I was recently recommended Warpaint by Alicia Foster, a historical novel inspired by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), and the work of a propaganda unit putting artists to work finding creative ways to demoralise the enemy.
The WAAC was established by Kenneth Clark, broadcaster and Director of the National Gallery, during the Second World War in order to provide employment for some of the country’s leading artists away from direct action. Whilst big male names were involved in documenting the war, Warpaint takes its inspiration from a small number of women artists – who, unlike the men employed, were not salaried but instead received commissions for artworks. Several of the artists at Pictures for Schools had been employed as war artists, either abroad or on the home front, including the women artists Evelyn Gibbs and Evelyn Dunbar.
Although some characters in Warpaint correspond to real-life personalities – including Kenneth Clark, who appears as a larger-than-life, womanising caricature, and the painter Dame Laura Knight, the oldest and most established of the artists featured in Warpaint – the plot develops through interconnected and fictional stories imagining the lives and love lives of lesser-known painters living in London and the home counties, based very loosely on Isabel Delmer, Grace Golden and Evelyn Dunbar (here reimagined as Vivienne Thayer, Faith Farr and Cecily Browne).
Warpaint is an engrossing and page-turning read, with elements of romance, thriller, tragedy and espionage, and period detail. However, it’s not merely an easy read. Underlying Warpaint are questions about attitudes towards women at the time, their role in society and the art world, and the type of work that was considered suitable for women.
As well as institutional and individual sexism, Warpaint conveys an atmosphere of state and establishment paternalism: if the role of male painters in the WAAC was to document action on the front line, and women’s place was to portray life on the home front, there was also a ‘right’ kind of observation, and a ‘wrong’ kind of subject. Some of the artists in Warpaint are naturally drawn towards destitute: the ragged, hungry families eating in municipal canteens for those left without kitchen facilities due to bombing raids. This is discouraged, in favour of pictures of scenes such as upper-class ladies knitting army socks, that will ‘make people feel better’, and give an impression of togetherness across the class divide. In another episode in the book, an artist finds herself practising self-censorship, in order to produce the kind of picture that will go down well with the Ministry: a lace slip, silk sockings and a clandestine pregnancy are edited out of a scene depicting landgirls in a dormitory, in order to make it appear more wholesome.
For this reason, the most interesting story artistically is that of Laura Knight, who manages to get prolonged access to an airfield in order to paint a longed-for ‘serious subject’. Rather than the abstracted shapes of planes in the sky, observed from afar, she develops an intimacy with the pilots, getting to know how they work and how they experience the cramped cockpit of the plane, working as individuals and a unit alongside the machinery of war.
Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.
The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.
My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.
For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?
I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.
The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the visual atmosphere of Pictures for Schools, which was largely dominated by realism and familiarity (though there were a few more bold or abstract artists, such as Tadek Beutlich). A high proportion of the artists who sold and exhibited work had been war artists, or involved in projects such as Recording Britain, to document places at risk of disappearing due to war and modernisation. One of them (and the best-named!) was Malvina Cheek, who primarily sold and exhibited paintings of trees at Pictures for Schools. I recently found at that she died last year, at the age of 100, making her one of the longest-surviving artists of that era. Read her obituary in the Guardian here.
One of the aspects of Pictures for Schools I will be looking at is the networks of artists, educators and administrators involved, and some of the links between these figures and other initiatives and movements. One network I have started reading about is the Artists’ International Association in which Nan Youngman, a driving force behind Pictures for Schools was highly active, as well as art critic Herbert Read (all information below is based on Robert Radford and Lynda Morris’s A.I.A.: Story of the Artists’ International Association,1933-53 (Modern Art Oxford,1983)).
There are interesting parallels between initiatives to introduce examples of good art and design to children through, for example, the School Prints and Pictures for Schools schemes, and AIA projects such as Everyman Prints (which was available for purchase from selected branches of M&S) and Small Pictures for Small Prices, which aimed to bring affordable art ownership to a wide section of the population and benefited both artists by providing employment and the public by raising popular standards of taste. The AIA also had links with other movements I may look at such as Mass Observation, and it anticipated the development of state-led bodies such as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Art (CEMA) which was set up during the war (a precursor to the Arts Council of Great Britain in its art patronage and championing of the position of the artist in society).
The AIA was founded as the Artists’ International in 1933 and grew out of the anti-Fascist and anti-war political climate of the 1930s. Artists resented money being spent on the development of arms rather than culture and the AIA aimed to mobilise ‘the international unity of artists against Imperialist War on the Soviet Union, Fascism and Colonial oppression’. Several members, including Nan Youngman, had been members of the Communist Party’s artists’ wing the Hogarth Group and several AIA members joined the International Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War. By the late 1930s, the AIA was a mass organisation with many hundreds of members, not just artists and designers, but art teachers, students and non-professionals. Exhibitions took a political slant, whether depicting topical subjects such as hunger marchers or aiming to raise support for anti-Fascist and anti-war causes. The AIA invited submissions from European artists with similar aims, and assisted refugee artists escaping Fascist and Nazi oppression with work permits, homes and visas. The group also had a social function, with members, for example, travelling abroad and going on holiday together.
The AIA’s exhibitions reflected and responded to major concerns, changes and events in society, and exhibitions were held in a range of public venues which enabled them to be seen by a mass audience, for example an exhibition of War Painting was held at Charing Cross tube station, and another wartime exhibition was held in the bombed-out basement of John Lewis. Exhibitions such as Art for the People, held at Whitechapel Gallery in 1939 and visited by 400,000 people, aimed to educate the public in modern art, hanging artworks in sections such as surrealism, abstraction and realism and encouraging artists to talk to visitors and answer questions, as well as inviting visits by school teachers. There was little access to contemporary art in provincial Britain, so exhibitions also toured to factories, civic centres and barracks.
The AIA also had sub-groups, and worked with other types of creative practitioners, from photographers and architects to writers, dramatists and musicians, and held exhibitions of art by unprofessional painters, including a group of miners. Whilst the artists who belonged to the AIA were not universally linked by one style, and the organisation helped break down the divide between fine artists and commercial artists such as silk screen printers and cartoonists, one of the things which stood out to me was the debate between realism or abstraction; in the 1930s, many artists moved back towards realism as they felt it enabled them to respond more effectively to the times in which they were living, at the same time as appealing to a wider audience. This led to a distinction between ‘free’ artists, and ‘engaged’ artists who leaned more towards propaganda. In 1938, the AIA organised a debate about realism versus surrealism, pitting Graham Bell, William Coldstream and Peter Peri against Roland Penrose, Julian Trevelyan and Humphrey Jennings. Whilst this tension between realism and formalism/abstraction is a product of the particular circumstances of its time, it may tie in with debates still going on when Pictures for Schools was in operation, about whether children responded best to styles and subject matters with which they were familiar, such as landscapes and still lifes, or whether they should be exposed to abstraction and contemporary innovations in modes of expression.
As well as its explicitly political aims, the AIA’s emphasis on the social role of art is of great interest, particularly the AIA’s attempt to improve the position of the artist in society through pragmatic and practical initiatives at a time when artists were facing great challenges surviving in a tough economic climate. Through the establishment of ‘working units’, the AIA put the skills of its members at the disposal of anyone needing a mural, banner, illustration, cartoon, stage decoration, tableaux or poster which could be put to use in anti-Fascist or anti-government protests. The AIA was involved in the Council Institute for Art and Design (CIAD), which brought together art and design institutions, and promoted schemes for the full employment of artists. During the Second World War, artists were employed to paint murals in temporary buildings such as bunkers, barracks and British restaurants, and commissioned to paint portraits of young men about to go away to war. AIA members such as Evelyn Gibbs and Carel Weight acted as unofficial war artists, painting wartime scenes such as evacuation.
The AIA functioned in a way similar to a Trade Union for artists or a professional lobbying body, using subscriptions to provide legal counselling, debt collection, credit advice, war work advice, unemployment and sickness benefit. Assisted by Nan Youngman, it published recommendations for the reform of art education in schools and colleges and the establishment of government-backed bodies. It also initiated a circulation scheme of 500 pictures by its members, with artists having the chance to sell their work; the AIA negotiated an annual royalty fee of £5 per picture per year with the government.
By 1953, the AIA’s political clause had been removed, reflecting a more general shift towards apolitical art. The pictures of industrial Britain which had previously been popular began to be replaced by a new type of realism depicting escapist Cornish and Mediterranean scenes, and it will be interesting to see to what extent this trend permeated the pictures chosen for Pictures for Schools.