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/.
Today she is best known for a method of teaching handwriting, but in the interwar years Marion Richardson’s work in the field of child art was well-known. Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman undertook teacher training with her at London Day Training College (forerunner of the Institute of Education) and helped her to organise large exhibitions of children’s work. Richardson’s art teaching was focused on developing children’s confidence and powers of self-expression and critique, aiming to train their ‘inner eye’ and ways of looking as much as their technical skills. One way in which she did this was through the ‘visualisation’ method, where children listened to a description of a place or scene and used it as the basis for their own work. In doing so, Richardson hoped to encourage to see pictures in the places around them, even industrial and everyday scenes not conventionally considered picturesque. Richardson also undertook pattern-making and activities such as fabric design with her students and aimed to encourage children to think about how they furnished their homes. She believed children should be exposed to good examples of art and craft, and have opportunities to discuss these and their own work.Richardson died prematurely in 1946, but her work and ideas inspired Youngman’s work throughout the rest of her career. Youngman continued to defend them even when they had become regarded as old-fashioned and were superseded among progressive educationalists in the 1960s in favour of more modern ideas about teaching art.A new installation at Radar in Loughborough, by Berlin-based artist Katarina Hruskova, bears the fruits of an arts-research collaboration with Dr Sarah Mills, Reader in Human Geography at Loughborough University, which involved spending time in the archives at Birmingham City University, where Richardson’s papers are held; the title, This is Just What I Saw, comes from words written on the back of children’s pictures.Drawing on aspects of Richardson’s teaching and her students’ work, including visual description, Mills and Hruskova held a series of workshops with young people in schools and other educational settings in the Midlands today. The resulting artworks, on show at Radar, translate images from these children’s work into a trio of colourful carpets. Whilst abstract they’re also suggestive of elements of place and natural forms, such as trees and water. Displayed next to them are condensed versions of the texts which were read to children to inspire the images; in the background plays an audio recording of Hruskova reading these same words, an effect that is both poetic and hypnotic. We’re taken on a journey through first an industrial scene and then a forest, where our attention is drawn to details such as the time of day, the weather around us; our senses can’t help but be aroused, our imaginations fired and our memories taken back to places we’ve known and things we’ve seen.Alongside this is a small selection of images giving a glimpse into Richardson’s own classroom, and her students’ art practice. Whilst in some ways these images appear formal by today’s standards, with children seated at rows of wooden desks, the children are surrounded by their own pictures and patterns, which hang on the walls, giving an impression of a visually rich and engaging environment.Ideas about childhood, and the nature and purpose of schooling, education and even art have changed considerably since Richardson’s day. By reimagining and reanimating the ideas of this forgotten educationalist, Mills and Hruskova have brought the art teaching of the past powerfully into dialogue with children’s education and experiences today, showing the potential of words and images to inspire creativity and make us look again at how and what we see in the world around us.
This Is Just What I Saw is at the Martin Hall Exhibition Space, Loughborough until Friday 25 October: https://radar.lboro.ac.uk/events/this-is-just-what-i-saw-exhibition/
I was invited by my former PhD supervisor, Hannah Neate, to contribute an article to an issue of the modernist magazine she has guest edited, themed ‘Inventory’, and focusing on archives and repositories of materials.
I have contributed a piece about the National Arts Education Archive at Bretton Hall, which I used to view materials relating to the Society for Education through Art (SEA) during my PhD research into Pictures for Schools, and its wider place as part of the former Bretton Hall Teacher Training College and the early days of Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
‘Inventory’ costs £6 and can be purchased online at www.the-modernist.org/shop/the-modernist-magazine-issue-29 or from various booksellers nationally and internationally.
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.
And of thine earthly store hath left
Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed the soul.
Earlier this week, I went to the National Arts Education Archive at Bretton Hall near Wakefield to meet Eric Woodward, a former art teacher and advisor to Sir Alec Clegg, who was from 1945 to 1975 Director of Education in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Woodward left his job as an art teacher in Liverpool to take up the post partly because he saw Clegg as an inspirational figure, having heard Clegg make a speech at an event, and he admired Clegg’s honesty, frankness and approach to education (more on my interview with Woodward to follow soon). Clegg is known as an advocate of the importance of the arts and creativity to education and Woodward was responsible for the West Riding’s Schools Museum Service under Clegg, which was the largest of its kind (Woodward joined in the 1950s and retired in the 1980s, although from 1974 after local government reorganisation, which coincided with Clegg’s retirement, the service was organised slightly different as a consortium of new, smaller local authorities in the area formerly covered by the West Riding).
The National Arts Education Archive is situated among a cluster of Modernist buildings at Yorkshire Sculpture Park which stand next to the main part of Bretton Hall, a listed stately home, but it’s the more recent buildings which have always captured my imagination when I have visited Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the past. Some have stilts, appearing to emerge out of the foliage to hover over a small lake, and have the classic look of mid-twentieth century educational buildings, light and airy with big windows which overlook the park. I have always felt that they blended into their lakeside setting and complemented the main eighteenth century house. I had a wander around the rest of the complex while I was there and saw a group of halls of residence, each block having a name such as Grasshopper with the theme represented by an architectural, sculptural relief on the side. All these buildings appear abandoned, yet still have furniture inside, including desks, chairs and library shelving – the only thing which tells you they are no longer in use is the almost complete absence of people. This campus previously belonged to the University of Leeds and was only vacated in 2007, when plans were made to turn Bretton Hall into a luxury hotel, spa and office complex. Although I steered clear of selecting campus-based universities for my undergraduate degree as I wanted to learn in a place where I was surrounded by the city, it must have been an inspiring place to live and study, overlooked by the rolling Yorkshire countryside and with sculptures dotted about the grounds. It seems that former students have a lot of affection for the place too, now running a website about the campus’s history and future, and it’s easy to see why.
In 1949 Alec Clegg turned Bretton Hall into a teacher training college specialising in the arts and some of the buildings are named after key figures in art education, including Sir Alec Clegg, and Victor Pasmore, one of my favourite artists who was also associated with the Basic Design movement (the archive of which is in the National Arts Education Archive*). These would be demolished if the development was to go ahead, which strikes me as a shame for a place which for almost sixty years was associated with teacher training and art education. The Alec Clegg building, in particular, has a quote engraved on the side which was a favourite of Clegg’s and which he often used to illustrate his attitude towards education, creativity and its function and significance. Woodward was trying to remember the quote when we first met over lunch in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park cafe, then when I visited the archive Woodward gave me a copy of a book of quotes from Clegg’s speeches and books on education, which he compiled in the 1980s and wrote an introduction to, of which the loaves and hyacinths quote is at the start. Clegg reveals in one of the quotes that he sees the loaves as representing the building blocks of education, the facts and figures that make up the basic diet of information all children must learn, easily testable and quantifiable. The hyacinths refer to things which are not so easy to measure, such as enthusiasm, compassion and confidence which are no less important for defining who a person is and how they will act. Clegg considered that education was too concerned with the loaves, which could fulfil useful, practical functions such as contributing to the GDP of a country, but that the hyacinths were just as important in bringing out the expressive, imaginative, creative side of education.
* My visit also presented an opportunity to find out a bit more about the Basic Design movement with an exhibition about artist and educator Tom Hudson split between the small Garden Gallery and the foyer of the National Arts Education Archive, comprising examples of his work, his students’ work and that of his contemporaries. I was interested to see Britain described as a ‘backwater in terms of contemporary art’ in the 1950s, with art education still based on nineteenth century academic principles and craft skills. When Hudson became Head of Foundation at Leicester School of Art, therefore, he decided to enlist young artists with a commitment to exploratory methods of art education to shake things up; he also later taught at Cardiff College of Art. As Leicestershire was one of the counties which really embraced art in schools, and built up an impressive collection of original artworks under another innovative, inspirational Director of Education, Stewart Mason, it would be interesting to see whether there were any connections between development in art education at the Leicester School of Art.
Although as far as I am aware Basic Design applies to higher education, the Basic Design course’s ideas of removing the student’s pre-conceived ideas and teaching instead principles of visual language, such as colour, form and space, which could be applied across different disciplines, struck me as interesting in relation to what I have been reading about Gestalt theories of perception, which emphasise the viewer being encouraged to rediscover how to trust their own innate judgements, yet taught to recognise certain universal patterns they can apply to works of art among other things. One of Hudson’s friends was quoted as saying that he believed that it was a “fundamental right for all members of society to gain an understanding of modern visual language and systems in order to take control of their aesthetic world”, and that the role of the artist and education to change society, not reflect it.