Exhibition visit: Out of the Crate, Manchester Art Gallery

Following hot on the heels of But What If We Tried? at Touchstones, Rochdale in 2019, which attempted to display the entirety of the borough’s publicly owned art collection at once, Manchester Art Gallery is offering an insight into its sculpture stores (only 3 per cent of the collection is usually on display at any one time). About 25 per cent can be seen in the current exhibition, Out of the Crate, which explores and highlights how the work came to be in the collection and asks for information about some of the work (it’s not always clear who the work is by or how it got there!).

Many of Britain’s best-known nineteenth, twentieth century and contemporary sculptors are represented in the collection, working across a variety of styles and media, from portraiture to modernism. My favourite piece was ‘Rocking Chair No. 4’ (1950), a tiny bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, which was bequeathed to the gallery in 2012 by Harry M Fairhurst, architect of the UMIST campus and the renowned Hollaway Wall. Freeze-framing a small moment of familiar tenderness, but blurring both human and animal forms, its intimate scale made me long to pick it up and handle it and see if it actually rocked!

Some of the sculptures in the collection had been purchased for educational purposes, from the Horsfall Art Museum, which aimed to bring beauty to industrial Ancoats, to pieces from the Rutherston Loan Collection (now accessioned into the main collection) which was established in the 1920s to lend work to schools and educational establishments in the north of England.

Although this scheme is no longer in operation, one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is documentation of a project involving a group of boys from Burnage Academy, who were asked to choose a sculpture to display in their school for a day via Art UK’s ‘Masterpieces in Schools’ initiative. Just as Pictures for Schools aimed to ask searching questions of child visitors through the provision of questionnaires about the exhibitions, and to encourage them to see themselves as patrons of art, the students were encouraged to look critically at the artworks, how they were made and what they represented, as well as to think about the role of a curator. It was fascinating to read their rationale about what would stimulate discussion and what their peers would find interesting, and the types of questions they asked of the work, such as “Is the paper ball an actual sculpture?” (their eventual choice of ‘Cobra’, a 1925 sculpture by Jean Demand, narrowly beat Martin Creed’s conceptual ‘Work No 88: A Sheet of A4 Paper Crumpled Into A Ball’).

Out of the Crate is at Manchester Art Gallery until Sunday 28 November 2021: https://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/exhibition/out-of-the-crate/


Visit to the University of Loughborough art collection

Last month I spent a very pleasant early autumn afternoon wandering around Loughborough University’s sprawling campus, guided by a map of its extensive sculpture collection.

Loughborough is a market town in Leicestershire – a county that, under longstanding Director of Education Stewart Mason, embraced patronage of the arts in educational settings in the post-war period in a big way. As well as purchasing and commissioning site-specific works for individual schools, Leicestershire’s loan collection was one of the largest in the country, and purchased artworks from Pictures for Schools among other sources. Mason advised and guided Loughborough University on some of its purchases, and his influence in the county is acknowledged in the Stewart Mason building on campus.
The university’s sculpture collection punctuates the sports grounds that dominate the campus (Loughborough has a reputation for attracting sporty students). Given university status in 1966, the campus architecture has a strong modernist feel, although it’s undergone significant expansion since then. Known as Loughborough University of Technology until 1996, there’s a strong theme of science and technology in many of the artworks, particularly around the science buildings, which feature a number of steel artworks by Paul Wagner. There was also a tradition of students producing their own furniture, much of which is still in use around campus.

Many well-known and lesser artists of the post-war period are represented on campus, including Willi Soukop, who undertook many commissions for public and educational settings; his Spirit of Adventure, which resembles an aeroplane, is the first artwork encountered on approach to the campus from the town centre, and points the way to a place of learning, discovery and enquiry. Perhaps the most famous sculptor is Lynn Chadwick, whose solemn trio of angular figures The Watchers commemorates three influential figures in the history of the university. However, my favourite artworks were those which were less conspicuous, such as Austin Wright’s kinetic sculpture, nestled in a quiet pond area between two buildings, which resembles a calmly bubbling fountain, and Peter Peri’s Spirit of Technology, a man leaping into the unknown from the side of a student residence dining hall.

The sculptures are merely the most public-facing element of a much bigger collection, which includes wall-mounted works such as prints, paintings and textiles, displayed in areas such as boardrooms, corridors and waiting areas. I managed to see a couple of works inside buildings, including prints by Bridget Riley and John Piper, as well as a number of portraits of university grandees which showed their influence on the university.

Loughborough University and the former teacher training college Loughborough Training College, which became part of the university in 1977, both purchased work from Pictures for Schools, although the only one I managed to see was Michael Stokoe’s bold, colourful silkscreen Circles & Stripes.

The collection is not static and continues to evolve, commissioning and acquiring work by students alongside established artists. One of the highlights is one of the most recent works, an interior design scheme by Giles Round for the RADAR office. Alongside furniture and Round’s selection of artworks from the collection, this includes a wallpaper which repeats images of tools from a former catalogue across the walls. Round’s design scheme acts as a subtle reminder of the university’s past and enters into dialogue with work purchased and commissioned during previous eras of the life of the institution.

To find out more about the collection visit https://www.lboro.ac.uk/arts/arts-collection/.

 


Football Is Art at the National Football Museum

I recently went to the launch of a new exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester showcasing the museum’s art collection, which has been developed with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

One of the works which has been acquired is a maquette for Peter Peri’s ‘Boys Playing Football’ (I went to see the original on the wall of an estate in Lambeth back in 2017).

Peri was one of several artists who exhibited at Pictures for Schools whose work has been acquired by the museum; football, particularly local and amateur matches, was one of the aspects of everyday life captured in the pictures shown at Pictures for Schools and bought by local education authorities for school loan collections (see Carel Weight’s lively ‘Village Cup Tie’, purchased by the London County Council, and apparently later sold to the football museum, although not on display in this exhibition and Fred Uhlman’s atmospheric painting of a game on a winter evening, recently sold at auction as part of the disposal of Hertfordshire County Council’s art collection). Like many of the artists at Pictures for Schools, as a member of the Artists’ International Association he was interested in depicting and reflecting relatable aspects of people’s lives, and presenting his art in places that was familiar and accessible to them.

The exhibition encompassed a wide variety of styles and genres, from Lowry’s iconic images of northern life, to delicate illustration by Paul Nash, to contemporary British artists such as Rose Wylie and digital artworks, to fashion and textiles, to vintage posters and advertising, to portraits of footballers and artworks by famous footballers such as George Best, and even a sculpture by Piccasso.

Far from the glitz of today’s game, with its superstar footballers on multi-million pound salaries, many of the works I liked best depicted the quieter, more personal aspect of the game and its individual and collective meanings to people as part of their sense of identity, leisure, routine, community and belonging: crowds huddled loyally in the cold of a snowy day, as in Alistair Grant’s lithograph ‘Snow at Stamford Bridge’, or behind the scenes of the game as in the Mass-Observation documentary photographer Humphrey Spender’s 1930s images of changing rooms, which suggested some of the tension and anticipation of the game.

Mid-twentieth century British art was particularly well-represented in the exhibition. I was interested to find out that several of the works had been exhibited in the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition, held in 1953, and organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Football Association in order to mark the latter’s 90th anniversary. One of the highlights was the Great Bardfield artist Michael Rothenstein’s prize-winning etching and aquatint ‘Moment of Victory’, an abstract set of shapes which appeared to represent little in a literal sense, but suggested movement and celebration. Another highlight was the robotic stacked shapes of surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun’s colourful oil painting ‘The Game of the Year’, dating from the same year as the Football and the Fine Arts exhibition.

Football Is Art is at the National Football Museum until Sunday 27 October: www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/whatson/football-is-art/

 


Willi Soukop’s Donkey in Harlow

I was briefly in Harlow earlier this week, and took the opportunity to track down a couple of sculptures on residential estates, which I didn’t manage to get to on my previous visit to Harlow.

One of the sculptures I was most excited about seeing was Willi Soukop’s bronze donkey, which sits in a quiet residential estate called Pittman’s Fields.

One of the reasons I was so keen to see the donkey was that I have seen a photo of a cast of the sculpture that was exhibited at the 1949 Pictures for Schools exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery. Soukop was involved in Pictures for Schools for many years, and was a member of the committees that selected sculptures for display at the exhibitions.

The Donkey sculpture was originally commissioned for Dartington Hall; Soukop taught sculpture at the independent Dartington Hall School, as well as other private schools and art colleges. I believe it was installed as a play sculpture in Harlow 1955.

The sculpture was smaller than I expected, but rather sweet, and I was encouraged that local people were well aware of its existence (it was quite hidden; after walking around in circles for some time, I was directed to it by three different people).


Interesting upcoming talks in Leeds for fans of twentieth century art and design

Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is holding three talks this month which look like they’ll be of great interest to fans of twentieth century art and design. The first, on Wednesday 13 June at 6pm, is by Lynda Nead, author of the recent, excellent book Tiger in the Smoke. The second, on Wednesday 20 June, is by Margaret Garlake, author of the essential book New Art, New World, and concerns emigre artists and their work for patrons such as the London County Council as part of the post-war reconstruction effort in Britain. Finally, on Wednesday 27 September, Gordon Johnston will discuss the work of the sculptor Peter Peri, whose work was exhibited at Pictures for Schools as well as in numerous public contexts.


Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, Wednesday 31 January – Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley

I’ll be returning to Bradford School of Art on Wednesday 31 January to do another lecture in its Random Lecture series. The lectures take place at 12 noon; all welcome.

Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley

Born in 1925, the artist and industrial designer William Mitchell’s work can be seen in towns and cities around the world. However, it does not hang on the wall of art galleries, but is an integral part of the buildings in which it is found. These range from everyday places such as schools, libraries, pubs, subway underpasses and the foyers of post-war towerblocks, to flagship buildings like Harrods and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool.

The talk will give an overview of Mitchell’s work and career, focusing in particular on three artworks by William Mitchell in the Bradford area which demonstrate his post-war work in municipal and civic contexts as well as for corporate and commercial clients. Using innovative techniques and working in media such as moulded concrete and fibreglass, all three murals are distinctively of Mitchell’s style, yet take different stylistic approaches, from abstracted pattern-making to incorporating elements of the history of the area in which they are located.

It will explore a series of concrete murals in Bradford’s Kirkgate market, built in 1973 to replace a previous Victorian market, by Mitchell or an assistant; thirteen fibreglass panels, commissioned for the former Bradford and Bingley Building Society headquarters in Bingley in the early 1970s and depicting the architectural and engineering landmarks of the area; and a large mural for the Ilkley Wool Secretariat, completed in 1968, which explores the history of wool manufacture locally.

These case studies will be used to highlight wider changes in attitudes towards post-war architecture, and the ways in which these types of artworks are regarded: whilst a new home has been sought in recent years for the Bingley murals, which were removed as the highly unpopular building in which they were situated was demolished, Mitchell’s Ilkley relief has been widely feted and was celebrated with Grade II listing by Historic England in 2015.


A London public art trip: Peter Peri, Willi Soukop and the Royal Festival Hall

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to spend a day in London in the expert company of Dr Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West, two researchers with backgrounds and ongoing research interests in public art and the London County Council (LCC): Dawn’s PhD work on William Mitchell and Anthony Hollaway as design consultants for the LCC was a major catalyst for my interest in post-war public art as a subject for academic study, and Rosamund is currently undertaking a PhD at Kingston University about public art commissions on post-war LCC housing estates.

We started at the Royal Festival Hall, where we saw the collaborative ‘festival quilt’. This large (although easy to miss – I’d never seen it before, despite visiting the Festival Hall on a number of occasions) artwork is composed of squares contributed by women’s groups from across the country commemorating landmark events, figures, inventions and developments in British history, from the 1851 Great Exhibition (the Festival of Britain, for which the quilt was commissioned, followed 100 years later) to the invention of the sewing machine, to cultural phenomena such as jazz and cinema, in a variety of styles. It’s full of detail and visual appeal and has aged well; it’s one of the quirkier aspects of this landmark building, which is well worth a look as a cultural document of the interests and values of a time and as a participatory, collaborative piece of art created by ‘ordinary people’. We also saw ‘Sunbathers’, a work by the Hungarian artist Peter Peri from the Festival of Britain which, after years of being lost and neglected, has been recently restored and resited high-up in the Festival Hall following a public awareness and funding campaign. Its athletic, interlinked figures now gleam pristinely in the nude, yet are strangely anonymous in their terracotta-coloured concrete.

Although sculpture was less popular among buyers at Pictures for Schools than paintings, prints and embroideries (mainly, probably, because it was more expensive and less easy to site in the school), Peter Peri was a regular exhibitor at Pictures for Schools. His work was, in its realism and everyday subject matter, such as small-scale sculptural depictions of children at play and leisure, characteristic of the mood and style of the exhibitions.

Peri’s work was part of a wider context of realist art promoted by critics such as John Berger for its accessibility and humanism; it emerged out of a context of politicised networks of artists such as the Artists’ International Association, founded in the 1930s, which worked to promote the status of the artist in society, provide employment for artists, raise public appreciation and increase opportunities to enjoy the arts, and to create social change through art. Peri was prolific in his public commissions for patrons such as schools and local authorities; writing in the New Statesman in the 1950s, Berger argued that, far from fitting into the fashionable London art world, his work came into its own when situated in workaday settings such as the school.For me, the most effective work we saw by Peter Peri on the tour was that which was still part of the fabric of the places where it was first situated. The best work of his we saw was ‘Following the Leader’ (1949), a relief on the exterior of a central stairwell of an otherwise nondescript earlier block of flats in a now-gentrified area of Vauxhall. Utilising coloured concrete, it depicts a ring of children ascending the brickwork hand-in-hand, tendons stretched and hair and skirts blowing in the wind. Although apparently simple, the feeling with which Peri has moulded the faces of the children, and the sense of play, movement, youth and vitality, he creates, gives it a quality which is touching and timeless. His real skill was to communicate a sense of relatability and humanity in these figures, despite their scale and necessarily being viewed from a distance.Although commemorating a sombre subject, children lost in the Blitz, it has less of the naivety and idealisation of motherhood, youth and childhood that characterised much of the work of the social realist genre, and which can be seen in his ‘Children Playing’ (1951-2) and in the exaggeratedly healthy, muscular figures of ‘Boys Playing Football’ (1951-2), two exterior murals on the nearby South Lambeth Estate.

We were fortunate to be able to see all these works in situ; the significance of all these artworks, and the social, historical and political context in which they were commissioned, has now been recognised by their listing, as part of a wider drive by Historic England to recognise and promote the public art of the period. However, the scale of gentrification of the once working-class areas of south London we visited was stark – like many across London, several of the estates were awaiting or had already undergone a process of redevelopment, with former council developments replaced with housing aimed at a far wealthier demographic, and now largely removed from the social purpose for which it was intended, and the democratic and inclusive spirit in which the artworks were commissioned.

One victim of this process of rebuilding was a 1956 concrete mural by Willi Soukop (another European emigre who exhibited at Pictures for Schools), inspired by the story of the Pied Piper yet noticeably more abstract in its shapes and style than the work of Peri, previously situated on a community hall on the Elmington estate in Camberwell. Although its value had been recognised enough for it to be retained and incorporated into a new development once the hall was demolished, it had been hidden behind foliage in a new nature garden, surrounded by modern flats, where its visual impact was considerably lessened.