If you had the chance to introduce your pupils to original works of art in the classroom (such as framed paintings and prints, sculptures, ceramics and embroideries), would you take it? And what would you do with it?
Almost seventy years ago, a scheme was established which aimed to enable to teachers and educators to do just that. Set up in 1947 under the name of the Society for Education through Art, Pictures for Schools was founded and driven by painter and educator Nan Youngman, art adviser to Cambridgeshire’s innovative Director of Education Henry Morris.
Pictures for Schools took the form of a series of annual exhibitions held at prestigious London galleries until 1969. Artworks by established artists, students and recent graduates were sold at prices designed to be within the reach of educational buyers. Directors of Education and art advisers from local authorities made the trip to London to purchase work for burgeoning town, city and county art collections for loan to schools. Northern buyers included Rochdale, Manchester, Lancashire and Carlisle, along with the West Riding and Newcastle, West Bromwich, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottingham regularly visited from the Midlands, and authorities in Bristol and Dorset purchased work for schools in the South West. London County Council, Bromley, Harrow, Croydon, Cambridge, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and Great Yarmouth were among the main purchasers from the South East.
Other educational buyers, though smaller in number, included primary, secondary and independent schools, and teacher training colleges. Museum services benefited from levels of staffing and support unimaginable today, such as in-house carpenters to frame paintings and create carry-cases for sculptures, and dedicated vans to transport work to schools. Art advisers visited schools to advise on the siting and hanging of paintings, and insurance, and ran weekend courses on the use of art in schools.
Although submissions of all kinds were welcomed – as long as they did not ‘play down’ to children – and some were bold, abstract and vibrant, there was a bias towards representational work such as still-lifes and landscapes. Art educator Marion Richardson, a major influence on Nan Youngman, encouraged her young pupils to seek inspiration in the scenery all around them, and many of the works in Pictures for Schools presented children with sights drawn from the everyday. As well as the London monument pictures of Edward Bawden, which consistently sold well, and stylised prints depicting Oxbridge colleges, best-sellers included the murky industrial landscapes of John Kenneth Long and George Chapman’s stark black and white images of people going about their daily life and work, and children playing in the street. Prints such as linocuts – especially the colourful prints of Peter Green – also proved popular, as they were in a medium easily replicable in the classroom.
The ideas motivating Pictures for Schools were very much of their time. During and after the Second World War, as the rebuilding of Britain was debated in both the public and political spheres, educators called for art education to be given a central position in the new school system. This received support from the Ministry of Education, as part of a project to promote British culture, improve the public’s standards of taste and create a new generation of citizens and educated consumers who were capable of exercising judgment in aesthetic matters and making informed choices and purchases.
By the end of the 1960s, ideas about education were changing and as education budgets were cut Pictures for Schools was forced to come to an end. As early as the 1980s, some of the work in county collections was seen as old-fashioned. In the decades that followed, some work by previously lesser-known artists has risen in value, making it difficult to lend and insure, and several local authorities have realised that the work, often in storage and unseen for years, represents valuable potential income.
Although most county collections have been sold, and it is difficult to ascertain the whereabouts of many artworks once in public ownership, in a few areas of the country it is still possible for schools to borrow work purchased from Pictures for Schools today, along with more modern work. These include embroideries, along with other work purchased from Pictures for Schools in the 1960s by the still-thriving Reading Museum Service. Derbyshire Museum Service, one of the largest, has retained the bulk of its collection. Although some paintings have been sent to local museums for safekeeping the service, based in Derby, continues to invest in new work by visiting local artists. Leeds Art Gallery, meanwhile, has its own school loan scheme, Artemis, which offers workshops to introduce teachers to the collection.
We’ve all seen sculptures sitting outside the school entrance, paintings of grandees in the school hall, or wishy-washy landscapes displayed in reception areas, but the organisers of Pictures for Schools intended that the work in schools should be seen and looked at close-up by children. Here, the use of originals as opposed to reproductions was key, as it was thought to be crucial that children could identify first-hand how the work was made: the mark of the brush-stroke or the pinch of the clay.
One of the shortcomings of Pictures for Schools, however, was that, once the work had been sold, there was no specific guidance given to schools about how to make the most of it. Some of the individual authorities contacted the organisers asking for artists’ contact details with a view to compiling biographical notes, and several authorities later sent out sets of notes with the artworks. One former art adviser from Cambridgeshire, also a teacher in the 1970s, told me that he had passed artworks around the classroom, using them as the starting point for debate and discussion, which is exactly what the organisers envisaged.
Unfortunately, today loan services have to compete for schools’ already precious time and monetary resources, and the debate about the value of arts subjects in the curriculum is ongoing. Is there a place for original artworks in twenty-first century schools or are they an expensive luxury?
Natalie Bradbury is researching a PhD about Pictures for Schools at the University of Central Lancashire, which she blogs about at www.picturesforschools.wordpress.com. She welcomes comments from anyone with experience of Pictures for Schools and county collections and museum services, and can be contacted at NBradbury@uclan.ac.uk.
The arts, creativity and CPRT research schools. Find out more about CPRT’s efforts to enhance the arts and creativity through its South West Research Schools Network.
The Cambridge Primary Review final report said (Children, their World, their Education, pp 267 and 493): ‘The most conspicuous casualties [of the so-called ‘standards agenda’ of a narrow curriculum and high-stakes tests] are the arts, humanities and those kinds of learning which require time for talking, problem-solving and extended exploration of ideas … We wish to encourage a vigorous campaign to advance public understanding of the arts in education, human development, culture and national life, coupled with a more rigorous approach to arts teaching in schools.’
What do you think?