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
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.
I’m looking forward to visiting this exhibition and study session, ‘Herbert Read & Alec Clegg: A Revolution Realised’, about writer, critic and art educationalist Herbert Read and Alec Clegg, the innovative post-war Director of Education for the West Riding of Yorkshire (a pioneering county for art in schools, which included making purchases from Pictures for Schools among other places), at the National Arts Education Archive at Yorkshire Sculpture Park next weekend (Saturday 28 February).
“If you think of the building as a boiler and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools”: Eric WoodwardPosted: September 9, 2013
“If you think of the building as a boiler house, a boiler, and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools then that’s a practical way of having a large collection because it’s not in one place at any one time.”
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Woodward at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where we chatted about his experiences as Senior Advisor to Alec Clegg, Director of Education in the West Riding, between 1956 and 1985, and I later interviewed him at the National Arts Education Archive at Bretton Hall, where Woodward currently volunteers one day a week. Woodward is clearly a great admirer of Alec Clegg, who he first became aware of when he heard a speech by Clegg at an SEA conference, citing “his honesty, his truthfulness, his humanity, his idealism” and his straightforwardness as inspiration, and appreciating the freedom and encouragement he was given by Clegg. In 1991 Woodward compiled a book of quotes, Sir Alec Clegg 1909-1986: His Own Words, from Clegg’s speeches and books, for which he also wrote the foreword (copies are in the National Arts Education Archive).
Woodward explained that after the Second World War he studied for a four-year National Diploma in art and design in Liverpool and followed it with a one-year certificate in teaching before teaching art in Liverpool schools. As an art teacher, Woodward noticed that junior and infant school students were uninhibited about drawing and painting, but by secondary school age students were beginning to say they couldn’t draw so art became a specialism. Woodward tried to rectify this by taking art out into the school, and encouraging students to paint murals around the building rather than confining it to something which took place in the art room. Woodward left teaching to join the West Riding School Museum Service as Senior Advisor, going to Wakefield in 1956 and living in nearby Woolley. He remained there until his retirement in 1985 and, in 1978, was appointed MBE.
The West Riding School Museum Service was set up in the 1940s under Alec Clegg, inspired by a similar service in Derbyshire run by Barbara Winstanley, and when Woodward took up the post he was sent on a two-week trip to to Derbyshire to see how the service worked. Originally consisting of visual aids such as film strips, after Woodward joined the service expanded and eventually contained a number of original works of art, as well as museum objects such as stuffed animals. Woodward explained that be did not influence the choice of artworks much beyond making suggestions about how practical the works would be to transport, but the county’s art advisors, Basil and Rosemary Rocke, went to the London galleries each year and brought back a selection of artworks which were then chosen for purchase by a committee of elected education officers and Helen Kapp, Director of Wakefield City Art Gallery. In 1953 there were 149 paintings; by 1964, the collection contained more than 400 paintings and pieces of sculpture. Schools could borrow something like three works per term, and chose from a catalogue, although this was not illustrated so teachers had to make choices by title alone. The West Riding had about 1,500 schools and Woodward thinks that primary schools made more use of the service than secondary schools, partly because there were more of them. He visited schools and advised on how to hang artworks such as paintings, for example by displaying them at children’s eye level, as well as how to keep more valuable paintings, such as those by Lowry, secure out of school hours. I asked Woodward if he thought the paintings were chosen to appeal to children, as was the case with Pictures for Schools, but he said that as far as he was aware no, the main consideration was quality. He wasn’t aware of much abstract work, aside from an Alexander Calder mobile and decorative, non-representational wall hangings and tapestries. Woodward describes exposure to original works of art as a “profound experience”, especially important because most homes in the West Riding would not have contained original works of art, and thinks that seeing artworks in books or through reproductions can’t match seeing the scale, colour and texture of works of art, particularly those such as oils, in real life.
Woodward has a really interesting way of visualising the collection and how it was circulated: “Obviously if you have a large collection of artefacts or museum objects, paintings, the size of the building limits the size of the collection. Well if you think of the building as a boiler house, a boiler, and the works of art, the water, which circulates around the radiators, and the radiators are the schools then that’s a practical way of having a large collection because it’s not in one place at any one time.” As well as meaning the collection could grow in size and circulate efficiently, I also read this quote as meaning that you could add new, clean water to the collection with the acquisition of new works of art, meaning the collection remained fresh, relevant and interesting. Woodward said there was an annual stock check, to ensure that there were no ‘leaks’, to continue the metaphor, and that everything was in working order.
Woodward was also involved in other initiatives for schools, which tie in with ideas about learning through experience (something I have encountered a lot in the writing of John Dewey). One of these was purchasing a working water mill near Barnsley, which was becoming increasingly dilapidated and dangerous but received a lot of visits from groups of schoolchildren, and restoring it with the help of the new Countryside Act which enabled county councils to set up country parks with match funding. Another was developing the educational use of Harewood Bird Garden, which included appointing a teacher advisor and providing art materials for visiting schools. Woodward was also involved in acquiring seventeenth century Clarke Hall in Wakefield and developing it into an education museum for role play, where children and teachers could go and dress up and cook like they were living in the seventeenth century. This remained open until this year, when it fell victim to museum budget cuts.
After his retirement at the age of sixty, Woodward found it hard to remain in touch with what was happening with the service without appearing to ‘interfere’ and several of the more valuable artworks, including those by Lowry, have since been sold. Woodward has found it difficult to obtain accurate information about the collection’s whereabouts, although he has ascertained some information about sales from Millers’ Guide.
Since retiring Woodward has held one-man exhibitions of his artwork, and one of his paintings is in the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. In 2000, he wrote the unpublished manuscript A Brief History of the West Riding School Museum Service 1956-1985, primarily, he says for his children to know what he did. A copy is now in the National Arts Education Archive along with other material relating to the West Riding Museum Service such as catalogues, which archive manager Leonard Bartle found out for me ready for my visit as well as archival material relating to the Society for Education in Art and Pictures for Schools.
And of thine earthly store hath left
Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed the soul.
Earlier this week, I went to the National Arts Education Archive at Bretton Hall near Wakefield to meet Eric Woodward, a former art teacher and advisor to Sir Alec Clegg, who was from 1945 to 1975 Director of Education in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Woodward left his job as an art teacher in Liverpool to take up the post partly because he saw Clegg as an inspirational figure, having heard Clegg make a speech at an event, and he admired Clegg’s honesty, frankness and approach to education (more on my interview with Woodward to follow soon). Clegg is known as an advocate of the importance of the arts and creativity to education and Woodward was responsible for the West Riding’s Schools Museum Service under Clegg, which was the largest of its kind (Woodward joined in the 1950s and retired in the 1980s, although from 1974 after local government reorganisation, which coincided with Clegg’s retirement, the service was organised slightly different as a consortium of new, smaller local authorities in the area formerly covered by the West Riding).
The National Arts Education Archive is situated among a cluster of Modernist buildings at Yorkshire Sculpture Park which stand next to the main part of Bretton Hall, a listed stately home, but it’s the more recent buildings which have always captured my imagination when I have visited Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the past. Some have stilts, appearing to emerge out of the foliage to hover over a small lake, and have the classic look of mid-twentieth century educational buildings, light and airy with big windows which overlook the park. I have always felt that they blended into their lakeside setting and complemented the main eighteenth century house. I had a wander around the rest of the complex while I was there and saw a group of halls of residence, each block having a name such as Grasshopper with the theme represented by an architectural, sculptural relief on the side. All these buildings appear abandoned, yet still have furniture inside, including desks, chairs and library shelving – the only thing which tells you they are no longer in use is the almost complete absence of people. This campus previously belonged to the University of Leeds and was only vacated in 2007, when plans were made to turn Bretton Hall into a luxury hotel, spa and office complex. Although I steered clear of selecting campus-based universities for my undergraduate degree as I wanted to learn in a place where I was surrounded by the city, it must have been an inspiring place to live and study, overlooked by the rolling Yorkshire countryside and with sculptures dotted about the grounds. It seems that former students have a lot of affection for the place too, now running a website about the campus’s history and future, and it’s easy to see why.
In 1949 Alec Clegg turned Bretton Hall into a teacher training college specialising in the arts and some of the buildings are named after key figures in art education, including Sir Alec Clegg, and Victor Pasmore, one of my favourite artists who was also associated with the Basic Design movement (the archive of which is in the National Arts Education Archive*). These would be demolished if the development was to go ahead, which strikes me as a shame for a place which for almost sixty years was associated with teacher training and art education. The Alec Clegg building, in particular, has a quote engraved on the side which was a favourite of Clegg’s and which he often used to illustrate his attitude towards education, creativity and its function and significance. Woodward was trying to remember the quote when we first met over lunch in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park cafe, then when I visited the archive Woodward gave me a copy of a book of quotes from Clegg’s speeches and books on education, which he compiled in the 1980s and wrote an introduction to, of which the loaves and hyacinths quote is at the start. Clegg reveals in one of the quotes that he sees the loaves as representing the building blocks of education, the facts and figures that make up the basic diet of information all children must learn, easily testable and quantifiable. The hyacinths refer to things which are not so easy to measure, such as enthusiasm, compassion and confidence which are no less important for defining who a person is and how they will act. Clegg considered that education was too concerned with the loaves, which could fulfil useful, practical functions such as contributing to the GDP of a country, but that the hyacinths were just as important in bringing out the expressive, imaginative, creative side of education.
* My visit also presented an opportunity to find out a bit more about the Basic Design movement with an exhibition about artist and educator Tom Hudson split between the small Garden Gallery and the foyer of the National Arts Education Archive, comprising examples of his work, his students’ work and that of his contemporaries. I was interested to see Britain described as a ‘backwater in terms of contemporary art’ in the 1950s, with art education still based on nineteenth century academic principles and craft skills. When Hudson became Head of Foundation at Leicester School of Art, therefore, he decided to enlist young artists with a commitment to exploratory methods of art education to shake things up; he also later taught at Cardiff College of Art. As Leicestershire was one of the counties which really embraced art in schools, and built up an impressive collection of original artworks under another innovative, inspirational Director of Education, Stewart Mason, it would be interesting to see whether there were any connections between development in art education at the Leicester School of Art.
Although as far as I am aware Basic Design applies to higher education, the Basic Design course’s ideas of removing the student’s pre-conceived ideas and teaching instead principles of visual language, such as colour, form and space, which could be applied across different disciplines, struck me as interesting in relation to what I have been reading about Gestalt theories of perception, which emphasise the viewer being encouraged to rediscover how to trust their own innate judgements, yet taught to recognise certain universal patterns they can apply to works of art among other things. One of Hudson’s friends was quoted as saying that he believed that it was a “fundamental right for all members of society to gain an understanding of modern visual language and systems in order to take control of their aesthetic world”, and that the role of the artist and education to change society, not reflect it.