resin, concrete and bronze objects by artists including Peter Peri, Willi Soukop and Betty Rea, all of whom are known for their work for schools and public places. Housed next to the service’s collection of museum objects such as models, animal specimens and stuffed birds, each sculpture is contained within its own made-to-size wooden box, created when the service had in-house carpenters, with a carry handle and sliding front panel. Each sculpture stands on a wooden base which slides snugly into the box. I wasn’t prepared for how small the sculptures would be: most were on an intimate, hand-holdable scale that seemed to invite close and tactile interaction. Though some were abstract compositions, or offered fairly straightforward representations of animals, several depicted humble, familiar subjects – a young girl sitting forward on a chair, a grandmother combing a granddaughter’s hair and, most evocatively, a ‘little girl shouting’ – and it was clear that these were well-crafted, thoughtful objects showing a high level of workmanship.
Service Manager Denise Pritchard is incredibly passionate about the collection and service, and proud of its innovative heritage. Ahead of my visit she had found me out the boxes of record cards listing individual works in the collection, their artist and medium, as well as their method of acquisition. This revealed that, as well as buying directly from the artist, the museum service had acquired artworks from organisations such as the Crafts Centre of Great Britain, Arts & Crafts Society and Embroiderer’s Guild, shops such as Fortnum and Mason and Liberty, another museum service, Nottingham, and exhibitions such as the Contemporary Hanging Exhibition. Really helpfully, Denise had pulled out all the cards relating to works acquired through Pictures for Schools and Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions (Denise noticed a strong Welsh theme in the collection, for no apparent reason – could this partly be attributed to buying work from Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions?), which numbered well over 100. This policy of visiting exhibitions, guilds and artists’ studios continues today, and the museum service is still a patron of, often local, artists. Denise had also gathered together the museum service’s annual reports, which referred to Barbara Winstanley being on the Pictures for Schools selection committee, and mentioned visits made to Pictures for Schools exhibitions and purchases being made there.
Although a good proportion of schools in Derbyshire still subscribe to the School Museum Service, unfortunately it appears that schools are reluctant to borrow original works of art even though Denise is clear it is “something they can get so much from”. Primary schools tend to make more use of the service than secondary schools and, although sculpture is more popular than paintings and prints, the most popular artefacts tend to be things like African masks which can be used as drawing aids. By the 1980s, the service was tending to send out more reproductions of classic artworks such as paintings by Monet than original artworks, which Denise considers unsatisfactory because “they all a had similar shade of green going through them, and everything was reduced to the same size, which would make you think artists only paint in one certain size … schools didn’t really want them and they were pleased when we came and got them”. Today, schools are concerned about where to hang original paintings, and about insurance and security, and there is a lack of knowledge about how to use original works of art. Where schools do make use of the artworks, it is often due to an innovative head – even when individual art teachers are interested, it can often be a tough job to convince heads to release school funds. This is a situation which Denise thinks will only get worse as the curriculum changes and schools are forced to focus on other sides of the curriculum; art, she says, needs to be promoted as benefiting all sorts of areas of education. Part of the problem is that some of aspects of the collection are now dated; nowadays museum materials are often offered as part of a bigger package containing extra, printed material. Although paintings are interesting and fascinating in their own right, Denise thinks there is a need to offer in-service training on how to ‘use’ paintings. Schools need to be encouraged to use artworks which will capture children’s attention and prompt them to look and gain an understanding of what the artists did and why they did it.
Denise fears that the collection will be dismantled and no longer be together as a collection with a history, but hopes that future solutions could include touring exhibitions or lending artworks to local businesses. However, there are still examples of schools making good use of the collection, including a recent exhibition where school students visited and selected artworks from the service based on five defined themes.