Modern art that's fit to stick on any wall

Victoria Neumark goes out on the tiles to celebrate the work of a teacher who was also a pioneer in ceramics.

Patterns for Post-war Britain: the tile designs of Peggy Angus Museum of Domestic Design amp; Architecture, Middlesex University At Lansbury Lawrence primary school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, the hall and canteen are tiled in lemon yellow, white, grey and sharp lime green, in repeating patterns that still dance along the walls 50 years after they were put there when the school was built as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Though electrical ducts and fire notices now cut into the rhythm of the pattern, the walls still proclaim colour and invention.

Lansbury Lawrence, along with at least 10 other schools built in the 15 years after the Second World War, is part of the heritage bequeathed by Peggy Angus, perhaps the most important tile designer of post-war Britain - also a committed socialist, feminist, inspired teacher, inventive designer and now the subject of a vivid and thought-provoking exhibition at Middlesex University's Museum of Domestic Design amp; Architecture, curated by Katie Arber.

"She was an inspiration throughout her life," says Arber, relating how Angus (1904-93) drew, painted and practised crafts with her friends and family (her daughter and granddaughter are also artists), was involved in the design of Heathrow Airport and ran her own business, producing custom-made tiles and wallpaper until the end of her life. For much of the time she was also teaching art in secondary schools (briefly in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, then mostly in London).

Everything she did expressed her conviction that, as the idealists of the 1920s and 1930s put it, "Art is for All". This belief, widely expressed before the Second World War among artists and intellectuals, was put into practice in the post-war years, when Angus's friends, the generation with whom she had gone to the Royal College of Art, became influential.

Innovators such as Angus's ex-husband and editor of the Architectural Review, J M Richards, artists John Piper and Henry Moore, designer and artist Eric Ravilious and architect F R S Yorke made a huge impact on the urban scene. A huge post-war school-building programme enabled them to realise their ideas, with some education authorities allocating part of their school buildings budget (between 0.5 and 3 per cent) to artworks, including textiles, sculpture and tiles. "If education is the creation of a civilised community, surroundings should be conducive to this end," wrote Peggy Angus in 1955.

Indeed, she had pursued this idea in her own teaching. Evacuated to Chichester during the Second World War, she had her pupils - also evacuees - make grid-based murals of the Sussex coast towns to transform their new, alien classrooms. Back in London she returned to her old school, the North London Collegiate, and became head of art, getting her pupils to experiment not just with fine art media, but with design for flat patterns such as tiles and wallpaper. "Art should not be confined to the art room," she declared. Rather, she believed, the art department should be a workshop for all the school's design needs.

It was in the 1950s, at the peak of her teaching career, that Angus's public success as an artist took off. Her mentor, F R S Yorke, was so struck by some of her work with lino-cuts and potato prints that he suggested she make tiles to decorate a building he was designing. This was at a time when factory-made tiles were becoming a successful, harder-wearing and cheaper alternative to hand-painted murals. Until then, commercial tile-makers could produce art designs only if they were hand-painted - a costly business. But Angus found Carters in Poole, Dorset: a firm willing to try screen-printing from lino-cuts on to ceramics.

The project at Susan Lawrence school (as Lansbury Lawrence primary was known until April this year) was a success. And more commissions followed, many for schools and colleges. For a wider public, Angus designed futuristic patterns for Heathrow Airport, which opened in 1955, as well as a mural for the British pavilion at the Brussels Universal Exhibition of 1958.

Today, tiles are bought shrink-wrapped by the dozen, and beautifying schools tends to be a matter of changing the displays of children's work. Peggy Angus's words and work, presented in this compact exhibition with clarity and punch, challenge us with their originality and idealism. Do we agree that beautiful surroundings enrich education? If so, what are we doing about it?

Next time there is a funding boost for school buildings, how much of the extra money will be spent on art?

The Museum of Domestic Design amp; Architecture runs a programme of educational events and school visits, mainly for primary pupils, but with advance notice it can arrange secondary visits. Museum of Domestic Design amp; Architecture, Cat Hill, Barnet, Herts EN4 8HT. Until January 5, 2003. Tel: 020 8411 5244. Closed Monday, entrance free

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