Advocates for the Arts #5: Nan Youngman

For the next in my Advocates in the Arts* series, I’m delighted to welcome a guest post from the writer, editor and researcher Natalie Bradbury. Her blog Pictures for Schools was one of the original inspirations for my own blog: if you’re not familiar with her research, there are over 7 years’ worth of posts (!) for you to read and enjoy. In today’s post, Natalie explores the life and work of Nan Youngman: artist, educationalist and partner of sculptor Betty Rea. As an active member of several artists groups, including the Artists International Association (AIA), and the founder of the pioneering Pictures for Schools scheme, Youngman worked tirelessly to make the arts accessible to all in 20th century Britain.

Nan Youngman at the Slade, 1926. Reproduced in the catalogue for Nan Youngman: Paintings, Drawings, Prints, 1906-1995, Morley College, London, 1997, p.1. Reproduced with the kind permission of the estate of Nan Youngman.

In order to understand the work and career of Nan Youngman as an artist, it is necessary to also understand her work as a teacher. She had aspired to become an artist since her school days (at the Buckinghamshire boarding school Wycombe Abbey). However, a combination of social and economic circumstances, and her own personal experiences and convictions, meant that her professional painting practice coexisted with her work as a teacher for the duration of her career.

Youngman was born into a prosperous family in Maidstone, Kent in 1906. In 1924, she enrolled at the prestigious Slade School of Art in London, where she:

just wanted to learn ‘how to do it’ what I thought of as well – to draw like Augustus John and paint like Matthew Smith I suppose.[1]

Although her training was old-fashioned and restrictive by today’s standards, focusing on observation and drawing from life, the Slade proved to be a liberating time for Youngman. Her unpublished autobiography, held in the Tate Archive in London, describes student parties and a friendly rivalry with the Royal College of Art. A picture of her as a student shows her playing her tenor ukulele with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. In the photo, Youngman sports the distinctive bowl haircut (inspired by an earlier generation of Slade students known as the ‘Slade cropheads’, such as Dora Carrington) for which she was known for the rest of her life.

Youngman plays the ukulele, circa 1924-1927. Reproduced in the catalogue ‘Decades: Ten Women Artists’, 1992. Reproduced with the kind permission of the estate of Nan Youngman.

Youngman had always felt she would do ‘anything but teach’[2], but a combination of a change in family circumstances and a lack of opportunities for women artists led her to enrol at the London Day Training College in 1928 to train to become a teacher.

In spite of her fear of children and the ‘awful school smell’ of ‘pencils and feet’[3], Youngman found a life-long role model under the inspirational tutelage of the pioneering art educationalist Marion Richardson, best-known for organising large-scale public exhibitions of children’s art. Richardson moved away from previous orthodoxies about the nature and purpose of art teaching – which emphasised copying and accuracy – to argue for the importance of children’s individual vision and self-expression, and the benefits of the arts to children’s personal and emotional development. Under Richardson, Youngman discovered an affinity for teaching and an enthusiasm for children’s potential as artists.

Youngman found part-time work in girls’ schools in London, where she put Richardson’s methods into practice. She joined organisations such as the Art Teachers’ Guild (ATG) and the Society for Education through Art (SEA), where she was able to share ideas with other teachers interested in progressive educational methods. She was a member of the SEA’s council from 1940-44, and became chair in 1943, as well as serving on the editorial board of the its journal, Athene, from 1940-1942.

Cover, Athene, Summer 1947, Volume 4, No 1
Reproduced with the permission of the University of Reading, Special Collections.

Alongside her educational work, Youngman exhibited with bodies such as the Women’s International Art Club, the New English Art Club, the London Group and the Twenties group at the Wertheim Gallery (a group of artists who were in their twenties in the 1930s).

In 1936 she joined the Artists’ International Association (AIA), a group of left-wing artists who believed in the power of art to fight against fascism and aimed to open art up to the people. This became:

one of the most exciting times of my life, personally and I suppose politically.[4].

Youngman was prompted to join by the death of her friend Felicia Browne, a draughtsman and sculptor who had studied alongside her at the Slade, and died fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She explained:

Herbert Read once said I was his conscience. I’m not sure what he meant, but I know what I mean when I say that Felicia was mine.[5]

Youngman was involved in initiatives such as Art for the People, held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the East End of London in 1939, and the Everyman Prints scheme, which ran between 1940 and 1942 and aimed to distribute affordable artworks to the public through branches of M&S. She worked alongside James Holland, Mischa Black and the sculptor Betty Rea (who became her long-term partner) to decorate the League of Nations Room and the International Peace Campaign Room in the unofficial peace pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair. Through these activities she made lasting personal, social and professional connections.

Life in London was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939, Highbury Hill High School for Girls in North London, where Youngman was art mistress, was evacuated to Huntingdon. Youngman and Rea set up home in a caravan in the grounds of Hinchingbrooke Castle, where Youngman taught art classes surrounded by the Earl of Sandwich’s collection of family artworks. Youngman and Rea were to remain in the Cambridge area for the rest of their lives; Rea until her premature death in 1965 and Youngman until her death in 1995.

Nan Youngman, ‘Ferrets’, purchased by Derbyshire School Museum Service in 1955. Reproduced with permission from Derbyshire County Council.

Cambridgeshire was regarded as being a progressive county for education, under the formidable Director of Education Henry Morris. In 1944, Youngman made a speculative approach offering to become his art adviser, and spent the next ten years travelling around village schools – many of which were small and underresourced – advising on the teaching of art. Working as a lecturer for the British Council, she lectured overseas – in Africa and the West Indies – and promoted the pioneering work and ideas undertaken in Cambridgeshire to visiting international teachers.

At the same time, with the support of the SEA and Henry Morris – and partly inspired by the effect on her students of being exposed to the Earl of Sandwich’s art collection – Youngman was formulating plans to introduce children to contemporary art in their schools.

In 1947, the Pictures for Schools scheme was founded, with Youngman as chair. Over the next twenty-two years, via a series of annual exhibitions in London selected from an open call, original works of art were sold at affordable prices to schools, local education authorities, teacher training colleges and other educational buyers. Many of the leading contemporary artists of the day, working in painting print-making, sculpture, embroidery and studio pottery, were represented, from LS Lowry and Edward Bawden to Gertrude Hermes and Elisabeth Frink. Youngman was able to draw on the support of friends and connections she had made at the Slade, the AIA, and elsewhere in her personal and professional life. These artists, many whom were by now at the forefront of new developments in art and education and in positions of authority in leading London art schools, were called upon not just to exhibit but to serve on selection panels for the exhibitions and to distribute sending-in forms to promising students.

Youngman’s own work – primarily landscapes in a realist style – was popular with buyers at Pictures for Schools. Her paintings and drawings – including work from a series depicting the industrial landscapes of the Welsh Valleys – was sold to buyers including Dunstable Grammar school, a teacher training college in Bromley, the National Museum of Wales Schools service and county and city collections in Hertfordshire, West Yorkshire, Carlisle, London, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Cambridgeshire.

‘Landscape in South Wales’, purchased by Derbyshire School Museum Service in 1958. Reproduced with permission from Derbyshire County Council.

Although the close of the scheme in 1969 allowed Youngman more time to focus on her painting – a retrospective was held at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge in 1987 – she never wavered in her commitment to education, in both formal and informal contexts. Youngman was active in the East Anglian art scene until the end of her life, and she organised regular residential painting trips to a windmill on the Norfolk coast for women painters – something which was looked back on particularly fondly by those who knew her.

In 1987, Youngman was awarded an OBE, recognising her accomplishments in art and education. Although she was known for her distrust of the establishment, this achievement was marked by a rare occurrence: Youngman, who almost always wore trousers, donned a skirt and cape for her visit to Buckingham Palace.

Read more about Nan Youngman and the Pictures for Schools scheme at Natalie’s blog. Thank you to the Estate of Nan Youngman, the University of Reading Special Collections and Derbyshire County Council for kind permission to reproduce the above images.

[1] Nan Youngman’s autobiography, circa 1987, p. 77.

[2] Ibid., p. 88.

[3] Ibid., p. 8.

[4] Ibid., p. 151.

[5] Ibid., p. 134.

*Eagle-eyed readers will note that the ‘Advocates for the Arts’ series was previously called ‘Pioneering Women’. While the series will continue to showcase the life and work of women who worked to improve access to the arts in 20th century Britain, the name change reflects recent conversations I’ve had about the usefulness of terms like ‘Pioneering Women’. Such phrases can, often inadvertently, suggest that the only women worth showcasing are ‘pioneering’ ones. Attaching the qualifier ‘pioneering’ implicitly suggests that for a woman to be forward-looking/creative/original is unusual, which is in fact the complete opposite of what I want to suggest! I want as many women as possible to be studied and talked about, not just a select set of pioneers. So I’ve decided to rename this occasional series ‘Advocates for the Arts’. 

This new title will allow me to continue to showcase the work of women artists, writers, teachers, organisers and activists. In removing the qualifier ‘pioneering’, though, I can hopefully showcase them without creating the impression that they constitute exceptions to the rule. Advocates for the Arts posts will seek to place these figures in the context of their wider circle, as well as exploring their individual lives and careers. I hope they’ll provide a starting point for more research and discussion so we can begin to plug the gaps in these networks. Such a gender-neutral title also has the advantage of making the series more inclusive, allowing me to showcase the work of those from across the gender spectrum. I look forward to sharing more posts over the next weeks and months. 

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