UMIST: A formative educational environment

umistMy PhD concerns not just the changing experience of post-war education, but the changing places in which it took place and the significance of educational environments, including the incorporation of examples of original and contemporary works of art and design into school buildings. This week I’ve been thinking about an educational environment that has been significant to me, the University of Manchester’s former UMIST campus in Manchester, where I lived as an undergraduate. UMIST is currently subject to a Manchester City Council consultation around a proposed Strategic Regeneration Framework, which would see a loss of the campus’ modernist heritage as well as areas of green space. Manchester Modernist Society is currently encouraging interested parties to comment on and object to the proposals that have suggested in the SRF. Here the comments I submitted:

“I would like to comment on the North Campus as a longstanding-resident and user of the city centre, including as a student, and a visitor to the city centre. As an undergraduate student at the University of Manchester (2005-2008) I spent three years living in Fairfield Hall, part of North Campus, and found it a very attractive and pleasant place to live, and also to undertake student activities. For example, I played in the University of Manchester Fellows Orchestra, which rehearsed in the Renold Building, and performed in the Sackville Building, and as a student and alumni of Manchester University I have also made use of the Joule Library, also based in Sackville Building. I found North Campus a very pleasant place to live as a student, well-connected but peaceful due to the lack of road traffic and used in the summer for outdoor activities, particularly in Vimto Gardens, a well-known landmark and meeting place. I found it to have a strong sense of place, both due to the campus architecture and sense of coherence of the campus plan and landscaping, and due to the use of public art referencing the area’s history and the way in which the university had shaped it. Its identity is both strong and distinct from other areas in Manchester City Centre. I consider those formative years spent living on North Campus to have piqued an interest in twentieth century art and design that stay with me to this today – I am now undertaking a PhD on the subject at the University of Central Lancashire (co-supervised by Dr Hannah Neate of Manchester Metropolitan University), and write regularly on public art, planning, landscaping, education and design, including for the modernist magazine.

Immediately following graduation I spent five years living in M1 (in the vicinity of Piccadilly Station), followed by eighteen months living in Castlefield, and continued to visit UMIST, particularly in the summer, as a quiet and green place to sit, read and have picnics. I also used UMIST regularly (and continue to do so) as a traffic-free pedestrian and cyclist route from the Piccadilly area to Oxford Road. I have also visited on a number of occasions as part of Manchester Modernist Society tours and events, and learnt about the significance of the architecture and the campus plan; I myself used to take visitors to show them Hans Tisdall’s mosaics in the Faraday Building, and they have been featured in my magazine the Shrieking Violet:

I no longer live in the city centre, but I work there and continue to visit UMIST, both as a green space and as a traffic-free pedestrian and cycle route heading out of the city centre for South Manchester.

I am concerned that the North Campus SRF focuses on the heritage of Sackville Building (and rightly so) but fails to take into account the architectural significance of a number of the mid-twentieth century ‘modernist’ buildings, which have both architectural significance (particularly the Renold Building) and as a cluster of buildings developed at a time of scientific, educational and technological expansion, which represents a significant shift towards modernity for Manchester’s cityscape. This demonstration of modernity and innovation is reinforced by North Campus’s proximity to the Mancunian Way, itself an innovative and high-profile example of Manchester’s post-war planning.

I am concerned about the removal of Hans Tisdall’s the Elements mosaics and I am particularly concerned that the mural in the Renold Building is not highlighted as a heritage asset, despite the fact that it is by one of Britain’s most important mid-twentieth century abstract artists, Victor Pasmore, who also contributed significantly to the development of British post-war art education through the Basic Design movement. Pasmore’s Renold Building mural is a rare example of a publicly accessible and viewable work by an artist by that stature in Manchester – indeed, his most celebrated work, the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, County Durham, has been the subject of extensive restoration and renewed interest in recent years. The mural is particularly significant, I feel, due to the post-war historical context in which it was commissioned, when educational and state bodies (including a number of universities) assumed responsibilities for patronage of contemporary art.

At a time when English Heritage is promoting the listing and retaining of post-war public artworks, I am also concerned that Anthony Hollaway’s Hollaway Wall is underlooked in the report, and that there are suggestions to shorten or move this Grade II listed structure, which acts as both an artwork and as a sound buffer. I consider the Hollaway Wall to be a rare and significant example of an architectural sculpture in Manchester, by an artist who built up a considerable reputation for his work across the country in the post-war period, particularly as an in-house design consultant for the London County Council. Along with William Mitchell, he was innovative in his experimentation and exploration of the use of materials for artworks in public places, including concrete, and was versatile in his media (for example, he designed a modern stained glass window for Manchester Cathedral). Hollaway’s work in Manchester, including the Hollaway Wall, commissioned with the local architects Fairhurst and Sons, is also a good example of a post-war emphasis on collaboration between architects, artists, designers and builders.

Finally, as alluded to previously, as a longstanding user of the space, I am concerned about any loss of green space in the North Campus area, including a reduction of space in Vimto Gardens, particularly in a city where parks and green spaces are in short supply. Although Sackville Gardens is nearby, it attracts a considerably different demographic and has a different atmosphere, due to its proximity to the clubbing area of Canal Street, where outdoor drinking is much more established. I consider the area’s landscaping, including mature cherry trees, to be one of the most successful aspects of the campus, which gives it a strong sense of place.

I would welcome a reuse of existing buildings, including railway arches and Sackville Building, and feel that an increase in the number of people living, working in and visiting the area would justify the retaining of significant areas of green space and make it an attractive place in which to live, work and visit.

I am also extremely concerned about any proposal to add roads through North Campus, and to increase the flow of vehicle through it, as I have appreciated and regularly used it as a quiet, traffic-free route as a pedestrian and cyclist. I am concerned that a road would both damage the atmosphere and landscaping of the campus, as well as leading to increased traffic, noise and pollution. The area is already bounded by several major roads, from the A6 to the Mancunian Way.”

Visit to Peterlee

2015-07-14 18.09.43I recently went on a long-awaited trip to Peterlee, County Durham, a new town built in 1948 to house the area’s mining communities (photos by Steve Hanson), enabled by the government’s 1946 New Towns Act. I had long wanted to visit Peterlee as an example of the way in which architecture and art were brought closer together in the post-war period, and due to the involvement of the artist Victor Pasmore in the development of the town. Pasmore’s involvement encompassed landscaping as well as, most famously, the sculptural concrete Apollo Pavilion which was named in honour of the 1969 moon landing and provides a focal point for the Sunny Blunts area of the town.

2015-07-14 18.13.28I was really struck by the contrast between Peterlee and other nearby villages such as Blackhall Colliery, as well as the large town of Hartlepool, where the predominantly terraced and Victorian housing was extremely dense and packed together. In contrast, Peterlee had a real feeling of spaciousness and greenery about it. Whilst remaining part of an overall coherence of design (despite the near-universal replacement of the original flat roofs and several instances of infill new-build development), a mix of housing styles – from flats and maisonettes to semi-detached and larger detached houses – were distributed in a way that seemed to complement and interact with the gently undulating landscape and give an overall impression of openness. Although many of the original post-war schools seemed to have been replaced, I was also struck by the number of modernist churches distributed throughout the estate, in wildly differing architectural styles, and noticed that some of the original pubs and facilities had been retained.

2015-07-14 18.10.37Despite the hope and optimism it was meant to symbolise, Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion soon became neglected, vandalised and unloved; there is a great clip of Pasmore returning to Peterlee in the 1980s in this documentary about British abstract artists, and remaining defiant in the face of angry residents who wish to see it pulled down (from around 17 minutes in). Thankfully, the Pavilion has undergone a restoration in recent years, with its murals repainted and lighting reinstated. In common with an increasing number of post-war public artworks, it is now listed. On the day I visited I was pleased to see groups of local young people using it and for a variety of purposes, from a space for meeting, gathering and chatting and interacting with it in different ways including climbing on it and even doing press-ups.

2015-07-14 18.07.05More information about Peterlee and the Apollo Pavilion can be found at

Loaves and hyacinths: Alec Clegg and Bretton Hall

Alec Clegg quote Bretton HallIf thou of fortune be bereft

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.

Report from ‘Murals in Britain 1920-1970: Revisions, revelations and risks’ conference

This one-day conference brought together academics, writers and representatives of bodies including the Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage to discuss the issues surrounding the discovery, rescue, restoration and future of twentieth century murals, from recognising their value as artworks and analysing their subject matter to giving them protection by applying for listed status. It also outlined some of the difficulties facing murals, such as what to do with them in cases where they have been saved but their ‘host building’ has been demolished.

The conference was introduced by Nick Rampley, Vice-Principal of Morley College, who introduced the various murals at Morley College and described the difficulties faced during in their existence, from artworks being destroyed by enemy bombing during the second world war to the Arts Council giving meagre funds for their replacement

Professor Claire Willsdon from the University of Glasgow then gave some context to mural painting in Britain, arguing that there is no continuous tradition of mural-painting in the country. She did, however, identify several nineteenth century examples, such as murals in Westminster Cathedral, Oxford Union and Manchester town hall, as key antecedents to the twentieth century mural and suggested that there was a trend in mural painting towards making meaning out of the past and ‘inventing tradition’ to reinforce and justify the present. Dr Alan Powers went on to ask why murals are so neglected in art history, describing the problem of gaps in knowledge left by lost and forgotten murals and acknowledging that art historians can’t write about art that isn’t there. It was suggested that after the war art represented everyday life – perhaps as a soothing effect.

Later, Dr Margaret Garlake explained that murals were reinvented post-1945 as part of the extensive reconstruction programme, asking ‘what were murals for in reconstructing society?’ She suggested that murals ‘decorate buildings and describe what they are for’, and defined their primary purpose as being to ‘take you into another space beyond where you are standing’. She referenced artist Victor Pasmore, who in a 1951 article for the Listener, talked of a new language and form of art appropriate for a reconstructed society. By the 1950s, she said, modernism had been ‘naturalised’. Garlake focused on several murals, from Francis Carr’s textured mural for a school, which was designed to be touched, to murals for London County Council schools by Robert Adams and Robyn Denus, as well as those by artists such as Victor Pasmore, who saw murals as ‘an extension of their private practice’, doing away with earlier emphasis on narrative. She also discussed the role of patrons, who ‘acknowledged art as fundamental to civilisation’, and identified that bodies such as the LCC tended to commission younger artists, who were both cheaper and often more inventive.

Dr Lynn Pearson, who has extensively researched and documented public art, meanwhile, spoke about the problems facing the future of murals, asking ‘what are we going to do with all these old murals?’, even when they can be saved. Dr Jeremy Howard from the Decorated School network, likewise, touched on the issues surrounding the restoration of old murals, suggesting that restoring artworks in schools can create a museum-style atmosphere or a ‘temple of art’. Henriette Billings, Conservation Advisor for the Twentieth Century Society, and Dr Roger Bowdler, Head of Designation for English Heritage, then shared examples of recent attempts – both successful and unsuccessful – by the two organisations to save twentieth century murals, by artists including William Mitchell, often in collaboration. They shared some characteristics that make murals unique and interesting, even if they are on otherwise ordinary buildings.

Andy Ellis from the Public Catalogue Foundation wrapped up the day by sharing the Your Paintings project, which has photographed and created an online catalogue of all the nation’s thousands of publicly owned works in oil and acrylic. He said that 80 per cent of the paintings are in store, and that around two thirds have never been photographed before. The project has uncovered new information about many of the paintings which was not previously known. Members of the public are invited to tag paintings in the collection, share favourite paintings through social media networks, and contribute any special knowledge they have about a particular painting. It is hoped that this can eventually be expanded into a form of ‘citizen curating’ where members can rate paintings and say which paintings they would like to come out of store. Ellis also said that in future, funding permitting, the project would like to expand into other art forms such as sculpture and, potentially, murals. Another plan is to create a ‘Masterpieces in Schools’ programme, which would lend schools an artwork from the catalogue for the day, together with a curator.

Questions from the audience included the role of networks such as the Artists International Association which, it was suggested, gave help to refugee artists arriving in Britain, as well as the status of artworks such as graffiti (there was some debate over this, however a distinction was made between murals and graffiti that murals are commissioned and expected to remain in situ, whereas graffiti is by its nature ephemeral and temporary). In the audience was Brian Whitton, who shared his memories of working with Nan Youngman on the Pictures for Schools exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in 1952-53, for a nominal sum. He was a schoolboy in Wimbledon at the time and was introduced to Youngman through a schoolfriend who was living with a good friend of hers named Mrs Baker (Mrs Baker died around 2005, ten years after Youngman). Whitton recalled that artists dropped their work off at the gallery over a period of 2-3 days, for selection by a committee including Youngman, and thinks some of them were famous although he can’t remember their names. He also suggested that there are some holdings of Betty Rea, a friend of Youngman’s, in Cambridge.

The conference was valuable because it introduced several high-profile writers and researchers on public art and murals in Britain, who discussed the social role played by public artworks in the twentieth century as well as how they fitted into the post-war reconstruction process, from being included in high-profile exhibitions such as the Festival of Britain to their incorporation into everyday buildings such as schools. Murals were also linked to ideas such as modernity and citizenship. In addition, the conference highlighted some of the issues facing researchers looking at artworks of the period, in particular the lack of status often conferred on these types of artworks, and shared what is being done to preserve these artworks for the future. Of particular interest was the paper on the Your Paintings website, as it introduced the idea of ‘citizen curating’, as opposed to relying on ‘expert’ knowledge; the project allows people to interact with publicly-owned paintings. Also of interest was the ‘Masterpieces for Schools’ scheme being proposed as an extension of the Your Paintings project, which would allow children to experience artworks first-hand. It was interesting that Pictures for Schools was brought up during the question and answers session by Pauline Lucas, who has written on associated artists Nan Youngman and Evelyn Gibbs, and a useful opportunity to meet someone (Brian Whitton) who was involved in administering the scheme – if only in a very small way.