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/.
Some time after emailing the schools referred to as making use of original works of art of the type purchased through Pictures for Schools in the 1970 book In Our Experience: the changing schools of Leicestershire, I finally heard back from one of the schools, Ivanhoe College, built in 1954.
My enquiry had been batted about before reaching the relevant staff member, the Assistant Business Manager, who had a slightly more pessimistic take on the value of post-war artworks in schools than other people I had spoken to.
She confirmed that the school had 40 or 50 artworks, ten of which belonged to the county art collection and the rest of which were gifted. Most were paintings on board, although there were a few tapestries and one piece of pottery.
Although she was fairly new to the job, she suggested that the number of items on display had dwindled as the College was refurbished, and that the last items were taken down five to ten years ago. She explained that some items were broken and that the school preferred to display more topical work and that the corridors were covered in work the students had done. Another problem was that one of the paintings was ‘enormous’ and the school had nowhere to put it.
In contrast to everything else I have read about Pictures for Schools, which suggested that artworks were chosen to be appealing and stimulating for children, I was told that the paintings are “very traditional, dark, oily and old-fashioned – not very modern these days”. Today the school prefers to display instead “more modern art” and currently has ten pieces on loan as a award, including aboriginal art and 3D work.
I was hoping that the school’s links with the Leicestershire county collection, once one of the country’s largest due to the enthusiastic patronage of Director of Education Stewart Mason and his enlisting of allies and advisors such as Whitechapel Gallery Director Bryan Robertson, would enable me to contact people who knew of its status and whereabouts, but my enquiries have still met a blank.
In Our Experience by Stewart C Mason: A small treasure of a book from the University of Manchester library storePosted: February 24, 2014
Recently, I made my first foray into the University of Manchester store to retrieve a book edited by Stewart Mason, former Director of Education in Cambridgeshire. Mason was well-known for establishing a patronage scheme for schools in Leicestershire as well as promoting the value of artworks in schools, even before Pictures for Schools came into being in 1947; this collection was celebrated by exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1967 and 1980. In Our Experience: the changing schools of Leicestershire, which was published in 1970 (the year after Pictures for Schools ended), turned out to be a real hidden treasure, offering really good context for the educational backdrop against which such schemes took place. After the Second World War, the educational landscape in Leicestershire changed rapidly to cope with a large rise in population, and the county undertook a number of sometimes controversial experiments, from becoming one of the first counties to abolish the 11-plus, to introducing fully comprehensive education, making use of new ideas in architecture such as open plan schools, building larger schools which could justify purchasing specialist equipment and resources, emphasising child-centred learning, particularly in the infant school, and developing community colleges inspired by Henry Morris’s village colleges in Cambridgeshire to foster learning for all ages and all of the community.
Like Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire who promoted the idea of the educational environment as being a ‘silent teacher’, Mason also emphasised the importance of the school environment on children’s perception of their education, saying: “[School buildings] can and do exert a powerful influence on what happens inside and around them.” Mason was passionate about introducing contemporary art to schools, and saw art education as having value for the life of the whole school, not just art departments, saying the arts could “release energy and add sparkle and inventiveness to the general life of the school” and “pay for themselves by quickening the whole tempo”.
In the book, which features essays by a number of teachers and headteachers in Leicestershire schools, there is a strong emphasis on learning through doing and discovery, rather than by rote (I feel that the cover really conveys this ethos of learning!). The vision of education promoted by the book recognises that individuals learn differently and are able to take some responsibility for their own learning and promotes emotional and intuitive development as much as academic achievement. It is seen to be important that the child is educated as a ‘whole person’, fitting in with the ideas of writers such as Herbert Read. Other ideas include breaking down the boundaries between different subject areas into an ‘integrated day’, taking a view of education in which teachers are learners as much as children, and creating an environment where children feel that there they are on equal terms with their teachers and are encouraged to take a questioning approach to what is around them. The latter point is interesting in relation to Pictures for Schools, which encouraged children to look actively in order to develop skills which would help them take an interest in what was around them when they became adults. Some of these ideas, such as learning by doing, along with the idea of the school as a total society implied by community-based education, are also reminiscent of those of American educator John Dewey.
It was also interesting to hear how schools used their artworks. At Albert Road Primary School, Hinckley, for instance there was at least one original, contemporary work of art in each classroom. Children were encouraged to handle artworks, and were exposed to all kinds of artwork, including abstract art. Albert Road Primary was also home to the Clown, a piece of sculpture in the playground which “is fondled and loved and climbed upon and sometimes even given clothing”. I’ve tried contacting the schools featured in the book to see if they still own the artworks mentioned, and if they are still in use in the school. Only one school has got back to me so far, saying the school has the artworks but they are no longer on display. They have invited me to visit, however, and I may take up the opportunity as I am keen to find out what happened to the artworks of a county once so well-known for its patronage but which has seen some of its artworks sold in recent years.