I was pleased to spot some post-war murals in the entrances to some educational buildings on a recent short break in Reykjavik – a city where the sun rarely breaks through a sky filled with low-hanging clouds, yet which is still full of visual interest and colour in the form of colourful and inventive contemporary street art murals.
There are post-war murals in two separate entrances to the technical school in the centre of Reykjavik, in the shadow of grand lava-inspired church Hallgrímskirkja, which towers over the city – through the windows of the school you can see rooms full of mannequins, wigs and hair dressers’ equipment. You can also just about make out some colourful, painted pop-style murals on the walls of the entrance and staircase.
Dating from 1954, and signed Ferró, I assume the mosaics outside are by the Icelandic pop artist Erró, who studied mosaic technique in Italy in the 1950s and apparently had to change his name while living in France due to ‘Ferró”s similarity to the pronunciation of the name of another artist, Ferraud.
A recent large-scale, comic-strip style mural by Erró can be seen in Keflavik airport, but I much prefer the abstract, textural shapes of the technical school mosaics, and the imagery of many hands at work, although sadly tagged over in places, which brighten the entrance ways to an otherwise grey and unremarkable building.
In suburban Reykjavik, meanwhile – next to this 1950s church (one of many quirky and unusual twentieth century churches in suburban Reykjavik) I found a 1964 mosaic attributed to Valtyr in the foyer of Iceland’s Institute of Education. I assume ‘Valtyr’ is the Icelandic geometric abstractionist painter Valtýr Pétursson who, like Erró, studied mosaic technique abroad.
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.
An interesting article in the Guardian about contested ownership and custodianship of paintings by Mary Fedden, apparently gifted to a school in Brent. Fedden, along with her husband Julian Trevelyan, also sold work through Pictures for Schools.
ICHG paper ‘Artworks in schools of every kind: the Pictures for Schools exhibitions 1947-1969’, Monday 6 JulyPosted: June 30, 2015
Next Monday (6 July) I am excited to be talking about my Pictures for Schools research at the International Conference of Historical Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society in London. I will be speaking in the session ‘Making post-war Britain: Mobility, planning and the modern nation’ (Royal School of Mines Room G05, from 2.15pm), alongside papers on subjects such as new towns and new universities.
For more information about the session, including abstracts, visit http://conference.rgs.org/ICHG/33.
Further to the reference in my last blog post about the fascinating stories behind some of the artists submitting and selling work through Pictures for Schools, and the frustrations of trying to find information about some of these artists, many of whose names are no longer known, I recently received an email from Professor Robin Alexander, Chair of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, whose mother, the painter Isabel Alexander, submitted several paintings and lithographs to Pictures for Schools over a five-year period in the 1960s. Professor Alexander told me that though she exhibited widely at the time and attracted “quite a following”, with her work represented in public collections, she remains relatively unknown today. I was able to tell Professor Alexander about some of the buyers of his mother’s work (primarily landscapes, although she had moved towards more abstract work by this point), which included Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith, Nottingham Education Committee and Cambridge Education Committee (which still appears to have the work in its collection) and in return he sent me some images of her bold, vibrant paintings and illustrations and a brief biography.
Isabel Alexander had a long and interesting life and I wad pleased to hear about her story. After Birmingham School of Art she taught briefly and then attended the Slade, before returning to teaching in Bromley, Banbury and Rotherham and later lecturing at Saffron Walden Training College. Professor Alexander told me that she was a member of the Society for Education through Art and subscribed to its journal Athene, so was well aware of developments in education. She travelled in Europe and went on to work in the documentary film movement in the 1940s. Her painting and illustrative work included drawing for Mass Observation, social documentary work of Welsh towns and miners and illustrating Puffin picture books. Pictures for Schools had strong links with East Anglia and Essex (with the Great Bardfield group of artists being closely involved with the scheme), and Isabel Alexander lived in Thaxted in Essex. Along with Pictures for Schools, she also contributed to a scheme for Pictures in Essex Hospitals.
After corresponding about my research and the work of Isabel Alexander over email, Professor Alexander invited me to contribute a guest blog post to the CPRT blog, partly to raise awareness and partly to try and stimulate debate about the role of original artworks in schools today and the value of the creative curriculum, which has now been published at http://cprtrust.org.uk/cprt-blog/pictures-for-schools-a-brilliant-idea-worth-reviving-or-an-expensive-luxury.
Over the next two weeks, Ruth Mason (one of the editors of Visit1862.com, a collaborative research site which explores the previously overlooked Great Exhibition held in London in 1862 through its design history) and I will be entering into a conversation about the process of taste formation sparked by my paper on ‘aesthetic citizenship ‘at the RGS-IBG summer conference in London in August.
Ruth and I first met in November 2013 at the Historical Geography Research Group’s annual Practising Historical Geography conference at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. Although studying very different periods, individuals and institutions it became apparent that we were both interested in the process of taste formation and how ‘good taste’ has been considered a value that can be communicated to the general public both in the Great Exhibitions of the nineteenth century and in twentieth century projects such as Pictures for Schools.
This week my post explores Pictures for Schools and its stated aim of developing children’s taste. Next week, Ruth will consider the role of the 1862 International Exhibition in forming Britain’s taste in the nineteenth century.
Both Ruth and I will make a short response to each other’s posts and we encourage more comments, questions and further discussion points.
Read the first post, ‘Taste’ and its creators: 1962 and beyond, here.
Read the second post here.