Sunday, 18 September 2011

Strathmore Infants, Hitchin A mural in the life of the school, then and now

Strathmore Infant and Nursery School, Hitchin, is a modernist and imaginative new building by Hertfordshire County Council architects. Attractively landscaped, it was opened on 22 October 1949, by Lady Allen of Hurtwood who acclaimed it a ‘most lovely school’.

Painters Kenneth Rowntree (who created a mural at Barclay School, Stevenage) and Charles Mahoney visited with Mary Hoad (Arts Organiser, Herts Education Office) in June 1949, prior to the commission. Then Malcolm Hughes, about to graduate at the Royal College of Art, was given the task and completed it in February 1950. He was one of the students also selected to assist with large-scale murals in the Law Courts. School logbooks mention a BBC film made at the school in November 1950, not yet traced. The director was John Read, son of Herbert Read. It was one of his first films, shortly after meeting the great filmmaker John Grierson, and he went on to specialise in documentaries on artists. Jeremy Howard refers to this in his report of the visit, below, and we will try to trace a copy of the film.

Occupying a recess midway along a wide lateral thoroughfare, the mural is seen regularly by children in passing, but as they move about the school, but is not in a location that invites prolonged contemplation, by contrast with the more common settings of foyer, assembly hall or dining room. Although set back from the circulation space and partly obscured by pillars it receives good light from the generously glazed corridor. This however is a wall behind the hall stage, a functional space, the painted wall including two doors to storage cupboards.

Malcolm Hughes mural: centre section

Malcolm Hughes had seen war service as a naval radio operator and inclined to Socialist Realism. The Strathmore mural represents his figurative early work before the abstract constructivism that he developed in the sixties and for which he became well known. The figures of children at play echo the style of Stanley Spencer. But there is already a tendency to abstraction in the mural as the playground equipment, goal posts, ice cream seller’s bicycle and railway viaduct and equipment in background are reduced to formal shapes that articulate the composition. Stephen Bann hints at an ideological element in Hughes’ personality and work, as ‘that rare thing among British artists: a creative thinker who openly rejected individualism and sought to foster collective strategies for the production and display of works of art.’ (Obituary, Independent 25 September 1997) Hughes’ works (mostly constructivist paintings) are in many collections, including at the Tate, Warwick University, Manchester City Art Gallery, Sussex University and the British Council.

Full of activity, the painting shows children in a local park. The topic suits a busy corridor, a scene to accompany constant movement, a picture the children will get to know through frequent fleeting acquaintance as they go between classroom, hall and playground. The setting was identified as Ransom’s recreation ground with recognisable features of play equipment, football goal posts and a railway viaduct in the background. This landscape background, stylised and abstracted in its representation, was readily recognisable in going on to visit the park, where mature foliage now hides the railway features.

Ransom’s Recreation Ground

A lot of discussion in previous blogs has focused inevitably on the commissioning, authorship and subsequent fate of murals, and analysis of styles, sources and influences. At Strathmore our discussion turned to the content of a mural depicting the everyday lives of local children at the time it was painted, and influences it have had on art in the school since that time.

Conversation provoked by the painting turned on children of the late 1940s, as observed by Hughes. Curiously for an infants school mural, these are junior age children. Several children surround an ice cream vendor and his bicycle, one offering an ‘old penny’ in payment. The health service of the post-war welfare state is celebrated in one bespectacled child and another with a bandaged knee, all the children comfortably dressed and shod by contrast with the more impoverished figures familiar in images of earlier generations. A boy wears football boots and shin pads are visible above his socks, a school cap, a tie and a scarf on different children are grey and maroon, probably the uniform colours of the Wilshere Dacre school at that time.

The mural's influence on the later life of the school may be reflected in a mural tradition still evident on the walls. A large mural at one end of this transverse corridor, painted by a teacher some time in the 1990s represents characters from the hugely popular ‘Oxford Reading Tree’ books by Roderick Hunt and Alex Brychta, that would have been most infants’ introduction to reading at that period. Also enlivening the corridor walls is a brightly coloured series of ceramic mosaics designed and made collaboratively by children working under the guidance of an artist in residence. The themes are taken from popular books.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We wore grey blazers with a crest on the pocket in dark red