Exhibition visit: Carel Weight at Tullie House

I recently visited Tullie House to see a small exhibition of work from a collection acquired for the city of Carlisle through the Royal Academician Carel Weight, as part of nationwide events commemorating 250 years of the Royal Academy. Weight was one of the artists who was heavily involved in Pictures for Schools, and sold work through the scheme. As well as showing Weight’s own paintings, the exhibition showed work by members of Weight’s circle, including peers and students, such as Peter Blake, acquired for Tullie House. I reviewed the exhibition for Corridor8: read online here.

Visit to John W Mills to discuss his involvement in Pictures for Schools

Lion in a cage John W MillsLast month I made a visit to sculptor John W Mills at his home of 47 years, Hinxworth Place in Hertfordshire, to follow up on correspondence via telephone and email regarding his involvement in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions and friendship with its founder, Nan Youngman. Mills started submitting sculptures and prints to Pictures for Schools as a student at the Royal College of Art in the late-1950s. Although he did not know Youngman when he first submitting artworks to Pictures for Schools, Mills later became a close friend of hers through his professional relationship and friendship with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea. Mills shared his expertise on the ciment fondu technique for casting sculpture (something he has written books on) with Rea and visited and socialised at Rea and Youngman’s studios and home in Cambridge. In the early 1960s, Mills was invited to serve on the sculpture committee which selected artworks for Pictures for Schools exhibitions alongside fellow sculptors Elisabeth Frink and Willi Soukop. He was also on the planning committee for Pictures for Schools between 1965 and 1970. This comprised a small group of artists together with educators, a local authority education officer and the scheme’s administrators, which met annually.

Hinxworth is close to the borders of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and a twenty minute drive from Cambridge. Set in three acres of land, the grounds contain Mills’ studios (Mills is still actively undertaking commissions), as well as a collection of his work on display outside; Mills welcomes visits from schools, who come to see his work in the grounds. I also met Mills’ wife of sixty years, Jo, a former ballet dancer, and it became clear that both John and Jo were part of a highly sociable network of artists and other creative people which centred around Youngman and Rea’s base at Paper Mills in Cambridge and consisted of artists, writers and academics living all across East Anglia. I showed the Mills a photo of Mills’ small bronze sculpture ‘Lion in a Cage’, which is part of the Derbyshire collection of original artworks for schools, as well as Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues for 1967 and 1969 (both years Mills contributed) to trigger memories. The couple recognised a high proportion of the names in the Pictures for Schools catalogues as friends, peers, colleagues and former tutors of Mills, describing the roster of artists as ‘quite a line-up’. The couple made exclamations and comments upon seeing the names of certain artists. These included Fred Brill, who was Principal of Chelsea School of Art in the 1960s, Cambridge painter Julia Ball, Mary Hoad, Principal of St Albans School of Art (where Mills also taught for many years), who was described as ‘a great friend of Nan Youngman’, Arnold van Praag, described as ‘a great friend of mine who became a very influential painter at Camberwell’, Ralph Brown, who Mills says was grouped together with the Kitchen Sink School, and Carel Weight, who taught Mills at Junior Art School in Hammersmith from the age of 14.

I found the visit really useful to add colour and context to my understanding of the post-war art world. Mills particularly emphasised the word ‘post-war’ in my project title, saying it was ‘the key thing’; studying at art school as a teenager among artists who had returned from fighting in the war as ‘very serious people’ clearly had a profound effect on him, as well as his emphasis on using figurative, realist sculpture as a form of storytelling and means of communication. I also enjoyed hearing more about Mills’ time as a resident of Digswell Arts Trust, a large house in Welwyn Garden City where Cambridgeshire Director of Education Henry Morris established a trust for sculptors, painters, potters and weavers which provided subsidised accommodation and studio space and aimed to remedy some of the aesthetic deficiencies Morris saw in the new towns which were built after the war.

It was also interesting to hear how Mills saw Pictures for Schools as fitting into the post-war art world – he explained that it was a decidedly populist exhibition, which aimed to have a wide appeal, something which was sometimes at odds with emerging trends in the art world in the 1960s. We also discussed how it compared with other exhibitions Mills took part in such as Young Contemporaries and the Royal Academy summer shows, and Pictures for Schools emerged as a series of exhibitions which was both very well respected and well-organised.

I also got a sense of approaches and attitudes towards art education at the time when Pictures for Schools was in operation, as well as gaining a more rounded knowledge of aspects of Pictures for Schools I had discovered through archival research. For instance, it was really interesting to hear from Mills about the process of selecting sculptures, and the criteria which were used to decide which sculptures were appropriate – Mills recalls that there was very much an emphasis on quality and craftsmanship, sometimes more so than the content or subject matter of the sculpture and what it portrayed. It was also interesting to discover that each selection committee – whether for sculpture, prints, painting or embroidery – was responsible for how the work was hung or displayed, and that artists were given a high degree of freedom by Youngman in these aspects of the exhibition.

I also got to know more about what Youngman was like as a person, and what influenced her, for example Mills said she had a great sense of fun and loved to share dirty jokes, but was also committed to her painting practice and cared passionately about art education. She also emerges as a figure who was well-liked by different sets of people. Mills paints a picture of Youngman and Rea’s base at Paper Mills as being an open, supportive environment which acted as a venue for many discussions around art and education.

One of the most important things I got from talking to Mills was a sense of how interconnected the networks of artists and educators involved in Pictures for Schools were, for example through studying and teaching at educational institutions, but also through membership of organisations such as the Artists’ International Association and living in various geographical concentrations such as East Anglia/Cambridge/Essex. I also got a strong sense of collaboration between sculptors – of sharing techniques, and helping each other with the production of sculptures – as well as a side to Pictures for Schools that was highly sociable.

“A marvellous scheme which was a tremendous source of encouragement in very lean times”: Fred Cuming RA on Pictures for Schools

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.

Pictures for Schools media and subject matter

At the start of my project I was given two exhibition catalogues for Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place at the Royal Academy Diploma Gallery in 1967 and 1969. I was interested to see what types of subjects were considered to be appropriate to schools and schoolchildren and flicking through the catalogues, it struck me that a large number of the artworks appeared had titles referring to landscapes/places or still-lifes, and that certain words such as ‘garden’ or words relating to seasons came up over and over again, which I think of as being fairly conventional subject matters. It also seemed that the exhibitions were skewed towards painting, with relatively few sculptures or 3D works. On my induction training we were shown a website called Wordle which could be used to visualise the frequency of words in documents, so I decided to use it to make some illustrations showing the frequency of different subject matters and media in the 1967 Pictures for Schools exhibition, to give a sense of the type of work the scheme promoted.

Pictures for Schools, 1967 exhibition catalogue, frequency of words appearing in titles of artworks:

Pictures for schools 1967 Wordle

Pictures for Schools, 1967 exhibition catalogue, frequency of media:

1967 media

I also decided to break the subject matter down further, by medium. Oil paintings subject matter:

Oils Wordle

Drawings, watercolours and gouaches subject matter:

Drawings, watercolours, gouaches Wordle

Embroideries and collages subject matter (interestingly, there are more references to ‘abstract’ subject matters):

Embroideries and collages Wordle


Prints Wordle


Sculpture Wordle