Part of an extraordinary art collection, which for 80 years toured schools in Derbyshire, has been sold at auction. Most of it, though, has been transferred to museums across Britain in a pioneering project which could serve as a blueprint for other local authorities who can no longer afford to look after their art.
It's the closing chapter of a story which began in 1936 thanks to the vision of a remarkable woman. Realising that many children in rural Derbyshire would never have the chance to visit an art gallery or museum, Barbara Winstanley decided to transport exhibits to their classrooms.
The Derbyshire Museum Loans Service, the first of its kind in the country, encouraged other councils to follow suit and build up art collections of their own. By the 1950s the Derbyshire service, directed by Miss Winstanley, had acquired an impressive collection of pictures mostly by up and coming artists of the period including Edward Bawden, John Nash, Julian Trevelyan and Mary Fedden.
As well as prints, drawings and paintings the collection included sculpture, pottery, textiles, models, ancient artefacts, stuffed animals – in short, the sort of thing you would find in many of our regional museums. Once a teacher had made a request for items, each of which had its own packing case, they would be driven to the school by van.
The service featured in a delightful news film from 1962.
Many of the paintings were bought from the 'Pictures for Schools' exhibitions, the first of which was at the V&A in 1947. Organised by the artist and educator Nan Youngman, they continued until 1969. As well as giving opportunities to promising young artists, many of whom were struggling after the war, purchases from the exhibitions formed the basis of several local authority collections.
Successful though it was, Derbyshire's school museum service was expensive to run. Up to 40 staff were involved and more than 2,000 objects had to be cared for. As technology and transport improved, children were able to see art on screens and have greater access to museums. Meanwhile the value of some of the paintings had rocketed at a time when budgets for other council services were coming under increasing pressure.
In 1990 Derbyshire County Council took the decision to sell a painting by Lowry for which they were expelled for a decade from the Museums Association. In the years that followed many other local authorities have sold artwork, most recently Leicestershire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. The debate around such sales has been fierce. Councils point to financial necessity while critics see a betrayal of our heritage which may deter future bequests.
Whatever your point of view, the current value of many of the paintings is a testament to the taste of those, like Barbara Winstanley and her advisers, who put together the collections.
Although Derbyshire County Council has decided it can no longer keep its entire collection, this time it has been dispersed with the full cooperation of the Museums Association. More than 2,000 pieces of art and artefacts have been transferred to more than 100 museums largely thanks to a grant of £120,000 from the Esmée Fairbairn foundation which allowed staff to find suitable spaces for the various objects. Only those which no institution wanted were sent for auction.
A list of available works was circulated so they could be matched with appropriate museums and galleries. For example, a painting of the Cornish village of Zennor by David Haughton has found a new home at the Penlee House Gallery & Museum in Penzance which recently held a retrospective of his work. And Three Variations by John Wells has gone to The Hepworth Wakefield.
While about 90 per cent of the collection has ended up in British museums some items have gone abroad including to Germany, Denmark and the USA where Native American items have been returned to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana.
So what of those 'unwanted' items which came under the hammer?
Just over 300 lots were consigned to Bamfords auctioneers at Rowsley in Derbyshire. Some were sculptures and textiles but most were pictures by artists who didn't go on to become one of the big names of twentieth-century British art. Many of the examples have a naive quality designed to appeal to children like Road in Kensington, London, 1952, by Joan Warburton (1920–1996). It also appealed to collectors with a hammer price of £6,000, the most expensive lot in the sale.
A painting by another female artist Weeding the Path, c.1950 by Jean Young (1914–1995) has the same sort of appeal although bidding wasn't so fierce ending at £480. Most items exceeded their estimates with only five lots unsold.
The auction raised more than £40,000 which will benefit Buxton Museum & Art Gallery where selected pictures like the Youngman and Trevelyan, as seen above, will remain.
While we can't be certain what Barbara Winstanley would have thought of the way the collection has now been dispersed, she would have surely been pleased that more than 200 of the pictures went to another place of learning. The School of Art Gallery and Museum at Aberystwyth University has been given works by a host of artists including Edward Bawden, John Piper, Elizabeth Frink, Julian Trevelyan and this imposing oil by Fred Uhlman.
'Displays from the Derbyshire collection will provide a stimulating environment for students and staff, for local audiences as well as for our national and international visitors,' said Professor Robert Meyrick, the Head of the School of Art. 'Our distance from major provincial art galleries means that pictures will have greater significance and impact here at Aberystwyth than among larger collections in urban settings.'
The collection may have been broken up but many of its elements will continue to be enjoyed allowing Miss Winstanley's legacy to endure.
James Trollope, writer and columnist
James' latest book, Rudolph Ihlee: The Road to Collioure will be published in 2022 by Lund Humphries