Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Peggy Angus: Old School Tiles

Group of children outside Elliott School, Putney, photo courtesy Andy Lambert & Edmund Hodges (tile panel original to 1956 building, possibly Peggy's but needs further research)
One of the pleasures of researching the life and work of Peggy Angus has been trying to find the many tile murals that she either designed herself in the 1950s, or which were made using the tiles she designed for Carters of Poole. The early years of the Welfare State saw thousands of new schools built around the country. With modern materials and new approaches to design, these schools were light and spacious (compared to the Victorian and Edwardian buildings they were replacing) but, being cheaply and rapidly constructed, they rather lacked individual character.

Technical College, Oxford
Pragmatism ruled post-war, when money and materials were in short supply, yet many schools incorporated artworks or decorative flourishes like the panel shown above. Were these simply visual treats for children and staff, something to alleviate the monotony of the Modernist facade? Or was decoration somehow deemed to be necessary?

This question is discussed in an intriguing new book, 'The Decorated School: Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling', which is edited by Catherine Burke, Jeremy Howard and Peter Cunningham. The text may be a little dry for the non-academic reader, but it's worth persevering with, and the pictures are great. There are case studies from Japan, France and the United States, and a fascinating discussion of art and architecture in post-war British primary schools.

We hear from 1930s educational pioneer Henry Morris, who argued: 'Buildings that are well-designed and equipped and beautifully decorated will exercise their potent, but unspoken, influence on those who use them from day to day.'

This was certainly a philosophy Peggy Angus agreed with. Influenced as she was by William Morris (who ought to have been related to Henry, but wasn't), Peggy believed that decoration was not a luxurious embellishment but a necessary part of any building. Schools ought to be as beautiful and as visually stimulating as possible, to encourage both the aesthetic and the moral development of students. At North London Collegiate School, where she was head of art through the 1950s and 1960s, Peggy was encouraged by headmistress Dr Kitty Anderson to create (with her students' help) temporary murals and other artworks around the school.

Frank Hooker School, Kent
Post-war, progressive educationalists found themselves in positions of power and influence, and in some cases created a remarkable legacy. In Hertfordshire, John Newsom, CH Aslin and Mary Hoad worked together to ensure that commissioned artworks were integral to new schools. Kenneth Rowntree's eye-catching semi-abstract mural at Barclay School, Stevenage, is one such work that still survives. In west London, meanwhile, architect Erno Goldfinger designed space for a mural into his model primary school, Greenside School.

Lansbury Lawrence School, Poplar (& below)

Peggy's tiles were used all over England and Wales, usually in parts of the school where they would be seen by everybody in the course of the day. Foyers, stairwells and entrances were decorated with panels of different sizes, usually consisting of abstract patterns but occasionally incorporating figurative elements. We'll be showing a couple of the most stunning tile murals, I hope in large-scale photos, at the Towner exhibition in July...

Whitefield School, N London

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