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illustrations for the educational Puffin picture book series, such as the close-up study ‘Penicillum’ (1948) from the unpublished follow-up to the Story of Plants, where aspects of nature are observed in a way that exaggerates and exacerbates their qualities and form.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.
This week I took advantage of travelling down south on family business to visit the Tate Archive on my way back. During this visit, I spent some time looking at an extensive photographic collection, which mainly consisted of photographs of Nan Youngman’s work, both in colour and in black and white. Although I had seen Youngman’s work reproduced in books, and several original paintings and sketches, I was really struck by the volume and diversity of her work, including early portraits of her friends and acquaintances, a wartime sketch of an air-raid shelter, later, slightly dreamy, hazy seascapes in pastel hues capturing children and families playing, paintings of technology such as radio telescopes, and striking paintings and drawings of industrial scenes, including one of a kiln belching black smoke in Stoke-on-Trent, a painting of a steelworks, a derelict-looking pigeon loft captured in sharp detail and one work depicting a traditional, small-scale house incongruously nestled next to a huge gas tower, as well as some touching drawings and paintings of family life and a photograph of a mural at Youngman and Rea’s Cambridge home the Hawks, painted by Youngman, Rea and Elizabeth Vellacott, inspired by a restaurant garden in France. It was also great to discover a folder of photographs of Youngman’s Christmas cards – including one casting herself as a mischievous pirate in 1985, when she would have been nearly eighty – as well as of Christmas pantomimes, comic strips (‘comichawks’, based on Christmas at her home at the Hawks near Cambridge) and limericks inspired by the Rea family (‘Hawkericks’).
I also saw some photographs of Nan Youngman at her retrospective exhibition at the Minories in Colchester in 1971 (although, interestingly, the press release for the show, and newspaper cuttings, all started by highlighting Youngman’s work as an educationalist, often with reference to her relationship to Marion Richardson and then Pictures for Schools, before moving on to discuss her work as a painter). Also tucked in among the photos were press cuttings relating to the 1992 exhibition Ten decades of women artists, curated by Katy Deepwell, which focused on ten artists born between 1897 and 1906, showing how they had had to fit the production of art around family ties and asking why women had been marginalised in the study of art history. As well as Barbara Hepworth, the exhibition included Nan Youngman and Betty Rea, as well as the art educator Evelyn Gibbs and Youngman and Rea’s friend from Artists’ International Association days, Mary Adshead (apparently less well-known than her husband, Stephen Bone – both were regular Pictures for Schools contributors), and there was extensive press coverage, both locally and nationally, of Youngman’s involvement in the exhibition.
I also spent some time in the Tate Library, looking at four exhibition catalogues for Pictures for Schools exhibitions which took place elsewhere in the country than the longstanding series in London and Wales. Three of these related to exhibitions held at the Laing Art Gallery and Museum in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1956-58, which were direct spin-offs of the London exhibitions, organised by the North East Branch of the Society for Education through Art, in whose name Pictures for Schools was organised. Although far smaller in scale – they contained only 45-50 pictures and 8-10 sculptures each time, along with textiles such as printed wall hangings – they replicated some aspects of the London exhibitions such as asking children to vote for their favourite work, with encouraging children to form their own opinions on modern art a stated aim of the exhibitions. The exhibitions also explicitly set out to have a ‘local character’, with artists living and working in the area well-represented, as well as, intriguingly, a section dedicated to ‘Costume designs for ‘Northumberland teachers’ opera group’ production of Prince Igor held at the Theatre Royal, 1957′. It was interesting to see Richard Hamilton and Harry Thubron represented in the first exhibition, as both were associated with the Basic Design courses being developed in Newcastle and elsewhere in the North East. Some other names, such as Sadie Allen, an embroidery artist, I recognised from the catalogues of the London Pictures for Schools exhibitions, although most were unknown to me. Like its London counterparts, the work seemed to be dominated by still-lifes and landscapes, often based on the mundane, industrial or everyday, such as a brick factory, furnace slag heaps, docks, old men and a bus stop.
It was more difficult to gauge the relationship between the Pictures for Schools exhibition held at the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham in 1963 and the London exhibitions. Although works had been borrowed from directors of London galleries, including the AIA Gallery, for the exhibition, no reference was made to the London exhibitions in the catalogues. However, regular Pictures for Schools contributors such as Mary Fedden, Sandra Blow, Fred Uhlam and Philip Sutton were represented, along with Nottingham painter and gallerist Dorothie Field, who had been among Nan Youngman’s students at Highbury Hill High School and went on to receive renown as a socialist realist painter. The exhibition was divided into two parts – more costly invited works, and members’ works. Interestingly, a tiny minority of the works could also be hired. My interest was also piqued by an invitation at the back of the catalogue to a discussion entitled ‘Children as patrons’, featuring painters Michael Granger and Dennis Hawkins, and sculptor LR Rogers, at which questions were welcomed. However, it was unclear whether the exhibition was a regular occurrence, or a one-off.
During my recent sojourn in the south of England I was lucky to be able to visit a fascinating new exhibition about designer, painter and teacher Peggy Angus at the Towner gallery in Eastbourne, following a tip-off from Manchester Modernist Society’s Facebook page.
Although I didn’t previously know a great deal about Angus’ work, she was a contemporary of Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman (like Youngman who lived from 1906-1995, Angus’ life spanned much of the twentieth century; she was born in 1904 and died in 1993), and regularly contributed paintings to Pictures for Schools in the first decade of the scheme, as well as linocut designs for tiles. I had previously read that Youngman first met Angus (popularly known as ‘Red’ Angus due to her left-wing beliefs, developed during a trip to Russia as a young woman, where she was inspired by the concept of art as propaganda and the idea of ‘art by the people, for the people’) on an Artists’ International Association May Day march, where Angus was carrying a banner and singing a song (conjuring up an evocative image of Angus, who the exhibition showed to be an eccentric and colourful dresser!). I had also been told that Youngman and sculptor Betty Rea, together with Rea’s two sons, used to visit Angus at her rural cottage the Furlongs in the South Downs in Sussex.
The Towner’s exhibition does a good job of evoking the atmosphere of the Furlongs and the circle of friends and contemporaries who congregated there, including Angus’ former peers at the Royal College of Art and fellow artists such as Helen Binyon, Eric Ravilious, John and Myfanwy Piper, Henry Moore, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the artist and educator Maurice de Sausmarez. Like the artistic hub based around Great Bardfield in Essex, which Angus visited, recalling that the homes were ‘wonderfully decorated’, mostly by the ‘poor wives’ of painters such as Ravilious and Edward Bawden, the rather primitive cottage was decorated with a homely combination of murals, tiles and wallpapers.
Tiles designed by Angus, as well as large-scale photographs of tiles and striking murals in situ in places such as post-war schools, universities and airports, are on display in the exhibition, alongside several of her paintings. Associated with a politically-charged socialist realist outlook, Angus’ painting focuses on landscapes and people, depicting the reality of what was around her in vivid, hyperreal shapes, textures and colours conveying light, atmosphere and experience, from cement works and train lines to the personalities and occupations of farming life. Particularly effective is collage of chopping wood. Other, more sketch-like work evokes friends, with a particularly striking example being a portrait of John Piper in front of one of his geometric paintings, the stripes of the cat on his knee, the grain of the floorboards, his pinstripe trousers and the sweep of his hair all contributing to a highly stylised image.
Just as important a focus of the exhibition is Angus’ career as an educator. Like Youngman, teaching was not Angus’s first choice of career; Angus took up employment as a teacher after the deaths of her brothers in the war. Unlike Youngman, Angus was employed by an independent school, North London Collegiate College. However, this appointment was to give Angus the opportunity to ‘revolutionise the relationship between student, teacher and school’. Like art educators such as Nan Youngman and Marion Richardson, with their focus on ‘child art’, Angus believed that children had ‘native talent’ and ‘sense of design’. However, where she differed was in her rejection of the growing trend for self-expression, which she regarded as producing outcomes where ‘everything is thrown in the wastepaper basket’. Taking her inspiration from William Morris, and aiming to break down the separation between art and life, Angus regarded children as ‘apprentices’ who would later be capable of designing their own homes and clothes. Angus appeared to have concentrated more on the practical, design-led aspect of art than conventional picture-making, encouraging students to use potato prints to come up with their own designs for tiles and wallpaper, which could be combined to great effect in different variations, and enlisting children to help create wallpapers and murals. In the less able, she endeavoured to cultivate an interest in art that would make them the patrons of the future. The exhibition discusses her notion of ‘creative patronage’, with Angus herself explaining that ‘people who are the most creative patrons are the amateurs, they’ve got to be creative themselves’ and ‘everybody’s creative if they’ve got creative patronage’. Also important in Angus’ approach to art education was the teaching of art history, with students taught in an annual, chronological progression from folk, Romany, canal and fairground art through Renaissance, Baroque, Gothic, ‘pop’, and so-on.
The exhibition is as much about Angus the woman as Angus the artist. Recorded and written reminiscences from those who knew her, whether as students or as visitors to the Furlongs, praise her inspiration and encouragement. Equally engaging are the opportunities to see Angus herself, on screen, at home and in her studio, in two documentaries played on a loop, one of which is narrated by her granddaughter Emma, herself a designer. The force of Angus’ considerable – and apparently formidable – personality, and her twin philosophies of ‘art for joy’ and ‘art for life’, permeate the show.
The exhibition runs until Sunday September 21.