School Prints Ltd. An experiment in bringing art to the masses, 1945-47

During the drab post war years of austerity and gloom, one inspirational project sought to brighten the walls of British classrooms with vibrant scenes of everyday life created by some of the country’s foremost artists, including L.S Lowry, John Nash, Julian Trevelyan and Barbara Jones. Although short-lived, the scheme resulted in 24 original prints, released in 1946 and 1947, that are still remembered today by school children from the 40s and 50s.

Julian Trevelyan. School Print

Habour, Julian Trevelyan 

School Prints Ltd was set up in 1945 by Brenda Rawnley to supply original, high-quality contemporary art to schools. Previous schemes had made printed reproductions of famous paintings available for schools to hire, while some of the great poster commissioners of the interwar years (such as the Empire Marketing Board and London Transport) had given or sold copies of posters for classroom decoration. This project was different, though, in seeking to inspire children with modern art (rather than historic masterpieces) and without the propaganda messages typically associated with commercial art.

Punch and Judy, painted by L S Lowry (1887 – 1976) in 1943 and published by School Prints Ltd, 1946

Punch & Judy, LS Lowry

Brenda had developed the idea with her husband Derek towards the end of the Second World War. But with Derek’s death on active service, Brenda was left to pursue their dream alone. In this she was aided by the art critic and writer Herbert Read, who acted as the project’s principal advisor.

Barbara Jones. School Print

Fairground, Barbara Jones

From the start, the aim was to commission well-known artists to create auto lithographed prints drawn directly onto the printing stone by the artist, rather than copied by a lithographer. This was deemed to give a truer expression of the artist’s intent and reflected the current resurgence of interest in lithography as an art form in its own right.

Tower of London, by Edwin La Dell, and published by School Prints Ltd, 1946

Tower of London, Edwin La Dell

Prospective artists were asked to use no more than six colours (partly to keep costs down), with the printing undertaken by the famous Baynard Press, and overseen by Thomas Griffits - a very experienced and highly respected lithographer. Each was printed with a decorative border to allow the work to be pinned directly to the wall without expensive framing.

Tractor in Landscape, by Kenneth Rowntree, and published by School Prints Ltd, 1945

Tractor in Landscape, Kenneth Rowntree

The artists themselves were selected by an advisory panel, headed by Read. Some, including Phyllis Ginger, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein and Barbara Jones, had previously supplied images for the well-regarded Recording Britain scheme.  Others had experience of illustrating children’s books or, like Feliks Topolski, had produced works for the Artists International Association ‘Everyman’ print series. Most were British, but the final selection included two Americans, Buk Ulreich and Adolf Dehn, and one Frenchman, Gabriel Coudrec. All were paid a fee for their work (usually £85) plus an additional royalty on copies sold.

Holidays, by John Tunnard, and published by School Prints Ltd, 1947

Holidays, John Tunnard

From a 21st Century perspective, the most famous contributor was LS Lowry whose painting Punch & Judy was completed in 1943 and made available to schools from 1947. This was one of only a handful of School Prints that were not directly drawn onto the printing stone by the artist, but instead copied by a lithographer (probably Thomas Griffits).

Timber Felling in Essex, by Michael Rothenstein, and published by School Prints Ltd, 1946

Timber Felling in Essex, Michael Rothenstein

The prints were released in two editions of 12 between 1946 and 1947. Although detailed records have not survived, it would seem that between four and seven thousand copies were printed for distribution. The very large majority of these would, of course, have ended up pinned to classroom walls, eventually discarded after a lifetime of use. Some were certainly acquired for home decoration at the time, recommended by contemporary magazines as an affordable way to brighten living space with modern art. Others were not issued at all for one reason or another, and a few of these have survived to the present day, often in near mint condition. A selection currently for sale at Twentieth Century Posters can be found here.

Cargo Ship in Sète, by Gabriel Couderc and published by School Prints Ltd, 1946

Cargo Ship in Sète, Gabriel Couderc

If you’d like to find out more about this extraordinary art project, read The School Prints. A Romantic Project by Ruth Artmonsky (Artmonsky Arts, 2006 and 2010). Much of the information above is shamelessly lifted from Ruth’s definitive account, one of a series of exemplary books she has written on the story of British printing and commercial art in the twentieth century (see our Bibliography for further information).

The Ballet, by Charles Mozley, and published by School Prints Ltd, 1946

The Ballet, Charles Mozley

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