Join me in celebrating the end of the Scottish school year and the start of the summer holidays, via modern British paintings in UK public collections.
An extraordinary school year ended in Scotland on Friday, after over a term of home schooling due to the coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown. Intermission of 1935 by James Cowie (1886-1956) celebrates the companionship of classmates which will hopefully be resumed when schools return in August.
Cowie was born in Netherton of Dalgety in Aberdeenshire in 1886. He trained at Glasgow School of Art and was appointed Art Master at Belshill Academy in North Lanarkshire in 1915. He stayed in the post for twenty years before becoming Head of Painting at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and, two years later, Warden at Hospitalfield College of Art near Arbroath.
In Intermission, a cluster of schoolgirls are seen during break time, absorbed in the book held open by one of two central characters; her back is turned to the viewer and her companions of varied poses are equally carefully rendered. The girl on the right is in a physical and mental space of her own, whilst her friend standing at the back is silhouetted against a large window, through which a high-horizoned landscape can be seen. Classic 1930s tunics are combined with standard classroom furniture, from desks to radiator, enlivened by the cut flowers on the left. A swagged curtain at the upper right reveals the scene on which we are being allowed to peek. The painting was purchased in 1935, shortly after it was completed, by the Walker Art Gallery of National Museums Liverpool.
The stage between school and home at the end of the day, term or even school year, is depicted in The Train Home from School of 1948 by Norman Clark (1913-92). Clark was born in Ilford, Essex and studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (now Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts) and the Royal Academy Schools, both in London. Much of his career was spent as a teacher at Brighton College of Art (now Brighton School of Art, University of Brighton).
In The Train Home from School, five school girls are seen in a train carriage. Three are intent on something on the middle girl’s briefcase, a fourth leans out of a window and a fifth is glimpsed at the left, head propped up on hand as she lies on the seat to read. A young male passenger observes them from the right foreground. A discarded hat and fallen socks signal an increasing freedom from the discipline of the classroom, whilst the houses glimpsed through the windows indicate the travellers’ destination. Crumpled material frames the image, hanging down from luggage racks and gathered around the bemused man. Firmly realised rectangular forms punctuate the composition, from briefcase to satchel in turn, from left to right. A moment of relaxation before the remainder of the day is faced is captured in a work in the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove collection.
With the expanse of the holidays ahead of them and lockdown restrictions easing, school children will appreciate playing outdoors this summer perhaps more than ever. This freedom is captured in Children and Chalked Wall No. 2 of 1963 by Joan Eardley (1921-63). Eardley was born in Warnham, Sussex and studied at Glasgow School of Art and Hospitalfield College of Art. In 1952 she established a studio in the Townhead area of Glasgow, often painting the local children and their environment. From 1954 she spent increasing amounts of time in the fishing village of Catterline, on the Aberdeenshire coast, where she painted her natural surroundings.
Children and Chalked Wall No. 2 is a fine example of the images of Glaswegian children for which Eardley is renowned. Two young girls at the lower left stand in front of an imposing stone wall, on which layers and layers of chalk scrawls, scribbles, marks and inscriptions have been applied. Certain features, like the central oval form, red rectangle at the upper left and ‘Betty’ at the centre right, stand out amidst the outpouring of many children’s creativity. The raw technique used to render the girls contrasts with the smoothness of the stones too high up to be reached by them. No adult can be seen in a painting which rejoices in childhood friendships and simple games. It was purchased shortly after completion by Abbot Hall Art Gallery of Lakelands Arts in 1963, the year of Eardley’s premature death.
For those able to go away on holiday, or even on a day trip to the seaside, what could be better than a visit to a sunny beach, as seen in For Happy, Healthy Holidays of c.1960 by Henry Stringer (1903-93). Stringer was born in Salford and studied at Manchester School of Art (now part of Manchester Metropolitan University). He moved to Welwyn Garden City in 1931 and established a career as a commercial artist. After service during World War Two he produced a series of posters for British Rail, advertising the attractions of places that could be reached by train.
For Happy, Healthy Holidays is an eye-catching image of a young boy, bending over to look through his legs at the viewer, his bucket and spade accompanying a nearby inscription in the sand. A wide, golden beach and sunlit sky make up the majority of the painting. A helter skelter at the back left hints at a fairground out of sight, separated by a calm sea from a lighthouse at the back right, indicating a working harbour. A single seagull flying overhead is the child’s only company. The red of his trunks crowns a complicated pose which embodies his enjoyment as we are invited to join in his fun. This work was accessioned by the National Railway Museum in 1999.
Here’s to the summer holidays and a happy start to the new school year in August, in whatever form it will take.