Decorated School Seminar, Henry Moore Institute
‘Sculpture, the Arts and the Decorated School’ seminar held at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 23rd June 2012.
Speaker: Dawn Pereira
The London County Council’s (LCC) Patronage of the Art’s Scheme (1957- 1965).
Within the LCC’s Patronage of the Arts Scheme forty-eight artworks were acquired or created for educational establishments by forty-two artists over an eight-year period. The artists ranged from established figures to immigrant and specialist practitioners; among them were also emerging artists for whom this was their first commission. The work predominately took the form of figurative and abstract sculptures, as well as a mixture of murals and free-standing panels using a variety of techniques such as carving, casting, assemblage, and welding. New and old materials were also explored including stone, bronze, stainless steel, glass, mosaic, resin and concrete.
In 1956 the reconstruction of London was well underway and the changing financial climate made it possible for the LCC to set aside £20,000 annually to commission or purchase works of art. Although the Chairman of the Council, Isaac Hayward could see there was scope for purchasing existing works of art from exhibitions, galleries and similar sources, it was thought that the main emphasis should be on the commissioning of new works and the encouragement of contemporary artists.
An important factor within the Patronage Scheme was the procedure for commissioning art. At its inception the Council architects and art inspectors identified prospective sites and suggested to the various departments the type of art appropriate for the location. Once the sites were agreed, the Arts Council was brought in to recommend artists to the committees. To bring stability to the scheme it was agreed in 1961 to form the Advisory Body on Art Acquisitions from LCC and Arts Council members. However by 1963 the second structure was openly criticised by committee members and potential recipients were also more frequently rejecting artworks; these problems were attributed to personal taste and a lack of communication.
An unacknowledged influence from the Education Department was Senior Art Inspector Maurice Wheatley who acted as an unofficial mediator between head teachers, governors, artists and committees. In the 1967 book ‘Art in a City’ he was recognised for his pivotal role as ‘the moving spirit’ of the Scheme.
To gain some understanding of what was considered suitable art for a school environment at this time, H. T. Cadbury-Brown, had purchased the sculpture ‘Fighting Cock’, by John Willats for Ashmount School, Islington in 1956. As an artist and educator Willats was interested in the way that sculpture could communicate ideas to children at different stages of their lives. In the article ‘London County Council as Art Patron II’, published in the Studio journal in 1960 he shared his ideas. He felt that at primary school age children seemed to like ‘animals and bright, shiny, coloured surfaces’, and were not particularly bothered by realism.1
The Education Department appeared to follow Willats’ principles, as the emphasis in the initial primary school commissions was placed on bold, simplified forms. Many of these depicted figures in motion; continuing the interest in expressionistic figuration, which had emerged during the 1940s and 1950s. Aileen Hart’s simple abstract sculpture, designed for the entrance-hall of Sulivan Primary School, Fulham in 1957 for a fee of £500 was carved in blue Lancaster stone. The work evolved from a series of studies of moving figures, in particular trapeze artists. Trevor Tennant made ‘Girls Playing Netball’ in reinforced cement fondu for Barnsbury (Girls) Secondary School, Islington in 1958 for a fee of £600.2 The lively group of interrelated figures was placed on a corner of a lawn flanked by the old buildings so the work could be viewed from different angles.
Maurice Wheatley was initially given the role of choosing teachers or students from Council institutions to undertake commissions. One such example was Percy Brown, head of art at the Hammersmith College of Art and Building, who created ‘Figures at Play’, a cement fondu sculpture for Coverdale Primary School, Hammersmith in 1958. The work was positioned in the corner of the playground, the figures’ poses reminiscent of a gymnastic or circus tumblers hold, emphasising the element of trust involved.
One of Brown’s students Althea Wynne designed the cement fondu sculpture ‘The Swimmers’ for Quinton School in 1958 for a fee of £50, the idea came when she visited the site and envisaged figures diving off a low building and swooping up to the surface further down a large slope. However the sculpture was rejected by the school governors and as a result was placed at the nearby Kynaston Secondary School, Marylebone. Wynne soon discovered that the children found all the horizontal limbs an’ irresistible climbing challenge’ and a couple of times she was called out to ‘mend fingers and stick back feet’3
Glass and mosaic murals seemed to integrate well into the environments of school hallways, staircases and playgrounds. John Verney’s decorative screen commissioned for the entrance of Fairlawn Primary School, Forest Hill in 1958 for a fee of £550,was described as ‘a fantasy of shapes suggesting nursery rhymes, the circus etc’. It was made so that it could be slotted into the building system framework when the school was erected.4
Robyn Denny’s mosaic commission designed for the end wall of a covered play area at Boxgrove Primary School, Greenwich in 1959 was perceived as suitable for a school environment as it related to the learning experience; the fragments of numbers and words appealing to both children and adults.5 However the viewers were participating in Denny’s sociological and philosophical thinking, manifested in art form; his work reappraising the relationship between art and the viewer.6
John Willats thought that at secondary school age children would prefer something realistic, with a strong social message, to help them grow up and in general accessible themes such as ‘animals’ and ‘the family’ proved popular within the Patronage Scheme, however only a few were commissioned for schools. The most representational of the animal artworks was Georg Ehrlich’s life size bronze sculpture ‘Drinking Calf, created for an exterior location at Garratt Green School, Wandsworth in 1959 for a fee of £1,200.7 Ehrlich said that his main idea was to express in the diagonal converging lines of the neck and body, the eagerness of the young animal to drink; it was to capture a moment in nature that lasted only a short time.
In contrast Bernard Meadows’ ‘Cockerel’ was a more abstract take on an animal theme, exploring his preoccupation with the vulnerability of the human condition. Although thought suitable for children in the early 1950s by the time Meadows made a version for Crown Woods School, Woolwich in 1959 the bronze sculpture ‘Bird in a Pool’ proved unpopular. When the Advisory Body recommended that a further cast be purchased for the grounds of Honor Oak School in 1961, the Governors felt that the subject matter did not relate to the history, location, type of school or its way of life.8
With less emphasis on narrative, or even a recognisable symbolic meaning, art was becoming increasingly difficult for the public to comprehend. Robert Adams 15-foot cement block mural entitled ‘Descending Forms’, was designed for an external wall of Eltham Green School, Woolwich in 1960 for a fee of £750. Adams wanted to echo the children’s movement that he could see through the glazed walls as they walked in a long stream up and down the stairs.9 When rumours circulated that Adams’ work was to be commissioned for another school, the members of the Education Committee were quick to protest; one member privately likening his Eltham Green commission to ‘large lumps of Derby Brights’.10
Although the Education Committee members may have considered that some proposals were too sophisticated for schoolchildren to appreciate, now the critics felt that schools were capable of understanding more than just the obvious or representational. William Turnbull’s ‘Sun Gazer’ sited at Kingsdale School, Dulwich at a similar time to Meadows’ cockerel sculpture was acknowledged as a far more challenging and ‘enigmatic’ work.11 His simplistic eye shape was perceived as a step forward because it was bold enough to stand up to the ‘busy, glassy façades’ of the architecture but also provided the observer with an event or experience of their own making.12
The idea of physical play was explored through Lesley South’s standing concrete slabs commissioned for Loughborough School, Lambeth, in November 1963 for a fee of £650. Possibly as two of the cement fondu sculptures had already suffered structural problems in the harsh winter of 1962, the LCC wanted reassurance that the reinforced concrete blocks would not burst open if there was rough weather. The members were also worried about the suitability of the blocks if the work was to be used as a play sculpture, and suggested some form of decoration on the inside to give grip for climbing.13 Once South had taken on board these issues, the commission went ahead in 1964.14
Throughout the scheme Maurice Wheatley visited ‘old’ schools to discuss proposals with head teachers, then arranged subsequent meetings between them and the artists. A successful example of this collaborative approach was Mary Fedden’s ‘Circus’ inspired mural, designed in conjunction with the pupils at Clapton Girls School, Hackney in 1961; the artist preparing alternative sketches and the girls voting for the ones they preferred. The factors that helped this process run smoothly, were that the old school had just been remodelled before the mural was situated in the school hall and Fedden’s expertise in dealing with the wider public.
Francis Carr’s tactile mixed media mural made for Holman Hunt Primary School in 1961 for a fee of £300 was designed at the actual height of the children; the pictures, numbers and letters becoming bigger as they got higher and further from the children’s eye line. Carr envisaged the mural as a complete sensory learning experience and his fairy story, ‘Magic Garden’ encouraged the pupils to create their own stories, poems and artwork.
John Willats thought that by college age a young person would again be ready to accept something more abstract, with a careful use of materials and by the early 1960s the LCC had turned its attention to tertiary education.15 In Kenneth Martin’s fountain ‘Spiralling Forms’, made for Brixton Day College in 1961 for a fee of £1,216 the idea of portraying movement became much more sophisticated with water and steel creating a living sculpture. Martin’s fountain was constructed with the idea that the students of the day college would subconsciously interact with it.
At college sites it was felt more substantial work was required and these were usually more costly and acquired rather than specifically commissioned. It was thought that the Arts Council’s notion of ‘seeing before buying’ would maximise suitability and minimise potential problems with recipients.
F. E. McWilliam’s sculpture the ’Witch of Agnesi’ was acquired for the courtyard at Avery Hill Training College, Woolwich in April 1962 for a fee of £2,500.16 The sculpture related to a term used in mathematics to describe a particular curve, named after the 18th century Italian mathematician Donna Maria Agnesi.17
One of the most expensive works acquired this way was Lynn Chadwick’s sculpture ‘The Watchers’ purchased for Garnet College, Roehampton in 1963 for a fee of £4000. This was a new phase in Chadwick’s work as he began to combine groups of three rather than single figures to create a rhythmic pattern. Although influenced by the Easter Island figures his group did not contain a specific meaning, but like them could emit a physical presence.18
As the 1960s progressed the LCC found it increasingly difficult to find artworks that were thought acceptable to the public, marginalized by the developments in minimalist, performance and conceptual art. Joe Tilson’s mural made from geometric blocks designed for Clapham County Secondary School, Lambeth proved the most challenging commission to resolve. Tilson’s troubles began in March 1964 when he changed the medium of his mural from wood to poured resin on the advice of the scientific adviser, to improve durability. However during the siting of the mural in July 1965, the headmistress and Maurice Wheatley felt the design and colours differed greatly from the original proposal.19 Although the Arts Council members preferred the finished mural to the maquette, Tilson was asked to remake the work, but refused. In August 1965 a new location was sought, however the mural was never resited.20
Strangely an even more complex situation did get sorted out. A. H. Gerrard’s sculptural wall based on abstracted dancing figures was initially destined for Sir William Collins School in St. Pancras and the idea was approved in September 1961. By July 1962 the Portland stone wall entitled ‘Delight’ was complete and photographs of the work were available for members to see, but by February 1963 it was discovered that the artwork was too big for the site proposed.21 Undeterred the Parks Committee came to the rescue and in October 1964 a site in Abbey Wood Park, Woolwich was made available and the work was in situ by 1967.
In the last year of the scheme (1963-64) only three works were purchased by the Education Department, however they cost over two thousand pound more than the eighteen artworks commissioned in the first year of the scheme (1957-58). An unusual consideration was the proposal for a design only for a fee of £2,500, with the work to be executed by the contractors. In April 1961 the working drawings for a new building at the Northern Polytechnic in Islington were already complete and the Education Department needed a design for an artwork to go on the elevation of the extension. In July 1962 William Mitchell was chosen as his experience as a LCC Design Consultant meant he was skilled in liaising with architects and builders and working to strict deadlines; the sculptural relief was completed by 1964.
John Hoskin’s stainless steel sculpture ‘Bolted Flat’, was proposed for Lollard School, Lambeth at a cost of £2,000 in November 1963. The abstract design reflected Hoskin’s interest in the possibilities of welding with sheet metal, a process he described as ‘alive and organic, the noise and the whole environment being a constant stimulus’.22 However the General Purpose’s Special Development and Arts Sub-Committee strongly objected to the proposal. In a crowded meeting held in December 1963, the Arts Council members supported Hoskin’s nomination in view of his ‘international reputation’, the Chairman of the School Advisory Committee also thought that a school with an engineering bias would admire the fine craftsmanship of the metalwork and the school head conceded that welded metal would be resistant to damage. The proposal was accepted with the proviso that the work be remade; and that Hoskin discuss his work with the governors, boys and staff.
One of the last and the most expensive commissions of the scheme was the purchase of Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure, No. 1’ for the new Chelsea School of Art in 1964. This was the first post-war building that the Council has designed specifically for art education, which made it an important commission. This was Moore’s third acquisition for the scheme and although he did not create the sculpture with the site in mind, it seemed to fit well with its proposed position. The opportunity to acquire another figure was presented as representing a bargain at £7,500, less than three quarters of its true value.
Unlike the education schemes of Hertfordshire and Leicestershire where a single vision achieved a consistent body of work, due to the differences in taste between the LCC committees, Arts Council members and recipients, the focus of the Patronage of the Arts Scheme changed throughout its lifespan. In terms of how much the education commissions took into account the people who would have to live with the artworks there were some concessions to suitable subject matter, relationship to the school environment, or the recipient’s subconscious or physical interaction with the work. However some commissions just focused on an artist’s individual preoccupations, concerns over safety and durability, or whether it was perceived as a prestigious acquisition.
Fifty years after the work was made, schools are increasingly becoming interested in the art that they have inadvertently become custodians of. Sculptures and murals have been unearthed, restored, remade, listed and celebrated. Although a ‘suitable’ form of art was never agreed upon, this has ultimately worked to the Patronage of the Arts Scheme’s advantage, as the resulting mix has created an eclectic collection of artwork that has never been replicated elsewhere.
Link to listing of London County Council's 'Patronage of the Arts Scheme' (1957-1965) Education Commissions
Link to biographies of artists commissioned by the LCC
1 G. S. Sandilands, ‘London County Council as Art Patron: II’, Studio, No. 802, 1960, p. 43.
2 Ciment or Cement Fondu was an aluminous cement, commonly used by sculptors because of its speed in setting and hardening. It was thought that materials using cements would be resistant to atmospheric conditions, cheap and relatively easy to handle.
John W. Mills, The Technique of Sculpture, Batsford, London, 1965, p. 16.
3 Letter from Althea Wynne to author, dated 8th January 2005.
4 Many of the early LCC primary schools were based on an adapted version of the Hertfordshire County Council’s prefabricated section ‘Hills’ building system.
Dannant, New Modern Architecture in Britain, pp. 108-9.
5 Garlake tells us that the mural spells out ‘IDEA’ and the numbers 1,2,3,4 backwards.
Margaret Garlake, New Art/New World: British Art in Post War Society, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 146.
6 Denny was influenced by the writings of the sociologist Daniel Lerner who believed in the need for a “genuine participant society” that were monetary minded, literate, opinion forming, media consuming, urban people.
Alex Seago, Burning the Box of Beautiful Things: The development of a post modern sensibility, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, p. 121.
7 LMA File, Acquisition of works of Art 1958-59 Programme attached to report (GP. 809) circulated by Clerk of Council, dated 16th February 1959, (LCC/CC/HSG/1/99).
8 LMA File, Advisory Body on Art Acquisitions meeting held on 27th July 1961, (ILEA/DE/17/001).
9 LMA File, Information taken from ‘Patronage of the Arts - 1956-73’, (ILEA/4218/01/001).
10 ‘I had it in mind to speak to Mr. Lidbetter (General Purposes Committee) about what was becoming an impossible situation in that the Council accepts an artist and then, in contradiction to the original spirit in which the scheme was conceived, a member, or Sub-Cttee. can throw him and his work out.’
11 Eugene Rosenberg, ‘Architect’s Choice: Art in Architecture in Great Britain Since 1945’, Thames and Hudson, London, 1992, p. 34.
12 Theo Crosby, ‘LCC patronage of the arts’, Architectural Design, February 1962, p. 93.
13 LMA File, Memorandum to the Education Officer from Clerk of the Council, dated 14th November 1963, (ILEA/DE/17/001).
14 LMA File, Report dated 12th February 1964, (EO/DE/6047) (ILEA/DE/17/001).
15 By this time fifty secondary schools and ninety-one primary schools had been completed in the post-war redevelopment of London.
16 LMA File, Agenda and notes from Advisory Body on Art Acquisition held 9th April 1962, (ILEA/DE/17/001).
17 LMA File, Information taken from ‘Patronage of the Arts - 1956-73’, (ILEA/4218/01/033).
18 Dennis Farr, Lynn Chadwick, Tate Publishing, London, 2003 pp. 61-3.
19 Arts Council of Great Britain Archive File, (ACGB/32/247). Written on scrap of paper.
20 Tilson discussed his public art commissions with Eugene Rosenberg, he stated: ‘except for Brunel a very sad story’.
RIBA/V&A Study Rooms File, letter from Joe Tilson to Rosenberg, dated 30th August 1977, regarding collating information for the book Architect’s Choice, (Box 2: Architects, File: Art in Architecture, Eugene Rosenberg Archive).
21 Stated in Arts Council/LCC Advisory Body minute notes of a meeting held on 4th February 1963.
22 Anon, John Hoskin, Motif, No. 5, Autumn, 1960, pp. 42-3.