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illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.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.