Collections Crossover: Back to school
Collections Crossover: Back to school

We're sorry to mention it, but we're almost halfway through the school holidays (if you're in England or Wales), and before we know it, it'll be time to stock up on new pens, brave children's shoe shops and check if that blazer can still pass muster after a summertime growth spurt. So with the spectre of a return to school in the not-too-distant future, we thought we'd make a study of the A+ material we have on this subject, with a report on all aspects of primary and secondary education in the UK.

The school environment has offered rich inspiration for many of the photographers we represent, particularly Henry Grant, John Krish, Roger Mayne, Shirley Baker, David Lewis Hodgson and Maurice Ambler. These, together with additional archive photography from collections such as Barnaby's, brandstaetter, Keystone and The Bexley Archive Image collection, provide excellent coverage of school life from the early to mid-20th century. As an experience that most of us share, many of these images are undeniably nostalgic, yet they are also an important reflection of contemporary attitudes; note for instance gendered segregation in lessons where boys study metalwork and woodwork, while girls are corralled into domestic science and needlework, a practice that was still going strong at many schools as late as the 1980s.

Beyond the classroom these photographers recorded PE lessons, gymnastics, athletics, football, hockey and lacrosse, not to mention the games and pastimes of the school playground. Let's not forget also school dinners and the joys of lumpy mash and watery custard - love them or hate them, they'll remain etched in our subconscious forever. Henry Grant and Roger Mayne also recorded another relic of past schooldays; the daily bottle of milk at break time, famously cut in the 1970s by Secretary of State for Education, Margaret 'Milk Snatcher' Thatcher. The role of education in a child's overall well-being is also evident in the pictures we have of school nurses and medical check-ups including the dreaded search for head lice (in our school she was known as Nitty Norah, the Hair Explorer. I wonder if she was aware of this?).

Sliding further back into the 19th century, the Illustrated London News archive with its interest in social issues, highlighted many areas of education, while Peter Higginbotham's collection is a great source for images of ragged schools. Francis Frith, Grosvenor Prints and our own collection also chronicle the mixed and haphazard pathways to learning from dame schools to governesses.

We've lots of terrific stuff on the country's leading independent schools. Whether you consider them beacons of academic excellence or are more inclined to regard them as a self-perpetuating system of privilege, private schools can be a controversial topic. But the architectural beauty of these prestigious institutions is undeniable and many of photographs focus on the splendid interiors and exteriors of schools such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Rugby.

Finally, a small selection of images charting progressive forms of education, such as Marie Montessori's method, still going strong today, or the Beacon School, established by Bertrand Russell and his wife Dora in 1927 along with Dartington Hall School in Totnes, begun as part of a social experiment also in the 1920s.

We hope this satchel of scholarly imagery has transported you back to school (in a good way). This is just one of thousands of subjects on which we can offer a wide and eclectic range of pictures. Whatever your latest project, get in touch to find out how we can help. You can reach us by email at or call 020 8318 0034.

Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd.  59 Tranquil Vale  Blackheath  London  SE3 0BS. United Kingdom.
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