Obituary – Seonaid Robertson (1912-2008)

The Guardian – Monday, 18th February, 2008

Seonaid Robertson


Education lecturer who dedicated her life to the creative arts

As a senior lecturer in art education in Yorkshire and in London, Seonaid Robertson, who has died aged 96, influenced hundreds of trainee teachers from the late 1940s until her retirement in the early 1970s. Teaching crafts, she told them, was crucial to the development of the imagination and the individual creativity of children.

Through her seminal works for postwar educators, Creative Crafts in Education (1952) and Rosegarden and Labyrinth (1963), she reached many more teachers worldwide. The latter book explored her insights into the symbols and archetypes in the work of children when creating art – especially pottery – and links between children’s art and traditional ritualistic art.

Today the importance of the creative artistic experience in developing the whole child is accepted. Not so when Seonaid became a teacher just before and during the war, in Suffolk and Keighley, Yorkshire. That was a time when persuasion was needed to place art and craft on the curriculum, when drawing was seen simply as a skill to be developed and “art” the province of a few. Following her mentor, Herbert Read, she believed that through art education the child’s imagination can be fostered and the creativity within all children unleashed.

Seonaid was born in Perth, the daughter of a market auctioneer, and educated at the co-educational Perth academy. Her family was of farming stock and her Scottish identity very strong. As a 10-year-old she keenly felt her mother’s death but spent happy holidays with her cousins on her aunt’s farm, which deeply influenced her. She was profoundly sensitive to the earth, and mountains and all that grew there. Fascinated by the use of plants in dyes she published Dyes from Natural Plants (1973). Another strong childhood influence was prehistory – standing stones and stone circles – and, later, remains of Pictish and Celtic civilisations.

After a year at Edinburgh University studying literature and history, she specialised for three years in pottery and fabrics at Edinburgh College of Art. After training at Moray House College of Education, she taught in primary schools in Suffolk and Keighley.

She spent 1944 reading psychology at London University consolidating her ideas and beginning Creative Crafts in Education. While writing it, Seonaid worked as an art adviser for the West Riding of Yorkshire, an education authority headed by the farsighted Alex Clegg. She then became a founder member and art education senior lecturer at Bretton Hall College, west Yorkshire (1949-55). It was one of the happiest, most fulfilling periods of her life – as she passed on her ideas in a college dedicated to the arts, drama and music – while living in a beautiful environment. She was passionate about nature’s importance in developing young lives. From 1955 to 1957 she was a senior fellow at Leeds University which enabled her to write Rosegarden and Labyrinth.

Her final job was as lecturer in education at London University’s Goldsmiths College from the late 1950s to 1971. Seonaid was a founder member of the International Society for Education Through Art and also of the World Craft Council, and she lectured in many countries. One of her most memorable times was the five months she spent in Brazil in the 1950s, at the invitation of its arts ministry.

Post-retirement, she continued to work abroad, particularly in the US, and was much appreciated, using natural resources for pottery, building kilns and using natural dyes, studying and learning from traditional Native American arts. She spent about six months of every year in the US, making some of her closest friends, living in Florida through the winter and in Selsey, West Sussex, in the summer. One of her greatest delights was living near the sea, swimming and watching its rhythms.

Always a step ahead, she stressed the importance of food untainted by additives and chemical fertilisers and of the potential benefits of herbal medicine. For her the most important thing was to keep in touch with the natural world, its beauty and spirituality.

Seonaid never married and had no children, but children were at the heart of her life. At ease with them, she always took them seriously. She sponsored more than a dozen children from many different countries and the contact she had with them gave her immense happiness and satisfaction. Her generosity to many other people was enormous, and largely unknown, except to those whom she helped.

  • Seonaid Robertson, educationist and writer, born January 27 1912; died January 18 2008