Exhibition visit: Ruth Ewan – Asking Out, Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Working across a variety of media to explore historical narratives and representations, and bring to light untold figures and stories, Ruth Ewan has long been one of my favourite contemporary artists. I was very excited, therefore, when I heard she had been working with the National Arts Education Archive to develop new work for a show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Asking Out is an installation in the Longside Gallery which explores the work of Muriel Pyrah, an untrained teacher in Airedale Middle School in Castleford. Whilst Pyrah was not necessarily immersed in the latest ideas about teaching, appearing to base her work on her own experiences of teaching and ideas about students’ needs in the classroom, her work fitted with the progressive agenda of the West Riding Education Authority, who celebrated and promoted her ideas as an example of then-fashionable modes of non-hierarchical, child-centred learning which encompassed learning through doing and direct experience.

The exhibition takes as its starting point the concept of ‘asking out’: Pyrah’s students were required to contribute verbally to her classroom, to articulate their work and ideas, to ask questions and to critique each other’s work. From a relatively deprived town in the Yorkshire coalfield, Pyrah’s students were taken out to explore the world beyond the classroom – into local streetscapes, landscapes and industries, further afield to sites of historical interest and even to London.The aim was to develop confidence in Pyrah’s students, both in themselves and their surroundings. We can see this for ourselves in a set of films made in the early 1970s, towards the end of Pyrah’s career, when the cameras were invited into the classroom in order to share Pyrah’s work, and observe discussions among the children about what they’d seen, learned and experienced. The students appear lively and engaged, if sometimes a little awkwardly formal.An accompanying publication to Asking Out, containing essays and interviews with some of Pyrah’s former students, complicates the narrative, suggesting that her unorthodox methods did not work for or include everyone. Whilst some students thrived from being expected to talk in front of the class others, perhaps unsurprisingly, found the experience difficult and stressful. Pyrah also appeared to have very particular ideas about the ‘correct’ way of talking; use of local dialect was discouraged, adding to a sense of distance from other students in the school.Ewan has reactivated and brought to life Pyrah’s ideas, asking us to experience them for ourselves and inviting visitors to participate in and contribute to a reconstruction of her 1970s classroom. The overall impression is stimulating and colourful: the eye is constantly drawn towards text and images. As well as familiar wooden schooldesks, the room is full of artefacts to explore: a piano and songbooks; a nature table, full of tactile objects; maps and photographs showing features of the landscape; books and posters about how everyday goods are made; and a blackboard for writing, sharing and learning the meaning of interesting, unusual, difficult and favourite words.Above all, what comes across is the sense that the children were encouraged to look. Much of the children’s work, hung up around the classroom, is based on close and careful observation – of nature, of places, of the effect of the seasons.These historical artefacts are given added poignancy and power through their proximity to another installation encouraging, prioritising and revealing children’s ways of seeing. Frequencies by Colombian artist Oscar Murillo – who is currently nominated for the Turner Prize – brings together canvases on which children from schools across the world have been invited to doodle, as if drawing on their desks like generations of children before them. Displayed flat on table-tops, they reveal the preoccupations of children in very different countries, cities and contexts.Another complementary exhibition Transformations: Cloth & Clay at the National Arts Education Archive explores tensions between crafts and design, changing ideas about what these mean, and how they interacted with developments in the ways in which art was taught in schools, universities and experimental establishments such as Dartington Hall across the twentieth century.

What became clear to me across both Ewan’s installation and the NAEA exhibition was how many individuals were pioneering creative approaches to learning in post-war schools, and how much more I have to read, learn and think about.

Asking Out is at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/ruth-ewan-and-oscar-murillo

Transformations: Cloth & Clay is at the National Arts Education Archive, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Saturday 3 November: https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/transformations-cloth-and-clay

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Reflections on the International Standing Conference for the History of Education

I recently attended the International Standing Conference for the History of Education at the University of Porto, which was themed ‘Spaces and Places of Education’. Although I didn’t attend as many sessions as I would have liked because it was doubling as a holiday and a chance to explore the city, it was a really good opportunity to talk about my research in a different contexts and to hear international perspectives on histories of education. 

Of particular interest was the session ‘Educational history and the challenges of justice: Contested spaces and their legacies’, featuring papers by Emily Barker (University of Greenwich), Jona Garz (Humboldt-University Berlin) and Eleanor Simpson (University of Winchester). Covering topics from migrant children’s access to play spaces in post-war Britain, to schools for learning disabled children in Germany, to tabloid moralising around Section 28 and sex education in the 1980s, they explored concepts around justice and justice, ideas about ‘educability’ and who can be educated, socially defined categories of identity and inclusion, acceptance and intersectionality, the construction of social norms around ‘ordinary’ behaviour and family life, the othering of those who do not conform to this, and the spatial borders and boundaries placed around education.

Another session I enjoyed was ‘Transnational entanglements of Educational Spaces: Material, Affective and Imaginative Connections’, which explored transnational influences in progressive education. I was particularly pleased to hear from Lottie Hoare (University of Cambridge) about ‘Vanishing Primary Schools & 1970s Yorkshire’. Hoare’s paper focused on the Open University programme Balby Street Kids. Featuring leaders from the West Riding of Yorkshire education authority (disbanded the year before following the 1974 reorganisation of local government), including the recently-retired Director of Education Sir Alec Clegg, the programme was discussed as a defence and representation of progressive education and its aspirations for an imagined audience. The programme featured children at a school in a West Yorkshire mining community. As well as paying attention to their surroundings, through projects such as creative writing, the programme showed them engaged in movement, giving them physical confidence, as well as drama, in a re-enactment of Beowulf, presenting both a translocal and transnational picture at the same time as presenting a particular vision of English education. Although the programme was a documentary, the question and answer section highlighted its creative approach.

My paper took place in the session ‘Material, Textual, Imagined and Virtual Spaces of Education’. I was particularly interested in a joint paper by Nelleke Teughels and Wouter Egelmeers (KU Leuven) about Lantern Slide Projection in the Classroom: Virtual Spaces of Education (c.1880-1940)’.

Teughels and Egelmeers discussed the use of magic lantern slides in Belgian schools, as objects of direct and indirect observation. In subjects such as history, such visual aids were a way of bringing the inside and outside together, and the object into school. Used for ‘virtual travel’, magic lanten slides were both a substitute for and complementary to field trips, opening up new horizons for students. They highlighted the limitations of the sources they used – two educational journals published from different religious perspectives, which mentioned magic lantern slides without discussing them in detail.

The resulting discussion included comments about the link between photography and ‘truth’, the role of magic lantern slides in classification and the creation of pre-defined categories, and how educationalists wanted to see the world.

Some of the questions directed at the paper could as easily have been asked about Pictures for Schools, such as ‘how did the schools access the materials’ (through catalogues)? Was it possible to find out about the experiences of the students? What was the relationship between the magic lantern slides and object lessons in the 1920s, and educational ideas around intuition and sensing? How widespread was the use of these educational resources (it was often affected by a lack of funds)? How did these resources relate to new technology, such as radio and cinema?

The questions I was asked following my paper also gave me several perspectives to consider, such as:

  • How did Pictures for Schools fit into earlier school museum projects?
  • The children who answered questionnaires at Pictures for Schools appeared to use sophisticated vocabulary – what preparation did they have for the exhibitions?
  • Were all the answers this enthusiastic?
  • Was there any relationship betweenPictures for Schools and Elliott Eisner, who was also interested in critical education (and was very important in Brazil, where the asker was based)?

The conference had a strong strand to support early career researchers, and it was particularly beneficial to attend a session about publishing in journals concerning the history of education, such as History of Education Quarterly and Paedegogica Historica. The three pieces of advice that stood out to me were to 1) look at who’s on the reviewing board 2) consider how your work is internationally relevant and make it relevant to people in other countries and 3) that interdisciplinarity is encouraged.


Article about the National Arts Education Archive in the modernist magazine

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.


Visit to Cartwright Hall

I recently fulfilled a long-held ambition to visit Cartwright Hall in Bradford, and learn more about its impressive print collection, which was partially developed through a series of International Print Biennales held at the gallery between 1968 and 1990.

A small selection is on changing display in a dedicated print room, with more works available to browse on a screen. Many of the artists who were popular and active in Pictures for Schools are represented in the collection, including Julian Trevelyan and Peter Green. I was particularly taken by two lithographs by Michael Rothenstein. They were far more modern and abstract in appearance than the work he sold at Pictures for Schools, which often focused on motifs such as cockerels. The collection is still actively acquiring prints. Although I am often underwhelmed by her work, I loved a set of recent photogravure etchings by Cornelia Parker, inspired by the Fox Talbot glass collection.Cartwright Hall has recently developed a gallery dedicated entirely to the work of Bradford’s famous son David Hockney, showing off the gallery’s Hockney works and contextualising them within his upbringing and education in Bradford. I was interested in particular in his work for the city of Bradford. ‘A Bounce for Bradford’ (1987) was printed on newsprint and distributed in the local newspaper, the Telegraph and Argus, in order that everyone in Bradford had the chance to own a Hockney. He also designed covers for a local travel guide, and the phonebook.


Interesting journal article about Alec Clegg

Following on from my last article, about the School Prints at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield and their place in the history of the provision of artworks in schools in the West Riding of Yorkshire, I came across this interesting article by Cathy Burke in the History of Education journal about Alec Clegg, and the way in which his ideas of progressive education were shared among educators internationally.

To read visit http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/vb7bXMd6GsTqz7JBvDpk/full.


Exhibition visit: ‘School Prints’, Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield

I recently visited a small exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield about the School Prints, which emerged at a similar time to Pictures for Schools. The School Prints commissioned work by many of the artists who sold work at Pictures for Schools, including Julian Trevelyan, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein and LS Lowry, and several of those involved in Pictures for Schools, including Nan Youngman, Herbert Read and Audrey Martin, were on its advisory panel. Ultimately, however, Pictures for Schools, and supporters such as Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, reacted against the School Prints, believing that it did not go far enough, and that ‘original’ artworks such as paintings, sculptures and textiles were of more value to schools.

Some of the prints on display at the Hepworth had been accessioned from the West Yorkshire education service, although there was no mention in the exhibition of the fact that the West Riding, under Director of Education Alec Clegg, had once been regarded as one of the leading local education authorities for the provision of artworks to schools, and had created one of the country’s largest county loan collections. However, these efforts to provide artworks to local schools clearly still played some part in the cultural memory of the area. During my visit, a woman turned to the woman she was with and reminisced about attending a brand new school which had opened in 1952, and had a large, bright work of art on the wall which, she speculated, ‘must have had something to do with this’.

I was pleased to see quotes from students from a local secondary school, who had been trained as ‘art ambassadors’, on display alongside the artworks. My favourite comes from 13-year-old Alison Alute, who said: “All the different things going on in this painting makes a little voice in my head scream with excitement!”

I have reviewed the School Prints exhibition for Corridor8 at http://corridor8.co.uk/article/school-prints.


Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, Wednesday 31 January – Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley

I’ll be returning to Bradford School of Art on Wednesday 31 January to do another lecture in its Random Lecture series. The lectures take place at 12 noon; all welcome.

Bradford’s brutalist masterpieces: William Mitchell’s murals in Bradford, Bingley and Ilkley

Born in 1925, the artist and industrial designer William Mitchell’s work can be seen in towns and cities around the world. However, it does not hang on the wall of art galleries, but is an integral part of the buildings in which it is found. These range from everyday places such as schools, libraries, pubs, subway underpasses and the foyers of post-war towerblocks, to flagship buildings like Harrods and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool.

The talk will give an overview of Mitchell’s work and career, focusing in particular on three artworks by William Mitchell in the Bradford area which demonstrate his post-war work in municipal and civic contexts as well as for corporate and commercial clients. Using innovative techniques and working in media such as moulded concrete and fibreglass, all three murals are distinctively of Mitchell’s style, yet take different stylistic approaches, from abstracted pattern-making to incorporating elements of the history of the area in which they are located.

It will explore a series of concrete murals in Bradford’s Kirkgate market, built in 1973 to replace a previous Victorian market, by Mitchell or an assistant; thirteen fibreglass panels, commissioned for the former Bradford and Bingley Building Society headquarters in Bingley in the early 1970s and depicting the architectural and engineering landmarks of the area; and a large mural for the Ilkley Wool Secretariat, completed in 1968, which explores the history of wool manufacture locally.

These case studies will be used to highlight wider changes in attitudes towards post-war architecture, and the ways in which these types of artworks are regarded: whilst a new home has been sought in recent years for the Bingley murals, which were removed as the highly unpopular building in which they were situated was demolished, Mitchell’s Ilkley relief has been widely feted and was celebrated with Grade II listing by Historic England in 2015.