Saturday, 24 September 2011
Wednesday, 21 September 2011
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.
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.
Sunday, 18 September 2011
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.