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Barbara Pitt: From Aero Girl to Art Educator

Hayden Proud

Barbara Pitt, who died on June 26, was a committed teacher who had the real gift of transforming lives, irrespective of age or origin. In Cape Town her name will always be synonymous with that of the Foundation School of Art, an independent institution that she presided over for some twenty years in the city’s ‘bohemian’ suburb of Observatory. It was not the first art school that she established; teaching was always in her blood, and in her earlier life in the UK and Johannesburg she embarked on several similar initiatives. However, it was her Foundation School that became her defining venture. It reflected her generous, unconventional and inimitable personality, providing a space for ‘everyman’ to encounter the visual arts through hands-on practice and classes in art appreciation. For Pitt, drawing was the  ‘foundation’ of all art; hence her choice of this name. The School was an integral part of the cultural landscape of ramshackle and ‘alternative’ ‘Obs’, reflecting much of its offbeat, cosmopolitan and multicultural character. Despite a number of relocations it remained tied to, and integral to the identity of its suburb.

Pitt initially named her project ‘the Foundation School of Arts and Crafts’. Its first classes, which included puppetry and jewellery design, were held from March of 1980 in premises in Station Road. The School’s keynote exhibition of student work, which drew much admiration and subsequent enrollments, was mounted there in January of 1981. The School later moved to a converted house in Arnold Street. Thereafter, ever in need of more space, it relocated to a house in Strubens Road, and then temporarily to a building in Lower Wrensch Road. With still-growing student numbers, a firmer hand on financial management and a formalised, certificated course structure, it finally settled into a capacious, well-kept double-storey Victorian villa only a few doors further down Lower Wrensch Road, almost diagonally opposite.

Private educational initiatives always depend on the drive of single-minded individuals, so when Pitt decided to retire some sixteen years ago, her School’s closure was felt as a distinct loss to many. Reflecting on its 20-year existence, one can conclude that its mission and spirit reflected much that was innate to Pitt herself; her rigorous training; her affiliations within the figurative traditions of English modernism, and her absorption of the teaching methodologies prevalent in English art schools in the early 1950s. To the provincial avant-garde of Cape Town in the 1980s this was seen as conservative, if not reactionary, but the reality was that Pitt offered a thorough training in basic skills and observational drawing that most art students actually craved.

Independent art schools are a part of the eccentric nature and history of much English art, and form a part of the culture of individualism from which the London-born Pitt came. Some of the more resilient independent art schools in England still co-exist with state-funded ones. Others, such as the Byam Shaw School in North London, have now been integrated with the larger, more formal institutions. The more rural East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, founded by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, was yet another example of an independent art school, described in its prospectus as ‘an oasis of decency for artists outside the system’. It was here that Lucien Freud, one of Pitt’s circle of artist-acquaintances in London in the 1950s, first started his training in 1939.

Pitt grew up in a working class family. The eminence of her surname often used to prompt her joke that she ‘was descended from William Pitt’, Britain’s youngest-ever Prime Minister, ‘on the wrong side of the blanket’. One of seven siblings, she was educated at Eltham Hill Grammar School where her South East London or ‘Thames estuary’ accent was polished to a point which even her ambitious mother criticised as being ‘too posh’. Her mother also firmly opposed her decision to go to art school because she had higher ambitions for her. Pitt was nevertheless determined and was accepted to study for a four-year Art Teacher’s diploma (ATD) at Goldsmiths College. She stayed the course there from 1948 to 1952, with a tiny grant to cover her art material costs. As a student, she lived in near-penury. Surviving ‘on tea and buns’, she even became malnourished and ill. It was only by taking temporary and part-time jobs of many different kinds that she was able to get by.

Anthony Devas, The Art Student, c. 1950, Oil on canvas, 14×10 inches. By permission of Nestle UK & Ireland.

In her second year at Goldsmiths, Pitt began to act as a part-time, paid model for the society portraitist Anthony Devas (1911-1958).  She became the subject of several of his more informal, sensitive and introspective paintings over a few years, including one painted when she was newly married and pregnant. At the time of her first sittings for Devas, he received a generous commission to paint a large series of portraits of beautiful young women, later to be known as the ‘Aero Girls’. These portraits were to feature in successive print advertisements for Aero chocolate in the popular British press.

Pitt’s portrait, reflecting her youth and ethereal beauty, became one of this now famous series. She was only 17 years old at the time. Entitled The Art Student (1950), it was only recently identified as Pitt in a research project launched to locate and name all of the Aero Girls. Initiated by the Borthwick Archive at the University of York, the project came to the attention of Pitt’s former student and close friend, the painter Jan du Toit, who had spotted mention of it on the internet.

Anthony Devas’ portrait of Barbara Pitt used in an Aero advertisement

Pitt’s association with Devas came as something of a boon, as she later recalled: ‘At the time Anthony was doing the portrait I wasn’t aware that it was being painted for the “Aero” ad. When I was told, I was delighted especially since he gave me 100 pounds extra, beyond the usual modelling fee… I was an impoverished art student at that point, [and] I was able, with permission from Goldsmiths, to take 3 months special leave to study and explore Paris on my own with that money’.

Elated at being able to cross the English Channel for the first time in her life, Pitt went to Paris, where she paid 5 francs a day to attend life drawing classes in the studios of the Grand Chaumiere. Living frugally to stretch her precious funds, she also explored the city’s museums and galleries. By chance she encountered Anna Campbell, an ex-ballet dancer who was the daughter of the South African poet Roy Campbell. Anna invited her to stay in her well-appointed home in Montparnasse and introduced her to her circle of existentialist poets, dancers and writers. Together they frequented the underground clubs and haunts of that same coterie. ‘My eyes’, Pitt later reminisced, ‘were opened to amazing experiences I will never forget’.

At Goldsmiths itself, Pitt rubbed shoulders with some subsequently famous personalities. She was in the same class as the young Bridget Riley (later to become Britain’s definitive Op Artist), who was also then training to become an art teacher. At one stage, Sam Rabin, then lecturing at Goldsmiths, singled out both Pitt and Riley for their special drawing abilities. Mary Quant, the famous fashion designer, was another co-student, as was our own Robert Hodgins (1920-2010), then studying as a mature student on a grant after his wartime service, prior to his return to South Africa. Another acquaintance with whom she enjoyed an obvious rapport in view of their mutual experience as artists’ models, was the outrageously camp Quentin Crisp (1908-1999). For several decades Crisp worked as a professional artists’ model in several London art schools such as St Martin’s and Goldsmiths. His best-selling memoirs, which appeared as The Naked Civil Servant in 1968, always had a special place on Pitt’s bookshelf. Another student friendship that she nurtured was with Tom Keating (1917-1984), the highly controversial art forger who duped many a serious art dealer and collector, and who also ran his own informal art school and restoration business.

Adrian Ryan, Self-portrait, 1944

In September 1952, with her drawing lecturer Sam Rabin acting as best man, Pitt married the young, Eton-educated, wealthy and good-looking painter Adrian Ryan (1920-1998). She was a few months off her 20th birthday. Ryan’s Self-portrait of 1944 shows him as a confident, somewhat egotistical and brooding young man. Unfortunately, Pitt’s new husband possessed almost everything that she herself did not in terms of expectations, finance and social connections. This proved to be a major fault-line in their relationship. At the time, thanks to inherited money, Ryan owned a substantial collection of modern masters, including Picasso, as well as two oils by Chaim Soutine, whose work exercised a considerable influence on his own. Ryan was a frequent drinking partner of Francis Bacon, as well as being a close associate of the painters Lucien Freud, Augustus John and John Minton, all of whom Pitt came to know very well.

The Ryan-Pitt marriage was to last eleven tempestuous and complicated years, during which Ryan took up teaching painting at Goldsmiths, where the students found him to be unforthcoming and taciturn; as likely to be found in the local pub as in the painting studios. His many extramarital affairs (undoubtedly encouraged by that great philanderer Augustus John) placed huge stress on the marriage. Furthermore, his drinking, petty jealousies, attempted suicide and rank parsimony despite his means, especially as far as Pitt herself was concerned, made the rearing of their young daughters Scarlett and Vivien extremely difficult. Pitt also suffered a miscarriage in 1956. She was eventually abandoned by Ryan in favour of Joan, a woman from a moneyed background similar to his own, and their divorce was finalised in 1963. However, Ryan’s contradictory character, and the fact that they had two daughters in common, meant that their connection was never irrevocably severed. He and Pitt remained on friendly terms until his death in 1998; she remaining ever generous in her praise of his work, even though his profile was wholly eclipsed by the success of his close friends Freud and Bacon.

Anthony Devas’ portrait of Barbara Pitt, pregnant

Following her divorce, Pitt moved with her young daughters to Cornwall, where she secured a job as an art teacher in a primary school. In 1965 she returned to London on the basis of the offer of a position as a part-time art therapist in what was then termed an ‘ESN’ (Educationally Subnormal) School in Whitechapel. Her appointment had come as a surprise to her as she did not really have the specialist qualifications required. The Principal, however, had been so moved by what he termed as ‘her capacity for caring’ in her interview that he was convinced that she was the perfect person for the position. This she indeed proved to be, handling severely disadvantaged and abused children from one of London’s roughest neighbourhoods. She balanced this part-time work with another job at the Child Art Centre, which was funded by the Inner London Education Authority.

In 1966, Pitt moved to Johannesburg in order to start a new life in a new country. She had secured employment as a designer for Pilkington Tiles, a local firm providing designs and murals for a number of new buildings such as the President Hotel. At this time she became the close acquaintance of another powerful South African art educator, Cecily Sash, as well as the art historian Rory Doepel, both teaching at Wits University. Pitt’s inborn urge to teach, however, remained so strong that she quickly abandoned her new career as a tile designer to set up her own Art Centre. Opened by Larry Scully, it functioned with many students until 1970, just prior to her decision to abandon Johannesburg for Cape Town in 1971. Pitt’s first years in South Africa were marked by three solo exhibitions of sensitive paintings and drawings of children; the first at the Henry Lidchi Gallery in Johannesburg and two others at the Walsh-Marais Gallery in Durban.

Ensconced in Cape Town, which was to remain her home for the rest of her life, Pitt initially took up teaching at the Ruth Prowse School of Art, and for a period spanning 1973 and 1974 she also taught drawing and design at UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. Her skills in design were much sought after, and she was commissioned by CAPAB to design costumes and props for productions of Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola and Shakespeare’s play King Lear. However, despite the promising new career options that beckoned her, she was resolutely determined to have her own art school once again.

Pitt’s decision to open the Foundation School was based on a realisation that there were needs in the local community that were not fully satisfied by the existing art-teaching institutions at that time.  There was a distinct gap, she felt, between art as taught in high schools, where there was so much spoon-feeding for marks, and art at university level, where students, abandoned to their own devices, as she herself said, ‘simply didn’t know how to apply themselves’. On the back of her first successful Foundation School exhibition in 1981, which displayed the results of the hard work, discipline and solid teaching that she and her carefully selected staff offered, her enrollments increased dramatically. She offered a disciplined, focused and supportive learning space to part-time, evening and full-time students. Students who did not cope too well in terms of the formal academic subjects at university found a niche for themselves with her, while many part-timers found her classes so rewarding that many resigned their jobs to take up full-time studies. A number of UNISA Fine Arts students also came to the School take advantage of its practical teaching and facilities. Those registered for diploma courses at the School always had their work subjected to final, rigorous scrutiny by external examiners such as Cecil Skotnes, Judith Mason and other eminent practitioners.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, at a time when South Africa was in a state of near civil war during the anti-apartheid struggle, a number of disadvantaged students, some of whom have since become significant and successful artists in their communities, received an empathetic welcome at Pitt’s door. They were not charged the usual fees and the School was aided in supporting their studies by the Foundation for the Creative Arts, which made junior bursaries specifically for their art materials available. These Pitt was able to award at her discretion. The late Billy Mandindi, Tyrone Appollis, Lionel Davis and Mario Sickle attended practical and art appreciation courses, while others such as Xolile Mtakatya undertook and completed the School’s four-year diploma course. Vuyisani Mgijima, another talented student, was fully sponsored in his studies by Pitt herself. Pitt even gave of her time on a regular basis to teach at the Community Arts Project in Woodstock. Many students who passed through the Foundation School’s programmes testify to the powerful impact that she had on their lives.

Barbara Pitt in London (2009). Photo: Angela van Nes

Just prior to retirement, Pitt suffered excruciating pain and discomfort from cranial surgery that was required to remove an acoustic neuroma that was affecting her balance and her hearing. Even in the face of this impediment, she continued to put her teaching commitments and her students first. That ‘capacity for caring’, as witnessed by her former school principal in London, remained with her until the end. Pitt not only opened doors in the lives of others, she was a living connection with another art world at another time and in another place. Her praises as one of our country’s unacknowledged yet most influential art educators must continue to be sung.

Barbara Pitt Ryan, art educator and designer, born London 14 December 1932; died Cape Town 26 June 2016. She is survived by her daughters Scarlett and Vivien in the United Kingdom. 

Hayden Proud is a Senior Curator at the Iziko SA National Gallery. He taught Art History and painting at the Foundation School of Art on a part-time basis in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Top image: Barbara Pitt in the 1970s (CAPAB)

2018-10-23T18:35:03+00:00