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:

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: http://www.baacorsham.co.uk/yourpage14.htm] 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 http://www.baacorsham.co.uk/sitemap.htm.

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…

3 comments:

Yackandandah said...

I attended Little Green Junior School (as it was then) in the '50s. I remember seeing these figures on my first day. Accompanied by my Mum it was the one and only time we were allowed to use that entrance and so I never saw them again but they obviously made an impression on me !

Thank you for the information on their origin.

Gerry McFarlane said...

There is a page of small photos with hand written comments (includes Binkie 0'Connell) taken 1947, her time at Corsham. It is on page http://www.baacorsham.co.uk/youpage2.htm
This was shown to me 12 years ago by Andrea Garrihy and I snapped it and put it on her page. Quality of the pic is just about viewable.

Gerry McFarlane said...

There is a page of small photos with hand written comments (includes Binkie 0'Connell) taken 1947, her time at Corsham. It is on page http://www.baacorsham.co.uk/youpage2.htm
This was shown to me 12 years ago by Andrea Garrihy and I snapped it and put it on her page. Quality of the pic is just about viewable.