Monday, 8 October 2012

'Any idea what the sculpture might be worth ?' The story of Gladys or 'Welcome' by Peter Peri, Greenhead College, Huddersfield 1961-2012.


The title of this post is a direct quote from a journalist who was seeking a commission to write an article suitable for publication in a mainstream educational journal, The Times Educational Supplement. The question was put to me about ‘Welcome’, a sculpture by Peter Laszlo Peri (1899-1967) which has been removed from the outside wall of Greenhead College in Huddersfield, England, after having been placed there 50 years ago. ‘Welcome’ or Gladys as she was affectionately known was an integral part of the building and the school grounds reaching out to the community beyond the school. Plans to build an extension to the college building required the removal of the sculpture to another place on site. However, on inspection, it was declared to be unsafe and a danger to the school community and was speedily and rather brutally removed.

Removed at the ankles

Immediately after removal

It is not known who dressed Gladys in this recent photograph

The Henry Moore Institute at Leeds holds a collection of drawings and photographs by Peri including over 300 drawings, c.1930-1960, among which are ideas for work and drawings relating to specific sculptures. Many of the scenes depicting children relate to commissions for schools from the 1950s, mostly for Leicestershire Education Authority. 

Peri produced a vast amount of sculpture for schools during the 1950s and 60s, the decades that saw leaders of Local Educational Authorities signifying their commitment to a modern state education through the inclusion of work by some of the best modernist artists in modern buildings. Peri’s school work includes

    • 1957 Willenhall Primary School. Three dimensional sculpture.
    • 1958 Coventry. St. Michael Primary School. Coloured concrete relief.
    • 1965 Ernesford Grange Junior School, Coventry. Sculpture and relief. Polyester
    • 1961 Huddersfield High School for Girls. Now Greenhead College  Horizontal sculpture and a relief.
    • 1964 Long Eaton Secondary Modern. Three dimensional sculpture.

The ‘education of the eye’ was taken very seriously in the post war years in England and this was not only a matter of aesthetics but also of equity and democracy. It was acknowledged that the majority of children attending state schools would be unlikely to ever enter an art gallery or museum and so the school itself should become a canvas for the arts. Aesthetic and design education would become part of the role that the built environment played in stimulating and awakening the artist in the child and nurturing their creative capacities. Was this naïve ? Or have we lost a sense of the value of living and learning amongst material things of beauty and intrinsic artistic worth? Is this a generational issue? If adults in schools have lost a sense of the educational value of such things is this true also of pupils?

We do not know very much about children’s appreciation of such art over time in school buildings and grounds because we have until now failed to ask the appropriate questions. We do know, however, that children habitually and naturally attach and ascribe meaning to material objects in school grounds and use these in story building, play and place marking. It is quite possible that Henry Morris was correct when he argued in the 1930s, 

We shall not bring about any improvement in standards of taste by lectures and preachings; habitation is the golden method. Buildings that are well-designed and equipped and beautifully decorated will exercise their potent, but unspoken, influence on those who use them from day to day. This is true education.

The question regarding the value of this particular sculpture in 2012 is inevitably central to any public campaign to preserve such examples of The Decorated School that may arise in the future. The question leads directly to a consideration of the significance of the artist, usually in the context of their life’s work and wider legacy. In the past, when these same artists installed their works, this was not a consideration. While as far as possible the best and most innovative artists available were commissioned, the signature on the work was academic: what was deemed important was the influence these objects would quietly wield on the lives of generations of children, their teachers and parents. Whether this happened to any extent is difficult to know since, to our knowledge, no research has been carried out to investigate how children have responded to the long term presence of such features in their schools. But certainly, the notion that what experts have determined as high or high quality art might operate on children's personalities, civilizing them in the process has become seriously questioned in a culture that has democratized art's production and consumption. The monetary value of these works of art is now a necessary part of the rationale that justifies their preservation. Certainly, their part in the general educational experience has for many decades been supplanted by other priorities. 

In 1974, Robert Winston Witkin argued in The Intelligence of Feeling for a curriculum that recognized emotional and ‘sensate' dimensions to learning. He also argued the aesthetic dimension as being as key to the making of modern societies as it has been to the making of pre-modern societies. Is Gladys a metaphor for the place of the arts in the curriculum in relation to more securely valued subjects and preoccupations?

Dr Catherine Burke

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