Visit to the University of Loughborough art collection

Last month I spent a very pleasant early autumn afternoon wandering around Loughborough University’s sprawling campus, guided by a map of its extensive sculpture collection.

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/.

 


Visit to the University of Hull Art Collection

As part of my ongoing interest in educational (and specifically higher education) art collections, I recently went to visit the Hull University Art Collection at the Brynmor Jones Library. Founded in 1963, the collection was housed for many years in the university’s drama facility and concert venue Middleton Hall, designed in 1962 by Festival of Britain architect Leslie Martin, which incorporated a purpose-built exhibition space for the collection when it opened in 1967. The collection has since been returned to the library, which now has a dedicated gallery space.

Unlike other collections I have visited which set out to collect contemporary art, from the outset the collection focused on British art in the period 1890-1940. Due to the relatively minor sum allocated to purchases for the collection – £300 per year was given by philanthropist Thomas Ferens (who also gives his name to the city’s main art gallery) – the collection’s remit was by its own admission the ‘unfashionable and inexpensive’.

In spite of this, the collection gives a good sense of late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century British art, the groupings in which painters were involved (such as the Camden Town Group and Bloomsbury Group), the types of places they travelled to (from the landscapes of Cornwall to more exotic destinations), and the educational system of which they were a part – for example, through the inclusion of paintings by Slade Professor Henry Tonks. The collection is particularly strong on portraiture, further giving a sense of networks and connections between artists (and other artistic figures at the time such as writers). The collection also includes examples of the Contemporary Lithographs, an important interwar patronage scheme: a particular highlight is the floral ‘Still Life’ by Ivon Hitchens.

Mid-twentieth century sculpture is also well-represented, including the work of Bernard Meadows and Henry Moore.

Although the collection has its own exhibition space, a small number of artworks are dispersed around the library and for me the highlights were those I saw outside the gallery: one was a relief by the émigré sculptor Willi Soukop, on one outside wall of the building, which cleverly drew on the brick in which the building is built to depict an owl (the art collection has since acquired a maquette for the piece and other work by Soukop depicting owls). The other was a large hanging tapestry by Harold Cohen, woven by Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh. Although I hadn’t come across Cohen before, he created a number of artworks for corporate clients – this one was commissioned for the new London headquarters of BP in 1966 – and was an innovator in the use of computers in his work.The collection no longer restricts itself to its time period of 1890-1940, and has continued to be added to, whether with the support of the Contemporary Arts Society, through the gifting or loan of artworks by members of staff, or through supporters and bequests.


Willi Soukop’s Donkey in Harlow

I was briefly in Harlow earlier this week, and took the opportunity to track down a couple of sculptures on residential estates, which I didn’t manage to get to on my previous visit to Harlow.

One of the sculptures I was most excited about seeing was Willi Soukop’s bronze donkey, which sits in a quiet residential estate called Pittman’s Fields.

One of the reasons I was so keen to see the donkey was that I have seen a photo of a cast of the sculpture that was exhibited at the 1949 Pictures for Schools exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery. Soukop was involved in Pictures for Schools for many years, and was a member of the committees that selected sculptures for display at the exhibitions.

The Donkey sculpture was originally commissioned for Dartington Hall; Soukop taught sculpture at the independent Dartington Hall School, as well as other private schools and art colleges. I believe it was installed as a play sculpture in Harlow 1955.

The sculpture was smaller than I expected, but rather sweet, and I was encouraged that local people were well aware of its existence (it was quite hidden; after walking around in circles for some time, I was directed to it by three different people).


A London public art trip: Peter Peri, Willi Soukop and the Royal Festival Hall

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to spend a day in London in the expert company of Dr Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West, two researchers with backgrounds and ongoing research interests in public art and the London County Council (LCC): Dawn’s PhD work on William Mitchell and Anthony Hollaway as design consultants for the LCC was a major catalyst for my interest in post-war public art as a subject for academic study, and Rosamund is currently undertaking a PhD at Kingston University about public art commissions on post-war LCC housing estates.

We started at the Royal Festival Hall, where we saw the collaborative ‘festival quilt’. This large (although easy to miss – I’d never seen it before, despite visiting the Festival Hall on a number of occasions) artwork is composed of squares contributed by women’s groups from across the country commemorating landmark events, figures, inventions and developments in British history, from the 1851 Great Exhibition (the Festival of Britain, for which the quilt was commissioned, followed 100 years later) to the invention of the sewing machine, to cultural phenomena such as jazz and cinema, in a variety of styles. It’s full of detail and visual appeal and has aged well; it’s one of the quirkier aspects of this landmark building, which is well worth a look as a cultural document of the interests and values of a time and as a participatory, collaborative piece of art created by ‘ordinary people’. We also saw ‘Sunbathers’, a work by the Hungarian artist Peter Peri from the Festival of Britain which, after years of being lost and neglected, has been recently restored and resited high-up in the Festival Hall following a public awareness and funding campaign. Its athletic, interlinked figures now gleam pristinely in the nude, yet are strangely anonymous in their terracotta-coloured concrete.

Although sculpture was less popular among buyers at Pictures for Schools than paintings, prints and embroideries (mainly, probably, because it was more expensive and less easy to site in the school), Peter Peri was a regular exhibitor at Pictures for Schools. His work was, in its realism and everyday subject matter, such as small-scale sculptural depictions of children at play and leisure, characteristic of the mood and style of the exhibitions.

Peri’s work was part of a wider context of realist art promoted by critics such as John Berger for its accessibility and humanism; it emerged out of a context of politicised networks of artists such as the Artists’ International Association, founded in the 1930s, which worked to promote the status of the artist in society, provide employment for artists, raise public appreciation and increase opportunities to enjoy the arts, and to create social change through art. Peri was prolific in his public commissions for patrons such as schools and local authorities; writing in the New Statesman in the 1950s, Berger argued that, far from fitting into the fashionable London art world, his work came into its own when situated in workaday settings such as the school.For me, the most effective work we saw by Peter Peri on the tour was that which was still part of the fabric of the places where it was first situated. The best work of his we saw was ‘Following the Leader’ (1949), a relief on the exterior of a central stairwell of an otherwise nondescript earlier block of flats in a now-gentrified area of Vauxhall. Utilising coloured concrete, it depicts a ring of children ascending the brickwork hand-in-hand, tendons stretched and hair and skirts blowing in the wind. Although apparently simple, the feeling with which Peri has moulded the faces of the children, and the sense of play, movement, youth and vitality, he creates, gives it a quality which is touching and timeless. His real skill was to communicate a sense of relatability and humanity in these figures, despite their scale and necessarily being viewed from a distance.Although commemorating a sombre subject, children lost in the Blitz, it has less of the naivety and idealisation of motherhood, youth and childhood that characterised much of the work of the social realist genre, and which can be seen in his ‘Children Playing’ (1951-2) and in the exaggeratedly healthy, muscular figures of ‘Boys Playing Football’ (1951-2), two exterior murals on the nearby South Lambeth Estate.

We were fortunate to be able to see all these works in situ; the significance of all these artworks, and the social, historical and political context in which they were commissioned, has now been recognised by their listing, as part of a wider drive by Historic England to recognise and promote the public art of the period. However, the scale of gentrification of the once working-class areas of south London we visited was stark – like many across London, several of the estates were awaiting or had already undergone a process of redevelopment, with former council developments replaced with housing aimed at a far wealthier demographic, and now largely removed from the social purpose for which it was intended, and the democratic and inclusive spirit in which the artworks were commissioned.

One victim of this process of rebuilding was a 1956 concrete mural by Willi Soukop (another European emigre who exhibited at Pictures for Schools), inspired by the story of the Pied Piper yet noticeably more abstract in its shapes and style than the work of Peri, previously situated on a community hall on the Elmington estate in Camberwell. Although its value had been recognised enough for it to be retained and incorporated into a new development once the hall was demolished, it had been hidden behind foliage in a new nature garden, surrounded by modern flats, where its visual impact was considerably lessened.


Visit to John W Mills to discuss his involvement in Pictures for Schools

Lion in a cage John W MillsLast month I made a visit to sculptor John W Mills at his home of 47 years, Hinxworth Place in Hertfordshire, to follow up on correspondence via telephone and email regarding his involvement in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions and friendship with its founder, Nan Youngman. Mills started submitting sculptures and prints to Pictures for Schools as a student at the Royal College of Art in the late-1950s. Although he did not know Youngman when he first submitting artworks to Pictures for Schools, Mills later became a close friend of hers through his professional relationship and friendship with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea. Mills shared his expertise on the ciment fondu technique for casting sculpture (something he has written books on) with Rea and visited and socialised at Rea and Youngman’s studios and home in Cambridge. In the early 1960s, Mills was invited to serve on the sculpture committee which selected artworks for Pictures for Schools exhibitions alongside fellow sculptors Elisabeth Frink and Willi Soukop. He was also on the planning committee for Pictures for Schools between 1965 and 1970. This comprised a small group of artists together with educators, a local authority education officer and the scheme’s administrators, which met annually.

Hinxworth is close to the borders of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and a twenty minute drive from Cambridge. Set in three acres of land, the grounds contain Mills’ studios (Mills is still actively undertaking commissions), as well as a collection of his work on display outside; Mills welcomes visits from schools, who come to see his work in the grounds. I also met Mills’ wife of sixty years, Jo, a former ballet dancer, and it became clear that both John and Jo were part of a highly sociable network of artists and other creative people which centred around Youngman and Rea’s base at Paper Mills in Cambridge and consisted of artists, writers and academics living all across East Anglia. I showed the Mills a photo of Mills’ small bronze sculpture ‘Lion in a Cage’, which is part of the Derbyshire collection of original artworks for schools, as well as Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues for 1967 and 1969 (both years Mills contributed) to trigger memories. The couple recognised a high proportion of the names in the Pictures for Schools catalogues as friends, peers, colleagues and former tutors of Mills, describing the roster of artists as ‘quite a line-up’. The couple made exclamations and comments upon seeing the names of certain artists. These included Fred Brill, who was Principal of Chelsea School of Art in the 1960s, Cambridge painter Julia Ball, Mary Hoad, Principal of St Albans School of Art (where Mills also taught for many years), who was described as ‘a great friend of Nan Youngman’, Arnold van Praag, described as ‘a great friend of mine who became a very influential painter at Camberwell’, Ralph Brown, who Mills says was grouped together with the Kitchen Sink School, and Carel Weight, who taught Mills at Junior Art School in Hammersmith from the age of 14.

I found the visit really useful to add colour and context to my understanding of the post-war art world. Mills particularly emphasised the word ‘post-war’ in my project title, saying it was ‘the key thing’; studying at art school as a teenager among artists who had returned from fighting in the war as ‘very serious people’ clearly had a profound effect on him, as well as his emphasis on using figurative, realist sculpture as a form of storytelling and means of communication. I also enjoyed hearing more about Mills’ time as a resident of Digswell Arts Trust, a large house in Welwyn Garden City where Cambridgeshire Director of Education Henry Morris established a trust for sculptors, painters, potters and weavers which provided subsidised accommodation and studio space and aimed to remedy some of the aesthetic deficiencies Morris saw in the new towns which were built after the war.

It was also interesting to hear how Mills saw Pictures for Schools as fitting into the post-war art world – he explained that it was a decidedly populist exhibition, which aimed to have a wide appeal, something which was sometimes at odds with emerging trends in the art world in the 1960s. We also discussed how it compared with other exhibitions Mills took part in such as Young Contemporaries and the Royal Academy summer shows, and Pictures for Schools emerged as a series of exhibitions which was both very well respected and well-organised.

I also got a sense of approaches and attitudes towards art education at the time when Pictures for Schools was in operation, as well as gaining a more rounded knowledge of aspects of Pictures for Schools I had discovered through archival research. For instance, it was really interesting to hear from Mills about the process of selecting sculptures, and the criteria which were used to decide which sculptures were appropriate – Mills recalls that there was very much an emphasis on quality and craftsmanship, sometimes more so than the content or subject matter of the sculpture and what it portrayed. It was also interesting to discover that each selection committee – whether for sculpture, prints, painting or embroidery – was responsible for how the work was hung or displayed, and that artists were given a high degree of freedom by Youngman in these aspects of the exhibition.

I also got to know more about what Youngman was like as a person, and what influenced her, for example Mills said she had a great sense of fun and loved to share dirty jokes, but was also committed to her painting practice and cared passionately about art education. She also emerges as a figure who was well-liked by different sets of people. Mills paints a picture of Youngman and Rea’s base at Paper Mills as being an open, supportive environment which acted as a venue for many discussions around art and education.

One of the most important things I got from talking to Mills was a sense of how interconnected the networks of artists and educators involved in Pictures for Schools were, for example through studying and teaching at educational institutions, but also through membership of organisations such as the Artists’ International Association and living in various geographical concentrations such as East Anglia/Cambridge/Essex. I also got a strong sense of collaboration between sculptors – of sharing techniques, and helping each other with the production of sculptures – as well as a side to Pictures for Schools that was highly sociable.


Visit to the amazing Derby & Derbyshire School Library Service

After speaking to people who were in the past involved in school museum services, I wanted to visit one of the few which is still in action to see first-hand the type of materials which are in a county council collection and how it operates. Last week I made a trip to Derby to see the collection of original artworks for schools held in the Derby & Derbyshire School Library Service. This service was started in 1936, with a grant from the Carnegie Trust, and was for many years run by Museum Organiser Barbara Winstanley under the Derbyshire Director of Education J. Longland. In the post-war period, artworks were chosen with the assistance of Philip James, who was involved with the Arts Council and its predecessor CEMA (The Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), artist Mary Hoad, and artist and educator Evelyn Gibbs.

Barbara Winstanley was clearly a pivotal figure in the history of the development of school loan collections, as well as to the Derbyshire collection. She wrote a handbook for school-loan services for the Museums Association in 1959, and the museum service’s annual reports reveal that representatives from local authorities all over the county (and even around the world) visited the Derbyshire collection to see how they could achieve something similar (watch a 1962 clip from Midland Montage, featuring the Museum Service, on the Midland Archive for Central England website). Furthermore her Director of Education, J. Longland, wrote the foreword for one of the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues, showing the high regard in which the Derbyshire model was held. Winstanley’s vision continues to inspire those responsible for running the service today, who “try to stick to her ethos of maintaining real materials for real people”.

Having moved since its early days elsewhere in the city, the collection is housed on the first floor of a big, grand, ornate old girls’ school building built in 1917 (which, it is fair to say, has seen better days) and is now combined with a library service. The School Museum Service was closed and mothballed in 1990; paintings were stored in the old school gym, which can now only be entered with a hard hat on. Luckily those who ran it believed it was an important service to keep and caused enough of a ruckus that it was reopened in 1993 (partly, perhaps, to keep them quiet). Today, the service is run as a traded service which must compete for schools’ attention and funding with other services such as school meals. Schools subscribe a couple of hundred pounds a year for use of the museum service (paying a slightly higher price for the inclusion of paintings), then a very small sum per term per painting.

Paintings stacked in toilets

Rather surreally hundreds of framed paintings and prints are stacked in the tiled cubicles of the school toilets (one even still has the ubiquitous ‘so and so loves so and so’ graffiti on the ceiling!), ranging from a highly-stylised Henry Moore hand-printed textile showing a reclining figure, to paintings and prints by famous figures of British post-war art including Jacob Epstein and Elisabeth Frink, to graphic architectural prints by Edward Bawden, to oils by Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman. The collection is strong on prints by Clifford Webb, as well as Ronald Pope, who lived in Derbyshire and collaborated with architect Basil Spence on artworks for cathedrals. Many of the paintings and prints depict local scenes, or geological or architectural details of the landscape such as rock faces, roads or mines. A minority are entirely abstract. One of my favourites was a large, busy, brightly-coloured lithograph by Eduardo Paolozzi (though it dates from slightly later than the period covered by Pictures for Schools), which draws the eye back again and again to explore different details of a collage-style composition which references everything from mosaics to idealised, children’s book-style imagery of children to technology, the space race and pop advertising. Paintings, drawings, fabric collages and sculptures are also dotted on display about the building, from John Lally’s undulating, abstracted, pastel-hued take on Derbyshire landmark Haddon Hall to a lovely 1960 textile piece in autumnal shades of brown and grey by Sadie M Allen, depicting in detail a lively, hilly view of a traditional Welsh village.

In a story now familiar from elsewhere, artwork by Lowry was sold off long ago, but the majority of the collection remains. After the painting collection’s listing on the BBC/Public Catalogue Foundation’s website Your Paintings, which has compiled photographs of all of the country’s publicly-owned oil paintings, a number of artists have been in touch with stories about how their artwork was acquired, and in some cases now-elderly artists have visited the collection to see artworks they made at the start of their careers, after which their style changed a lot. The service is also contacted by organisers of retrospectives of certain artists, as well as relatives and collectors, and lends paintings to galleries and universities in the county.

Sculpture boxesHowever, it was the sculpture collection which I found especially interesting, containing wooden, stone, resin, concrete and bronze objects by artists including Peter Peri, Willi Soukop and Betty Rea, all of whom are known for their work for schools and public places. Housed next to the service’s collection of museum objects such as models, animal specimens and stuffed birds, each sculpture is contained within its own made-to-size wooden box, created when the service had in-house carpenters, with a carry handle and sliding front panel. Each sculpture stands on a wooden base which slides snugly into the box. I wasn’t prepared for how small the sculptures would be: most were on an intimate, hand-holdable scale that seemed to invite close and tactile interaction. Though some were abstract compositions, or offered fairly straightforward representations of animals, several depicted humble, familiar subjects – a young girl sitting forward on a chair, a grandmother combing a granddaughter’s hair and, most evocatively, a ‘little girl shouting’ – and it was clear that these were well-crafted, thoughtful objects showing a high level of workmanship.

Little girl shouting Peter Peri box

Service Manager Denise Pritchard is incredibly passionate about the collection and service, and proud of its innovative heritage. Ahead of my visit she had found me out the boxes of record cards listing individual works in the collection, their artist and medium, as well as their method of acquisition. This revealed that, as well as buying directly from the artist, the museum service had acquired artworks from organisations such as the Crafts Centre of Great Britain, Arts & Crafts Society and Embroiderer’s Guild, shops such as Fortnum and Mason and Liberty, another museum service, Nottingham, and exhibitions such as the Contemporary Hanging Exhibition. Really helpfully, Denise had pulled out all the cards relating to works acquired through Pictures for Schools and Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions (Denise noticed a strong Welsh theme in the collection, for no apparent reason – could this partly be attributed to buying work from Pictures for Welsh Schools exhibitions?), which numbered well over 100. This policy of visiting exhibitions, guilds and artists’ studios continues today, and the museum service is still a patron of, often local, artists. Denise had also gathered together the museum service’s annual reports, which referred to Barbara Winstanley being on the Pictures for Schools selection committee, and mentioned visits made to Pictures for Schools exhibitions and purchases being made there.

Record cards

Although a good proportion of schools in Derbyshire still subscribe to the School Museum Service, unfortunately it appears that schools are reluctant to borrow original works of art even though Denise is clear it is “something they can get so much from”. Primary schools tend to make more use of the service than secondary schools and, although sculpture is more popular than paintings and prints, the most popular artefacts tend to be things like African masks which can be used as drawing aids. By the 1980s, the service was tending to send out more reproductions of classic artworks such as paintings by Monet than original artworks, which Denise considers unsatisfactory because “they all a had similar shade of green going through them, and everything was reduced to the same size, which would make you think artists only paint in one certain size … schools didn’t really want them and they were pleased when we came and got them”. Today, schools are concerned about where to hang original paintings, and about insurance and security, and there is a lack of knowledge about how to use original works of art. Where schools do make use of the artworks, it is often due to an innovative head – even when individual art teachers are interested, it can often be a tough job to convince heads to release school funds. This is a situation which Denise thinks will only get worse as the curriculum changes and schools are forced to focus on other sides of the curriculum; art, she says, needs to be promoted as benefiting all sorts of areas of education. Part of the problem is that some of aspects of the collection are now dated; nowadays museum materials are often offered as part of a bigger package containing extra, printed material. Although paintings are interesting and fascinating in their own right, Denise thinks there is a need to offer in-service training on how to ‘use’ paintings. Schools need to be encouraged to use artworks which will capture children’s attention and prompt them to look and gain an understanding of what the artists did and why they did it.

Denise fears that the collection will be dismantled and no longer be together as a collection with a history, but hopes that future solutions could include touring exhibitions or lending artworks to local businesses. However, there are still examples of schools making good use of the collection, including a recent exhibition where school students visited and selected artworks from the service based on five defined themes.