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Dorothy Bishop, Artist & Teacher

March 8, 2023
by the gentle author





Looking towards the City of London from Morpeth School, 1961

This painting shows the view from the art room at the top of the school in Bethnal Green where Dorothy Bishop taught for twenty years. It was a formative experience that Dorothy treasured and this painting – which her friend Ruth Richardson kindly brought to my attention –  is one of only a few pictures of hers that are known to exist. Although she painted throughout her life, she did not consider herself a professional artist.

Born in Brockley, Dorothy lived with her parents, her elder sister and younger brother for most of her life. After training as an Art teacher, she taught at a school in the north west of England for the duration of the war, returning south to live in Harefield, Uxbridge with her parents afterwards. In 1947, Dorothy took a job teaching evening classes Stewart Headlam Recreational Evening Institute in Morpeth St, an employment which was to occupy her until 1968. Recording her memory of these years, Dorothy wrote a diary of her impressions of the people and the place from which we include these excerpts.

“I was there for twenty-one years and it was one of the best things in my life. Now I am old and I must lead a quiet life, I would give much to be back at Stewart Headlam School. I really loved the cockney boys and girls, especially the wit and vitality of the boys. The whole atmosphere was full of life and rough kindness. I loved the wildness of the boys, once it had snowed and they made for me with snowballs and I saw their dark eyes dancing with joy, shining in the lamplight. They did enjoy things. The layabout boys tended to come to Art as in football training you had to do something, whereas in Art you could just sit and exercise your wit on the teacher and thus show off to your friends. The girls then were almost a different tribe and provided me often with members of the class who would work and were also friendly. They always supported me in any trouble with the boys and, on the whole, sex solidarity was more powerful than class solidarity.”

“The class was from 7:30pm to 9:30pm with a quarter of an hour’s break to go to the canteen for a cup of tea. The second half of the class was the most difficult as the boys would become restless, even to throw pencils. Sometimes I was utterly exhausted at the end and thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ but then I thought, ‘Why should they drive me out?’ also I really loved them and there were some gentle quiet boys and girls who would talk to me. The next week they would be quite different and ask, ‘Did we upset you, Miss? We was only having a bit of a giggle.’”

“I was not approved of by the L.C.C. inspectors. Once they found my class copying Mickey Mouse and painting him in bright colours. I told them I could not change the taste of Bethnal Green for such things, but did not add – as I thought – that it would be impertinent to try to do so. In their report they said I was ‘defeatist’. I got a letter which said, ‘While your qualifications remain at their present level you are not suitable for employment by the L.C.C.” I was devastated. I was not terrific but I had had a full art training. As to drawing Mickey Mouse, the Pop Artists were doing this a few years later.”

Dorothy Bishop (1913-2005)

Painting copyright © Estate of Dorothy Bishop

(With thanks to Esther North, Dorothy’s niece)

5 Responses leave one →
  1. March 8, 2023

    I identify very strongly with this post! Thank you Dorothy and thank you GA. I trained as a teacher at the University of London’s prestigious Institute of Education. After qualifying from those lofty towers, I worked in Dagenham. Wondering why I was doing it was a thought that crossed my mind daily! The children were tough in every sense of the word. I was teaching Biology and Chemistry so learned to make lessons as interesting for them as I could, but it was a challenge. Some of the children came from very poor families and neglect and hunger something we dealt with very often. Balancing chemical equations wasn’t very high in their priorities or interests.
    We organised trips for the children to various places including the West End. It is these I remember the best. I have always loved the theatre but to take a group of children was a real experience. We clubbed in to buy tickets for any children who wouldn’t be able to afford it. We never made a big thing of it, if they wanted to go, we were happy to pay for them. To see their faces come alive with the magic of the theatre was so wonderful and made me stop questioning why I was teaching. This is why I was doing it. There were always ice creams during the interval, a programme for whoever wanted one. It was an expensive night for us but we never thought about that. We always travelled by coach I remember. The children enjoyed the trips so much. Noisy on the way there, quiet coming back. As soon as one was over, we would start planning the next. Sadly now, to organise a trip is more complex with risk assessments and detailed costing plans. Teachers are forbidden to buy tickets or ice cream for specific pupils as this is viewed as favouritism and therefore suspicious.
    The final member of my peer group of newbie teachers retired a couple of years ago, just before the pandemic having taught in the same school for over 30 years. It’s only when you stop and look back, you realise how many years have passed.

  2. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 8, 2023

    I love the painting above which shows real talent. How short sighted, and ignorant, that the L.C.C did not appreciate her skills. Sounds like her pupils in class did though, even if the boys took a while to show it.

  3. March 8, 2023

    Great! I would have loved to have a teacher like Dorothy Bishop back then — open, tolerant, full of wit and with a sense for the arts!

    Love & Peace

  4. Richard Smith permalink
    March 8, 2023

    I enjoyed reading about Dorothy. I think her kindness shines through her words. Bless her.

  5. Rupert Neil Bumfrey permalink
    March 8, 2023

    Sadly the closed minds continue to this day.

    Meanwhile, the unsung heroine remains with us, labouring away uncomplainingly, not looking to change the world, merely contributing to the society around her.

    Thank you Dorothy, and you #TGA for bringing her forward.

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