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Irene Tasker: Review by Anne Battye.

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Alexander Technique
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In 1967 Irene Tasker gave the Alexander Memorial lecture to the members of STAT, outlining the many “Connecting Links” in her life that led to her long career as an Alexander Teacher. Regina Stratil follows and broadens the scope of these links, describing Irene’s early life, her schooling and the many influences that led her to meet and work with F. M. Alexander.

Irene Tasker was born in 1887 and came from a stable, reasonably well-off family in the Midlands. Her father was a Methodist pastor and, unusually for those days, ensured his daughter received a proper education. She attended high school in Birmingham and in 1907 enrolled at Girton College in Cambridge to read Classics – one of the first women to do so. When she left Cambridge three years later, wanting to earn her living as soon as possible, a friend suggested she tutor the children of Lady Margesson. Lady Margesson had been a Suffragette and was a leading light in what was called the “New Education” – placing the child at the centre of educational activity, respecting the child’s interests and encouraging learning through activity and experience. Soon a small group of children of all ages arrived to join the ‘home school’ and Irene spent two happy years with the Margesson family. After this she was encouraged to travel to Rome to study with Dr. Maria Montessori. It is worth remembering that in the early 20th century there was no organised State Education, so that many children were tutored at home using various methods (the P.N.E.U. system devised by Charlotte M Mason was one of which I have direct experience, and was used by Irene’s brother and sister-in-law to home-school their children while in India).

In Rome, Irene met Alexander’s assistant Ethel Webb. Miss Webb introduced Irene to the work of F. M. Alexander. Later Irene helped her to transcribe and prepare for publication some of Alexander’s books, the 1918 edition of Man's Supreme Inheritance, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual and The Use of the Self. An American, Miss Margaret Naumburg, was also studying with Dr. Montessori at that time and became interested in Alexander’s work. Irene and Miss  Naumburg went to London to take lessons with Alexander, reasoning that since both systems concentrated on Means rather than Ends, Alexander’s ideas complemented those of Dr. Montessori extremely well. Miss  Naumburg was a personal friend of the philosopher John Dewey and considered Alexander’s work of such importance that she insisted the two men should meet, so made arrangements for Alexander to set up a practice in New York.

On her return from Rome Miss Tasker began to teach in the UK according to Montessori principles. When the premises of her training group in Darlington was requisitioned by the Army in 1916, Miss  Naumburg invited Irene to come to New York to work in her school using Montessori principles. An extra inducement was that whilst in New York she could further her studies with F. M. Alexander and attend lectures at Columbia University with John Dewey.

In New York Alexander invited Irene to assist him, giving “application work” to his pupils after they had had their lesson with FM. She remained in the States after Alexander returned to London, travelling with John Dewey and his family to California where she continued to teach “application work” and reinforce the Alexander principles. She spent the next four years travelling between London and the United States working for Alexander.

In 1921 she went to India and spent four months with her brother Theodore in Bangalore, where he was working in the Indian Civil Service. He asked if Alexander lessons might help his son, who was in poor health, as were so many children being brought up in India at that time. Later the little boy Sandy was sent home to London and, as his guardian, Irene encouraged him to have daily lessons from FM while she tutored him to maintain his school work. A few more children of mixed ages and gender joined Sandy in these lessons and this group became the Little School, being taught according to the principles of Montessori and Alexander by Irene and Ethel Webb. With her degree in Classics and having worked for FM as his assistant for many years, Irene Tasker was well equipped to do this.

The Little School opened in Ashley Place in 1924. By 1931 FM realised that having the School there meant that he was able to start a Training Course for Teachers of his Technique. The School could provide his students with experience of working with pupils. Irene took part in the training as much as she could be spared from tutoring the children, mainly doing “application work” but also learning to use her hands as a teacher, observing FM and studying with the first intake of trainees.

By 1934 the Little School had outgrown the premises in Ashley place, a promise of new accommodation in South Kensington fell through and Alexander decided to move the school to Penhill, his country establishment in Kent where the pupils would have to board. Irene was neither consulted about this decision nor invited to continue to run the School. In the new Prospectus for the School Alexander omitted to mention Irene at all, neither her previous endeavours nor the years of devotion she had given to it. Irene felt this rather cavalier dismissal of her efforts to be deeply derogatory and resigned.

Alexander suggested that Irene visit South Africa to give lessons to Mr. Jensen, a farmer in the Orange Free State who had read FM’s books and was very anxious to experience the work. Irene was understandably nervous, as she would now be required to introduce the Technique from the beginning. Up until then, she had given “application work” and “lying down turns” to pupils who had begun lessons with Alexander himself. FM reassured her and so she left for South Africa. On the way she took a short holiday in the USA where she renewed her friendship with John Dewey and arrived in South Africa early in 1935.

Ms Stratil’s biography of Irene Tasker chronicles her work and life in South Africa and describes how she introduced the Technique. Irene had always separated “Alexander lessons” from the way the principles could be applied to everyday occupations. This distinction is manifest throughout the book and is central to understanding Irene’s teaching. She learned both aspects of the work through her close association with Alexander, watching him give the primary lesson. Then Irene would take over, doing “inhibitory work while lying down” and “application work” as in her classes with children.

Those early years in South Africa produced a remarkable effect on all those she taught, many of them influential scientists like Raymond Dart. She spent the next years teaching the Technique while also giving talks and demonstrations, in particular, one to the Transvaal Teachers’ Association. About 80 teachers attended her talk and wanted her to demonstrate, so she invited them to come to her house over the next eight weeks, in groups of ten, to show them how she worked. This led to a number of highly qualified teachers taking lessons from her. In fact, her very success as an Alexander teacher almost led to the Technique’s demise in South Africa, for it was perceived to be a threat to the recently established Physical Education movement, exemplified by Dr. Ernest Jokl.

Dr. Jokl was trying to introduce orthodox physical training into the South African education system and found the Alexander Technique incomprehensible. Interestingly, Irene refused to give him lessons as she thought he should first study Alexander’s books – which he said he found unreadable. Jokl then wrote a vicious and libellous article in Manpower about the work of Alexander and, by inference, Irene. When Alexander and his friends read this article they found it highly defamatory, both factually and personally, so FM felt he must sue Dr Jokl for libel. Irene returned to London at the end of 1944 (with difficulty as it was wartime) anxious to renew her contact with FM and take more refresher lessons.

She returned to South Africa in 1946, continuing to teach until she was called as a witness in the libel case, heard in Johannesburg, against Jokl in 1948. After the hearing was over and Alexander and his work vindicated, Irene left South Africa and came back to England in 1949.

For the next eighteen years she continued to live and teach in Cheltenham, London, Cambridge, Hove and Milton Keynes until her death in 1977, living mostly with friends or relations, never for very long. She became interested in the science of Homeopathy and consulted Dr. Margery Blackie, physician to the Royal family, who sent many of her patients for Alexander lessons. She also helped to promote the work of the newly formed Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, becoming its Trustee together with the eye surgeon Mr. A. Rugg-Gunn.

In itself, the story of her life is fascinating, but what makes this biography of her so important is the wealth of source material included as notes, articles, letters and appendices that takes up the second half of this book. Throughout the text are a plethora of notes and footnotes requiring us to turn to the back of this large volume, which could have been irritating if they had not been so interesting.

Of great interest is the Memorandum written to Alexander from several of Irene’s students in Johannesburg who wished her to stay on in South Africa and start a Training course. Irene was certainly aware that some of the people she had taught were anxious that the work she had started in South Africa should continue. The writers of the Memorandum suggested that perhaps a recently qualified teacher could be found to come to South Africa to run a Training Course for teachers of the Technique, adding that they were not convinced that “the Technique can be taught only by persons who have served a long and arduous formal apprenticeship over several years.” And “persons who realise their own misuse without having fully overcome it but have made some progress towards correcting this misuse, may be able to do much towards helping others to improve their use”. In other words, it was unimportant that nobody at that time had either the standing or experience of Irene, for the new teachers would doubtless come to improve their skills by practising the Technique “according to principle”.

Alexander’s reply to the Memorandum was typical – he considered that Miss Tasker was the only one of his teachers who was adequately trained for the purpose and she was returning to England. He added that the writers of the Memorandum obviously had not understood the principle of his work if they thought that a supply of inadequately trained teachers to “promote the Technique in South Africa” would be in any way desirable. He considered that to suggest such a course showed a degree of misunderstanding of his work that was truly shocking! Both the Memorandum and FM’s reply to it should be required reading for anyone proposing to open a training course for Alexander Teachers.

Ms Stratil paints a beguiling picture of an intelligent, high-principled, adventurous lady who travelled widely, made numerous friends and, though she never married, loved the children she taught and retained excellent relations with her friends and students. All her life she loved sport, theatre, music and travel, was interested in everyone she met and incorporated all these elements in her work with children. Together with Ethel Webb, her work on FM’s books was instrumental in preparing them for publication.

However, it is less easy to form a picture of Irene as a person. Of her teaching there is much evidence but there is less of her own personal interests and opinions. An early description of her as “a shy girl who hides behind the piano” indicates that there is much that she wished to keep hidden and most of what is written of her relationships with her fellow class mates, friends and teachers is placed in the Appendices at the back of the book. This is where we find an indication of the high regard in which she was held. Irene’s own Notes from the Training courses are also put in here, with observations on some of her fellow students and how they went about working on each other, together with comments about her own work with FM. There are biographies of many of the people mentioned in the text, together with letters of appreciation and recommendation, articles on the state of the Technique after the War and her involvement in resurrecting the society of teachers.

The Alexander Technique continues to be the sanest and most effective means of helping us to address the chaos that surrounds us. Thanks to Regina Stratil’s meticulous research, it is a joy to have such a readable and accurate account of Irene Tasker, one of the earliest and longest-lived of Alexander practitioners. As Joyce Roberts wrote for Irene’s 80th birthday, “In the field of supervised application of the principles taught to ordinary living, she is unique”.

First published in STATNews vol. 11, issue 2, (STAT, May 2021), pp. 25-27.
Anne Battye. Reproduced with permission.
This edition © Mouritz 2021. All rights reserved.