Exhibition visit: Ruth Ewan – Asking Out, Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Working across a variety of media to explore historical narratives and representations, and bring to light untold figures and stories, Ruth Ewan has long been one of my favourite contemporary artists. I was very excited, therefore, when I heard she had been working with the National Arts Education Archive to develop new work for a show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Asking Out is an installation in the Longside Gallery which explores the work of Muriel Pyrah, an untrained teacher in Airedale Middle School in Castleford. Whilst Pyrah was not necessarily immersed in the latest ideas about teaching, appearing to base her work on her own experiences of teaching and ideas about students’ needs in the classroom, her work fitted with the progressive agenda of the West Riding Education Authority, who celebrated and promoted her ideas as an example of then-fashionable modes of non-hierarchical, child-centred learning which encompassed learning through doing and direct experience.

The exhibition takes as its starting point the concept of ‘asking out’: Pyrah’s students were required to contribute verbally to her classroom, to articulate their work and ideas, to ask questions and to critique each other’s work. From a relatively deprived town in the Yorkshire coalfield, Pyrah’s students were taken out to explore the world beyond the classroom – into local streetscapes, landscapes and industries, further afield to sites of historical interest and even to London.The aim was to develop confidence in Pyrah’s students, both in themselves and their surroundings. We can see this for ourselves in a set of films made in the early 1970s, towards the end of Pyrah’s career, when the cameras were invited into the classroom in order to share Pyrah’s work, and observe discussions among the children about what they’d seen, learned and experienced. The students appear lively and engaged, if sometimes a little awkwardly formal.An accompanying publication to Asking Out, containing essays and interviews with some of Pyrah’s former students, complicates the narrative, suggesting that her unorthodox methods did not work for or include everyone. Whilst some students thrived from being expected to talk in front of the class others, perhaps unsurprisingly, found the experience difficult and stressful. Pyrah also appeared to have very particular ideas about the ‘correct’ way of talking; use of local dialect was discouraged, adding to a sense of distance from other students in the school.Ewan has reactivated and brought to life Pyrah’s ideas, asking us to experience them for ourselves and inviting visitors to participate in and contribute to a reconstruction of her 1970s classroom. The overall impression is stimulating and colourful: the eye is constantly drawn towards text and images. As well as familiar wooden schooldesks, the room is full of artefacts to explore: a piano and songbooks; a nature table, full of tactile objects; maps and photographs showing features of the landscape; books and posters about how everyday goods are made; and a blackboard for writing, sharing and learning the meaning of interesting, unusual, difficult and favourite words.Above all, what comes across is the sense that the children were encouraged to look. Much of the children’s work, hung up around the classroom, is based on close and careful observation – of nature, of places, of the effect of the seasons.These historical artefacts are given added poignancy and power through their proximity to another installation encouraging, prioritising and revealing children’s ways of seeing. Frequencies by Colombian artist Oscar Murillo – who is currently nominated for the Turner Prize – brings together canvases on which children from schools across the world have been invited to doodle, as if drawing on their desks like generations of children before them. Displayed flat on table-tops, they reveal the preoccupations of children in very different countries, cities and contexts.Another complementary exhibition Transformations: Cloth & Clay at the National Arts Education Archive explores tensions between crafts and design, changing ideas about what these mean, and how they interacted with developments in the ways in which art was taught in schools, universities and experimental establishments such as Dartington Hall across the twentieth century.

What became clear to me across both Ewan’s installation and the NAEA exhibition was how many individuals were pioneering creative approaches to learning in post-war schools, and how much more I have to read, learn and think about.

Asking Out is at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/ruth-ewan-and-oscar-murillo

Transformations: Cloth & Clay is at the National Arts Education Archive, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/transformations-cloth-and-clay


Reflections on the International Standing Conference for the History of Education

I recently attended the International Standing Conference for the History of Education at the University of Porto, which was themed ‘Spaces and Places of Education’. Although I didn’t attend as many sessions as I would have liked because it was doubling as a holiday and a chance to explore the city, it was a really good opportunity to talk about my research in a different contexts and to hear international perspectives on histories of education. 

Of particular interest was the session ‘Educational history and the challenges of justice: Contested spaces and their legacies’, featuring papers by Emily Barker (University of Greenwich), Jona Garz (Humboldt-University Berlin) and Eleanor Simpson (University of Winchester). Covering topics from migrant children’s access to play spaces in post-war Britain, to schools for learning disabled children in Germany, to tabloid moralising around Section 28 and sex education in the 1980s, they explored concepts around justice and justice, ideas about ‘educability’ and who can be educated, socially defined categories of identity and inclusion, acceptance and intersectionality, the construction of social norms around ‘ordinary’ behaviour and family life, the othering of those who do not conform to this, and the spatial borders and boundaries placed around education.

Another session I enjoyed was ‘Transnational entanglements of Educational Spaces: Material, Affective and Imaginative Connections’, which explored transnational influences in progressive education. I was particularly pleased to hear from Lottie Hoare (University of Cambridge) about ‘Vanishing Primary Schools & 1970s Yorkshire’. Hoare’s paper focused on the Open University programme Balby Street Kids. Featuring leaders from the West Riding of Yorkshire education authority (disbanded the year before following the 1974 reorganisation of local government), including the recently-retired Director of Education Sir Alec Clegg, the programme was discussed as a defence and representation of progressive education and its aspirations for an imagined audience. The programme featured children at a school in a West Yorkshire mining community. As well as paying attention to their surroundings, through projects such as creative writing, the programme showed them engaged in movement, giving them physical confidence, as well as drama, in a re-enactment of Beowulf, presenting both a translocal and transnational picture at the same time as presenting a particular vision of English education. Although the programme was a documentary, the question and answer section highlighted its creative approach.

My paper took place in the session ‘Material, Textual, Imagined and Virtual Spaces of Education’. I was particularly interested in a joint paper by Nelleke Teughels and Wouter Egelmeers (KU Leuven) about Lantern Slide Projection in the Classroom: Virtual Spaces of Education (c.1880-1940)’.

Teughels and Egelmeers discussed the use of magic lantern slides in Belgian schools, as objects of direct and indirect observation. In subjects such as history, such visual aids were a way of bringing the inside and outside together, and the object into school. Used for ‘virtual travel’, magic lanten slides were both a substitute for and complementary to field trips, opening up new horizons for students. They highlighted the limitations of the sources they used – two educational journals published from different religious perspectives, which mentioned magic lantern slides without discussing them in detail.

The resulting discussion included comments about the link between photography and ‘truth’, the role of magic lantern slides in classification and the creation of pre-defined categories, and how educationalists wanted to see the world.

Some of the questions directed at the paper could as easily have been asked about Pictures for Schools, such as ‘how did the schools access the materials’ (through catalogues)? Was it possible to find out about the experiences of the students? What was the relationship between the magic lantern slides and object lessons in the 1920s, and educational ideas around intuition and sensing? How widespread was the use of these educational resources (it was often affected by a lack of funds)? How did these resources relate to new technology, such as radio and cinema?

The questions I was asked following my paper also gave me several perspectives to consider, such as:

  • How did Pictures for Schools fit into earlier school museum projects?
  • The children who answered questionnaires at Pictures for Schools appeared to use sophisticated vocabulary – what preparation did they have for the exhibitions?
  • Were all the answers this enthusiastic?
  • Was there any relationship betweenPictures for Schools and Elliott Eisner, who was also interested in critical education (and was very important in Brazil, where the asker was based)?

The conference had a strong strand to support early career researchers, and it was particularly beneficial to attend a session about publishing in journals concerning the history of education, such as History of Education Quarterly and Paedegogica Historica. The three pieces of advice that stood out to me were to 1) look at who’s on the reviewing board 2) consider how your work is internationally relevant and make it relevant to people in other countries and 3) that interdisciplinarity is encouraged.


Exhibition visit: Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World, Pallant House, Chichester

One of the artists involved in Pictures for Schools who interested me most was the painter and printmaker Julian Trevelyan, whose paintings and prints were extremely popular with schools, teacher training colleges and local education authorities around the country. Trevelyan also helped organise and select work for the exhibitions.

The Christmas holidays recently provided an opportunity to visit an exhibition dedicated to Trevelyan’s work at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World gives an overview of his career. It begins with his early days as a Surrealist, exhibiting 2- and 3-D work inspired by the mechanisms of the inner mind and the subconscious, and making connections with peers such as Alexander Calder.

In the 1930s, Trevelyan spent time in Bolton and in the Potteries as part of the Mass-Observation project. Highlights of the exhibition include paintings and collages from this time, which actively incorporate elements of mass culture into the urban streetscape; Trevelyan didn’t just paint the lettering of advertising hoardings, but collaged pieces of newspaper and music hall bills. Displayed alongside the pictures is a large suitcase, bursting with scraps, which Trevelyan took out into the northern streets with him as he drew and painted. A series of photographs of fellow Mass-Observation artist William Coldstream contrast the two painters’ attitudes towards observing and understanding place; whereas Coldstream perched on rooftops, taking an aerial perspective and keeping his distance from the town below, Trevelyan preferred to go out and about among his subjects and paint from a position in which he was surrounded by them.The exhibition then discusses his contributions to the war effort, where he served as a camoufleur, helping disguise buildings to confuse the enemy. Watercolours from this time, depicting life in African countries, are uncharacteristically lively and colourful compared to other pictures produced by British artists during the war.

The exhibition gives a sense of the different media in which Trevelyan worked, from oil paintings influenced by the Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, to print-making experimenting with different techniques and textures, such as incorporating fabric into the backgrounds of his plates.
Above all, what comes across strongly is Trevelyan’s sense of place. With his second wife, the painter Mary Fedden (who was also involved in Pictures for Schools), he showed a zest for travel and foreign landscapes and ways of life. However, he never turned his attention away from those places closest to home; a constant in his work, and visible in the exhibition, is the Thames at Hammersmith, and its ever-constant, ever-changing vistas and traffic, which provided the backdrop for Trevelyan and Fedden’s work, life and social circle.

Shown close to Trevelyan’s work is a smaller selection of paintings by Fedden, including her characteristic still lifes which experimented with perspective. Also on show are early 1950s plans for Fedden and Trevelyan’s mural for Swallow Dell Primary School in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, one of several undertaken together in the post-war period. Depicting in detail the various activities of a bustling harbour life, this emphasises that their relationship was not just a romantic partnership, but one of artistic collaboration and mutual inspiration.

Julian Trevelyan: The Artist and His World is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until Sunday 10 February 2019. 


Exhibition of Argyll County Council’s school art collection

I’ve received an email about an upcoming exhibition of work by Scottish artists from Argyll County Council’s art collection for schools, dating from the 1960s to the 1980s, organised by Cowal Open Studios.

The exhibition Paintings are for People — the Argyll Art Collection takes place at Dunoon Burgh Hall from 21 April-2 June and Tighnabruaich Gallery from 28 April-3 June.


Reflections on Marion Adnams Symposium, University of Derby

Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.

The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.

My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.

For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?

I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.

The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.


Interesting journal article about Alec Clegg

Following on from my last article, about the School Prints at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield and their place in the history of the provision of artworks in schools in the West Riding of Yorkshire, I came across this interesting article by Cathy Burke in the History of Education journal about Alec Clegg, and the way in which his ideas of progressive education were shared among educators internationally.

To read visit http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/vb7bXMd6GsTqz7JBvDpk/full.


Exhibition visit: ‘School Prints’, Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield

I recently visited a small exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield about the School Prints, which emerged at a similar time to Pictures for Schools. The School Prints commissioned work by many of the artists who sold work at Pictures for Schools, including Julian Trevelyan, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein and LS Lowry, and several of those involved in Pictures for Schools, including Nan Youngman, Herbert Read and Audrey Martin, were on its advisory panel. Ultimately, however, Pictures for Schools, and supporters such as Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, reacted against the School Prints, believing that it did not go far enough, and that ‘original’ artworks such as paintings, sculptures and textiles were of more value to schools.

Some of the prints on display at the Hepworth had been accessioned from the West Yorkshire education service, although there was no mention in the exhibition of the fact that the West Riding, under Director of Education Alec Clegg, had once been regarded as one of the leading local education authorities for the provision of artworks to schools, and had created one of the country’s largest county loan collections. However, these efforts to provide artworks to local schools clearly still played some part in the cultural memory of the area. During my visit, a woman turned to the woman she was with and reminisced about attending a brand new school which had opened in 1952, and had a large, bright work of art on the wall which, she speculated, ‘must have had something to do with this’.

I was pleased to see quotes from students from a local secondary school, who had been trained as ‘art ambassadors’, on display alongside the artworks. My favourite comes from 13-year-old Alison Alute, who said: “All the different things going on in this painting makes a little voice in my head scream with excitement!”

I have reviewed the School Prints exhibition for Corridor8 at http://corridor8.co.uk/article/school-prints.