Uncovering a gallery of schools' hidden treasures

12th April 2013 at 01:00
Two-year project identifies hundreds of distinguished artworks

Under the current austerity regime, architects building new schools are kept on a tight leash and expenditure is cut to the bare minimum.

But a recently completed two-year project shows that such restraint was not always the norm. The Decorated School network has uncovered and logged more than 300 distinguished artworks - from sculptures and paintings to tiles and textiles - commissioned by schools over the past 100 years.

"We have revealed how in the past century schools enjoyed several waves of investment in art coinciding with a commitment to improving the quality of education in ordinary state schools," said Catherine Burke, the project's coordinator and a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.

"The first occurred in the opening two decades; the next in the 1930s and the richest being in the 1950s and early 1960s, with the huge post-war school rebuilding programme expressing a confidence in the future complemented by the best examples of modernism in painting, textiles and sculpture," she said.

Among the pieces identified by the project is a mural by architectural illustrator Gordon Cullen, which adorns a wall at Greenside Primary in West London, having been commissioned by Modernist architect Erno Goldfinger in 1952.

Another is a piece by the Hungarian-born sculptor Peter Laszlo Peri, which until recently projected from a wall at Greenhead College in Huddersfield.

"The 30ft sculpture is of a woman with outstretched arms and since 1961 she has been a key feature of the college," said Christopher Marsden, chairman of the Huddersfield Civic Society. "Generations of students have called her 'Gladys' but the building of an extension has recently required her to be removed, with a zero budget: a process involving hacking her off at the ankles and then dumping her on the ground so that further damage was done to her fingers and hands.

"As I speak she currently lies face down in the college's grounds, although there is a local campaign building to see that the work is properly restored and protected."

Mr Marsden said it would be difficult to put a value on the piece although it would "cost tens of thousands to commission something on a similar scale from as prominent a contemporary artist". But he added: "It is best to think of the sculpture's value in terms of the meaning and importance given it by generations of students at the college, and that's a lot harder to unpack."

The works documented by the project were often commissioned to encourage children's creativity. A map charting the artworks that have come to light so far shows the importance of influential local champions in the 1950s such as the educationalists Stewart Mason in Leicestershire and John Newsom in Hertfordshire, whose enthusiasm for art in schools has left a rich legacy in these counties.

The project also documents successful campaigns to restore artworks. Templewood School in Hertfordshire, for example, has completed a #163;10,000 restoration of murals by artist Pat Tew dating from the 1950s. At St Crispin's School in Wokingham, two of three murals depicting the seasons painted in 1953 by Fred Millett have also been uncovered and restored.

Looking to the future, Dr Burke said it was important to conduct research into the value to pupils of artwork in schools in the face of the "no frills" attitude to school design that dominates current government thinking.

Friezes in the frame

The final addition to The Decorated School project's database was a quirky series of raised sculpted "reliefs" or friezes depicting scenes associated with travel and dating from the First World War.

The work, found in the junior school hall at Sydenham School in southeast London, dates from 1917. But little more is known about it and the school is appealing to anyone with more information.

"Their level of detail and visual illusionism is striking, as is their combination of motifs - modern and classical, work and recreation, travel and nurture," said Jeremy Howard, senior lecturer in art history at the University of St Andrews.

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