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From the NS archive: Artists and schools

27 July 1957: The lessons of enlightened patronage in new school buildings.

By John Berger

John Berger, who would become a Booker prize-winning novelist in 1972, became the New Statesman’s art critic 70 years ago. In this piece, he travelled to Leicestershire to see the sort of art being designed for the county’s schools and “was made remarkably happy, elated, at being confronted with such potentiality”. An enlightened philosophy of buying and commissioning art for new schools meant that children who otherwise would never have seen any work of modern art were spending their formative years alongside pieces that “can stimulate as well as a shelf of books”. One sculptor in particular caught his eye, Peter Peri. Berger thought school buildings were the perfect place for Peri’s sculptural energy – which was thought clumsy by the London art world – and, “Searching for a parallel to give some rough idea of the spirit of his work, I think of Bruegel.” He argued that other county education boards should follow Leicestershire’s example and enrich the lives of their students at minimal cost.

The smell of ink, a dark beer-coloured wall as high as your head, a blackboard on which such light as there is from a gothic window filters in odd patterns, noises from the free street outside, intoning and chapel shuffling from the class on the other side of the partition, texts in fretwork frames (“If I should die think only this of me…”) and the brightest colour in the room the red of the British empire on the faded map of the world hanging next to the noticeboard: such is the typical old school room in the church school. Thousands existed, and even today a fair number are still in use. An imaginative teacher can of course beat the dreariness of his surroundings. In one such school I saw an arithmetic chart on which a torch bulb lit up when you put the terminal against the right answer: an idea that has been used commercially. But in this case a ten-year-old boy had voluntarily designed and made the whole affair himself. Obviously for him the institutional shell of the building also contained its excitements. Yet institutional shell it remains.

A wide staircase climbing up behind a glass wall, through which is visible ten miles of the famous Midland hunting country (famous also among some children for its abundance of butterflies); on the walls of the stairway an aquarium wallpaper, gold, cerulean and scarlet with anemones and angel fish; along the corridors circular skylights, the insides of their “barrels” painted red or yellow so that the incoming light itself looks coloured; oil paintings (not reproductions) – a Christopher Wood, a Michael Ayrton, an Alistair Grant – in the classrooms; wide south and west window, with multi-coloured blinds for when it is dazzling; air conditioning; flowers in potter’s pots. Does the contrast sound exaggerated? The children’s nickname for the newest block at Barrow-upon-Soar Grammar School is “The Palace”, and a boy at the Martin Secondary School, Anstey, wrote, “The only thing wanted to make the school perfect is a swimming pool.”

[see also: The myths of Michael Ayrton]

There are two Leicestershire experiments: the now famous one of abolishing the 11-plus examination: and the creation in all the new county schools of the kind of visual environment that I have just described. Again, of course, one must qualify. Any sound headmaster, if he were forced to choose, would rather have a good staff than a good building. But there is no doubt whatever that the structure, appearance, and amenities of these new schools (what in fact is too vaguely called their atmosphere) has a positive and large effect on the discipline, taste, and community sense of the children who go to them. I have been hard-pressed enough as a teacher myself to be rid of any sentimentality about schoolchildren. But going round these schools I was made remarkably happy, elated, at being confronted with such potentiality. Here was the beginning of a synthesis of some of the most constructive 20th-century innovations – in psychology, science, social justice, architecture, art.

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Of course, there were criticisms to be made. Just here was the beginning of a tradition beginning with children. Leicestershire is not, of course, the only county to have built new schools, and abroad it is England as a whole, and Hertfordshire in particular, that has a reputation for progressive school building. What took me to Leicestershire was a comparatively small but important detail: the county’s steady patronage of the visual arts. But because such patronage can be considered as a kind of charity or conscience-saving (Blessed are the Patrons for they shall inherit the works of Genius), it is necessary to emphasise the wider and political context in which sculpture and paintings in these schools are just one part.

Nearly every school in the county has two or three modern oil paintings on its walls and often some small pieces of sculpture and ceramics as well. Some belong to the schools and some are borrowed from the county collection that has been built up during the past decade. They have been paid for out of royalties corning from a widely-used school book that the county produced years ago, from building and decorating allocations, and from school material allowances. In other words, the rate-payer has never had to pay for these works as an “extravagant” extra: a necessary precaution against philistine snipers.

The real explanation of the achievement, however, is not to be found in any particular accounting talent but in the enthusiasm and initiative of the county’s director of education. He has had the sense and the confidence to buy unknown works comparatively cheaply. He has convinced headmasters that a painting in their library can stimulate as well as a shelf of books. When a sports trophy has been required he has had the initiative to get a modern sculptor to design it. Every year he organises an annual sale of works collected from London. He goes round the schools insisting that the works in them should not be preciously protected, that they should be used and hung low on the wall in the most frequented places. He has persuaded artists to accept comparatively low fees for the sake of having their work in a living context.

Twenty such men in the country could probably achieve a minor revolution in the appreciation of the visual arts; were it not for his efforts 90 per cent of the children in these schools would leave without ever in their lives having seen a modern oil painting.

The use of sculpture in the Leicestershire schools is even more striking. About 25 new schools have been built since the war, and all of them have their large-scale sculpture or relief. Sometimes the work is in the entrance hall (in the brick plinth of one of these is a cocoa tin inside which are the names of all the children who subscribed shillings or pennies towards the cost of it), sometimes outside on the forecourt in front of the playing fields, most often attached to the outside rails themselves. The standard of these works by lesser-known sculptors – such as Ronald Pope or Ben Franklin – justifies the courage behind the scheme. There are also original innovations: William Soukop has designed some good, large-scale coloured ceramic plaques, which, if used in several schools, will cost comparatively little. A series of these plaques is of the signs of the Zodiac, which led to the surrealist-sounding remark made by one child, that, “The martins are nesting in Capricorn!” The most important result of all, however, of this sculpture-commissioning programme, is the discovery that there is a sculptor in this country with genius for such work: Peter Peri.

Peri has made sculpture for six Leicestershire schools. One of these is not entirely successful. The other five are triumphant, and their vigour, lack of sentimentality and sense of adventure make them outstandingly popular with the children. In the past one of the reasons why Peri has not had the success he deserves is that his work has usually been seen (as all works of art normally are today) in the sophisticated hedonist atmosphere of London “culture”, where his cheerful lack of elegance has been mistaken for inept clumsiness. But here, his works modelled in concrete on brick walls beside a football field or a gymnasium, he comes into his own. Searching for a parallel to give some rough idea of the spirit of his work, I think of Bruegel, but one must add at he is not in the least illustrative, and has the sculptural energy of an artist like Zadkine.

[see also: A sketchy legacy? How Pieter’s sons kept Brand Bruegel going]

All his subjects are concerned with children. They call a dog, play football, watch geese fly across the wall above them, sit together. The boys’ shorts and socks are simplified into forms which might be the beginning of mercurial wings; on the other hand, the girls’ legs are hefty and do not yet pretend that they cannot be separated. These are children, I am convinced, as most children seem to themselves. They run for pleasure with the same kind of energy with which most adults can only run if from disaster. They shove, squat, kick, sit, get dirty without a thought that they might be judged by how they do these things. They lack style because they do not need it. Something like that is the emotional content of Peri’s work for these schools. But being works of art they of course do need style. And they have, as a result of the superb way they are composed in relation to the architecture; the placing of his figures on their wall (some of them project horizontally) turns the wall into an arena of actions and relationships so permanently well balanced that the casual flight of a real bird across it is made to seem trivial.

Indeed, if I wanted a single visual symbol for the general promise of the new schools that I have described, I would choose Peri’s boy at Castle Donington. In one hand he holds out, parallel to the wall but seven feet away from it, an open book made of bars with openings between them; in his other hand is an open globe. His feet are on the wall, standing on it as if it were the ground. His head thrust back looks straight ahead. An image of old Church-school rhetoric? A grotesque gargoyle? Described verbally it could, I suppose, sound like either. But in its concrete form it epitomises an architecture of release. Here is a sculptor who must be used still further for what he can do incomparably well.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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