Avis Saltsman - Artist

Genealogy Pages - Origins Essay page 6

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Essay on my Origins - Version of May 1997 - Page Six


From the moment I entered secondary school, I was always first in the art exams. Every parents evening the art teacher would buttonhole my parents trying to impress them about my gift and my father always complained about this and set himself fervently against my going to art school. The fact was that art had been the family business and but for the Wars could have been public and successful. Of course it is only in the nineteen nineties that I know this. Genetic inheritance is extremely powerful and it was reinforced from other strands of the family, my mother's and father's uncles, Harold Stansfield and William Daniels. It would have been strange if someone in our generation had not inherited these abilities. I went to a women's teacher training college, taking art as a main subject. The testimonial from school to the college described me as having an exceptional artistic gift. This was in 1953 and the expansion of art colleges in England happened in the sixties during which Britain and particularly London led the world in fashion and design. Some of my fathers companions from the army had taken a late teacher training and he knew of Bingley College, Yorkshire, though now it was a women's college. Looking back on it now, it was more confining than home and managed to shield me almost entirely from life experience, in spite of which I came top in a general knowledge quiz. The curriculum was varied and interesting but not at a very high intellectual level and I was trained to teach the 'little ones', nursery and infant age. One lecturer described me as being 'more hungry for knowledge than I was for food', and another that I was there 'because my father was ill'.

When I left I was still only nineteen as being an August birthday, the mechanism that had given me another stab at the eleven plus prevented me from taking A-Levels as I was just old enough to go to college after only one sixth-form year. Decisions about careers were a blunt instrument and most girls went on to teaching or nursing and it was only a two-year course. By ten years later, girls were going for real careers such as architecture, the law, medicine etc. I feel that from the age of sixteen I was mightily underestimated and have spent my life proving my ability, unfortunately most of it unpaid in the adult world outside schools, such as running a county-wide organisation with newsletters, branches, conferences and training courses, being a teacher's union president for a London borough and on two national committees of artists organisations. Wherever I have lived throughout England I have taken part extensively in community life. I now know that these were all characteristics of the Germans and Swiss who set up the industry in Lancashire and Cheshire providing both jobs and community support and experiencing enormous prejudice, reinforced by the two wars and which my father experienced from early adolescence.

I believe my father Cyril, like me, had to suppress painful memories in order to survive and his memories were connected with art and design and his father losing his design job in 1921. He said it was because of the cotton slump, but that came in 1929 with the total recession that blighted the 30's. I think that prejudice was at least an element in the families' plight. It was my father's suppressed memory about art which was partly responsible for his not allowing me to pursue it. In trying to explain it I had previously felt he thought teaching was a safer bet since he was ill and I needed to earn my living and also Victorian attitudes still prevailed and art school was felt to be somewhat adventurous for 'young ladies'. I have always been successful in what I have attempted to do and I am sure, in the fertile climate of the sixties I could have made a go of a design company, especially had I gone to a London College as my second son did to R.A.D.A. a generation later. My sister, fifteen years younger went to Manchester Art College to do graphics and gained first class honours.

When I left training college I started teaching in an infants school a short distance from my parents' home, whilst living there and giving them half my salary in rent. No-one ever considered in those days that a young woman might rent a flat alone and it is impossible to explain to my children's generation about the unspoken assumptions and restrictions then existing. Virtually the only reason a young woman might leave home was to marry, so in order to be free of that extremely restricted life you had to find a man, any man who would be willing to marry. As it was not even then considered that a woman was a person in her own right with a life she could explore, it did not matter whether you, as a person, had anything in common with that person and you both took on certain pre-determined roles. Passion may or may not be part of it. I think it was in my mother's case but in mine, I had left college still with a hunger to explore my own abilities and find out who I was and had a very limited experience of the opposite sex. This is no insult to my first husband because this was the case with millions of people and as Philip Larkin said 'Sex was discovered in 1963, a little late for me'. An exciting partnership of equals was something I found many, many years after much wear and tear.

I went to evening classes at Manchester Art School when I started teaching. In the mid-fifties they were conventional life and still-life classes and I remember going to my mother's local greengrocer to get apples and oranges to paint. A still-life I painted involving them and a blue glass vase I had bought my mother, one of a number I considered better design than her brass ornaments, was acquired by a friend of my parents. She was a matron from Salford Royal Hospital, a Scotswoman called Miss MacIntosh (I never knew her first name). My father knew her because he was chairman of Governors of the hospital, the one where he had spent all those months. While I was painting it, the principal of the college came round and said 'I could speak of that and Manet in the same breath'. Towards the end of my first year of classes, I saw some work in the drying racks which was very different, so I asked about the class they were painted in and someone told me Terry McGlynn was the teacher.

The following September I attended his evening classes and discovered a totally different world. Terry was a man in his fifties married to Ida, who lectured at Manchester Training College. They were the first really cultured people I had met and I regard them as my 'spiritual parents'. Extreme necessity had led me to them. The work produced in Terry's classes was abstract and very individual to the person and the method he used to teach was based on a deep knowledge of twentieth century art and a modern and original philosophy of teaching. I was ready for this as I was already bored with representational work because it came easily to me. Based on his advice we produced work at home and brought it to the next class. I can remember him many times taking off his glasses and creeping up close to scrutinise my work. He seemed drawn to it.

Terry used to take promising students from his various classes to their home in Heaton Moor, Stockport, a large Victorian house which he and Ida ran as an art centre. I dropped the art college and went to Terry's classes in Heaton Moor, quite a long bus ride, on Wednesday evenings, until after the birth of my first child when we moved to the Midlands at the end of 1961, five years in all. Terry conducted the classes in one long ground floor room and had his studio in another. Occasionally there were long weekend courses which took over the whole house. He was my first example of someone living as an artist and teacher. The house was full of books about twentieth century art which sparked off my life-long study of it. It was very brave of him, after being well-known as a representational artist in a provincial town to evolve into doing exciting abstract work acknowledging modern developments which I still believe were a high point preferable to later movements like pop, minimalism and conceptualism which were more about sociology than art. (Music is abstract so why not visual art?) Terry was ostracised by his former circles for the move at first, but was bringing Manchester, which in many respects has been progressive in the other arts, into the twentieth century.

At twenty-one I was a member of the Hallé Society when John Barbirolli was conductor and went to every concert, two a week, in their centenary year celebrations with the best soloists and sometimes other orchestras from all over the world. The group of painters including myself, led by Terry took over the Modern Art Society, which formerly had been a bit of a farce, and I was in my first show at the Manchester Art Gallery at twenty-one, the youngest of the group. Ida said my potential should have been picked up at seventeen and I believe there was a school in Manchester for children gifted in the arts. The McGlynns house was full of people it was good for me to meet and gave me some social sophistication. They came from a wide range of society and included a scientist's wife and a fish and chip shop proprietor. Their was an atmosphere of contact with Europe and people brought food like pasta, my first experience of Italian food. The McGlynns spent the long university summer vacation on the Island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, where they knew Paolo, who had a cafe on the beach. In the summer after my first year of teaching I went with a college friend to Rome and Rimini. We visited the late-night opera ('Aida') at the Caracalla Baths and Italy became of great importance to me and has featured tremendously in my work. Ischia was a kind of ideal dream-island for me which I was only able to visit when I was forty, just as I was about to separate from my first husband. The next year I used drawings I had done there as the basis of some of my most important work.

Contact: Avis Saltsman (or Saltzmann), 17 Gerrard Road, Islington, London N1 8AY
+44(0)20 7359 6294 or e-mail her

Last revised 26/7/2000
URL: http://www.art-science.com/Avis/Avis_family/Origins6.html

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