Recording Britain artist Malvina Cheek

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.


A day in Coventry (on the trail of Steven Sykes and Pictures for Schools)

My interest in the artists who contributed to and sold work through Pictures for Schools, as well as the education authorities that purchased work from Pictures for Schools (and an enthusiasm for visiting and understanding more about post-war built environments more generally) recently led me on a day trip to Coventry.

I was on the trail of the artist Steven Sykes, whose work was very popular at Pictures for Schools, during which time Sykes also taught at Chelsea School of Art. He regularly submitted both drawings and works on paper to the scheme, as well as reliefs and sculptures. Many of them were themed around animals, and proved to be popular with child visitors. I first became interested in Sykes because he designed two large murals either side of the stage in New Century Hall, a concert and conference venue in the Co-operative’s former tower block headquarters at New Century House in Manchester, dating from 1963.

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New Century Hall is a large ballroom with a sprung dance floor and charismatic 1960s light fittings, and many famous bands played there over the decades. Sykes’ tall murals are stylised depictions of musicians, which sparkle when the light hits them. Like other regular Pictures for Schools contributor Julian Trevelyan, Sykes was a camouflage artist during the war, and a war artist. In the 1960s, he turned his garden and home in Sussex into an ornate work of art.

 

 

 

Sykes was also responsible for the Gethsemane chapel in Basil Spence’s modernist ‘new’ Coventry Cathedral, the winning candidate for a replacement after the medieval cathedral was bombed in the Coventry Blitz of 1940. The Gethsemane chapel, which dates from 1959-60, is a glittering room featuring an angel in richly decorated concrete inlaid with mosaic which gleams like gemstones, against a golden backdrop.

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Steven Sykes Coventry Angel

 

Steven Sykes chapel

It’s the most opulent and luxuriant piece of art in the building, most of which is far more sparse and restrained, from John Piper’s angular stained glass windows to the muted tones of Graham Sutherland’s giant Christ tapestry to John Hutton’s etched glass angels and saints, both still and suspended in action, which catch the light from the large windows to dramatic and striking effect.

Etched glass angel

Despite its vast scale, the cathedral, with its polished concrete, fossil stone floor (like that of the Royal Festival Hall in London) and decorative and functional use of wood, feels warm and human-scale. This struck me as a great contrast to the other 20th century cathedrals I have visited, in Liverpool (particularly the Anglican cathedral), which seem designed to strike the fear of god into the visitor with their oversize scale and austere atmospheres.

The cathedral, which interacts and is juxtaposed effectively with the ruins of the old cathedral, is an ideal place to get a sense of the two sides of Coventry, old and new, and to get an idea of the cityscape that Coventry’s 20th century reconstruction replaced. It stands on a hill-top, from which narrow streets descend, filled with cosy shops and restaurants. As the autumn leaves swirl to the ground, for a moment you think you could be in Canterbury, or in Montmartre, even, as a busker plays the accordion

Cathedral BrutalismThe round, light-filled Chapel of Christ the Servant, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, on the other hand, looks out onto the brutalist architecture of Coventry university, including a high-rise accommodation block, though the modernist campus is effectively landscaped with green space.

Also in the vicinity of the cathedral is the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, opened in 1960 and extended and modernised in recent years. Like many of Coventry’s buildings, its municipal modernism incorporates light-filled areas and large windows, notably in the stairwell. I understand that the Herbert’s collection includes a number of artworks purchased by Coventry Education Committee, as well as a former schools loan collection. City of Coventry Education Committee was one of two major Coventry buyers at Pictures for Schools, the other being City of Coventry Training College, whose collection is now on display at the University of Warwick. There was much crossover in both the artists and the types of artworks chosen for the respective collections, with artists including Kenneth Long, Mary Fedden and George Chapman.

On display in the Herbert are many artists and artworks dating from the era of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, and representing some of the most popular artists as well as the type of urban, everyday social realism that predominated at Pictures for Schools. These included the ‘kitchen sink’ painter John Bratby, whose 1959 painting ‘Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day’ layers thick paint onto the canvas to create exaggerated net curtains looking out over suburban back gardens. LS Lowry offers views of gravestones outside a village church, and Ebbw Vale in Wales. ‘Landscape with Tank’ by Prunella Clough, meanwhile, from 1957, is an unconventional landscape depicting stark, geometric shapes in shiny, dark shades of grey, including the gas tank of the title. George Chapman, one of the artists associated with Great Bardfield in Essex, is represented by ‘Miner Returning Home from Work’ (dating from ‘before 1960’), a large and tall urban scene depicting a miner descending a hill through jagged streets, angular roofs, stairs and sharp edges, overlooked by TV aerials. Another very popular artist was Kenneth Long. Long’s ‘Huntingdon Street Bus Station, Nottingham’, from 1957, depicts sketchy figures in drab greens, highlighting humdrum details such as pigeons and chip wrappers. In common with Joan Eardley’s ‘Glasgow Boy With a Milk Bottle’ (1948) and the grimy, dark face of Chapman’s miner, the impression given of life in post-war Britain in these paintings is drab, poor and restrictive, a far cry from the modern world suggested by the architecture of rebuilt central Coventry and conventional, hopeful narratives of reconstruction.

Betty Rea CoventryPeter Peri Coventry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was also very pleased to see a fairly large sculpture by Betty Rea, the partner of Nan Youngman, depicting a woman stretching in bronze fibreglass. Other sculpture included John Greaves’ women chatting on a church bench, and a girl waiting for a bus. The most extraordinary sculpture on display is ‘Coventry Sculpture’ by Peter Peri, another artist who submitted work to Pictures for Schools and was renowned for his work in educational settings, dating from 1958-59. The large sculpture captures pinched, rust-coloured clay figures in action, interacting with a metal tower structure. The figures capture both light and strength, suggesting sport, movement and height. They’re running, doing, jumping, climbing, throwing, building, carrying, passing, lifting, stretching, interacting and collaborating. Peri is himself in the sculpture, as a bearded figure – and the only still character!

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Elsewhere, Coventry’s post-war architecture boasts an impressive range of murals, many of which are tactile and seem to invite sensory exploration. These include William Mitchell’s 1966 characteristic concrete doodles on the front of the former Three Tuns pub (now a fried chicken shop), and Gordon Cullen’s large, tiled mural of 1958, now restored and relocated in the Lower Precinct of Coventry Shopping centre, which makes effective use of both pattern and abstract forms and colours, as well as narrative details from Coventry’s history and industries, from clock and bicycle manufacture to post-war planning and rebuilding.

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Another 1960s mural, in Sainsbury’s, shows the expansion of Coventry, and seems to be held in high regard by staff. Another effective retail mural is carved detailing outside the large Coventry Co-operative premises, built in 1956, depicting aspects of co-operative history and symbolism, as well as products. Unfortunately the building, which still retains its original lettering as well as a plaque for the CWS (Co-operative Wholesale Society) architects’ department, is soon to be vacated by Heart of England Co-operative Society and probably demolished.

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As well as faith, education, art and retail, the people of post-war Coventry were catered for in leisure. However, another piece of Coventry’s post-war cityscape whose days are numbered is the 1960s Olympic-size pool. Like much of Coventry, its light-filled windows, which envelop swimmers in sensations of space, spectacle and modernity, are now grimy and neglected.

Coventry pipe repairsAs a whole, the centre of Coventry feels very un-English. The cathedral, and the city centre as a whole, feel like transplants from Northern Europe, from Scandinavia, from Rotterdam, where cities are more mixed use, and living in maisonettes above shops, or in blocks towering above the city centre, is normal. The city centre is dominated by 20th century structures and street patterns. Despite a number of empty shops, the central shopping area feels lively and public spaces are pleasant. Coventry, with its lingering independent and specialist shops, also feels strangely retro, a city from a different decade. The type of place where a specialist pipe repair shop can survive, and a remnant from a different time and society. Visiting really gave me a sense of the context into which artworks in Pictures for Schools were received, the priorities and cultural attitudes of the time, and the types of environments to which they belonged.

Photographs by Natalie Bradbury and Steve Hanson.


Art for everyman: The Artists’ International Association

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.