Friday, 9 December 2011

Binkie O'Connell and Jane Tate: A Corsham Hippo, Rhino, Elephant and 3 Tortoises at Little Green Primary School, Croxley Green

What follows is 'a work in progress', an ongoing conversation, to which others are cordially invited. Since what emerges is the fact that the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham, under the leadership of Clifford Ellis, was probably the most significant institutional contributor to the postwar English art-in-schools programmes, we would be particularly interested in hearing from those who may have further information on this contribution.

[Photographs by Martin Charles, 1982]

Binkie Thompson and Jeremy Howard: A Pleasant Conversation in Lasswade, 27 November 2011

Jeremy and Binkie met on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late autumn 2011 at Binkie’s home in Lasswade near Edinburgh.

The object of our meeting was to talk about Binkie’s Hippo, Rhino and Elephant cement sculptural group at Little Green Primary School, Croxley Green, Herts (c. 1950) and how the project was part of the Bath Academy of Art’s contribution to the Hertfordshire ‘art in schools’ programme led by John Newsom, County Education Officer. Jeremy brought with him a few photos of the sculptures and a couple of photocopied articles about Corsham from c. 1950. Our conversation, complete with the late Kate the cat, was nice and informal. The only non-mental recording done was by Jeremy scribbling on pieces of paper. During the course of our talk Binkie recalled a great deal of important historical information about the Bath Academy at Corsham Court at which she studied from 1946/7-1950. She remained at Corsham, as a part-time teacher of sculpture, until 1954. She married the art historian Colin Thompson in 1950 and, having become a mother in 1953, moved with Colin and their daughter Jane to Edinburgh in 1954.

The Corsham Scene

Born in 1925, Binkie (Jean) is remembered in Hertfordshire as Binkie O’Connell, sculptor of the Croxley Green school animals. Records indicate that she created the work with Jane Tate.

Binkie received a grant to study at Corsham due to her having had ‘disrupted training’ and being ‘ex-service’. In essence: she had been evacuated during the war, and at age 15, to Canada and the USA. Having completed her secondary schooling on Rhode Island she then entered the Philadelphia Art School. She was not very impressed, finding it ‘old-fashioned’ and hence she decided to do something more ‘useful’. She joined the Wrens and spent two-to-three years at a routing office (for merchant ships) in Philadelphia and the British Royal Navy Office in Washington (where she sorted out ‘messy messages’). Returning to the UK after the end of the war Binkie was twenty-one when she enrolled for a brief time at a Torquay art school, only shortly afterwards to be accepted by Clifford Ellis for a place at the Bath Academy. Her mother also probably helped her financially while at Corsham.

Much of our conversation focused on Clifford Ellis, the Principal at Corsham, a very fine graphic artist, leading art educator and painter of a ‘Penguin’ mural (together with his wife Rosemary who also taught at Corsham) for a school in Hemel Hempstead, Herts. The art courses at Corsham were essentially four year programmes, with Clifford allowing older (ex-service) students such as Binkie to specialize in sculpture or painting before taking the all-inclusive Intermediate art course. Jane Tate, being younger, took the more conventional route of the Intermediate course in her first year and then the specialization. Her studies in sculpture began in the same year as Binkie’s.

Clifford was ‘absolutely marvellous’. He organized two strands for art learning at Corsham – one for those intending to become art teachers (two- or three-year courses) and one for those wishing to be artists. Clifford was a keen gardener. He could answer almost any question on animals and nature, or knew where to look for an answer in his library which included many books on nature/animal subjects. He had an unassuming character that was remarkable. When having people round he would be informal, for instance, offering drinks in ordinary tumblers rather than stem glasses. He and Rosemary rented a house at Torre Pellice close to the French/Italian border. Binkie and Jane Tate visited them there while on their Italian tour. Binkie recalls that when working with the students who were aiming to become teachers and getting them to go out on teaching practice for a week he would encourage them to ask the children not to just draw or paint a house, but their house on their birthday. This would lead to a range of diverse, imaginative results rather than more standard images. She also recalls Clifford having real trouble convincing the printers of an early Edinburgh Festival poster he designed not to ‘do black last’. He relished the way black altered colours. He was also of the mind that architects needed to understand colour effect better. One of his ideas was that if you painted the end wall of a corridor in a darker colour to the side walls it appears shorter than otherwise.

Binkie also mentioned C&RE producing a mosaic floor for the British Pavilion at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris.

The estate at Corsham was owned by Lord Methuen [Paul Ayshford], a painter who had a studio on the top floor of his house. Methuen lived in the house with his wife [Nora Hennessy, who had studied art in Paris] and Mrs Moresby-White, a relative. Binkie recalled meeting Methuen in the house and that he, like Clifford Ellis, was a keen gardener. The grounds of Corsham Court included a lovely, large, two-storey bathhouse, a house for Printing work, a swimming pool (frolicks there).

The art school at Corsham was good for the village – not least for its Hare & Hounds pub where a good Ploughman’s lunch was to be had, as well as the sounds of an out-of-tune piano. Some students lived in old almshouses.

Other students at Corsham at the same time as Binkie included:

Hubert ‘Nibs’ Dalwood, a brilliant sculpture student with whom Binkie was particularly friendly for a couple of years. Hubert is recalled in Kenneth Armitage’s Life and Work since KA was head of sculpture at the time and witnessed/encouraged Dalwood’s potential.

[NB: after our talk, Jeremy did a bit of searching for Nibs. He lived 1924-76 and was actually an outstanding sculptor who had a large retrospective last year, 2010, at Roche Court, Wiltshire and Leeds City Art Gallery. Dalwood did create a Tree of Knowledge sculpture for Rutherford (subsequently North Westminster and now King Solomon Academy) Comprehensive School in Paddington, London, c. 1958-60. His daughter, Kathy, (also a sculptor and artist) reports that she knows the school, that the sculpture is safe there and that she taught there some years ago…]

Also at Corsham in the early years were Barry Jackson, Howard Hodgkin, Harry [Henry] Cliffe (a painter who stayed on to teach), Fanny Martineson, and Ian Collingwood who was studying design. Collingwood had lost a leg in a car accident during the war. Martineson [Martinsen???], could have been half-French. She was very talented. She often borrowed things from Binkie, who recalls her making a plaster goat and a very life-like crow in flight. Something leads Binkie to believe that Fanny had an unhappy, possibly tragic, short life after leaving Corsham.

Binkie also recalled Kate Nicholson and her brother Jake (children of Ben Nicholson), studying at Corsham for a while, although she was not enamoured by Kate’s work.


Teachers included Henry Boys (music), Steven Russ (printing) and Ken Storey (photography). Sometime teachers included Peter Lanyon, who came a couple of times, and Bill Brooker, a painter of interiors.

An outstanding character was the teacher Peter Potworowski (1898-1962), a Polish émigré, whose painting of his studio (the old saddle/tack room), together with a small nautical sketch, graces Binkie’s drawing room wall. He enjoyed considerable renown and was greatly appreciated by the students. Jeremy, who was really taken by his painting, felt that there would be a discussion of Potworowski in Douglas Hall’s new book, Art in Exile: Polish Painters in Post-War Britain, Bristol, 2008) [There is!! A whole chapter, pp. 313-337, this also mentioning a Masters thesis with interviews of contemporary students by Haydon Griffiths on Corsham 1947-60, 1979, at the Courtauld). Binkie recalled Peter having an estranged wife and getting married to a Corsham student [Doreen Heaton – see photo on unofficial BAA website, which is a mine of ‘personal experience’ information from students at Corsham:] with whom he lived after his return to Poland [in 1958]. This is corroborated by Hall who gives an account of the Corsham scene/approach under Ellis (329f.)

James Tower, the potter, took over the stable block as his studio after Potworowski had left.

Colin Thompson arrived in Corsham’s third year, after the first art historian had been dismissed, despite being much appreciated, due to some irregularity in his CV. Colin taught drawing and art history.

Other teachers included William Scott, the painter, and Mary Scott his wife, who was very good and taught clay modelling. There was also Isabelle Symons, who taught teaching practice. She was slightly older. A teacher of life drawing, Miss Margaret Garland, suggested to Binkie that students could walk on paper with dirty shoes. Riette Sturge-Moore, daughter of the poet (and never without a cigarette), put on ‘marvellous dramas’. Every year a spectacle was put on outside on the lawn at the start of the North Walk, based on a theme suggested by Clifford, and with the students and staff, including Clifford, making costumes.

The boys’ and girls’ hostels were some mile and a half apart at Corsham, with the boys’ being Beechfield at Pickwick and the girls’ Monk’s Park. Binkie got around the estate on her BSA 250 motorbike. Binkie also recalled that there was a large van (‘like the one they used at Princeton [Dartmoor] Prison’) with benches along the inside walls used for trips and transportation at Corsham. Binkie and Colin later lived on Pickwick Road. One year Edward Lear’s Owl and the Pussycat was performed as part of a ‘How Nice to Know Mr Lear’ event. Binkie made a balsa wood aeroplane and a balloon with a bucket. At another time Clifford promoted the idea of a climbing frame in a tree. Binkie made this with ropes and platforms. She also recalled making a four fantailed, black and white, doocot.

Binkie’s and Jane's Hippo, Rhino and Elephant cement sculpture at Little Green Primary School, Croxley Green, Herts (c. 1950)

Binkie did not recall getting paid for this. Clifford would probably not have wanted money to be involved. The project was, however, his idea. He and Rosemary were ‘wrapped up’ in the art for schools programme at Hertfordshire. [The official reports into the artworks completed by 1951-2 reveal that across the county it was the considerable Bath Academy (Corsham) work that was regarded as the most successful.] It was very important to them. Hubert ‘Nibs’ Dalwood also created/planned a work for the scheme but it was rejected by Herts because of its moving parts. This despite the ball bearings it used being totally enclosed. [NB: the draft ‘Notes for Conference on Mural Painting and Sculpture, July 5th 1952’, possibly by the county architect C.H. Aslin, in the Hertfordshire County Archives, indicate that ‘Mobiles have been tried both internally and externally. Internally they were found to compete with the rich pattern of pressweld [forms] and externally they could not be assimilated into the logical systematic [treatment of the school complex]. Jane was not someone with whom Binkie had a great deal in common, although they did travel together while students – to Florence and elsewhere in Italy. Jane was tall, with honey hair often held in an upward plait. She was well-built, good at having a good time… and, it would seem, the daughter of a ship designer possibly from Weymouth.

Binkie could not recall how the young women had divided the work between themselves. She said that the figures were made in cement put on around a painted iron frame and (probably) chicken wire and that they used a spatula. The materials were provided by the Academy. The figures were made in Kenneth Armitage’s ‘Riding School’ sculpture studio, where they took up rather a lot of space. When finished and ready for installation a large lorry with crane arrived and the figures were driven to Herts. Binkie believes that she and Jane were probably driven to the school slightly later – in Rosemary’s Austin Seven. When they saw their work in place they also saw that the school had two murals [by BAA students/staff – of a Fruit Stall and Cat, and Fisherman – now overpainted/lost. BAA also did two more, highly praised, murals – of a Butterfly and Kite, at another Croxley Green (Junior) School at this time].

Binkie was critical of the long face of the rhino, the small ears of the elephant, and the disproportionate legs of the animals but she was happy with the tortoises upon which they stand/ride. We discussed how the animals look funny, and how the distortions of their figures and poses was in keeping with them being for children/a school. The sense of humour (and gentle presentation of the natural world) seems to have been a common characteristic of Corsham Hertfordshire works (cf. C&RE’s Penguin mural). Also the subject seems appropriate for a school for young children. As with the murals this is not about strictly directed learning or moral education but rather an opening up of the mind and imagination through a playful treatment, in this case, of an ‘exotic’ animal/nature subject. Placed on their plinth in front of the main entrance to the school the figures greet the children as they arrive each day. And they’ve being doing so for sixty years now! May they still be doing so in sixty years’ time…

[They were photographed in 1982 by Martin Charles, architectural photographer, and again in September 2011, by Andrew Saint, architectural historian. Thanks to both for the photographs here]

Other Work by Binkie and the Place of Corsham

During our conversation Binkie drew my attention to the appliqué Last Supper that I had been facing for most of the time. She had turned to appliqué work after getting married and had produced this in 1953. It is a beautiful work which she had made on the floor at her home on Pickwick Road. Some of the dyes she had made were faded and she mentioned being bored by the creation of ‘all those feet’, as well as not confident in colour. Yet the work, full frontal and with a simple serenity, is strong and engaging. It is also large, with the long table and thirteen figures stretching to about seven feet. It has only recently been hung in the house, having been in the dining room of a Missionary College on Inverleith Row, Edinburgh for many years. The college closed about a year ago. Binkie said that I should not assume that it meant she was particularly religious…

Our conversation ended, with Kate the beautiful one-eyed nineteen year old Burmese cat sitting restfully on my lap for a while [very sadly, Kate passed away on 12 December 2011].

I returned home and began to write up the day for future reference. As I have been doing so I realise more and more how rich and remarkable Binkie’s experience at Corsham was. I have also come to realise that there has been very little published on the BAA at Corsham or the Ellises, and that there is much to be done! There have been two dissertations – at the Institute of Education (Joyce Curtis, 1986) and the Courtauld Institute (Haydon Griffiths, 1979) , a useful book of ‘memories’ and articles edited by Derek Pope (1997). The latter is well illustrated and can be found online at Gerry McFarlane’s unofficial Corsham website, together with some revealing (and also well illustrated) Prospectuses from 1950 and later, plus partial lists/biographies/photos of teachers, students and obituaries – see

I am grateful to Binkie for providing a unique link to what must have been a very magical postwar world in the Wiltshire countryside. It was profoundly influential and its place is yet to be fully appreciated…

Tuesday, 6 December 2011


The second Decorated School Research Network day took place at Wardie Primary School, Granton Road, in the very fine city of Edinburgh. Members of the Network, members of the mural artist, Robert Herriott Westwater’s family, former pupils, current pupils & their families, school staff & others gathered at this wonderful and charming school to discuss ‘Bringing Art into Schools in the early Twentieth Century: How Wardie’s Alice in Wonderland Mural Works’.
Completed in 1931, Wardie is celebrating its 80th birthday this year. It is a solid brick built school with flat roof. Very much in the pared back 1930’s Modernist style. The school was built with a garden at its heart – at its very core. The garden remains of great importance to this day. All the class rooms have doors which open out on to the garden. On one side of each class room is the wonderful garden and on the other side is the corridor around the school. The dining room and hall are on the outer ring. The Alice murals are in the main hall. We were fortunate enough to spend our day at Wardie with these charming murals.
Robert Herriott Westwater was commissioned to paint the murals in 1936 by the Edinburgh City Education Committee as part of the ‘Schools Beautiful’ scheme.

Dr Jeremy Howard, (University of St Andrews) gave an excellent in-depth introduction to the day. He discussed the Wardie murals and art in local Scottish schools from the early 20th Century. He summarised what works of art are still in existence. His pictures showed a varied catalogue of wonderful art works.
Diane Watters of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland spoke next. She gave us an excellent over view of local school architecture in this region and where Wardie School fitted in to all of that.

After lunch Professor Annie Renonciat of the Musee National de l’Education, Rouen & Universite Paris Diderot 7, gave us a history of the art incorporated in French Schools in the late 19th & early 20th Centuries, the struggle to have the art and to keep it in schools. It was good to know that enlightened thinkers and artists had the same struggles in France as we had here to create space for art in schools. Realising that we were not alone made her talk a refreshing eye opener. The Decorated School project is not only based in the UK but has many parallels in Europe too.
Fiona Allardyce & Karen Dundas, Scottish Wall Painting Conservators, finished the talks for the day with a discussion on the way forward to conserve, preserve & restore the stunning Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland murals at Wardie.

The Final item was an open discussion. Some of the speakers were: Esther who was a pupil at the school in 1941 during WWII. She recalled the Alice murals being much brighter and more colourful at that time. She recalls Tea Dances and Socials at Wardie.

The very charming and self-effacing Aileen Williams (now aged 82) talked about being one of the three models for Alice in the murals. She attended Wardie at the time & was aged 6. She loves being part of the project even now. She never thought that something that had happened so long ago would still play a large part in her life.
Anna, Robert Herriott Westwater’s granddaughter, attended the school in the 1960’s. She was delighted to return to the school to celebrate the murals her grandfather painted. She very much hopes the murals can be restored.

Mr Johnson the architect’s grandson did not know of the school & was very pleased to be here to see it for himself. His father & grandfather had both worked on the design of Wardie School (his grandfather at the end of his career and his father at the beginning of his).
This is a brief summary of events on what was a rewarding and enriching day. I learnt much and must thank the Decorated School Network. I suspect I may not have had the pleasure of seeing the wonderful Wardie murals without them.

Huge thanks must go to Mrs Lorraine Cooper, Wardie Head Teacher and her excellent staff who made us very welcome for the day. A very successful day was had.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

What is a Decorated School? Robert Owen and Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Recent posts have highlighted the decoration of schools in Scotland's central belt. That major project for embellishing the school environment with fine art began in 1911. Glasgow and its hinterland boast two important precedents in the work of educationist Robert Owen and of architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Their distinctive contributions raise the question of what constitutes a 'decorated school'?

At his cotton mill on the Falls of Clyde, in the 1810s and 1820s, philanthropic employer and 'father of socialism' Robert Owen opened an 'Institute for the Formation of Character' for children aged 18 months to 6 years, and a school for children of six upwards. For children's education Owen placed music and visual stimuli above book and rote learning. So his classrooms were enhanced with images, not murals, but large scale images to fire the imagination, support enquiry and raise questions in children's minds. Believing in the environment as a key factor in the spiritual and emotional development of children and adults, he landscaped the already stunning surroundings of his factory to enhance the beauty of the landscape.

The site at New Lanark is now restored as a World Heritage Centre.

Less than a century later, in nearby Glasgow, Mackinstosh was commissioned by the School Board to build an elementary school in the industrial and dockside area of the city. Here he designed spaces, surfaces and decorative details, often insisting on his aesthetic judgment against the more cautious attitudes of the Board.

The building is now preserved as the Scotland Street School museum, and as a 'decorated school', its effect may be assessed beyond any functional or instructional value, for the impact its distinctive design must have had on pupils and teachers in their daily lives, and children in their growth and development.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Gordon Cullen Mural at Greenside Primary

Greenside Primary School, in Shepherd's Bush,  is hosting an evening to share this historical cultural treasure with the local community and everyone interested in our cultural heritage. 20th Century Design, architecture and art historian Alan Powers is giving an enlightening presentation on the Gordon Cullen mural and its context in the artistic landscape of the post-war period.
Cowering unloved behind a red curtain for the last 20 years because it went ‘out of fashion’, the mural has been quietly waiting to be brought back into school life. It is very much in Mid-Century style, with a rich variety of imagery inspired by school subjects and feeling very like the opened-out pages of a Picture Puffin. The images include the first commercial jet, the de Havilland Comet, first flown in 1951 and the Britannia 70000, the first standard steam locomotive commissioned by the Railways Board and rolled out in 1951. Hot on the tails of the upsurgence of interest in all things 1950’s, following the Festival of Britain Diamond Jubilee, Greenside is about to celebrate its own Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
Greenside Primary earns the star on its Grade II* listing because its foyer has this exceptional mural by Gordon Cullen, urban designer and artist to the Architectural Review. Controversial architect Erno Goldfinger created a structural system for schools, designed using an ingenious reinforced concrete frame for the London County Council, to help rebuild and educate a new modern post-war Britain. Greenside is one of the only two built, the other being Brandlehow in Putney. As part of Goldfinger’s vision he commissioned Gordon Cullen to paint a mural in the entrance hall of Greenside School (then known as Westville School). After years of being covered over it has now been ‘rediscovered’ and a group of parents, staff and governors have banded together with the aim: " To rehabilitate, restore, appreciate, protect and celebrate the Gordon Cullen Mural in the context of the Erno Goldfinger building to the benefit of the whole school community and enrich the Learning Environment." Or simply to love it again.
Last Friday Dr Cathy Burke and Peter Cunningham visited Greenside to see the mural and have a tour of the school. They were interested to see not only Cullen's mural, but also the more recent addition of the mural in the playground, painted on the retained wall of the old school and the outstanding new Foundation Years garden, just finished and offering highly engaging play for our younger children.

Event details:
7.00 for 7.30pm Wednesday 23rd November 2011
Greenside Primary School
Westville Road
W12 9PT

Donations on the door. Refreshments.

More details will be available on the Greenside Mural facebook page

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Templewood Murals Rededication gathering

Above LtoR: Jo Sellam, Richard Smith, Stephen Novy, Angharad Morris, Dr Peter Cunningham, Carey Cunningham, Dr Catherine Burke in front of Patricia Tew's St Nicholas Mural.
Above, myself, Stephen Novy, Jo Sellam & Angharad Morris.

At 6.00pm on Wednesday 19 October 2011 at Templewood School we held a gathering to rededicate our Pat Tew Murals. We have had a campaign over the summer to raise the funds to restore the three 1950 murals. (Which I have written about on this blog). Present were the school Governors, Angharad Morris, Head Teacher, members of the parent's association, teachers, parents, donors and Stephen Novey and his sister, Jo Sellam (two of Pat Tew's children). Dr Catherine Burke & Dr Peter Cunningham of the Decorated School Network were also present.
We all spent time viewing and admiring the newly restored murals. Graham Trenchard the restorer was unfortunately unable to come over from France. He had spent two weeks of long days working on the murals in August.
I gave a short speech of thanks to all the donors and to say that the murals are as much Pat Tew's Legacy as that of Templewood School. Our unique murals have been enjoyed and caused discussion for over 60 years. Now clean and colourful again, I hope the murals will continue to be enjoyed and discussed for generations of children to come. For me, it is with a mixture of sadness and great pleasure that this project comes to a close. I have met many wonderful people as a result, not the least all the 'Decorators' of the wonderful Decorated School Network.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Unidentified school mural, Argentina

The mural has been brought to our attention by Professor Ian Grosvenor, University of Birmingham.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Making History BBC and St Crispin's School Mural by Fred Millett

BBC Radio 4 'Making History' included a story about St Crispin's School and its mural that has recently been restored. The programme was broadcast on Tuesday 11th October at 3.00pm. It can be listened to again via the Making History website.

Here is a link to the School's site with a remarkable account of restoration.


Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Decorating the Central Belt 4: Dalreoch (Dumbarton) and Donaldson

Dalreoch Primary School stands above Dumbarton (now in West Dunbartonshire) at the top of the Castlehill area of the town. It is a sublime piece of school architecture by Ninian Johnston, and dates from 1953-55. Johnston's practice designed numerous schools in the Glasgow area in the 1950s. What really makes Dalreoch exceptional is its murals by David Donaldson (1916-96). And the murals, when one looks at the monograph on Donaldson by W. Gordon Smith (1996) and notes their absence, are what make Donaldson stand out. Here, perhaps more than in the other Central Belt Decorations so far viewed, are works that appear both personal and historical, plus universal, national and local. Here are works about nurturing youth and nature for the sake of the future. Here are works that are in two distinct media and which adorn internal and external walls.

The first Dalreoch mural is the painted depiction of Queen Mary of Scots departing for France from Dumbarton Castle (1957). At the time of its creation the Coatbridge-born Donaldson was a young lecturer in painting at the Glasgow School of Art. He was yet to be head of painting and drawing there (from 1967), a member of the Royal Scottish Academy (1962) or 'Her Majesty's Painter and Limner in Scotland (1977). He was, however married and a father to three young children, the youngest two of whom had been girls born to his second wife, Maria, in 1950 and 1956 respectively. I do not know the history of the commission of the mural but what can be said is that Donaldson's celebration of young girlhood, of 'Mary/Maria', together with the escape to France to seek an alternative life and way forward, rings bells with his biography. Who knows who modelled for the five little Marys in the centre of the picture?

The Queen Mary mural is very large and very flat. It runs through two storeys of the school foyer and can be viewed from both ground and first floor. It is well lit. It depicts the royal galley harboured in Dumbarton and the Scottish royal party about to embark. They are accompanied by female minstrels and knights in armour. Banners and furled sails cross the composition dividing and fragmenting its scenes vertically and diagonally.

The soft blue tones and play of bold, undetailed forms and play of spaces/viewpoints creates an assemblage of parts that is gentle to perceive yet actually quite complex. The combinations of historic architecture and costume, animal and bird life, performance and pageantry, a sense of communal/cultural tradition (circle dance and church) and the joining of earth, sea and sky - almost on top of one another - make this an ingenious, eyecatching and stimulating work of postwar modern art. It looks back and it looks forward, with balance and grace. Perhaps it is possible to identify characters and places. That's probably not for me. But surely here, around the central full frontal little Mary, are: her mother, Mary of Guise; her chosen girl companions, Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingstone; Monsieur de Brézé, the emissary of the French king sent to take Mary safely to France; Mary's half-brothers James, John and Robert, and her guardians Lords Livingstone and Erskine (at least one of them). The action takes place in July 1548 when five year old Mary, already Queen of Scots, was spirited away to France to avoid marriage with Henry VIII's son and thereby Scottish union with Tudor England. It would be interesting to know what sources (historical portraits or other) Donaldson drew upon for his characters... and whether, given the national flavour of this work, he considered his subsequent appointment as painter to Queen Elizabeth II with any sense of irony. It would also be worth trying to see how his mural sits in relation to his other works (not very closely on first glance) and their mid-twentieth century art context. My colleague Tom Normand has indicated some similarities with, for example, Wyndham Lewis's medievalist yet contemporary 'Surrender to Barcelona' (1934-7), which had been in the Tate since 1947.

The second Dalreoch mural is ceramic. It covers an entire south-facing wall that, windowless, overlooks the old school playground with its largescale game of snakes and ladders. The subject here is the story of Noah's Ark, though the ark is rather diminutive and peripheral. This appears easier to relate to Donaldson's other work, being comparable to some of the Nativity scenes he had drawn in the mid-forties. Perhaps, as Tom N has also suggested, it could be related to John Maxwell's mid-century work. The mural is signed 'David A Donaldson, For Ninian Johnston, Fired by James Crawford, 1957'. Again avoiding conformative scale, proportion and perspective here the composition is focused on the old bearded Noah who is surrounded by animals and flowers. The flood appears tranquil.

There is a childlike simplicity in the frontal and profiled figures of horse, lion, alligator, sheep, camel, cow, hen, monkeys, giraffes, goat and birds, as well as the wispishness of the lines and the sense of 'unfinish' in the white ground. There is also a small, playful, full frontal mermaid with arms and tail raised in the water to the far right. The variety of flora and fauna could be taken as a natural history lesson, while the Biblical subject occurs in numerous religious traditions, is open to a wide variety of interpretations with regard its meanings, and has been the subject for artistic recreation for centuries. Rarely, however, has been so monumentally produced, especially in modern times. It is somehow nice that the alligator's head enters a 'graffiti' goal. Just as at Wardie School, Edinburgh (see post of 16 September) where Alice in Wonderland is joined to a basketball hoop, the mural both watches over and joins in children's games...

It is remarkable that the Dalreoch murals have survived and are in such reasonable condition. Conservation is clearly an issue, with signs of deterioration becoming visible. They are testament to the vigour, creativity, optimism and investment in postwar education that was sadly not to last. Our appreciation of them has been made possible courtesy of headteacher Sat Bance. Many thanks to him.

In this whirlwind tour of the 'Decoration of the Central Belt' (Posts 1-4) an attempt has been made to select a variety of schools from different periods featuring different forms of art and created for children of different ages and abilities. Much can be learned, and by many (not just the children for whom they were made) from these attempts, whether modest or masterpieces.... To be continued...

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Decorating the Central Belt 3: Eastwood High School (Newton Mearns), Robert Stewart and James Gorman

When Robert Stewart produced his ceramic mural for the entrance foyer of the new Eastwood High School at Newton Mearns, Renfrewshire, in 1965 he was head of Glasgow School of Art's Printed Textile Department and owner of Robert Stewart Ceramics Ltd. In many ways the mural reflects his dual interests, showing similarities in colour and form to his earlier work for the Edinburgh Tapestry Company and Liberty. This frequently featured abstracted sun-heads, patterned fish and birds, as well as a sense of flattened and vital organic growth.

The Eastwood mural seems to represent night and day, the elements, light overcoming (or at least interacting with) darkness, a sense of pagan calendar, and a rich interplay of cultural traditions or worldviews. It pulsates with hearts and sequins along and around a centralised horizon line.

The effect is of energy and a somewhat 'sixties' feel of psychedelic transcendentalism. Hugely appropriate for (and a relief from) the glazed concrete utilitarian palace of the new school (due for demolition in 2013).

Stewart was to produce three more murals for Scottish schools, and in somewhat similar vein, between 1965 and 1975 - Adelphi Street School, Glasgow (1965), Douglas Academy, Milngavie,(1966) and Glendaruel and Kilmodan Primary School (1975). My thanks to Catherine Davis for drawing my attention to these, and to Liz Arthur's Robert Stewart Design 1946-95 (2003), in which they feature.

Eastwood had a second mural created in 1965. It was placed at the back of Stewart's and on the wall of the hall behind it. This featured a battle from classical mythology, possibly the Trojan War (?), and was by James Gorman (1931-2005), a mural painting graduate from the Glasgow School of Art. After subsequently moving to Arran Gorman concentrated on easel painting, though he did apparently produce one more school mural - for the Moorcroft (?) Primary School in his native Gourock. It would be interesting to compare that, for younger children, with his treatment of history and conflict at Eastwood. The six fighting skeletal figures at the Renfrewshire school are made of coloured plaster and set against a glowing red-orange ground. The mural is currently kept, in three pieces, in a store below the school.

We are indebted to headteacher Stuart Maxwell and the janitors for bringing the Gorman out (for the first time in decades) for our visit, and indeed for making possible our viewing of both murals.

With the fate of the school sealed and no place for the murals in the new Eastwood set to open in 2013, a home for these historic works is urgently needed.

Decorating the Central Belt 2: Drumpark and Jessie King

Drumpark is a school for children with various kinds of learning needs, from nursery to senior ages. It is on the western edge of Coatbridge, at Bargeddie (now North Lanarkshire). It was designed by JR Stewart in 1925, has a butterfly-plan and must rank as one of Scotland's earliest open-air schools. It is both rational and picturesque, being adorned with pyramidal hexagonal entrance towers (with clerestory lighting) to both north and south, having south-facing verandas and classrooms with glazed sliding doors, and being one-storey. It was decorated by Jessie King and her husband E.A. Taylor. Renowned for their contribution to the so-called Glasgow Style in the early twentieth century, Drumpark continued a trend of designing for children that King had already been engaged upon for two decades (e.g. toys, illustrations, models). On 6 September 1927, The Glasgow Herald noted:

The outstanding feature of the school is the scheme of decoration adopted for the various classrooms.... A different design and combination of colour harmonies have been chosen for each classroom, and while there is fascinating variety, there is also a pleasing unity in the entire scheme.
It was a happy inspiration on the part of the artists to choose wild flowers in each case as the basis of the scheme. In one room, for example, the motif is that of forget-me-nots. The colour most in evidence is, of course, the pale blue of this favourite flower, while the wall decoration consists of forget-me-not flowers, among which there flit elusive elf-like figures. 'Wild Rose' is another motif which, in soft shades of pink, lends itself admirably to imaginative treatment of this description. There is a 'Primrose' classroom in pale yellow, and a 'Daffodil' and a 'Crocus' room in varying shades of the same colour, while 'Snowdrop', 'Old Rose', 'Gorse' and other flowers all receive appropriate treatment. Not only are the decorations of the various rooms soundly and simply conceived and executed as designs, but, more important still, they are calculated to appeal strongly to the imagination of children...'

Colin White, in The Enchanted World of Jessie M. King (1989), has noted the following:

'in the autumn of 1925 he [E.A. Taylor – husband of Jessie King] and Jessie had been invited to design the interior decorations for a new experimental nursery school that the Lanarkshire authorities were building at Drumpark for handicapped children. The Taylors were given a free hand, and decided to base their designs on flowers. Ernest chose the colour schemes and Jessie prepared stencilled friezes for the walls, with elves and fairies playing among clusters of 'Primrose', 'Snowdrop', 'Old Rose' and the other flowers that were used as names for the classrooms. In 'Sunflower', for example, elfin soldiers, in armour made of sunflower petals, fought one another by the light of a rising sunflower sun. Jessie paid several visits to the school to get the feel of the siting of the murals and their scale. She made large preliminary sketches of her compositions in charcoal and colour washes and, from these, made detailed paintings in gouache. The actual cutting of the stencils was done under her supervision by the firm of decorators who were painting the school, and she and Ernest attended to the mixing of the colours they had decided on… It was the first time that children's taste had been given consideration in the planning of a new school. The success of the venture encouraged the Lanarkshire authorities to repeat the experiment the following year at Machen [now Machanhill?], a new school at Larkhall, and the Taylors were invited again to plan the décor for the seven classrooms for the youngest children… Jessie painted one of her few oils, Little Brown Seed, for Drumpark School….'

While the classroom decorative scheme has vanished, the 'Little Brown Seed' mural survives. Its text is from Edith Nesbit (of Railway Children and Fabian Society fame) - in fact it is her poem called Baby Seed Song. This is both written (in Glasgow Style capitals with dots between words) and illustrated (by anthropomorphic poppy and sunflower seeds in a slightly oriental stylised birch grove). The poem and mural are still used as reading and learning resources today.

In 2009 the school installed, at the end of a corridor, a ceramic mural made of ten hexagons by the children (under the supervision of ceramicists Fiona Fleming and Julia Smith) and depicting various facets of Drumpark life, past and present. It makes a fitting accompaniment to Jessie King's work.

Drumpark is about to close and the future of the building is uncertain. Andrew D and I are very grateful to Mrs Millar, Miss King, Mr Doherty and the Headteacher for sharing with us their tremendous appreciation of the school.

Decorating the Central Belt 1: Kilsyth and Tom Whalen

Kilsyth Academy (now in North Lanarkshire) was designed by Basil Spence and constructed either side of the Second World War. In September 1948, just as building recommenced after a nine year break, a model of the school was shown at the 'New Schools' Exhibition at the McLellan Galleries, Glasgow. The exhibition organisers, the Scottish Committee of the Council of Industrial Design and the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, were 'both convinced that Mr Spence's design may well set an entirely new standard for school construction in the country. Emphasis is all on sunlight both in classrooms and in the grounds...' (The Scotsman, 16 September 1948).

On a hilltop overlooking the town and Kilsyth valley, the Academy appeared as a functionalist castle rising up from a series of landscaped terraces and dominated by a high cuboid clock tower.

The rendered latter was adorned with an emblematic clock (note the symbols of learning), and a relief of 'Education' by Tom Whalen.

The relief, with its flattened symmetrical figures, acts as a counterpoint to the large rectangular hall and stair window beside it. Both are enclosed within the same cement surround. Whalen's large carving shows a couple in profile standing on a voluted pedestal presenting their infant son to the sun (world, universe...). The full frontal nude boy is lifted effortlessly up, his arms and face raised to the sky. Defying gravity he perches on the fruitladen boughs of a stylised tree (of knowledge? of life?), with fluted column trunk.

Whatever their religious-secular-education associations, the simplified figures recall Whalen's pre-war 'Mother and Child' fountain at Prestonfield Primary School, Edinburgh (see post of 3 February 2011) while the 'sun-worship' posing suggests that of the symbolic bronze ballerina with which he adorned the then new (now demolished) Dalkeith High School in 1960 (moved to new Dalkeith High School in 2004). Taken together these three commissions, completed over a period of twenty-five years, mark Whalen out as the foremost sculptor for mid-twentieth century Scottish schools.

The photographs of Dalkeith are reproduced courtesy of RCAHMS. Andrew D and I visited Kilsyth on 30 September 2011. We are grateful to Headteacher Gillian Caldwell and Depute Head Paul Reilly for their invaluable guidance and insights.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The School Prints

Thanks to Pete Medway for putting me on to this site

One of the prints is The Harbour which is one of the murals we have discussed here by Trevelyan.

see 'films' on the site too.


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Wardie School, Edinburgh and its ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mural

2011 is the eightieth anniversary of the opening of Wardie Primary School on Granton Road, Edinburgh. It is also the seventy-fifth anniversary of the painting of a large, nine-panel, mural in its hall. The Decorated School Network is joining forces with the school to celebrate the latter and to this end we are organising a day in the school on Saturday 29th October (details to follow in the Events link on this page). The event will start around 1030 and finish around 1530 (exact times tbc). It will be open to all with interests in the school's history and the significance of/reasons for adorning schools with striking imagery. It is hoped that through drawing attention to the historical importance of the mural (it is unique in many ways) means and funds will be raised for its restoration and conservation.

The Scotsman (16 September 1931) provided considerable coverage of Wardie's opening in 1931. Particular attention was paid to its construction in an area where 800 houses had been recently built, that it was made of '750000 bricks', that the architect was Joseph Marr Johnston.

'The school is planned on the open-air principle around an inside garden. It is a one-storey building except in the front. There are 15 classrooms, with accommodation for 750 pupils, a sewing room, and a large hall or gymnasium. The style of the building from the outside is more suggestive of buildings more common on the continent and in the south of England than in Scotland, for the exterior walls are of red brick, with 'panels' of white harling, and the window frames are painted green.' The article also noted that in the central garden there would be 'lawns, crazy paving and flowerbeds' while there were already 'friezes on the walls of its infant classrooms on which are depicted fairy tales and rhymes'.

Five years later, under the 'Schools Beautiful' scheme initiated by Edinburgh Education Committee and Edinburgh College of Art, a postgraduate Andrew Grant Fellow of ECA, Robert Heriot Westwater (1905-62), painted the Wardie mural of Alice in Wonderland. The inspiration behind the scheme appears to have been the then Principal of ECA, Hubert Wellington. Westwater was extraordinarily active around this time, both as a painter, lecturer, art teacher and broadcaster. Appreciation of his contribution to Scottish art history is long overdue. The Wardie mural appears to be the first of Westwater's ventures into largescale wall painting. It was followed by his mural decoration of the ICI Pavilion at the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow and, in 1939, of a mural in the workers' lecture hall at Musselburgh Wire Mills.

The 'Schools Beautiful' programme was cut short by the Second World War. In Edinburgh, as far as is currently known, just three schools benefitted - Craigmillar Primary School (John Maxwell's and Alexander Inglis's murals, 1935 and 1939 respectively), Prestonfield Primary School (Tom Whalen's bronze fountain group, 1935), and Wardie. Craigmillar and Prestonfield were to feature as optimistic signals of present and future directions for Scottish education combining with art in John Grierson's remarkable, and famous, documentary film about the progress of schooling, The Children's Story (1938). Actually, this appearance was preempted by Wardie. For just after Westwater had completed his mural it appeared in 'Education in Edinburgh', a Campbell Harper film, with scenario written by JB Frizell, City Education Officer, about Edinburgh's educational services. Reviewed in detail in The Scotsman (11 November 1936), I have been unable to trace a copy of this film. Any clues as to its whereabouts would be gratefully received.

The incorporation of the decorated Wardie, Craigmillar and Prestonfield Schools into these early films is evidence of their place as beacons for educational progress. Wardie also had in common with Prestonfield its open-air, health and hygiene, ideas and realisation. Furthermore Wardie acted as a precedent for Craigmillar in terms of mural subject, for Inglis's wall painting focused on a doll's house with scenes from 'Alice' (combined with episodes from Edward Lear's 'Nonsense' and traditional children's tales and rhymes). Unfortunately, Inglis's work has been painted over and while the Maxwell mural opposite it survives, the school has closed and been turned into apartments. This makes Wardie's mural, in a working school, all the more precious.

The unveiling of 'Alice in Wonderland' at Wardie was a grand affair. It was undertaken by JW Peck, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Education Department in the company of representatives of Edinburgh Education Committee, College of Art and Council, together with a group of prominent artists, teachers and local schoolchildren. The ceremony, the mural and the ideas behind the scheme for art in schools which it symptomised was given substantial column and image space in The Scotsman (9 and 12 June 1936).

Westwater divided his mural into views of nine separate incidents in Alice in Wonderland. To some extent these bear a resemblance to John Tenniel's 1864 illustrations of Lewis Carroll's fantasy. Yet they move beyond those well-known black and white caricatures to recreate Alice in a novel painted fashion. A handwritten key to the panels, whose Italic script appears in columns akin to the format of the mural, is placed in the hall adjacent to the painting. The treatment of the scenes is colourful and figurative. As such it could be called fantasy realism. It captures the absurd yet learning world of Alice's adventures in a way that while easily readable defies, perhaps in keeping with the 'irrationalism' of Carroll's yarn, straightforward narrative reading from left to right or top to bottom.

Top Left - horizontal panel of Alice Falling Asleep while her sister reads a 'dry' book (Chapter One)

Bottom Left - vertical panel of The Game of Croquet with the Queen, King and Knave of Hearts (Chapter Eight)

Top Mid Left - horizontal panel of Alice, the Hookah-smoking Caterpillar and the Mushroom (Chapter Five)

Bottom Mid Left - vertical panel of Alice with animals wondering how to get dry (Chapter Three)

Centre - vertical panel with Alice and the Rabbit at the bottom of the Tunnel. Complete with Marmalade Jar and Golliwog (the latter, not being in Alice in Wonderland could be a cunning advertisement for Robertson's Jams and Marmalades?) (Chapter One)

Top Mid Right - horizontal panel of the Gryphon and Mock Turtle dancing the Lobster Quadrille (Chapter Ten)

Bottom Mid Right - vertical panel of Alice being grinned at and instructed by the Cheshire Cat (Chapter Six)

Top Right - horizontal panel of Alice awoken by her sister (Chapter Six)

Bottom Right - vertical panel of the Tea Party with the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse and Fish Footman (Chapter Seven)

The 'transcendent' Wonderland mural was to act in several ways - to enliven the school environment, as a pedagogic tool and as part of a modern, twentieth century campaign to revive mural art for public service. It still leaves an impression. Just as the basketballs missing the mobile hoop and board attached to it around the central white rabbit make their impression on it. I think Westwater might have approved...

While the empty places at the mad hatter's party table in the lower right panel hint that it might not be everyone's cup of tea, with its mural and its school Wardie has something exceptional and experimental. It is a testament to the vision and ideals of early twentieth century social reformers.