‘Herts teachers “do not like modern art”‘ was the headline in the Hertfordshire Advertiser of 17 July 1953. The statement was made by the then county education officer, the progressive John Newsom. He was addressing 21 overseas teachers who were touring Britain to see how art was taught in British education, and they had spent the day looking over St Albans’ post-war schools.
John Newsom told them how schoolchildren outside the big cities never saw an original work of art. He argued that they should be able to look at art in repose, which was why Hertfordshire had commissioned modern artists such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, as well as beginners, to execute paintings and sculptures for the county schools.
However, this had not had the desired effect, Mr Newsom told his audience. ‘In the first place, the general standard of interest and appreciation of our teachers is not high, and many of them are indifferent, if not hostile, to contemporary paintings.’
This was evident from the sort of pictures they chose for themselves—the ‘sugary, goody-goody chocolate-box cover type of pictures in a light gold frame’ that one saw in headmistress’s rooms.
Even so, he considered that the education authority’s policy had been worthwhile. It had given children the chance to see works of art in the original, instead of in reproduction; and it had provided opportunities for many young artists straight from art school which they might not otherwise have had.
An exhibition in the beautifully refurbished St Albans museum earlier this year, Barbara Hepworth, artist in society 1948-53, illustrated this. Hepworth was commissioned to make two major sculptures for the Festival of Britain, one of which, Turning Forms, came to St Albans at the end of the festival. It joined Eocene which the education authority had bought from Hepworth in 1950 at a price which reflected her sympathy for the schools project.
In 1951 Hepworth was commissioned to carve Vertical Forms for the façade of the new Hatfield Technical College (now the University of Hertfordshire). Hepworth is reported as telling a journalist that she ‘tried to express a quality of aspiration to learning’.
In the exhibition guide, Sophie Bowness (Hepworth’s granddaughter) writes that Hepworth ‘chose her titles with great care. She enjoyed finding the right words and would consult dictionaries to help her. …In the second half of the 1940s she used Greek titles, such as Eocene, Dyad and Perianth. Many of her titles in the period of the exhibition describe dualities, for example Bicentric Form, Dyad, Bimorphic Form and Two Heads (Janus)’.
Sophie tells us that Hepworth’s sculpture tends to fall into distinct periods of work on specific themes. After the war she was at last able to work on a large scale, and Group III (Evocation), for example, anticipates the many multi-part sculptures of her later years.
There is also a series of drawings from operating theatres. In 1947 a surgeon friend, Norman Capener, invited Hepworth to observe an operation. For the following two years she visited hospitals, seeing a parallel between her practice as a sculptor and that of the surgeon.
As I wrote previously, it was a cruel irony that, as the St Albans exhibition opened, Hertfordshire County Council was flogging off many of the artworks it acquired through the schools project, including one of Hepworth’s theatre nurse sketches. The council sold 450 works and raised £469,282. Instead of celebrating the foresight of John Newsom and the brilliance of the schools project, it has kicked them in the teeth.