Nursery Education c.1945 consists of ten landscape-format paintings in gouache on paper that portray the counting game, nursery rhyme and fortune-telling song, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief’. Eight of the paintings depict one each of the sequence of characters named in the rhyme; while the first and last paintings are, respectively, an abstracted title page (where the letters ‘c’, ‘a’ and ‘t’ of the word ‘education’ are replaced by a graphic image of a cat) and a final image that depicts all the characters together outside the jail in which the ‘Thief’ has been incarcerated. Hamilton originally produced the paintings as a competition entry for an illustrated children’s book and, with an eye to this, depicted the individual characters with simply drawn lines and flat colours. The Tinker holds a saucepan in his right hand and stands in front of a wall, the right-hand side of which is brick and the left consisting of shelves for pots and pans. The Tailor sits on the wooden floor of his workshop, cutting fabric with a pair of scissors; a needle and thread and a pair of trousers are on the floor next to him and behind, on the wall, hang three suits on coat-hangers and horizontal rolls of bright patterned fabric. The Soldier stands in a bright green field in front of a barbed wire fence, holding a rifle; he is seemingly on guard duty for the encampment of six tents in the field behind him. The Sailor stands facing out at the viewer, his back against the guardrail of a ship at sea; gulls are in the sky and another ship is pitching in the sea towards the horizon. The Rich Man is depicted in profile sitting in the back of a car, wearing a large fur-collared coat and a top hat, and puffing determinedly on a large cigar. Through the window we can see that he is being driven down an ordinary terraced street, while the bodywork of the car door surrounding him reflects the other side of the street and two people gazing at the car as it drives past. The Poor Man is a workman, a navvy or stonebreaker; he stands with his shirt sleeves rolled up, his left hand grasping a pick axe held across his chest, against a landscape of uniform oval rocks. The Beggar Man is a blind man wearing a blue suit, hat and dark glasses. His right hand holds a white stick and his left hand offers up a tray of sweets; from his neck hangs a sign saying ‘BLIND’ and beside him is a begging dog with a collecting tin attached to its collar. The Thief is shown wearing a tie, tweed jacket and hat at a racecourse, picking the pocket of a racegoer. In the last image, this cast of characters is arranged, as if posing for a group photograph, in front of a jail where the figure of the Thief clutches the iron bars at the window. At the centre of the image the sailor has his arm around the soldier, and the Tinker at extreme left glances at the rest of the group; everyone else looks out at the supposed camera (or viewer) except for the Rich Man who looks back at the disappointed countenance of the Thief, perhaps suggesting an identification of sorts between the two figures.
Hamilton painted the gouaches in London while he was working for the music recording company EMI in 1945. The following year he was re-admitted to the Royal Academy schools (where he had been studying prior to their closure in 1940), only to be expelled. As a result of this, he was obliged to enter military service with the Royal Engineers in 1947; he packed in his kit bag a copy of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), which he soon after resolved to illustrate – a task that occupied him on and off for the rest of his life. The solutions that he brought to bear on the earliest group of studies for Ulysses can in part be traced back to the way in which he approached the illustration of Nursery Education. Hamilton was faced by two major challenges with Ulysses: not just the conundrum facing any illustrator of how to convey a passing narrative in an image, but more fundamentally the fact that within Ulysses Joyce used different styles of language as part of the narrative. It was this last aspect of the book that fired Hamilton’s imagination because it ‘demonstrated a stylistic and technical freedom that might be applied to painting’ (quoted in Hamilton 1992, p.143). Hamilton resolved to shift style and technique not just between each illustration (echoing the similar language shifts carried out in Joyce’s prose), but also within each illustration as a form of stylistic collage. This was allied to the manner in which – as here with Nursery Education – he addressed certain figures as distinct archetypes. This approach was at the heart of the pictorial and conceptual wordplay that underpins Nursery Education, and can also be recognised in the manner in which Hamilton approached portraiture throughout his career (see, for example, The citizen 1981–3 [Tate T03980], The subject 1988–90 [Tate T06774] and The state 1993 [Tate T06775].
The critic Michael Bracewell has suggested that Nursery Education provided:
a cast of characters and in Hamilton’s depiction of them narrative possibilities emerge that shape or enhance their identities and meanings. Inlaid narrative codes, often of immense sophistication would fascinate Hamilton throughout his career … Hamilton brings to life a small cast of characters who double (or can double) as archetypes; and within his depiction of these types, the apparent simplicity of the illustrations does not prevent either aesthetic richness, potent atmosphere or pictorial wit.
(Bracewell 2015, unpaginated.)
The competition for which Hamilton initially conceived Nursery Education was staged by the News Chronicle in 1945; the brief was to produce images on the theme of nursery education that could be published as an illustrated book for children aged up to five years old. Judged by Kenneth Clark, Mary Potter and John Piper among others, the competition was won by Evelyn and Robert Buhler and Enid Blyton then wrote a text for their submission Brown Family, which was published by the News Chronicle the same year. The gouaches were returned to Hamilton who soon after gave the complete set in lieu of rent to the landlord of his future wife Terry O’Reilly.
Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992.
Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2014.
Michael Bracewell, Nursery Education, Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Alan Cristea Gallery, London 2015.
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