TAITMAIL Brenda Rawnsley and the war for our kids’ arts access
This is a Russian doll kind of a story, one intriguing tale inside another, till we get to a real-life heroine who went swimming with Picasso on behalf of British primary schools.
The first doll is the British Art Fair, which returned last weekend to the Saatchi Gallery under new management and venturing into a different art market from the one it left two years ago.
Founded by Gay Hutson in 1988 the BAF had become an art world calendar fixture, the only one dedicated to British contemporary and modern art, when in 2018 she handed it over to the Sandelson brothers who ran it for two years, bringing it to the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. The pandemic put paid to 2020 and 2021, and in March this year it was bought by Ramsay Fairs which runs 16 a year around the world, including the Affordable Art Fair. Its founder, Will Ramsay, co-directed the BAF’s return with the eternal Hutson.
It seems to have been a success with 64 dealers attracting 9,000 potential buyers in its four days, and although there are no financial results yet contemporary work has apparently done particularly well.
The next doll is the one-time advertising entrepreneur Chris Ingram, or rather the collection of modern British art he started to put together 20 years ago with infinite care and precision, which was given a couple of guest galleries as a showcase. The display was put together by the Ingram’s curator, Jo Baring, who is another doll in this context.
Baring is one of our leading scholars of British modern and contemporary art and she has edited the fascinating Modern British Art: New Reflections which not only asks fundamental questions about modern and contemporary art but delves into shaded corners in which some of the unsung heroes of British art in the 20th and 21st centuries lurk “whose backstairs work changes artistic careers”. Baring is fascinated by these pioneers - Jim Ede who founded Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and brought us Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; the British Council’s Lilian Somerville who ensured the likes of the St Ives artists got a reputation and market overseas; Helen Sutherland who was the key patron for the likes of Ben Nicholson and David Jones; Helen Kapp, the visionary curator of Wakefield Art Gallery who in the 50s nailed contemporary art to real life. And so on.
But there’s one that she picked out in the exhibition whose resourcefulness and ingenuity she rates “as one of the most exciting and daring post war art initiatives, one that is enduringly inspirational”. Her name was Brenda Rawnsley and her innovation was the prosaically titled School Prints.
Born in 1916 the daughter of a diplomat, Rawnsley won an Oxford scholarship, and she had barely graduated when war was declared. She enlisted in the WAAFs and was posted around the Middle East before becoming part of the team forecasting the course of V1 flying bombs, then going on an intelligence mission in 1945 to the Nazi bomb factories in northern Germany. In 1941 she met and married another RAF officer Derek Rawnsley (here’s their wedding picture), who before the war had founded Picture Hire Limited and later School Prints with a mission to get contemporary art into homes and then schools by buying the works and renting them out. Shortly after their wedding Derek Rawnsley was posted overseas and in 1943 was killed when his aircraft crashed.
School Prints had survived, however, and in 1945 Brenda Rawnsley took it on, getting enthusiastic help and advice from the art historian and co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Herbert Read.
They decided that only original works would do, and to be affordable they would have to be original auto-lithography prints - the nearest to original painting you can get without the intervention of anyone but the artist - and be in no more than six colours to save on costs. They set up a panel of experts who drew up a list of artists to invite to apply, rejected many, and eventually selected a group that included John Tunnard, whose Holiday here was one and is now in the Ingram Collection, John Nash, Feliks Topolski, John Skeaping, L S Lowry, David Gentleman and Julian Trevelyan. The first two series of 12 each were produced in 1946 and 1947 with print runs of 4,000 and 7,000, and artists were asked to add decorative borders so that schools could simply pin the paper lithographs to a wall without going to the expense of framing them. They were paid £85 each.
But Rawnsley was more ambitious. In 1947 she went to the French Riviera on a mission that had shades of her wartime experiences. She hired a plane and flew to the celebrity playground of Nice where she met Picasso’s chauffeur with whom she plotted to bump into the painter, wandering onto his part of the beach, swimming with him, sharing his lunch, and eventually, as the sun went down, revealing her plan. Picasso was hooked, and she likewise ensnared Braque, Matisse, Léger, Dufy and later Henry Moore to make a European School Prints series.
School Prints was badly buffeted by the prevailing austerity of the immediate post-war time, and the popular distrust of contemporary art in the 1950s, and Rawnsley left the business to become a librarian in Bury St Edmunds. She died in 2007 aged 90, never having lost faith in the scheme. In 1994 she commented that the situation in schools "is as desperate as it was after the war. I am utterly dedicated to the idea that the younger the child the better, because they do form ideas about shapes and colour at an early age”.
Because of their essentially ephemeral nature the paper prints were vulnerable to the everyday life of primary schools, though some have found their way into Tate’s collections. Others that survive are highly sought after, and in 2007 30 of them featured in a Pallant House Gallery exhibition in Chichester.
Simon Wallis, the Hepworth Wakefield’s director, said that Rawnsleys’ insight was evoked when it was revealed that the number of pupils taking arts subjects as GCSE was the lowest for a decade. But times have changed since the 40s and 50s, and he believes it cannot be left to such inspired heroines to bring children to art. Museums and galleries have to step up to the mark.
So in 2018 the Hepworth Wakefield launched a new School Prints five year project for which artists including Rose Wylie, Peter Blake and Linder Sterling were commissioned to produce prints which were donated, rather than hired, to local primary schools; in 2020 it was extended to Margate in a partnership with Turner Contemporary, and it is hoped that the scheme will be renewed in 2023.
“Creativity is being squeezed out of increasingly pressurised school timetables” Wallis says and we know there are schools in our district that simply cannot afford to bring classes to experience the art on display here, even though entrance to the gallery is free. Museums and galleries have a crucial role to play in addressing this devaluing of creativity in the education of our children.”