I’ve recently been speaking to some friends of the painter Sarah Nechamkin, now 97, who was a student of Nan Youngman at Highbury Hill High School for Girls in London in the early 1930s. Sarah sold and exhibited work at Pictures for Schools in the late-1940s and early-1950s, to buyers including the West Riding of Yorkshire, and exhibited as recently as 2013.
Nan Youngman’s art teaching in Highbury Hill, which included a sketch club Sarah was a member of, was a big influence on Sarah’s artistic career. Apparently Nechamkin still talks about the role Youngman played in her career: as she says in a film made by her goddaughter, Siân Cwper, “it was the biggest piece of luck in my life … I owe everything to her”, and she recalls that Nan Youngman taught her how to “set free my imagination” at school. With Nan Youngman’s encouragement, Nechamkin went on to Chelsea School of Art, later returning there to teach as well as designing and illustrating books for the Curwen Press and Penguin, and she is one of the former students whose subsequent artistic careers and development Youngman highlights in her autobiography. The two also stayed in touch, as there is correspondence from Nechamkin in Youngman’s papers at the Tate, among much other correspondence from former students of Youngman’s, decades on, reminiscing about her distinctive art classes.
Watch Siân Cwper’s short film about Nechamkin, which was filmed at her home in Ibiza a few years ago:
This week I took advantage of travelling down south on family business to visit the Tate Archive on my way back. During this visit, I spent some time looking at an extensive photographic collection, which mainly consisted of photographs of Nan Youngman’s work, both in colour and in black and white. Although I had seen Youngman’s work reproduced in books, and several original paintings and sketches, I was really struck by the volume and diversity of her work, including early portraits of her friends and acquaintances, a wartime sketch of an air-raid shelter, later, slightly dreamy, hazy seascapes in pastel hues capturing children and families playing, paintings of technology such as radio telescopes, and striking paintings and drawings of industrial scenes, including one of a kiln belching black smoke in Stoke-on-Trent, a painting of a steelworks, a derelict-looking pigeon loft captured in sharp detail and one work depicting a traditional, small-scale house incongruously nestled next to a huge gas tower, as well as some touching drawings and paintings of family life and a photograph of a mural at Youngman and Rea’s Cambridge home the Hawks, painted by Youngman, Rea and Elizabeth Vellacott, inspired by a restaurant garden in France. It was also great to discover a folder of photographs of Youngman’s Christmas cards – including one casting herself as a mischievous pirate in 1985, when she would have been nearly eighty – as well as of Christmas pantomimes, comic strips (‘comichawks’, based on Christmas at her home at the Hawks near Cambridge) and limericks inspired by the Rea family (‘Hawkericks’).
I also saw some photographs of Nan Youngman at her retrospective exhibition at the Minories in Colchester in 1971 (although, interestingly, the press release for the show, and newspaper cuttings, all started by highlighting Youngman’s work as an educationalist, often with reference to her relationship to Marion Richardson and then Pictures for Schools, before moving on to discuss her work as a painter). Also tucked in among the photos were press cuttings relating to the 1992 exhibition Ten decades of women artists, curated by Katy Deepwell, which focused on ten artists born between 1897 and 1906, showing how they had had to fit the production of art around family ties and asking why women had been marginalised in the study of art history. As well as Barbara Hepworth, the exhibition included Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, as well as the art educator Evelyn Gibbs and Youngman and Rea’s friend from Artists’ International Association days, Mary Adshead (apparently less well-known than her husband, Stephen Bone – both were regular Pictures for Schools contributors), and there was extensive press coverage, both locally and nationally, of Youngman’s involvement in the exhibition.
I also spent some time in the Tate Library, looking at four exhibition catalogues for Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place elsewhere in the country than the longstanding series in London and Wales. Three of these related to exhibitions held at the Laing Art Gallery and Museum in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1956-58, which were direct spin-offs of the London exhibitions, organised by the North East Branch of the Society for Education through Art, in whose name Pictures for Schools was organised. Although far smaller in scale – they contained only 45-50 pictures and 8-10 sculptures each time, along with textiles such as printed wall hangings – they replicated some aspects of the London exhibitions such as asking children to vote for their favourite work, with encouraging children to form their own opinions on modern art a stated aim of the exhibitions. The exhibitions also explicitly set out to have a ‘local character’, with artists living and working in the area well-represented, as well as, intriguingly, a section dedicated to ‘Costume designs for ‘Northumberland teachers’ opera group’ production of Prince Igor held at the Theatre Royal, 1957′. It was interesting to see Richard Hamilton and Harry Thubron represented in the first exhibition, as both were associated with the Basic Design courses being developed in Newcastle and elsewhere in the North East. Some other names, such as Sadie Allen, an embroidery artist, I recognised from the catalogues of the London Pictures for Schools exhibitions, although most were unknown to me. Like its London counterparts, the work seemed to be dominated by still-lifes and landscapes, often based on the mundane, industrial or everyday, such as a brick factory, furnace slag heaps, docks, old men and a bus stop.
It was more difficult to gauge the relationship between the Pictures for Schools exhibition held at the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham in 1963 and the London exhibitions. Although works had been borrowed from directors of London galleries, including the AIA Gallery, for the exhibition, no reference was made to the London exhibitions in the catalogues. However, regular Pictures for Schools contributors such as Mary Fedden, Sandra Blow, Fred Uhlam and Philip Sutton were represented, along with Nottingham painter and gallerist Dorothie Field, who had been among Nan Youngman’s students at Highbury Hill High School and went on to receive renown as a socialist realist painter. The exhibition was divided into two parts – more costly invited works, and members’ works. Interestingly, a tiny minority of the works could also be hired. My interest was also piqued by an invitation at the back of the catalogue to a discussion entitled ‘Children as patrons’, featuring painters Michael Granger and Dennis Hawkins, and sculptor LR Rogers, at which questions were welcomed. However, it was unclear whether the exhibition was a regular occurrence, or a one-off.
As I was in London for the RGS-IBG conference, I jumped on the opportunity to spend a couple more days looking at Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman’s papers in the Tate Archive. This time, I ended up looking at three sets of materials. The first comprised references written by Nan Youngman about her work as a teacher, from those who had taught her at school, at art school and at teacher training college – including art educator Marion Richardson, as well as her former employers at schools and art colleges.
The second was extracts from a Master’s dissertation written by Pauline Lucas focusing on Nan Youngman alongside two other woman artists, the artist and art educator Evelyn Gibbs (a regular contributor of work to Pictures for Schools) and Dorothie Field, a former student of Youngman’s who went on to found the 359 Gallery in Nottingham, showing how these women combined ‘public responsibilities’ with the production of artwork. It was interesting to see how Lucas had embarked on writing about Youngman’s life and work, including her ‘great art educational crusade’, and highligted aspects of her life and career including art education and the Artists’ International Association, both of which are given their own chapters. I also enjoyed Lucas’ discussion of the war years and the opportunities offered by evacuation to use education to offer comfort and familiarity to children far from home, as well as to experiment with different methods of teaching, for example painting outdoors. Something else which Lucas conveys well is the importance of individual personality and charisma, including Marion Richardson’s near-hypnotic influence over her child painting students and her subsequent influence on Youngman as a teacher. As well as drawing on sources I have looked at such as the Society for Education in Art’s journal Athene, Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues and Nan Youngman’s autobiography, Lucas also had the advantage of being able to visit and speak to Youngman in her studio at her home near Cambridgeshire.
Finally, I rooted through a couple of folders of correspondence, particularly a large volume of ‘fan-mail’ – including a handwritten post-it note passed to Youngman during a lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club – sent to Youngman from former students and teachers who benefited from her support. What is striking is the number of former students who felt compelled to write to Nan Youngman, in many cases decades after they had left school and on taking up art again in their retirement. Many had been members of the Art Club run by Youngman at Highbury Hill High School in Islington in the 1920s and 1930s. Whilst some admitted they had no specific talent for art, they said that they had enjoyed her lessons and benefited from self-expression, gaining an ‘appreciation’ of art and developing their ‘taste’ in art and objects. One thing which was mentioned over and over again was the way in which art was applied beyond the art room, whether painting murals in school, designing sets and costumes for ballets and plays choreographed and performed by students, or creating ambitious puppet shows. A minority of correspondents had gone on to art college – although several reported that their careers had been curtailed by marriage and children – and become professional artists, whereas several others had become teachers. Whilst in later years Youngman invited this correspondence by publishing her address in the Highbury Hill old girls’ news letter, most correspondence was sparked in response to articles Youngman had written, or chance meetings with acquaintances. Although several remarked that they were too in awe of or intimidated by Youngman to talk to her much at the time, all thanked Youngman for ‘sowing the seed’ for an interest in art which had stayed with them across their lives and careers.
Hidden amongst the correspondence was another curiosity, photocopied pages from a 1936 school report for Highbury Hill High School for Girls, presumably written by London County Council’s inspector RR Tomlinson, an advocate of child art and new methods in art teaching. Although he painted a picture of art being squeezed for time during the school day, he was full of praise for Youngman’s teaching and the way in which an artistic ethos pervaded the school.
I’ve been required to make another research poster for an upcoming event in my department, the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment at the University of Central Lancashire, for staff and post-graduate students to share what they are working on (see last year’s poster here) . This time, I decided to focus on Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman, as through my archival research and oral histories it has become apparent that her life story was intertwined with Pictures for Schools, and that a biographical focus on Nan Youngman will form a key part of my thesis. My recent PhD transfer viva also revealed that my discussions of Nan Youngman had piqued a lot of interest in her among people I have talked to about my project, both as a personality and as a central figure to Pictures for Schools.
(Click on the poster for a larger version)
My most recent archive visit was another trip to see Nan Youngman’s papers at the Tate Archive. This time I focused on two sets of materials related to her time in Cambridge. The first related to her longstanding involvement in the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors from the 1950s, with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea, a small exhibiting society which aimed to help artists living around the city to feel less isolated, and to establish interest and patronage for their work among the local community. The Society continued to meet at Youngman’s home until shortly before her death in 1995, and in minutes of meetings which detail the allocated tasks for the Society’s exhibitions Youngman was generally described as ‘chief entertainer’.
The second, and more interesting set of artefacts, related to Youngman’s employment as Art Advisor in Cambridgeshire from 1944-1954 – including a speculative letter Youngman sent to Director of Education Henry Morris setting out her skills, experience and describing in detail why such a role could benefit the teachers and children of Cambridgeshire – in a nice touch she ends by pointing out that she has her own car, which would be useful for travelling around the rural schools! I have been reading some books about Henry Morris’s work and legacy, and something which comes out clearly is his difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships – his biographer, Harry Rée, suggests that he found it particularly hard to relate to women – yet there is a clear affection and respect emanating from the letters Morris and Youngman exchanged, and Morris clearly highly valued her contribution to the county. In the same folder are press cuttings relating to the local education committee’s plans to make Youngman’s role redundant as part of cost-cutting measures in 1952, going in the face of Cambridgeshire’s reputation as an enlightened county with regard to education and the arts. Youngman requested a series of letters of support arguing that she should be allowed to remain, from her local teaching trade union branch, the Society for Education in Art, Herbert Read and the warden of Sawston Village College, who stressed the practical and pragmatic value of Youngman’s support for the county’s art teachers, many of whom were previously lacking in confidence, and argued that for this reason art could not be seen as a ‘frill’. Youngman’s impact on individual teachers was manifested in several letters dating back over the years from teachers who had found encouragement and inspiration on her courses, and had been enthused to try out her teaching methods when they returned to school.
One small find which I found particularly touching was a highly personal letter from Bryan Robertson (better known as the long-running director of Whitechapel Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s) to Nan Youngman, in dense, neat handwriting, written when the former was a young man working for Heffer Gallery in Cambridge. It can only be described as fan mail, with Robertson stating his affection for Youngman as a person and as a painter (although he admits he is too intimidated by her to tell her in person), before taking an analytical look at her work in terms of colour and composition, and giving her frank and detailed advice about how her painting needs to develop. This includes telling her to start taking herself seriously as a painter, encouraging her to have a one-person exhibition and stressing the need to prioritise her painting over her role as an educator so she can take the place Robertson thinks she deserves among Britain’s great painters. Robertson’s affection for Youngman continued until she died; he writes at length on her in publications produced for exhibitions held in her 80th year and posthumously, and he appears to have been an important source of support and encouragement as well as, later, a key ally for Pictures for Schools in the post-war art world.
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.