As part of my ongoing interest in educational (and specifically higher education) art collections, I recently went to visit the Hull University Art Collection at the Brynmor Jones Library. Founded in 1963, the collection was housed for many years in the university’s drama facility and concert venue Middleton Hall, designed in 1962 by Festival of Britain architect Leslie Martin, which incorporated a purpose-built exhibition space for the collection when it opened in 1967. The collection has since been returned to the library, which now has a dedicated gallery space.
Unlike other collections I have visited which set out to collect contemporary art, from the outset the collection focused on British art in the period 1890-1940. Due to the relatively minor sum allocated to purchases for the collection – £300 per year was given by philanthropist Thomas Ferens (who also gives his name to the city’s main art gallery) – the collection’s remit was by its own admission the ‘unfashionable and inexpensive’.
In spite of this, the collection gives a good sense of late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century British art, the groupings in which painters were involved (such as the Camden Town Group and Bloomsbury Group), the types of places they travelled to (from the landscapes of Cornwall to more exotic destinations), and the educational system of which they were a part – for example, through the inclusion of paintings by Slade Professor Henry Tonks. The collection is particularly strong on portraiture, further giving a sense of networks and connections between artists (and other artistic figures at the time such as writers). The collection also includes examples of the Contemporary Lithographs, an important interwar patronage scheme: a particular highlight is the floral ‘Still Life’ by Ivon Hitchens.
Mid-twentieth century sculpture is also well-represented, including the work of Bernard Meadows and Henry Moore.
Although the collection has its own exhibition space, a small number of artworks are dispersed around the library and for me the highlights were those I saw outside the gallery: one was a relief by the émigré sculptor Willi Soukop, on one outside wall of the building, which cleverly drew on the brick in which the building is built to depict an owl (the art collection has since acquired a maquette for the piece and other work by Soukop depicting owls). The other was a large hanging tapestry by Harold Cohen, woven by Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh. Although I hadn’t come across Cohen before, he created a number of artworks for corporate clients – this one was commissioned for the new London headquarters of BP in 1966 – and was an innovator in the use of computers in his work.The collection no longer restricts itself to its time period of 1890-1940, and has continued to be added to, whether with the support of the Contemporary Arts Society, through the gifting or loan of artworks by members of staff, or through supporters and bequests.
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.
After visiting the Rea family in London, I spent a full day reading a typewritten copy of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s (unpublished) autobiography in the Tate Archive, which was written in the mid-to-late-1980s. I found it to be highly readable and entertaining, written in a strong and engaging voice. It was interesting to hear where Youngman came from, from her early, comfortable middle class life in Maidstone, Kent with a mother who, like Youngman, had a penchant for organising things, to her miserable time at boarding school under the restrictive regimes which helped foster her non-conformist attitude later in life, to her days as a student at the Slade in the 1920s where she attended riotous parties, smoked, learned to play the tenor ukulele, formed close friendships with both men and women and, like many Slade students, looked down on students at the RCA. One surprise from this time is the detail with which Youngman recalls her outfits on different occasions, especially for a woman who was known for her pudding bowl haircut and almost always wore trousers!
Particularly relevant to my research were sections discussing Youngman’s teacher training under the art educator Marion Richardson post-Slade in the 1920s, which revealed the high esteem in which Youngman held both Richardson and her approach to teaching, such as the visualisation method which Youngman went on to replicate at the art clubs she ran for her own students. It was also great to be introduced to other characters who have cropped up a lot in my research into the art educational context around Pictures for Schools, such as Herbert Read, who Youngman suggests was inspired to write Education through Art by an exhibition of children’s work she held at Wertheim Gallery in 1931 and later visited the caravan in the orchard of Hitchingbrooke House in Huntingdon where Youngman lived during the war.
I appreciated being able to find out more about Youngman’s political beliefs, from the death of her friend Felicia Browne in the Spanish Civil War which made her realise “I was living in history”, to her involvement in the Artists’ International Association where she met Betty Rea in the 1930s and was involved in organising exhibitions and going on artists’ trips abroad, along with the rhetoric and posturing of those around her which eventually caused her to become disillusioned with Communist organisations. Something which came across strongly was Youngman’s relationships with those around her, from detailing love affairs to capturing the vitality of Betty Rea and discussing the numerous friendship groups she was part of, comprising artists, writers and academics, complete with their affairs and intrigue.
A particular adventure was a trip aboard a boat to spend some time with a friend in South Africa. Excitement of a different kind came during the war years, when the school at which Youngman taught art, Highbury Hill Girls’ School, was evacuated to rural Cambridgeshire. Youngman captures both the privation and sense of apprehension and excitement of the time, where she painted out of doors and, with Betty, ran local events to support Anglo-Soviet relations. One of the most touching areas of the autobiography is an appendix which reproduces a diary detailing the development of Owen Bell, a young baby who was entrusted to Youngman and Rea’s care during the war by a Communist friend of theirs who had gone away to fight and whose wife had died soon after childbirth. Youngman clearly doted on Bell, who returned to his father after he returned from the war with a new partner, and correspondence I’ve come across related to Pictures for Schools indicates that she continued to be very fond of him once he had reached adulthood.
Unfortunately, however, the autobiography only goes up to 1945. After a really useful section discussing the tension between Nan Youngman and other members of the Society of Education in Art such as Alexander Barclay Russell, who were divided over what Youngman saw as the high-minded, overly-academic theories of Herbert Read, it left me on a bit of a cliff hanger! I hope to find out if there is a more complete version elsewhere, as it stops before Pictures for Schools was founded in 1947, and I am keen to find out more not just about how central it was to Youngman’s life, but what she did after the exhibitions finished in 1969 and how she felt about them coming to an end.