Researching Plymouth's post-war art

Researching Plymouth's post-war art

26 January 2021

I had the incredible honour of being awarded the inaugural Maureen Attrill Bursary in 2015. I applied for it so I could undertake research into the city’s post-war art collections. At the time of my application I’d been working for Plymouth’s Arts and Heritage Service for around six years with a focus on engaging people using the city’s archive collections. My role had then expanded to include working with the collections held by the whole of the service.

I had known Maureen a little and always found her to be passionate about the city’s art collections and the city itself. As a little side note, my dad had always told me she was his favourite Curator when he worked as a Gallery Assistant at the museum in the early 1990s, saying ‘she always took the time to explore and explain the artworks with him’. I’ve always had a strong passion for Plymouth and a particular interest in the post-war rebuilding of the city and the impact it had upon its people.

Mary Adshead Mural in Plymouth's Council House
Mary Adshead Mural in Plymouth's Council House

These provided me with a starting point for my application, which was based around studying the city’s post-war art collection:

  • looking at what acquisitions the city made
  • how these may have reflected the city’s mood
  • how/if we were able to make acquisitions at a time of high austerity, and
  • how/if they reflected the general development of Plymouth at that time
Coventry Cathedral
Coventry Cathedral

With a bursary successfully secured I was able to explore the city’s archives, art catalogues, acquisition registers and newspaper cuttings to place my research within a local and national context. I was also able to purchase a wide range of books on post-war Britain, Plymouth, and Art, and subscribe to the Museums Association Journal which gave me an invaluable insight into current Museums policy and access back catalogues. I also carried out research trips to Coventry and London’s Southbank to look at the role of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

My research showed how Plymouth was able to tap into national networks to bring touring exhibitions to the city, and utilise local and national funding to continue to acquire artworks for its permanent collections. I was able to track how the collections reflected the local and national mood of the time, with works that moved from traditional realism to abstraction in a matter of 10-15 years. Austerity and deprivation were eventually replaced with hope and optimism, not least by the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the influence it had on art and architecture. I was able to see how this was reflected in Plymouth’s public art, modern architecture and in the acquisitions and exhibitions at the Museum and Art Gallery.

Post-war art-related newspaper cutting

I presented my research to an audience of around 80 Friends of the Museum and Art Gallery and members of Maureen Attrill’s family and still intend to produce a small publication of my findings! My research has provided me with a deeper understanding of the city’s collections, the development of the city, and the role art and architecture can have in lifting the mood and ambition of a community – something that we could and should reflect upon today.

The Maureen Attrill Bursary was instrumental in my personal development as a museum professional and I am extremely proud to have been its first recipient.

With thanks to Tony Davey, Engagement Officer