Obituary: Nan Youngman

Peter Black
Thursday 27 April 1995 23:02 BST

Nancy Mayhew Youngman, artist: born Maidstone, Kent 28 June 1906; OBE 1987; died Cambridge 17 April 1995.

Nan Youngman is remembered primarily as a painter, but her life was a selfless, vigorous crusade for art through education. From before the war to the mid-1960s she was an influential figure in art education, as a teacher, an author and an impressively efficient organiser of exhibitions.

She was born in Maidstone in 1906 and trained at the Slade (1924-27). Needing to finance her career as an artist by teaching, she went on to the London Day Training College. There she was taught by Marion Richardson, who introduced her to Roger Fry and awakened her interest in children's art. From 1929 until 1944 she divided her time between painting and teaching; she lectured for the London County Council (LCC), gave practical art classes for schoolteachers and taught part-time. The organisation of exhibitions became an important part of her strategy for increasing children's awareness of art.

The death of her friend the artist Felicia Browne in Spain in 1936 altered Youngman's political outlook. She joined the left-wing Artists International Association and organised Browne's memorial exhibition. AIA group shows became a focus for her painting, though politics never entered her own work. It was Nan Youngman who in 1939 famously asked a workman in from the Whitechapel High Street to open the AIA's exhibition ``Art for All''.

With the outbreak of war Youngman was evacuated with the children of Highbury Hill School where she was teaching to Huntingdon. With Betty Rea, the sculptor, Rea's two boys, and three children of a friend in the army, she set up house, first in Godmanchester and later at Papermills in Cambridge. In 1944 she became art adviser to Cambridgeshire under Henry Morris. Standards of art education in schools in the region have never been so good, before or after.

Nan Youngman was chairman of the Society for Education through Art (1945), and published her ideas in articles for Athene (the SEA journal), the New Era in Home and School, and the Education Journal. Through the SEA she initiated a remarkable series of exhibitions of contemporary art for sale to education authorities called ``Pictures for Schools''. The first took place in 1947 at the Victoria and Albert Museum and these continued annually at the Whitechapel and elsewhere until 1969. They were a great success, regularly covered in the national press.

In the 1950s Youngman travelled as lecturer in art education for the British Council to the West Indies, Malta and Ghana, but now devoted more time to painting. She showed at the Leicester Galleries in 1953. Through setting up a Welsh series of Pictures for Schools exhibitions Youngman discovered the landscape of south Wales, which provided the subject of much of her strongest work. From 1950 to 1960 she made frequent visits to Wales, where, amid the smoke and mechanical uniformity of the housing in the Rhondda valley, Youngman's eye isolated people, especially children playing as if in paradise.

After she moved to the Fens in the mid-1960s her landscapes grew in subtlety, most often focusing on something puzzling or odd: always ``image'' and never topography. Apparently straightforward images of buildings or objects (beach huts, pigeon lofts, boats) are charged with spirit. In a strange way they are like an inversion of the stories of metamorphosis in classic painting: these are artefacts from the post-industrial landscape which bristle with human potential.

Nan Youngman's very individual painting defies conventional categorisation. The warmth and concern for others that characterised her educational career features strongly, but other qualities appear too, especially her wit. A popular retrospective was held at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge in 1986. Her OBE followed in 1987.

Her letters were full of her love of life and always contained a joke or funny sketch. She made everybody laugh. Every studio visit ended with her saying ``Let's go and have a drink''. In life, as in her pictures, she looked always outwards. In recent weeks, unwell and unable to see properly, she never complained about her own physical problems and, if asked, moved rapidly on to ask about her visitor. Characteristically she left instructions that her send-off include champagne and a sit-down lunch for her many friends.

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