The British schools that sent Picasso packing

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From a distance of 70 years, they are seen as a pinnacle of post-war expressionism – but the prints that some of the world’s leading artists produced to enlighten British schoolchildren left their teachers aghast.

Used to appraising Turneresque landscapes of harvesting and tree felling, they found the abstracts of Henry Moore, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque unfathomable, and sent them back by the ream. The organiser, the arts campaigner Brenda Rawnsley, resorted to wrapping her son’s Christmas presents in returned prints by Picasso that would today be worth a fortune.

Nicola Freeman at The Hepworth Wakefield. Picture: James Hardisty

Nicola Freeman at The Hepworth Wakefield. Picture: James Hardisty

In the knowledge that attitudes have since softened, the 1940s initiative to instil creativity in children unused to experiencing art is being revived in Yorkshire, with Sir Peter Blake among its roster of artists.

The Hepworth Wakefield is behind the five-year exercise, which will this year involve Kettlethorpe High School and five local primaries, and – in a pilot for a possible national roll-out – a gallery in Kent.

‘The number of children taking arts at GCSE reached a record low last year. This is an alarming statistic for a country internationally recognised for its creative industries,” said Nicola Freeman, who as director of engagement and learning at the Hepworth, revived the School Prints initiative last year.

It was, she said, an attempt to address the Government-led emphasis on science subjects.

“We have no idea what the workplace is going to look like for children who are in school now, but we do know that creativity is what defines us as humans and it will be what drives us forwards,” she said.

The 1940s School Prints movement also had its roots in Yorkshire and was a famous success, despite the reluctance of teachers to school their pupils in the avant-garde movement of the time.

“There was insecurity about responding to abstract art, Ms Freeman said.

“I’m really intrigued by this talk of what’s suitable for children. Actually, children are more open than adults – they haven’t formed their ideas about what art should be.”

Brenda Rawnsley was supported in the original scheme by Sir Herbert Read, the poet and publisher from the Hambleton Hills whose friendship with Dame Barbara Hepworth – after whom the Wakefield gallery is named – and Sir Henry Moore formed a Yorkshire arts triumvirate. He persuaded Moore to contribute a print called Sculptural Objects.

Sir Peter Blake, one of the four artists commissioned for this year’s revival, said he remembered it still.

“I was a child when the first School Prints came out, so when I was invited this year to create a new one, I was delighted,” Sir Peter said. “I feel strongly, as many people do at the moment, that we are taking too much attention away from the arts in schools. Our culture is so important, and it’s terrible that this is being reduced in schools.”

• A set of the limited-edition prints commissioned for this year’s revival of the scheme will be gifted to the six Wakefield schools taking part.

Simon Wallis, director of The Hepworth, said that for many children it would be their first experience of engaging with contemporary art.

“It has been inspiring to see how this initiative helps build creative thinking,” he said.

The gallery is selling limited editions of the prints for £500 from its website, to raise funds for the project.