The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Decorated School: Essays on the Visual Culture of Schooling

ed Jeremy Howard; Catherine Burke, Peter Cunningham (Black Dog Publishing, 96pp, £14.95)

Reviewed by Jon Wright

This wonderful book is the culmination of a two year study funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council into the extent and significance of art as an integral part of the built environment of schools. Using examples from around the world, it looks at how artists, architects and educators collaborated in the C20 to create unique works of art. It’s a timely reminder of an overlooked bit of design history and material culture which still has important implications for how we make and view art, not just in schools, but in the wider public sphere. In that sense, it can be read as powerful testimony for paternalism in public art.

With concise essays and superb illustrations, the book charts three distinct periods – around 1900, the 1930s and the 1950s – when the commitment to public art in schools was particularly acute. There are chapters on the Art at School movement in France, Iconic Sculpture in Japanese schools and abstract art in the schools of New York. Peter Cunningham’s essay on the provision of art in primary schools during the post-war years and Dawn Pereira’s look at the LCC’s Patronage of the Arts scheme are both revelatory – not just about the work itself, but about the motivations and impulses behind it. Pereira in particular sheds light on how the ‘suitability’ of work was discussed, citing the flamboyant cockerel on the wall of H T Cadbury-Brown’s Ashmount School in Islington: both artwork and school are being fought for by the Society. Some might question the global scope of the book while an adequate survey of UK work remains unwritten, but this is surely justified given Shone Kallestrup’s wonderful study of the Danish artist Asger Jorn’s decorative scheme for Aarhus Stasgymnasium, completed in 1961. With two enormous works, one in textiles, the other in ceramics, Jorn attempted to redefine completely what was possible in the decoration of schools.

We’ve all but lost our nerve for the kind of paternalism in this book, and that’s a pity. It didn’t all work and some of it looks rather foolish now, but we would do well to conserve and learn from the best of it. This book is a very good place to start.