Art school trained staff and Communists in the V&a circulation Department, c1947-1958. 1 Linda Sandino



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Art school trained staff and Communists in the V&A Circulation Department, c1947-1958.1


Linda Sandino
In the aftermath of the disruption of World War Two, a Minute sheet to the Director of the V&A, Sir Leigh Ashton (1945–55), headed ‘Staffing of Circulation Department’ dated 3 June 1947 from the Department Keeper Peter Floud stated unambiguously:
If the Department is to get moving in time to be of use to schools etc. this autumn … I believe the most economical way of getting this work done is to recruit two Assistants to tackle the immediate problem of sorting, classifying, remounting, and preliminary selection of sets…Whereas it has always seemed advisable to insist on a University Degree for Library Cataloguers, I do not think this is necessary for the work in Circulation. More important than any academic qualifications is practical experience in an Art School or similar institution.2 [my emphasis]

Floud continued by pointing out that, ‘Owing to the war it is almost impossible for anyone under thirty to have both sets of qualifications’. This may, but only in part, account for why the successful candidates on whom this essay focuses were all women who had studied art: Barbara Morris and Elizabeth Aslin who had both trained at The Slade School, University College London, and Shirley Bury who had graduated from Reading University. These three women went on to carve out significant areas of expertise in the applied arts3 thereby raising the professional status of women in the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), as well as challenging the stereotype of the Oxbridge curator-scholar. Of equal interest is that Morris and Bury were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). As well as examining the qualities of art-school trained staff, I will explore how a socialist ethos contributed to the distinctive character and function of the Circulation department, fostered by its Keeper Peter Floud, at a time when the Museum was a department of the Ministry of Education and its staff were, therefore, civil servants. [FIG 1]

Disseminating examples of good design beyond South Kensington had always been part of the V&A’s mission from its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, but the Circulation department’s function gained momentum from 1909 onwards when it acquired its own collection of objects so that regional museums, libraries and art schools could benefit from this rich, central resource. By 1939, 40,000 objects were being loaned to over 600 institutions. Their scope mirrored that of the Museum collections, but unlike the other materials focused departments (ceramics, glass, woodwork, metalwork, textiles, prints and drawings), Circulation (‘Circ’) worked with the complete range of objects across all historical and geographical periods. Given its outward–facing remit, the Department also dealt with the ‘special requirements of the Art Schools [that] naturally led to an emphasis on contemporary work’ with the result that Circulation’s contemporary collections were ‘much more extensive than those of the main Museum’.4 The geographical spread of the collection included Poland and Czechoslovakia, both at the time behind the Iron Curtain.

Art school training: ‘more important’

As noted above, Floud was keen to recruit staff with ‘practical experience in an art school’. In a memo of July 1947, he gives an indication of the work to be done, commenting that the two staff already employed (one of whom was Barbara Morris, the other ex-Chelsea School of Art Felicia Wakeford) were


fully engaged on the 10,000 framed examples in the Department. The work of sorting out the frames, discarding unsuitable examples, searching for additional material, and making the frames up into sets for loans to Art Schools and Training Colleges, will occupy them both full-time for the foreseeable future…5

Testimonials of the successful candidates offer further insights into what Floud and his Director Sir Leigh Ashton were looking for in their new recruits, as well as providing some evidence about what referees thought were the appropriate qualities for a museum post.
Barbara Morris was the first to be appointed in May 1947. Although interrupted by the War, she completed her Diploma in Fine Art at the Slade in 1946 with a 1st prize for Anatomy alongside a 1st class award in History of Art. Morris had gone to the Slade against the wishes of her father and her headmistress who thought that going to art school was ‘a waste of a brain’, but as Morris stated in her oral history interview, ‘I’d always been a bit of a rebel!’6 Apart from her Slade qualifications, Morris had also taught briefly at the London County Council Popham Road Infants School in North London, and worked as a designer for Thomson Publicity Ltd. A testimonial from the school described ‘Mrs Morris’ as ‘most willing to please and very enthusiastic to learn. She had a very alert mind and quickly adapted herself to the needs of the school.’ Honest, trustworthy, calm, determined, and with common sense were qualities that made them ‘sorry to lose her’. Thomson’s, likewise, had a ‘high opinion of her honesty, industry and integrity’. These views were confirmed by Randolph Schwabe, Professor and Principal of the Slade School of Art at University College London (1930-1948), who had telephoned the V&A to say that he considered ‘Mrs Morris in every way suitable for this post’. 7

Floud commented on the value of Morris’s experience in teaching and working in a commercial art studio, noting that she impressed him ‘as being sensible and efficient and very ready to learn.’8 A year later however, when the emergency temporary posts of 1947 were made permanent into Research Assistants, Royal Academician Henry Rushbury focused on a different set of qualities: ‘She is a sensitive Artist and has a keen interest in the Arts generally. She possesses the Slade Diploma in painting and has a very thorough knowledge of the History of Art and Architecture. She has great energy and very receptive brain and a cultured mind’.9 Having completed a year in the Department, Morris’s industry and integrity were confirmed, but Rushbury’s reference is important in highlighting Morris’s talent as an artist as well as her academic knowledge and intellect; museum work was not compensation for failure as an artist. [FIG 2]

Although it might be taken for granted that the practical skills of an art education would be useful in museum employment, what were these? At the Slade, life drawing formed a key part of an art student’s education. For Randolph Schwabe’s this consisted of a methodical approach:

Think before drawing every stroke

1. Make sketches in between the parts

2. Go from one important point to another then fill in between trying to make position in space right.

3. Look back from model a lot to bind pieces together.

4. Feel pose.

5. Always finish a drawing.10
The emphasis on close observation would become an important skill in cataloguing and identifying museum objects, but equally valuable was the emphasis on attention to procedure in the ways in which civil service museum work was conducted. A methodical approach to work, combined with the qualities of independence more commonly associated with the artist’s personality were key features of Circulation ex-art school staff. As the author of the foreword to an exhibition of Slade work at the Walker Galleries (28 April -11 May, 1948) seemed to echo:

A suitable spirit of independence seems to me to characterise the work shown. There is esprit de corps, and something in common due to basic training, but adventure is not repressed, neither is personality stamped upon. It would be difficult to discover in the exhibits anything that could be called a ‘Slade mannerism’. On the other hand, slavish imitation of fashionable modern movements is equally uncommon.’11

Fellow Slade student and winner of the Slade prize for History of Art, Elizabeth Aslin, followed Morris’s appointment in September 1947. Her studies had included design and lithography, her knowledge of the latter leading to the preparation of a substantial Circulation exhibition 150 Years of Lithography (1949). Between 1943-6 Aslin had been employed as a Topographical Draughtswoman in the War Office Map Library after which she had gained an Art Teacher diploma from the Institute of Education specializing in book-illustration, lithography and fabric-printing. Floud reported that Aslin’s qualifications were ‘ideal and in fact…better than those of the two already appointed’, her knowledge reflecting more closely works in the collection.12 Significantly, Aslin’s art and design work were also praised by the referees, again demonstrating that museum work was not a consolation prize for poor artistic achievement. Albert Rutherston, Ruskin Master of Drawing (the Slade had been evacuated to Oxford during the War), commended ‘Miss Aslin [as] most hard working and a student of exceptional talent and ability. As a designer she is outstanding. I have the greatest confidence in Miss Aslin’s capabilities and feel that she has a distinguished career before her’.13 Randolph Schwabe was equally fulsome in praising her work ‘winning prizes in Drawing, Design and Lithography and being twice hors-concours in the last two subjects…She can be strongly recommended on grounds of character and conscientiousness’.14 Schwabe also suggests that Aslin ‘would make a useful recruit to the Teaching Profession,’ which was no doubt as with Morris, another advantage. By May 1948, in supporting Aslin’s application for a permanent post as Research Assistant, Floud singled out her ingenuity, initiative, and the quality of her work, which included having been


responsible for printing, book-illustration, commercial design etc., produced over fifty sets of entirely new material, demonstrated great ingenuity in searching out suitable and interesting specimens of contemporary work, and in visiting and interviewing publishers, commercial artists etc. Most of the recent improvements in the lay-out and presentation of the Department’s examples have been made on her initiative…The quality of her work…shows that she is fully up to the highest standards to be expected of Research Assistants, and that after a few years work in the Museum she should certainly be eligible for promotion as Assistant Keeper.15 [my emphases]
Floud’s support for the achievements of his female staff is significant given the dominance of men in senior posts throughout the Museum at the time. Floud, whose twin sister worked in the Foreign Office, and whose wife was the pioneering sociologist Jean Floud, was therefore possibly particularly attuned to the accomplishments of women in the public sphere.
The third art-school trained member to join the Department was Shirley Bury who had won a scholarship to Reading University, graduating in Fine Art in 1946 and a post-graduate Diploma in Education the following year. Two testimonials attest to her suitability. The painter J.A. Betts, Professor of Fine Art praised

the keenness with which she approached her studies, and the orderly way in which both her practical and written work developed. We found her at all times most assiduous in her pursuit of knowledge. Mrs Bury is an able draughtswoman with a sound understanding of Painting and a keen interest in Design and the History of Art. Her interest in Contemporary Art is ably supported by her lively awareness of the Art of the past.16

As with Aslin’s qualifications, Bury’s interest in and appreciation of design made her an ideal candidate. Valerie Bayford, at the time Lecturer in Embroidery and Dress Design, wrote about Bury as an ‘enthusiastic student with great creative ability’ who had a ‘sound’ sense of draughtsmanship and design’, producing work that was ‘full of life and colour’ with ‘good’ technical ability. Bayford also referred to Bury’s catholic tastes noting that she showed ‘great interest in costume and theatre generally’.17 Both references foreground Bury’s artistic skills with only Betts noting ‘keeness’ and orderliness, attributes found in all the women’s references. It is difficult to assess whether these were gendered qualities associated with a good employee generally, or a museum employee in particular. However, eagerness to learn and an ordered way of working were important traits for the work ahead of sorting out the extensive number of architectural drawings, illuminated manuscript facsimiles, prints, enamels and bookbindings.

Bury, according to Floud, had been ‘deliberately chosen for having academic qualifications in the history of art, as against the more practical qualifications’ of Aslin and Morris, demonstrating an inadvertent slight bias against art school diplomas.18 Nevertheless, in summing up the work Bury had completed, there is no distinction between her achievements and those of Morris or Aslin: a considerable amount of sorting, designing exhibitions and undertaking research. In his assessment of Morris suitability for a permanent post, Floud concluded that, ‘altogether Mrs Morris has proved herself a most capable and valuable worker, and has fully been able to carry out not only all the functions of a Research Assistant but also many functions which are normally allocated to Assistant Keepers.’19 [my emphasis]

Fellow Travellers

Floud’s reference to Morris as a ‘worker’ is curious, but possibly significant since Morris, Bury and at some point in his life, Floud, were all members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Morris had joined the UCL Socialist Club while she was studying at the Slade and it was at a Slade ball that she met her first husband, Max Morris.20 At the time they met, he was already an active member of the Party and Secretary of the Communist Teachers Bureau.21 Party membership, as Barbara pointed out to me during her interview, was not unusual at that time: ‘You were either a Communist or a Fascist’.22 Moreover in the Party, education was seen as an important arena for bringing about equality and fostering talent. In 1944 Old Etonian, Communist President of the NUT G C T Giles, pioneer of the comprehensive school system, argued that, ‘Only by bringing everybody within the educational net can we hope to bring to the top all the ability, talent and genius which we possess and need. Equality of opportunity is not only a social, but an economic necessity’.23

The V&A was the first museum in Britain to dedicate itself to education in design. Set up with government funding in the mid-nineteenth century, the collections were primarily what would now be considered as a teaching collection for artisans and manufacturers. By the mid-twentieth century, when the major material departments had become focused more on connoisseur-scholarship of their collections, the Circulation department was the one department that consciously continued the educational purpose of the V&A’s founders Prince Albert and Henry Cole whose aims were not to create an elitist institution but to provide access to examples of ‘good design’. 24 Although this was to increase Britain’s manufacturing power in the imperial and international markets of the day, and therefore, a capitalist enterprise, it was and remains possible to see the V&A as an engine for the dissemination of learning, the repository of public collections, and as a site for the acquisition of cultural capital in art and design ‘for all’.
The socialist artist and designer William Morris had a close association with the Museum dating from 1865 when his company was commissioned to decorate the West Dining Room. He was also appointed to the Museum’s Committee for Art Referees in 1884, a body that advised on acquisitions, the same year that, with the support of Frederick Engels, he set up the Socialist League. Its manifesto called for the dissolution of the boundaries of class, nationality and sex,

that there shall be no distinctions of rank or dignity amongst us to give opportunities for the selfish ambition of leadership, which has so often injured the cause of the workers. We are working for equality and brotherhood for all the world, and it is only through equality and brotherhood that we can make our work effective.25 [original emphases]

In his oral history interview, former Keeper of Education, Geoffrey Opie (trained at Falmouth School of Art in 1956), commented that Circulation was regarded ‘with both awe and horror by the rest of the Museum’. 26 When he joined the V&A in 1968, Circulation’s reputation that it was full of Communists and socialists was well established. Reflecting on his ‘very individual’ colleagues, most of whom were still art-school trained, Opie described the continuing influence and myth of Peter Floud who had died tragically early in 1960: ‘We all, I think aspired to the character of [Floud] the most charismatic and the most important Keeper of the Circulation Department in the post-war period,’ who was a ‘renowned socialist’ with an ‘anarchic view of how his department should be run’27 compared to the rest of the Museum with its strict hierarchies. Before joining the V&A in 1935, Floud had been at Wadham College, Oxford, during a period of widespread economic depression that together with the rise of fascism led to the development of socialist, even Communist sympathies. In the arts, a parallel can be seen in the formation of the Artists International Association (AIA), set up by the illustrator Clifford Rowe in 1935 with a membership that included the designer Misha Black, the artists Pearl Binder and Edward Ardizzone.

The world economic depression of the early 1930s smashed through the traditional cosy isolationism of the British art world. A large number of alienated intellectuals, normally so solid in their maintenance of the political status quo, became totally dissatisfied with a society which was seemingly falling apart.28

The affinity with socialist ideals found expression in the Circulation’s pioneering scholarship on the late nineteenth century applied arts, a period the rest of the Museum had ignored as being too recent and too ugly, culminating in the groundbreaking Victorian and Edwardian Decorative Art exhibition of 1952. Floud was himself active in researching the work of William Morris and was instrumental in formation of the William Morris Society. In an article entitled ‘William Morris in a New Light’, The Times reported on how the 1839 Design Copyright Act had enabled Floud to date Morris designs to ‘see how his taste developed through the years…[and] to place his work in the wider context of Victorian taste in general-to see “what he was reacting against” as Mr Floud put it.’29 I would suggest that it is not insignificant that Floud’s remark was reported verbatim in pointing to Morris as a radical reformer, an image that took some time to establish, to challenge the more comfortable myth of William Morris the romantic anti-industrial craftsman.30

As well as developing new areas of scholarship, Circulation focused on collecting contemporary work, the area that was of special interest to the art schools to which the Department sent its displays. Here ex-art school staff were able to bring their experience and expertise in selecting work for circulating exhibitions.31 However, it is surprising to find that Barbara Morris was traveling to Poland in 1949 and Hungary in 1950, though this was not, as she pointed out, difficult ‘if you were a Communist’. 32 During her stay in Poland, Morris visited private and state textile and ceramic shops, been in ‘discussion with the Director of the National Museum, Warsaw, concerning a regular exchange of publications with the V&A’, visited the War Museum, the Krakow Royal Museum, the Silesia Museum, as well having ‘obtained information’ on book production which included visits to two state publishing houses.33 In her suitcase, Morris brought back nine children’s books, stating in her report ‘that arrangements [were] made for a regular supply of high standard book covers and jackets.’ 34 Floud had also visited Prague in 1949 and on his return began the process of ordering five Czech textiles for the collection, which due to import restrictions took eight months to arrive in the Museum. [FIG 3]

Morris was ostensibly on holiday with her husband in Hungary when Floud wrote to Director Leigh Ashton requesting permission that she might extend her visit to ‘find out what useful contacts she may make in Budapest, with particular reference to contemporary graphic art, posters, book- illustration, book-jackets…studio pottery and textiles.’ Floud listed the letters of introduction which Morris was able to obtain: to the Secretary of the Arts and Crafts Section of the Society of Hungarian Artists, to the Director of the Budapest School of Applied Arts, to the Curator of the Museum of Industrial Arts, to the Secretary of the Design Section of the Association of the Hungarian Textile Industry, and to the Secretary of the Ceramic Section of the National Fair and Exhibition Centre.35 The response to this visit to an Eastern bloc country can be gleaned from a memo about traveling expenses from Leigh Ashton to the Director of Establishment at the Ministry of Education, who noting that ‘Mrs Morris has not yet returned from her trip behind the Iron Curtain’ was reassured that ‘the Secretary on general grounds, was very much inclined to favour visits of this sort to countries in Eastern Europe’.36 [my emphasis]

Although the name of the Secretary is not given, this was no doubt, the Secretary to the Minister of Education in the Attlee Labour government, George Tomlinson whose secretary, Ann George was a Communist and executive on the Civil Service Clerical Association. Seen as security risk, she was transferred to the V&A in 1951, perhaps not unsurprisingly to the sympathetic milieu of the Circulation department.37 However, it is interesting to note that preceding Tomlinson as Minister was Ellen Wilkinson, a Socialist and founding member of the CPGB in 1920. Sir Stafford Cripps, also a declared Marxist, whose aunt was the social reformer Beatrice Webb, held several senior government appointments in the post-war Attlee government, before which he had acted as ambassador to the Soviet Union (1940-2). Overall in the immediate post-war period, as the historian David Kynaston has documented in his work on Austerity Britain, ‘there was a comfortable almost automatic assumption on the part of Labour politicians and activists, that the conflict would produce a more egalitarian society […] a revolution of outlook, shifting from the values of private enterprise to the values of socialism’.38 The creation of the welfare state, nationalization, the priority given to exports and industry created an atmosphere in which, to quote Kynaston ‘there was a chance of reasonable equality’, and it is unsurprising that socialism flourished in all its manifestations.39

Although there had been a ‘purge’ of civil service Communists working in sensitive government posts in 1949, the issue was raised again by Lord Vansittart in the House of Lords the following year. Vansittart wanted to ‘call attention to the extent of Communist infiltration into the public service and other important branches of public life in this country; and to move to resolve that continuous and resolute precautions are necessary for public security.’40 Areas that the CPGB had ‘infiltrated’ included not only the civil service, but also the BBC and the Church of England. Vansittart was particularly exasperated by the defense that ‘it did not matter if teachers were Communists, provided they were Communists out of school’.41 In his view, it was not possible to separate an ideological, in his view political, commitment and loyalty from one’s life and work; if you were a Communist, your allegiance was to Soviet Russia, not Great Britain. However, the historian Raphael Samuel proposed another perspective on Communist identity. In his memoir The Lost World of British Communism, (1985), he suggested that to be a Communist was ‘to have a complete social identity, one which transcended the limits of class, gender and nationality.’ 42

As a philosophy of life, [Communism] subordinated the self to the service of a higher cause […] armed with the knowledge of the laws of social development, Communists were thus uniquely qualified to act as teachers and guides. In a favourite conceit of the time, they were “conscious agents” of the emancipatory process, “conscious shapers” of history, “conscious protagonists” of the struggle that extends throughout society.43

Samuel’s description matches Circulation’s ideals and purpose helping to explain how its ex-art school, Communist staff were able to reconcile their role as civil servants with their ideological beliefs. One of the key concerns in the late 1940s and early 1950s pivoted on the issue of whether political convictions were a private matter or not for those engaged on government work. While for Vansittart they were a public liability, for the Lord Chancellor, Lord Jowett, the position of the government had to be more nuanced: in ‘trying to deal with this evil’ he stated, ‘we must not fall into the error of adopting methods from totalitarian states…the prevention of free expression [will] not eradicate the menace’.44 There was moreover still considerable sympathy for the former Soviet ally in the war against fascism, and the line between commitment to a philosophical ideal as against political allegiance to a foreign power was a distinction, not a contradiction, to be cultivated, perhaps especially in the enclosed world of a museum. On being removed from her post as secretary to the Minister George Tomlinson, Ann George said as much when she defended her position by stating, ‘My political convictions are my own concern, but I believe they have strengthened my integrity and made me a better servant of the State’.45 Morris echoed this sentiment when she described Floud insistence ‘that we [staff] were there to help and educate the public rather than pursuing our own interests for the sake of it.’ 46

However, a feeling of beleaguered singularity in the Department continued into the following decades. Reflecting on how Circulation was viewed by the rest of the V&A, Jennifer Hawkins Opie (ex-Chelsea School of Art) recollected that, ‘Well, we always did feel embattled, as it were. I don’t think that’s too strong a word. Yes, there was quite definitely a feeling of - them and us’. 47 Jennifer Opie’s parents had been Communists, members of the same Hampstead cell as Shirley Bury and her husband the painter Morley Bury. Art school had sustained Opie’s independent and egalitarian upbringing: ‘We [students] were aware that there were people from different backgrounds but mostly everyone just mucked in. We were all at art school. Everybody wanted to be an art student’.48 [FIG. 4] Opie’s experience, like that of her mentors Morris and Aslin, demonstrates the cohesive power of group membership:

Knowledge of social group membership is an integral part of the awakening of political consciousness, as it is the foundation upon which social contrasts are made […] The concept of the group derives its meaning only when there is more than one group: ‘us’ implies the existence of ‘them’. Identity is the product of difference.49

The ethos of the Department was founded on the socialist values of its charismatic Keeper, a tradition sustained by the continuing employment of ex-art school staff that by 1974 numbered approximately seventeen. They brought not just practical skills and visual intelligence, but an ability to work with a variety of people across the Museum’s hierarchy. Joiners, who were especially important in building the exhibition cases often to their designs, had confidence in Circulation staff because, as Opie explained, ‘We had a great feeling for what they did; they often used to say to us, “Oh it’s alright if it’s you, not that stuffy lot.”’50

Appreciation and understanding of production and manufacturing were equally important when undertaking research on the acquisition of contemporary works. Designers welcomed discussing their designs with former art students. Jennifer Opie describes how designers immediately relaxed on discovering that she had been to art school:

It was enormously useful for all these [designers] when I went to see them, and they’d look at you a little cautiously. First of all they’d want to know if you’d got a secret recorder hidden in your bag. “No, no, no. Say what you like. It’s alright. You’re safe.” And second, “You won’t know anything about this,” they’d say, or, “Where were you trained? What did you do?” And they always supposed that you’d got some obscure degree from a university, and as soon as I was able to say I’d been to art school, they relaxed. And it was very evident and I realized that.’ 51


As with the research undertaken on the late nineteenth century applied arts, Circulation’s interviews with living designers documented their objects’ histories but also mapped the designer’s networks of relationships and training, bringing the discourse and context of the art school back into the culture of the Department if not into the Museum as a whole.

By 1956 with the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the revelation of Stalin’s’ purges, disillusion with Moscow had set in. However, Marxism, like the V&A, had always fostered a long-term view of history that the collapse of certain illusions merely reinforced. As Morris reflected, her view of socialism had been ‘romantic’ fostered by her interest in and research on the work of William Morris.52 Working in the Museum, concentrating on object scholarship could sustain that romantic idealized politics. So, although one can map a genealogy of Communist and art school affinities with how these were contained and nurtured in Circulation, the paradox of a ‘red cell’ of civil servants at the V&A demonstrates how individuals were able to maintain contradictory positions. As an historian of British Communism has observed, party membership demonstrated the complexity of social identity that

cannot be reduced to or subordinated to a single party affiliation however intense. The individual is located not in a self-referential world of her own but in a series of temporal, spatial, social and institutional contexts whose precise inter-relationships distinguish that individual and help explain the dramas and dilemmas of that particular life.53

Despite the conventional rhetoric of politically engaged activism as consistent and unswerving, the Museum provided a space, both literal and conceptual, for a possible resolution of the conflict between ideals and circumstances in the scholarship and dissemination of art and design as engines for social change. The qualities that Morris, Aslin, Bury and others brought as artists trained in the diligent procedures of art practices ensured that their ‘bureaucratic’ virtues made them ideal candidates for the work that ‘urgently’ needed to be done in the post-war period. The ability to work independently ‘with ingenuity’, to assess the quality of objects, the combination of integrity and commitment to diligent labour, ensured that the staff’s contribution to the success of the Department set a standard that continued to flourish until its closure in 1976 (due to government budget cuts). Moreover, perhaps it was no coincidence that the CPGB, like the civil service and the Museum, ‘cultivated the bureaucratic virtues: formalized communication, standardized procedures...conscientious, straightforward and accurate reports… patience and determination in the performance of dull and ordinary work’.54

The standards of work that were set and the atmosphere of collective endeavour ensured the legendary mix of ex-art students and Communism endured, a mix that especially empowered women to challenge the conventions of their gender, their class and geographical location. They deployed their particular skills to ensure that Circulation became an engine of access to art and design, as well as becoming active participants in a strategy of object-based cultural diplomacy to manage the increasingly irreconcilable relations between East and West, America and the Soviet Union, most importantly making the Museum’s cultural capital accessible, enshrined in the V&A mission of ‘art and design for all’. As William Morris himself had declared: ‘I do not want art for a few, anymore than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few’.55



1 I would like to thank Jennifer and Geoffrey Opie, Jane Powell at the Marx Memorial Library, Darren Treadwell at The People’s History Museum archive, Lou Taylor, Donald Smith, Gustavo Grandal Otero, Christopher Marsden and the V&A Archive staff.

2‘Staffing of Circulation Department’, 3 June 1947, Barbara Morris PER 8/38/12.

3 Elizabeth Aslin (1923–89) was the author of: Nineteenth Century English Furniture, (London: Faber), 1962; The Aesthetic Movement: Prelude to Art Nouveau, (London: Elek, 1969); The Furniture Designs of E W Godwin (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, HMSO, 1970); French Exhibition Pieces, 1844-78(London: Victoria & Albert Museum, HMSO, 1973). In 1964 Aslin became Assistant Keeper of the Bethnal Green Museum, and became the first female Assistant Director (Works) in 1968.

Shirley Bury (1925-99) published articles on silver and jewellery of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries culminating in Jewellery 1789-1910: the International Era, 2 vols. (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club, 1991). In 1962 Bury became an Assistant Keeper in the National Art Library, moving to the Department of Metalwork in 1968, where she became Deputy Keeper in 1972 and Keeper in 1982.

Barbara Morris (1918-2009) Victorian Embroider (London: H. Jenkins, c.1962); Victorian Table Glass and Ornaments, (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1978); Inspiration for Design: the Influence of the Victoria & Albert Museum, (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1986); Liberty Design, 1874-1914, (London: Pyramid, 1989). Morris became Assistant Keeper in the Circulation department in 1960, and Deputy Keeper in Ceramics & Glass in 1976.

A complete list of all their publications is available on the National Art Library catalogue.


4The Circulation Department: Its History and Scope. (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, n.d. [c.1949?]), pp.2-3. Also Joanna. Weddell, ‘Room 38A and beyond: post-war British design and the Circulation Department’, V&A Online Journal, 4, (Summer, 2012). http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/research-journal/issue-no.-4-summer-2012/room-38a-and-beyond-post-war-british-design-and-the-circulation-departmentAccessed 8 April 2013.

5Elizabeth Mary Aslin PER 8/17/14 Memo dated 24 July, 1947.

6 Barbara Morris interviewed by Linda Sandino, (26 January 2009) Track 02, V&A Archive.

7Morris PER 8/38/12. Reference dated 20 June, 1947; Thomson reference dated 19 June, 1947. Memo of call from Schwabe, who died that September, which may account for the call rather than a written reference.

8 Morris PER 8/38/12. Minute Sheet, ‘Staffing of Circulation Department’, 3 June, 1947. The calibre of applicants was high. Floud’s note also mentions Miss Felicia Wakeford (b.1916) had won a scholarship to Chelsea School of Art, a Board of Education Painting and Drawing Diploma, a special prize for life painting. She had taught art in at both elementary and adult education, organized exhibitions, lectured and organized art activities in Belgium and the British zone in Germany. Currently, there is no further information about her in the V&A Archive.

9 Morris PER 8/38/12 (30 November 1948).

10Philip Brown (b.1928) quoted in Gill Clarke, Randolph Schwabe, (Bristol: Sansom & Co, 2012) p. 109.


11 Quoted in Clarke, 2012, p. 111.

12Aslin PER 8/17/14 Memo (24 July 1947).

13 Ibid (30 January 1947)

14 Ibid (5 February 1947).

15 Ibid. Report (27 May 1948)..

16Shirley Bury PER 6/59/2 (17 April, 1948). Bury was already in post on 17 February 1948.

17 Bury PER 6/59/2 (3 January 1948).

18 Ibid. Memo (7 June 1948).

19 Morris PER 8/38/12. Memo (27 May, 1948).

20 Max Morris went on to become President of the National Union of Teachers in 1966. Morris’s second husband was Dave Bowman also a member of the CPGB who became leader of the National Union of Railwaymen in 1974-77.

21Steve Parsons, ‘British Communist Party School Teachers in the 1940s and 1950s’, Science and Society, Communism in Britain and the British Empire, 61:1, (Spring 1997), pp.46-67.

22Morris, Track 02.

23From The New School Tie [1946] quoted in Parsons, 1997, p.53.

24For histories of the V&A see Anthony Burton, Vision and Accident: the Story of the Victoria & Albert Museum, (London: V&A Publications, 1999); Julius Bryant (Ed.), Art and Design for All, (London: V&A Publications, 2011). For an account of its early education mission, see Rafael Cardoso Denis, ‘Teaching by Example: Education and the Formation of South Kensington’s Museums’, in V&A: a Grand Design, http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1159_grand_design/essay-teaching-by-example_new.html Accessed 15 April, 2013.


25William Morris, ‘The Manifesto of the Socialist League’ [1885] http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1885/manifst1.htm Accessed 26 April 2013

26Geoffrey Opie interviewed by Anthony Burton, Track 04, 1 April, 2011.

27 Ibid.

28Tony Rickaby, ‘The Artists International Association, The Artists’ International’, Block 1, (1979), pp. 5–14.

29 ‘William Morris in New Light’ The Times (4 October 1956), p.12.

30See Martin J Wiener, ‘The Myth of William Morris’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 8:1, (Spring 1976), pp.67-82.

31 For a list of Circulation exhibitions and publications see The Victoria & Albert Museum: a Bibliography and Exhibition Chronology, 1852-1996, compiled by Elizabeth James (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers in association with the Victoria & Albert Museum, 1998).

32B. Morris Track 03.

33Cztelnik, Widza but the name of the second has been partly obliterated by a punch hole: ‘Ks…zka’. The report is mentioned in a memo from Morris to Floud and Staff Section dated 28 August, 1949, in Morris PER 8/38/12. The file also contains Morris’s ‘Report on Visit to Polish Museums August, 1949’.

34Ibid.

35PER 8/38/12 Minute sheet (5 April 1950).


36Ibid, memo dated (18 May 1950).

37 See ‘Cabinet Minister’s Secretary Removed’, The Daily Worker, (24 April 1947); Noreen Branson also refers to George’s role in The History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-1951 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1997), chapter ‘The Civil Service Purge’, pp. 170-172.

38David Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 1945-1951, (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), p. 37.

39Ibid. p.145.

40 ‘Communists in the public service’, HL Deb 29 March 1950 vol. 166 cc607-61

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1950/mar/29/communists-in-the-public-service. Accessed 23 April 2013, paragraph 607. See also The Civil Service Purge issued by The Civil Service Political Freedom Committee [pamphlet] c.1947; and E. Bontecou, ‘The English Policy as to Communists and Fascists in the Civil Service’, Columbia Law Review, 51:5, Security and Civil Liberties, (May, 1951), pp. 564-586.

41Ibid. paragraph 614.

42Raphael Samuel, ‘The Lost World of British Communism’, The New Left Review, 154, (1985) p. 11.

43 Ibid.

44Parliamentary Report, (The Times 30 March 1950)


45 Daily Worker, (24 April 1948) front page.

46 Morris, Track 03.

47Jennifer Hawkins Opie interviewed by Linda Sandino, Track 04, (27 February 2012).

48 Ibid. Track 02.

49Molly Andrews, Lifetimes of Commitment, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991),

p. 29.


50J. Opie Track 04.

51Ibid. Track 05, interview (19 March 2012).

52Morris, Track 03.

53 Kevin Morgan, ‘Parts of People and Communist Lives’, in J. McIlroy, K. Morgan, A. Campbell (Eds.) Party People, Communist Lives: Explorations in Biography. (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2001) p. 15.

54 Raphael Samuel, ’Staying Power: The Lost World of British Communism Part Two, New Left Review, 156 (1986) p. 83. See also Linda Sandino ‘A Curatocracy: Who and What is a V&A Curator’, K. Hill (Ed.) Museums and Biographies: Stories, Objects, Identities, (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2012). Floud’s father, Sir Francis Floud KCB, informed Sir Eric Maclagan, Director of the V&A, that his was ‘not at all afraid of drudgery and to have rather a passion for the compiling of lists and records.’ (Floud PER8/104/18 Memo 26 June, 1934).

55 William Morris, ‘Hopes and Fears for Art: the Lesser Arts’ (1877). http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1882/hopes/chapters/chapter1.htm

Accessed May 2013.










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