After 1945 the newly free world gave rise to peaceful revolutions such as the establishment of the National Health Service, the welfare state, free universal secondary education and the Arts Council, which were intended to give increased opportunities for all. The School Prints scheme was founded in 1945 by Brenda Rawnsley, an arts and education campaigner, whose mission was to get art into classrooms to educate and inspire children. Rawnsley's scheme was simple: she commissioned contemporary artists of the time to make a new series of prints that could be cheaply produced and made widely accessible. For a small subscription, schools were offered the opportunity to receive new prints to hang in the classroom. The art historian and critic Herbert Read helped Rawnsley to identify artists to contribute to the scheme and together they commissioned 24 original prints to be released to schools over a two-year period. The artists they worked with were given two conditions, firstly that the technique used must be lithography and secondly that only six colours could be used.

There were two series of prints produced, the first in 1946 and the second in 1947. They featured well-known artists such as John Nash, Russell Reeve and Barbara Jones, who had all achieved great popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. The tone of the two series was distinctly nostalgic and traditional, incorporating scenes and objects recognisable to children such as the countryside, a ballet show and steam trains. Both series were warmly received by schools. Spurred on by this success Rawnsley turned her attention to Europe, taking a more daring approach and inviting artists who had become famous in the 1940s for their modern and abstract styles. Picasso, Georges Braque and Matisse and many more created boldly patterned prints but they proved too radical for their time and with schools withdrawing their subscriptions the scheme was forced to close.

Although the scheme had a shorter life than its supporters would have liked, it is an excellent example of the liberating potential of printmaking for artists to experiment and produce work which is widely accessible. Rawnsley's desire to introduce contemporary art by living artists to children alongside their reading, writing and arithmetic was a radical experiment, echoing the egalitarian ambitions of the welfare state in providing opportunities from an early age and the Arts Council in making art available to all. Exposure to art at a young age would be highly influential on the baby boomer generation who went on to shape contemporary culture in the 1960s.

image: The Window, lithograph, by John Nash [K6191]