Thursday, 15 September 2011

A Week in the Life of a Decorated School Advocate

A Tour of Herts, Wilts, Tottenham and a Bit of Brabant... Plus...

Tuesday 6 September. Arrive Welwyn Garden City. View restored Pat Tew's murals of The Magic Fish, Selfish Giant and St Nicholas in Templewood Primary School. They now resonate colour and life even more than before, with the figures, fabrics, foliage and forms revealing all the more clearly Pat Tew's remarkable artistic sensibility combined with child empathy. Concern about how to keep them from damage...

Wednesday 7 September.
Courtesy of Soo Hitchin and Brenda Frayne get to grips with the holdings of Herts' school art and art-in-schools-related documents. Begin to understand why Andrew Saint and Stuart Maclure picked out Hertfordshire for special attention in their 1980s studies of postwar British school architecture. Getting to grips with how pioneering Hertfordshire was in the late 1940s-early 1950s, how extensive and professional the programme for art in schools was, and how important the combination of John Newsom (Chief Education Officer), Mary Hoad (County Art Organiser) and C. Herbert Aslin (County Architect) was.

Morning visit by Brenda, Soo and Jeremy to The Grange Primary School, Letchworth. First viewing of Pat Tew's Jack O'Legs mural in the corridor (see Soo's blog). Delighted by the school's approach to art. Great consideration by the staff for what art can bring to the children (and what children can bring to art). Struck by two brand new murals by James Mayhew. Full of verve, artistic and folk connections: the food-folk tale mural in the foyer (I loved its representation of the Russian 'Repka' tale) and the jungle mural on the stage wall of the hall, co-signed by school caretaker and ex-acting headteacher. Rewarding contact with James comes later - he explains his murals on his blogspot. Through talking with teachers understand that Pat Tew's Ulysses mural survives but has been covered up due to the creation of a new ICT suite where it is. This is excellent news. I think it may be her best work - judging by the photo supplied by Pat's daughter Jo.

Afternoon visit by the same trio to Birchwood Avenue Primary School, Hatfield. Having just passed its sixtieth anniversary the school survives replete with concomitant prefabrication, material and design problems. In the dining hall, recently separated from the foyer-reading space, corridor and Crittall windows, are a set of five murals representing the history of flight. When, in February 1951, Hoad and Deputy County Architect William Tatton-Brown made an inspection tour of Herts Schools with art they noted in their report that the Birchwood mural wall 'conflicts with the architecture and would be better replaced by flat colour'. Thank God for a bit of conflict and that the wall was not painted over. We will do a separate blog on the wall, whose artists remain enigmatic (possibly Cliff Rowe and partners). Suffice it to say here that the wall celebrates the fact that De Havilland aircraft company had its factory in Hatfield and was the biggest employer in the town. Many thanks to Headteacher Mrs Di-Bella for showing the murals and pondering their use with us. There's much to be learned from them.

Thursday 8 September.
Visit to Penelope Ellis in Wiltshire - made by Andrew Saint and Jeremy Howard. We discuss and look at photographs, letters, sketches for Penelope's school sculptures in Leicestershire from 1958-62. There will be more to come on these as they relate to Stewart Mason's programme for art in Leics schools of the period. After some debate it was decided that her first piece would be a ciment fondu 'Brock' badger for an exterior wall of Brockington College. It survives.
We also discuss the work of the Bath Academy of Art (at Corsham), run by Penelope's parents, Clifford and Rosemary Ellis, in terms of its contributions to the postwar art-in-schools programmes. The murals painted by the Ellises and their colleagues and students rank (and ranked) as some of the most accomplished work. The incredible story of C & R E's 1950-1 creation of the Penguin mural at Maylands Infant School, Hemel Hempstead was told and various theories as to its inspiration-subject connections put forward... (again more to come on this).
Lord Methuen's address at the opening of the Tate's 'Pictures for Schools Exhibition' in June 1948 was studied, as was the catalogue of the second exhibition of the Society of Mural Painters (RIBA, April 1953), with all its entries for school murals. Particularly intriguing was entry number 26 - 'Hans Tisdall - Fresco Secco for Dining Hall in a Secondary School, Kuwait, for His Highness Sheikh Sir Abdulla Al Subah, KCMG, CIE. Architect: Frank Dark, FRIBA. Scale 1/50th'. Also there were, for example, Augustus Lunn (sgraffito mural, Woodbury Down Primary School, London), Fred Millett (Fruit Picking - mural for David Medd's St Crispin's Secondary Modern School, Wokingham [just restored and unveiled again in August-September 2011], Theodore Kern's 'Tobias' mural at Cheshunt Junior and Infants School, Betty Swanwick's design for a nursery school, Morris Kestelman's 'Fisherfolk' mural for a school hall; and, coincidentally, Barbara Jones' mural of 'The Dolls' for a living room designed by Wells Coates (Jones painted two murals for Basil Spence designed schools and is being researched by Cathy Burke).
Penelope also recalled the elephant, hippo and rhino concrete sculptural work done by Binkie O'Connell and Jane Tate for Litte Green Primary School, Croxley Green in the early fifties, a work which survives. We are much indebted to Penelope. Her memory, archive and hospitality are unique.

Friday 9 September.
Morning visit by Peter Cunningham, Soo and Jeremy to Strathmore Infant School, Hitchin (built 1949). Hosted by Caroline Howard (Business Manager) and Bernadette Holmes (Headteacher), the trio were treated to another school in which art has made and continues to make a huge difference to the learning environment. We will post a separate blog on this. Suffice it to say here that this school has a very special mural by Malcolm Hughes painted in early 1950 and depicting young children in the nearby Ransom's Recreation Ground. It must rank as one of Hughes' earliest known works. Particularly important clues as to the evolution of the mural were given in the booklet produced by the former headteacher Carol Arrowsmith (with John Street) for the fiftieth anniversary of the school in 1999. From Mrs Arrowsmith's invaluable research we can begin to understand the contribution of the Royal College of Art to the realisation of the mural, and that a BBC film of the school was made in November 1950, apparently by Herbert Read's son John Read and John Grierson, and for a series known as 'We in Britain'.

The afternoon visit was to Barclay School, a secondary school in Stevenage (about which Soo Hitchin has already blogged). We were greeted by estate manager, Alan Wall, whose knowledge of the spaces and materials was generously imparted. Barclay is remarkable for many reasons. It was a model secondary school for the late 1940s and the attention to detail, to educational-utilitarian plan, materials, light, and art turned out to be exceptional. There is a correlation between the mural here and at Strathmore that we will explore as soon as we can.
The day was completed by a drink with Binkie O'Connell's daughter, Jane, in Amersham, and discussion of her mother's artistic career/school sculpture.

Saturday 10 September.
Morning visit to Tottenham. Impressed by a different, earlier range of school decoration here. Fine, varied examples, for different kinds of institutions from early and late Victorian periods. Include, for example, the facade artwork of 1) The Green Coat School, on Somerset Road (1862) [now The Green CoE Primary School] - a large tympanum relief of Christ and a young boy with the (chipped) inscription from Luke 9.48 'Whosoever Receiveth This Child in My Name Receiveth Me'; 2) the intricately carved and symbolically laden coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Drapers over the main entrance to the former Drapers College for Boys turned Tottenham High School for Girls and subsequently High Cross School (post-1858); and 3) the extravagant rooflines and plastered gables of Earlsmead Board School (1897).

Sunday 11 September
Over to Holland, in fact North Brabant for a day. A quick external glance at the Saltomontessorischool de Trinoom in Eindhoven in the morning. The original building dates from 1948, while new wings and grounds are still being completed. Besides the large halftoned image of Maria Montessori inside the complex the school's appearance is offset on Deken van Somerenstraat by Jans Wils' set of artworks sometimes referred to as 'Organ Pipes with Big Lips' (1988)
In the afternoon Tilburg offers up the restrained brick Art Deco St Oldulphus Lyceum, built by Jan van der Valk on Noordhoekring in 1930. Its projecting entrance is a busy but simultaneously quietly ordered essay in abstract glass, metal and brick decoration.

Almost opposite on Noordhoekring is the former Textile Trades School (F.C. de Beer, 1928-30) which, over its main door, boasts a bronze (?) relief panel with an allegorical depiction of textilework by Theo van Delft. Reading from left to right via the female figures and putto, one gets from source of textile (sheep) through spinning wheel and loom to fine garments...

Monday 12 September
Heard from the Headteacher of Wardie School, Edinburgh, that we are all systems go for The Decorated School Network's next event - a day there, open to all, and with its 'Alice in Wonderland' mural (1936) on Saturday 29 October. More to follow very shortly on this.
Tues 13 September
The week is up. The morning's post brings, from Andrew Saint, photos of a kangaroo (sculpture and flagholder by Elizabeth Burr) at Henry Parkes School, Coventry (c. 1952); Walter Ritchie's relief for St Christopher's School, Coventry; Colin Giffard's murals in Thomas Linacre School, Wigan and Monkfrith School, East Barnet... and more...

This week has provided impressive, extensive and distinctive evidence of the positive and visible effects of artworks in schools. It has also served to highlight various issues concerning their creation, use, recognition and preservation - issues with which our Network is grappling...