Essay: What Happened to Art Education?

Introduction

Since its beginning, and until very recently, Fine Art education has been evolutionary. Received wisdom that the modus operandi of teaching art were static until being gradually upset in the decades after 1945 is an exaggeration. The objective to produce basic competence in practical skills in painting and sculpture was indeed a constant ambition, but the methods by which this was to be achieved were subject to regular twists and turns of emphasis and direction. Even in post-war years disputes were endemic concerning best practice among reformers before the current impasse of teaching nothing of practical worth had been reached. In contrast to this former development, art teaching today has never been more resistant to revision or extension, more blind either to remedial action or inflexion. Some would say that, like the Contemporary Art establishment in general, by being so pleased with itself art education has likewise placed itself beyond criticism.

The main difference between art teaching any time from the Renaissance up src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> to the 1960s and today is that previously they taught the ‘skills’ of observation and craft whilst leaving the ‘art’ to abstract imponderables like ‘talent’ and ‘originality’. Nowadays the focus is exclusively on developing exclusively the ‘art’ ingredient. This is a little like playing tennis without lines, racket, net or rules, or even an umpire. It used to be accepted that talent was unequally distributed, the unavoidable result being that some artists are demonstrably, visibly, more gifted than others. We took this for granted. Now, courtesy of influential godfathers like Joseph Beuys, there is a generally held liberal belief that everyone has innate creativity which only needs unlocking.

What can’t be disputed is that over the last sixty years fine art education has undergone a revolutionary upheaval altering it beyond any recognition from those methods previously adopted. An art college is not a place you now attend to learn techniques, and neither is it a place whose staff are capable of showing you by encouragement or example how to acquire them.

It wasn’t always like this.

 

The Beginnings of Art Education

The history of art teaching in Europe can be summarised without serious misrepresentation. It was never complicated, the same fundamental principles applying for at least three millennia. All /* xin-1 */ painting and sculpture was figurative, although some was at different periods, and in certain places, decorative or heavily stylised and sometimes even iconoclastic and reduced to pattern. Representation demanded more or less accurate depiction of figures in a convincing space, as though the viewer were looking at the world through a window. Any number of styles and variations might emerge from such a basic foundation of mastered skills. It is worth remembering that a similar methodology which produced artists as stylistically distinct as Phidias and Donatello, Botticelli and Rembrandt, also gave us Eric Gill, Picasso, Mondrian, Charles Sargeant Jagger and Jackson Pollock.

At no time since the birth of classical civilisations was a rigorous technical art training ever an impediment to individualism and experiment. Those who play down the //--> teaching of drawing as some sort of mechanical trick easily acquired (like riding a bicycle – one minute you’re wobbling and falling off and the next you can ride confidently with no hands), conveniently forget that no two draughtsman’s works are ever identical: would anyone confuse a drawing by Ingres with one by Degas? Or a Hockney with a Kitaj?

 

We know little of art teaching methods in the classical world, though we can surmise with probable accuracy how the virtuosity of an Apelles or a Praxiteles came about. What alternative can there have been to a system of apprenticeship? It is unlikely that the scores of accomplished, unnamed sculptors working on the Acropolis in, say, 438BC, a year when artistic activity on the evolving Parthenon was at its height, could have been trained in any other way. We have no idea where Phidias and his extensive team members were trained, or even whence they came, though we know them to have originated from across the entire Mediterranean area. It is reasonable, however, to speculate that each had learned his trade as an apprentice in the workshop of an older accredited expert. The same would have been true for painters, mosaicists, ceramicists and blacksmiths. Masters imparted what they knew to pupils and in return received assistance with the mundane chores of a busy working studio.

The practice of apprenticeship in an established atelier is unlikely to have emerged fully formed in the early Renaissance where we learn of its workings from detailed contemporary accounts. The known existence of classical sculpture workshops almost constituting factories – a busy one of these has been excavated at Aphrodisias in Anatolia, and another in Ostia – testify to the probability that apprenticeship was the preferred method by which skills were passed down.

That artists of the ancient world also drew throughout their careers in order to increase verisimilitude is supported by the example of Greek sculptor Pasiteles, who inaugurated a sculpture school in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar. Whilst sketching wild animals on the Tiber quayside, where exotic beasts were being unloaded for transport to spectacles, he was chased and narrowly avoiding a mauling by an escaped panther. And if you are astonished, as so many have been, by the realism of the British Museum’s 7th century BC Babylonian hunting reliefs, it is because the artists had undoubtedly practiced drawing lions and other animals from life – in much the same way that 2,500 years later Delacroix, in pursuit of heightened realism, drew lions over decades in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. In the absence of photography and printed books such expressive heights could not have been accomplished, as were achieved by Babylonians and Delacroix alike, with such intensely observed accuracy in any other way.

Only with the early Renaissance, and the survival of first-hand written sources, do we understand the detail of how apprenticeship functioned in a major artist’s workshop. Here is Cennino Cennini’s

Process Overview:

description in Il Libro dell’Arte, written around 1430, of what was in store for the art student, who, he suggested, should begin learning as early in infancy as possible:

“The basis of the profession, the very beginning of all these manual operations, is drawing and painting. These two sections call for a knowledge of the following: how to work up or grind, how to apply size, to put on cloth, to gesso, to scrape the gessos and smooth them down, to model with gesso, to lay bole, to gild, to burnish; to temper, to lay in; to pounce, to scrape through, to stamp or punch; to mark out, to paint, to embellish, and to varnish, on panel or ancona (veneered wood). To work on a wall you have to wet down, to plaster, to true up, to smooth off, to draw, to paint in fresco. To carry to completion in secco: to temper, to embellish, to finish on the wall.”

Cennini is insistent concerning the importance of drawing:

 

“When you have practiced drawing for a while… take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best works that you can find done by the hand of great masters… Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is, it will be well worth while, and it will do you a world of good.”

 

Training in the Renaissance ended with accreditation, most often by one of the many Guilds of St. Luke, which were established across Europe to validate an individual’s right to trade as a painter, engraver or sculptor. Guilds served as a form of collective quality control intended to prevent cowboys from bringing noble professions into disrepute. Membership might be awarded following submission of an appropriate ‘presentation piece’ judged by one’s seniors.

The immediately obvious difference between the Renaissance and today is that art training began noticeably earlier. According to Vasari, Giotto is described as “a boy” when he entered Cimabue’s studio and Michelangelo was fourteen when deposited with Ghirlandaio to learn painting. Van Dyck was ten when he began in van Balen’s workshop and was an independent master by seventeen. In an age of limited life expectancy maturity came early. Dead at 27, Masaccio had already redirected the course of western painting.

The learning process was always a long one; far longer than a ‘degree’ of three years. Cennini himself says he was apprenticed to painter Agnolo di Taddeo for twelve years. Short cuts were impossible and interns endured what would doubtless today be denounced as a form of child slave labour. It was, however, a system which produced geniuses of a level no longer approached in a world where the ultimate yardsticks of achievement and repute are established by Carl André, Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin. But it was also a process which could lead to disputes, especially when a junior audaciously surpassed the master in ability. Mantegna, for example, was indentured to Paduan painter Francesco Squarcione at the age of eleven, one of 137 pupils taken on by the studio in the early 1440s. Squarcione, an artist of moderate accomplishments, is among the first examples of a painter who travelled widely buying classical sculptures from which his charges were encouraged to draw and to learn. Mantegna left his studio at seventeen subsequently claiming that Squarcione, who opened legal proceedings against his former favourite, had unfairly profited from his superior talent. While still a teenager Michelangelo, already a big head, is said to have mockingly corrected defects in drawings by his master Ghirlandaio. Michelangelo’s famous broken nose was caused when he made similarly disobliging remarks about the drawings of Pietro Torrigiano in the Brancacci Chapel; Torrigiano promptly decked him. In an annotation on one of his drawings, Michelangelo exhorted to himself what he considered important: “Draw and don’t waste time.”

Many individual artists opened informal academies, like Squarcione’s, and took on pupils for a fee, but the first independent art school appears to have been the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno which opened in Florence in 1563, although its principal purpose was not until much later as a school. This was followed by the Academy of St Luke in Rome in 1577, which still exists, and which was predominantly a teaching institution. The average age of pupils was ten to fifteen, though some enrolled as early as six. The Rome Academy had an agreement with the nearby Capitoline Museum (established in 1471) which allowed its students to use the museum for the purpose of drawing from its extensive and superb collection of antique sculpture. Academies followed in Paris in 1648, which became the generally accepted matrix for other capital city academies, and in London in 1768. Each of the Academies evolved its own bespoke curriculum.

Teaching was based largely on supervised drawing either from the antique or from fellow students acting as ‘live’ models – they could be clothed or naked – who often adopted poses from famous classical sculptures. That drawing from life had been commonplace for centuries before this is obvious from the existence of bestiaries and herbals, manuscripts often featuring exquisitely detailed and accurate accounts of both animate and inanimate subjects.

 

Another method of teaching was illustrated by Rembrandt in his Amsterdam workshop. The Dutch painter encouraged his many pupils and assistants to copy meticulously his own drawings. The result was a sort of cloning of the master whereby drawings by the best pupils are so indistinguishable from those of Rembrandt himself as to have been attributed over the years backwards and forwards between master and epigone. Such teaching by personal example would continue to have its drawbacks well into the 20th century. It was a common complaint in British art schools (and particularly of the Slade) that certain teachers could only produce lesser versions of themselves. Until fairly recently at degree shows it was often possible to identify the tutor from the student’s pictures because what had been taught was all that the teacher knew; namely, how they did it themselves.

Imitation of nature was considered the most important requirement of art, and antique sculpture was understood to feature the best parts of nature perfected together in one place. If classical art represented the epitome of beauty it made sense to copy the finest examples in the hope that something of the original’s genius would rub off. Thus, copying classical works established itself as the tap root of all art education. Fluency and confidence would inevitably develop from intense observation and repeated interrogation of the greatest masterpieces of the past – or so the thinking went. In painting copying was considered equally important. Students of painting were encouraged to make detailed copies of masterpieces in galleries and private collections. Apart from formal studio training, students were expected to spend their spare hours productively engaged in copying from the Old Masters. Come the 19th century, there is scarcely an oeuvre of any important artist whose juvenilia doesn’t include a painted copy of a major work from a national gallery or a drawing of a classical plaster cast. Even an artist as stylistically distinct and unusual as L S Lowry (1887-1976) spent years life drawing and working from plaster casts.

The scene observed in the earliest surviving drawing of an art class, painter Baccio Bandinelli’s academy in 1531, in which young boys sit around a table drawing classical statuary in the Belvedere of the Vatican, establishes the look of an art school for the best part of 400 years. In other similar depictions pupils are shown drawing bones and skeletons. This would be supplemented in art academies by drawing from life. Later, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, a student would spend two years in the ‘Antique Academy’ drawing from plaster casts before being allowed to graduate to the ‘Life Academy’. What remains of the original classical casts used for this purpose can still be seen google_ad_width = 970; today accumulating dust and casual damage in the underground corridors of the Royal Academy School.

By the beginning of the 17th century handbooks offering drawing instruction for beginners became available, the earliest being Odoardo Fialetti’s Il Vero Modo of 1608, said to be the first printed manual of how to draw the human body. Fialetti’s was highly influential as a blueprint for future volumes, and its use was widespread throughout Europe. A book of similar content by the Carracci brothers appeared the following year.

 

Art Education in England

In England autonomous art schools emerged at the beginning of the 18th century. This happened coincident with a desire among indigenous painters for the creation of a fully independent English school of painting which might compare and compete with national schools abroad. Until that time nearly all major artists working in Britain (and certainly almost always the most accomplished) were foreigners. Little Englander and rosbif-in-chief, William Hogarth (1697-1764), was the trailblazer of a new xenophobia directed towards immigrant artists who, Hogarth believed, had monopolized commissions from an aristocracy too easily seduced by anything preceded by the epithet ‘foreign’.

Three short-lived art schools, all in London, were founded in England in the early 18th century. In 1711 German-born portrait painter Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) opened an academy. This was continued from 1716 by Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734), a painter of elaborate decorative schemes, who in 1720 set up his own drawing class in St Martin’s Lane and soon afterwards a school at his own house – which Hogarth himself seems to have attended (he also married Thornhill’s daughter). Hogarth then started the St Martin’s Lane Academy in 1735 the year after Thornhill’s life classes ceased. Another competing academy was opened in 1720 by portraitist John Vanderbank (1694-1739), who had trained in both Kneller’s and Thornhill’s schools – it went bust when the secretary absconded with the petty cash. This localised, ad hoc muddle of programmes demonstrated the need for a stable school with secure backing and a codified curriculum organised properly along institutional lines.

At the same time as these better known studios were operating other drawing classes were available in the capital. One of these, known as Shipley’s, operated at Adelphi on the Strand during the 1740s. Children were taught there, including sculptor Joseph Nollekens who, after Shipley’s, graduated in 1750 at the age of 13 to an apprenticeship in Dutch sculptor Peter Scheemaker’s studio. As on the continent, budding artists began young and always as apprentices, quite often to humble tradesmen such as coach and inn sign painters. Gainsborough was trained by a book illustrator; Hogarth by an engraver of trade cards; Reynolds by a second division portrait hack; Stubbs by a lower division portraitist, one Hamlet Winstanley, who was world famous in Warrington; and Richard Wilson by a portrait painter so obscure there appear to be no locatable works by him. Sir William Coldstream (1908-1987), co-founder of the fee-paying Euston Road School in the late 1930s more of whom below, was himself first instructed by a coach painter.

 

The Royal Academy of Arts, chartered by George III in December 1768, was the first attempt to meet the widely perceived need for a national school for art education to match those already established on the continent. It was modelled on the French Academy. Those forty artists who became founder members of the RA had been trained mostly by the time-honoured methods of apprenticeship described above in a painter’s or engraver’s studio, and extramurally by the private copying of drawings and paintings in the collections of nobles and dilettanti. What the Academy now taught was prescribed by Joshua Reynolds, its first President, in his Discourses, which were based on, mostly annual, turgid lectures to the students. Success in history painting, regarded as the main course in art with portraiture, still-life and landscape all considered side dishes, was promoted as paramount by Reynolds and teaching concentrated on those skills needed to succeed in it. Competence in relating accurately drawn and interacting figures was the sine qua non of succeeding in the history painting genre. Generally, Reynolds’s advice to students might be summarised in five words – ‘Michael Angelo’ and ‘Industry of mind’. For the first time

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at the Royal Academy an agreed course of intense study with clearly defined aims was put in place. In his sixth discourse to students, in December 1774, and echoing Cennini above, Reynolds advised:

 

“Study, therefore, the great works of the great masters forever. Study, as nearly as you can, in the order, in the manner, and on the principles, on which they studied. Study nature attentively, but always with those masters in your company; consider them as models which you are to imitate, and at the same time as rivals with whom you are to contend.”

 

Throughout the later 18th century aristocrats who returned from the Grand Tour having accumulated vast caches of classical art during their travels (some of it faked by armies of Roman masons in order to meet the massive demand from Europe’s idle rich eager to pass themselves off back home as learned men of taste and discernment) opened their collections for study to interested parties. Charles Townley’s hoard of classical sculpture, some of it ‘repaired’, was exhibited in a purpose-built villa overlooking St James’s Park; the collection would later be sold to the British Museum (and be compared unfavourably with the Elgin Marbles). This gallery was described at the time as an important spawning ground for artists of all kinds and Townley generously employed impecunious Royal Academy students to make drawings of his collection.

Copying drawings by masters was generally considered the best possible tutorial and one for which indigent students might make ready money. Girtin and Turner famously copied the drawings of, among other, Cozens and Dayes, for Dr Thomas Monro, an amateur painter and chief physician at the Bethlehem Hospital, and John Henderson, both residents of the recently built Adelphi complex. Diarist Joseph Farington described the busy evenings of copying and criticism at Monro’s house as ‘like an Academy’. In later life Turner, who had been advised by his father not to waste his time copying other people’s work, himself referred to these early days of student copying as necessary: “What could be better practice?”

As an indication of the significance of classical inspiration on young minds intent on pursuing a career in art, history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) wrote in his journals of when he was a teenager determined to become an artist:

 

“… I went to see an apprentice of my father’s who had set up for himself and who had brought down from town some plaster casts of the Discobolos and Apollo – the first I had ever seen. I looked at them so long that I made my eyes ill, and bought them out of a two-guinea piece given to me by my godfather. I doated over them; I dreampt of them; and when well, having made up my mind how to proceed, I wandered about the town, in listless agony, in search of books on art.”

 

Whilst a student at the Royal Academy Haydon, whose Autobiography and Journals give the most comprehensive insight into a painter’s education in the early 19th century, would spend weeks drawing, sometimes twelve hours daily, from the Elgin Marbles (“My heart beat!”) when first the sculptures were exhibited from 1808 in dingy premises on the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly. The significance of the Marbles was described by sculptor Joseph Nollekens’s assistant J T Smith:

 

“The Elgin Marbles are now considered by the Professors in every branch of the Polite Arts as the Artist’s primer… During the time these Marbles were Lord Elgin’s property, Mr Nollekens, accompanied by his constant companion, Joseph Bonomi [an Italian architect resident in Britain] … paid them many visits; and indeed at that time, not only all the great artists, but every lover of the arts, were readily admitted. The students of the Royal Academy, and even Flaxman, the Phidias of our times … drew from them for weeks together.” (1828)

 

The Elgin Marbles were eventually acquired by the Government in 1816 for among other reasons “the use of artists” and “to improve the taste of artists”.

Such was the impact of the Marbles on artists that on one occasion Haydon found himself drawing them alongside Benjamin West, a history painter

who had succeeded Joshua Reynolds as President of the Royal Academy. Identifying errors of emphasis in the Academy’s tuition (and also desperate for the tuition fees exacted) Haydon opened a school at his studio in which paying pupils were encouraged to make drawings of dissections (including copies of Haydon’s own efforts in the same vein) in order to encourage detailed knowledge of the mechanics of natural movement. His students drew also from the Elgin Marbles and, notably and in depth, from the Raphael Cartoons when they were exhibited in the British Institution. Opportunities being few, students were encouraged to take maximum advantage while exhibitions were being staged and premises open.

With our endless exposure to competing blockbuster surveys at major galleries, it is hard for us today to appreciate the considerable impact of such public exhibitions on a visually deprived and untravelled public. Before the opening of the National Gallery in 1824 artists would endeavour to draw and paint from Old Master pictures in private collections. The evolution of Gainsborough’s style during his residency in Bath (1759-1774) was in large measure due to his access to the great collections, particularly of Van Dyck, held at stately homes in the west of England.

From 1805, students were encouraged to draw and copy in the annual exhibitions of Old Masters exhibited at the British Institution. At least part of the motivation for opening the British Institution by a group of rich donors was to give art students an opportunity to see great works in the hope of improving particularly their appreciation and execution of history painting in which as a nation we were considered to lag far behind the continent. The fact was that most British students had little access to top quality reference material of the sort from which they were encouraged to learn. The reality was that until the early 19th century it wasn’t possible for most fledgeling artists to see original works by past masters because there were no permanent public collections or national galleries in existence. Neither did artists have the access to foreign travel enjoyed by aristocrats, even though they were generally considered improperly educated until they had studied in Italy. The most instructive works of painting and classical art were in stately homes to which few enjoyed the privilege of access. Acquaintance with masterpieces was at best via prints and engravings, necessarily in misrepresentative scale and in monochrome and whose fidelity to the original was often questioned. Only when taking into account this dearth of opportunity to see the best of the past can one appreciate the tremendous relief expressed by Haydon when, at last, he was able to learn at leisure from public exhibitions of Rembrandt, Rubens and Velazquez at the “admirable” British Institution – he was still drawing from Old Master paintings there in his 40s. In the case of the general public who didn’t see many pictures and who were prepared to pay to see but a single painting or sculpture, temporary exhibitions had the same invigorating impact on them as on juvenile artists: when the convenience of an exhibition presented itself the tendency was to look hard to the point of overdose. Often the exhibition of a single work was sufficient to attract large audiences around the country, and not just of art students. Thus, the same few great pictures tended to be known extremely well and were avidly discussed by art lovers and students alike.

Art schools opened throughout the 19th century mainly in order to produce ingenious designers for burgeoning industries upon whose merchandise for export the national economy was increasingly reliant. Britain needed to compete with the rapidly industrialising French and Germans who – according to Prince Albert, a campaigner for improved design – were beating us because of their much earlier recognition of the importance of design in the appeal of their goods. Equally unacceptable, indeed insulting, was that British manufacturers were even borrowing or buying in designs from abroad. The ‘look’, the visual seductiveness of every commodity now mattered, and the demand for consumer goods had expanded across a wider spectrum of society than merely the luxury market. Those working in industry needed an art training, again based on drawing, but with a different emphasis to that of the fine artist. The first example of such pedagogy for workers in industry was a drawing school in Edinburgh set up in 1760 “to encourage and improve Scottish industries through the teaching of drawing and design to artisans”. Fine art teaching in Scotland, meanwhile, lagged some way behind. The Royal Scottish Academy opened only in 1826 although life classes didn’t start there until 1840.

 

The Royal College of Art, initially called the National Art Training School (NATS), was founded in 1837 to meet this same vocational purpose as its Edinburgh precursor. It introduced a process of

teaching distinct from that undertaken at the Royal Academy. Here, art for art’s sake came a
distant second to the requirements of manufacturing, and especially the textile industries. The curriculum was strictly controlled and strongly founded on competence in drawing done from ornaments, life and nature. The first emphasis was on mastery of outline. As Edward Poynter (1836-1919), an academic painter and superb draughtsman who had been trained at the Royal Academy and at different times was head of both NATS and the first Slade Professor, observed in his collected essays (1880), concentration on outline was “a means of acquiring steadiness of hand” leading to sureness of touch. As a result of a national campaign colleges of design opened in most of the country’s major centres – Manchester’s School of Design opened in 1838 – followed by art colleges often in quite small towns where manufacturing specialisms might require niche teaching and skills. It was not all easy going. Disputes developed about the disparity between funding of the NATS’ South Kensington facilities, a rear wing of what is now the V&A, and the comparatively paltry sums awarded to the provinces resulted in concerted industrial action by art teachers in 1863. In the Manchester School annual report for 1862/3 occurs the following:

 

“It seems unjust that local institutions should be left to starve, while so much money is lavishly spent on the central institution at Kensington.”

 

Actual figures are startling: South Kensington received £57,000 a year whereas local schools receive on average £150 each. Nevertheless, by the beginning of 1873 there were 120 schools of art and design through the country and 500 night drawing classes had been established specifically for the instruction of artisans.

The Slade School at University College London opened in 1868. Under Poynter an important tweak to fine art education /* xin2 */ was effected there. Poynter had observed the efficacy of the course at NATS in saving time. In his view its students achieved the same standard in drawing more quickly than those at the Royal Academy, where students laboured two arduous years drawing from casts of classical sculpture. Poynter was acutely aware that student time was of the essence at the Slade, which was a private and therefore fee-paying school, compared to the Royal Academy whose students (then as now) received free tuition and facilities. His approach was also informed by a detailed knowledge of the French atelier system of teaching which favoured immediate working from the figure, which, Poynter had observed, made French students’ efforts appear appreciably more competent and advanced than those of their British counterparts.

 

“[T]he question arises as to the best models for a beginner to work from. My answer would be that he cannot do better than begin with what he intends ending with, that is, the study of the figure. All else is usually but time lost; at whatever stage the drawing of the figure is taken up, the student will find it as difficult as if he started with it at first.” (Edward Poynter, Lectures, 1880, p 139)

 

At the Slade, students were set immediately to drawing outlines of objects and figures. Poynter sought to overturn the previous obsession with classical sculpture in favour of the living model – nature instead of the antique. It was more important to know as soon as possible how a figure worked:

 

“I shall impress but one lesson upon the students,

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that constant study from the life model is the only means they have of arriving at a comprehension of the beauty in nature, and of avoiding its ugliness and deformity; which I take to be whole aim and end of study.” (Poynter, Lectures, 1880, p 107)

 

When Poynter published his lectures he stated decisively that the only two places in Britain where a preparation for what he called ‘High Art’ could be obtained was at the Royal Academy and the Slade. All other colleges were teaching drawing as a vocational aid to design in industry.

It is worth pointing out here that throughout the second half of the 19th century there were continuing and often vicious disputes as to the best approaches to the teaching of drawing. Throughout this time there were private academies teaching drawing and painting according to the individual precepts of those who ran them, the two best known in London being Sass’s Drawing Academy (later Cary’s) and Leigh’s (which later became known as Heatherley’s, which still exists). A principal function of these was to train students to the standard required in order for them to apply either to the Royal Academy or the Slade; John Everett Millais, William Powell Frith and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, all started at Sass’s before graduating to the Academy. Also, before entering the Royal Academy, Poynter himself had been trained at Leigh’s.

The new national network of colleges was accompanied, crucially, by museums inaugurated in many centres following passage of the Museum’s Act of 1845, which allowed local councils of towns over 10,000 population to raise a ha’penny rate for the opening of art galleries – councils were not allowed to charge more than a penny for admission to these facilities. This was followed in 1850 by the Public Libraries Act enabling councils to open free reading rooms. (Curiously, the main reason for these reforms adding to public amenities was not their purely educational potential but as a diversion to reduce the incidence of vices caused by public drunkenness among labourers.) The first of the many subsequent combined municipal free museums and public libraries was opened at Peel Green in Salford in 1850, a facility which still exists to this day in its original buildings.

 

What was the status of women in art schools? Prior to 1861, when they were admitted for the first time to the Royal Academy Schools (that is, approaching a century after it was founded), opportunities were almost non-existent. Most women artists prior to this were either married to painters or daughters of them, and learned through their kinships. Others tended to focus on genres for which detailed knowledge of anatomy was not essential, portraiture or still life being the favourites – for full-length portraiture most artists used lay figures. Those, like Rosa Bonheur, who refused to be thwarted by inflexible moral codes forbidding women to work from nude male models presumably learned from drawings and engravings and from Old Master paintings in galleries. In 1768 the two female founder members of the Royal Academy (out of 34 in total) were Mary Moser, predominantly a flower painter, and Angelica Kauffman, a history and mythological painter and portraitist, both of whose fathers were artists.

Kauffman caused ribald gossip among colleagues concerning a rumour that she had privately drawn from the live nude without the presence of another male. The truth was never established convincingly one way or the other, but you get the picture – the playing field was far from level. It is hard to believe that ambitious women artists, like Kauffman, did not engage in clandestine drawing from the male nude in order to improve their competence. For the most part women engaged with art as amateurs taught by wandering drawing masters (sometimes watercolourists of repute) who instructed otherwise idle ladies how to paint pretty washes depicting their estates. As an indication of the slowness with which women artists were accepted as equals, there were no other female members of the Royal Academy until 1936 when Laura Knight was elected. Allowing women to draw from the nude or nearly nude male models only became common in most British art schools towards the end of the 19th century, although on the continent and in North America regulations tended to be loosened and become more liberal earlier. At the Pennsylvania Academy, for example, all-women classes drew from nude female models from 1868 and from male nudes from 1877. (I have been informed that as late as the 1950s at Camberwell women students were only allowed to draw male models wearing jockstraps.) From the beginning of the 20th century the field in art schools was more or less level for women and men alike, at least as far as their training opportunities were concerned. However, as late as the 1960s, women art students in Britain often reported encountering a patronising attitude from male staff who failed to take them seriously because they deemed women principally as homemakers and not as career artists. In the 21st century more girls sit A level art than boys, although this commitment to art is even in 2016 not reflected in the market, exhibition or prices paid for women’s art relative to the dominant positions held by men.

By the beginning of the 20th century most large towns and cities had opened their own colleges of art and design, many with their own bespoke courses. Some, which had evolved around remarkably gifted individuals, became renowned for recherché specialisms and attracted students from considerable distances.

From the end of the 19th century, as Modernism spread in continental capitals, new schools were inaugurated by its devotees, most notably during the interwar years at the shortlived but influential Bauhaus in Weimar. Here, studios were called laboratories and alternative methods of teaching were introduced aimed at inspiring new solutions to old problems under the influence of equally recent expressive and psychological demands. It represented a complete overturning of what had gone before. Old academic rules and mores were here irrelevant. Whereas previously art schools had taught the necessary craft and left the ‘art’ bit to talent and originality, at the Bauhaus they wanted to

eliminate the craft altogether and encourage only the ‘art’ mentality. When opening the Bauhaus in 1919 its first head, architect Walter Gropius, declaimed:

 

“Together let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise towards heaven from the hands of a million workers, like the crystal symbol of a new faith.”

 

Gropius’s idealism would be reflected in the speechifying of the post-1945 British ideologues intent on Bauhaus-like reforms in our own art education. What was the repeatedly heard mantra of staff working at the Bauhaus – “starting from zero” – also reflects the belief among the most reforming British lecturers of the bottom-up change in approach necessary to bring art teaching up to date and abreast of stylistic developments in Modern Art.

There was another significant reason why the Bauhaus was influential. It was the place where was born, for the first time, the idea that art is only good if it is novel, novelty being assumed to signify the best. As Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said in 1922 while he was a teacher at the German school:

 

“Creative activities are useful only if they produce new, so far unknown solutions.”

 

Not only were figurative styles being loosened to embrace new experiences, sights and sensations courtesy of physics, industrialised warfare and social reform, but the western traditions to which artists had always adhered were being infiltrated by the art of distant cultures whose approach to the human figure was anything but naturalistic. Two obvious examples of this new openness to distant stimuli were the Japanese prints in which Vincent van Gogh discovered compositional and abstract/expressive possibilities and the Polynesian sculptures inspiring in different ways to Gauguin and Picasso. Even ‘primitive’ or untrained painters such as ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau might indicate potentially productive avenues for further experiment in flattening space and exaggerating local colour with symbolistic intent. There was developing throughout visual art a willingness to see and to explore the merit in work from sources other than western traditions. Thereafter, instruction, inspiration and learning might come from anywhere; indeed, formal originality might be borrowed from wherever it could be found. Reading about early exponents of Modernism there is no question that its devotees’ omnivorous openness to influences represented an exhilarating freshness of approach in these pioneers. Boundaries were beginning to disappear. Roger Fry explained that the new art was “the work of highly civilised and modern men trying to find a pictorial language appropriate to the sensibilities of the modern outlook”.

British artists were slower than most to feed at the new colourful banquet, our art schools remaining more conservative in their teachings than continental counterparts. The gap between what more radical artists were producing and what a general public liked to see was, however, opening up. Having become aware of continental novelties prior to 1914, mainly as a result of two landmark exhibitions of ‘Post-Impressionist’ paintings organised in 1910 and 1912 by Roger Fry, the Futurist realities of the Great War put the brakes on enthusiasm for artistic progress. Prior to 1914 the only British movement encouraging the replacement of bourgeois art and tastes was the Vorticism of Wyndham Lewis and his young followers. Having seen in the trenches what uncontrolled worship of the machine might portend, the post-war stylistic retreat of its adherents was dramatic. Nevertheless, during the 1920s and ’30s some British artists belatedly awoke to continental art and began experimenting with the most advanced international styles.

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Studying at the Slade from 1926, William Coldstream stated that he was being taught how to draw like Leonardo da Vinci whilst reading Clive Bell and Roger Fry: “We spent a great deal of time discussing aesthetics.” In 1932 Paul Nash alluded to conflicting issues in many artists’ minds:

 

“Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today… the battle lines have been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.”

 

Modernism in Britain was back on track by the time of Henry Moore’s first exhibition at the Warren Gallery in 1928. Adoption and an understanding of Modernism was indeed patchy but an avant garde did exist although it was one needing support from private collectors, notable among whom was a young Kenneth Clark. The takeover by Modernists of the Seven and Five Society led to the first exhibition, at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1935, of entirely abstract works and the creation of a journal of abstract art, Axis. This tour de force, the establishment in 1933 by Paul Nash of progressive artists group Unit One (documented in a coeval book by Herbert Read), the publication in 1937 of Circle, a book celebrating and explaining constructivist art, and exhibitions such as the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 … all became major talking points. During its three-week run, the Surrealist Exhibition was visited by a thousand people a day. In the catalogue to this significant exhibition André Breton wrote of the situation facing artists:

 

“In the modern period, painting, for instance, was until recently preoccupied almost exclusively with expressing the manifest relationships which exist between exterior perception and the ego. The expression of this relationship became more and more deceptive and insufficient in proportion as it became less possible for it to attempt to enlarge and deepen man’s “perception-consciousness” system, whose most interesting artistic possibilities it had long exhausted, leaving only that extravagant attention to exterior details of which the work of any of the great “realist” painters bears the mark. By mechanising the plastic method of representation to the extreme, photography dealt a final blow to all this. Painting was forced to beat a retreat and to retrench itself behind the necessity of expressing internal perception visually. I cannot insist too much on the fact that this place of exile was the only one left to it.

The only domain that the

artist could exploit became that of purely mental representation… We say that the art of imitation (of places, scenes, exterior objects) has had its day…”

 

A new phenomenon had arrived. Artists were encouraged by their greater ability to travel abroad, by the freer exchange of avant-garde publications, by an increased frequency of foreign artists

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exhibiting over here, and by the presence in England of trailblazing Modernist artists from the Continent who, escaping persecution by stylistically deterministic Nazis and Soviets, used London as a stepping stone to their ultimate destination, The Land of the Free. These developments were not without opposition. With a candour typical of his writing, Sickert dismissed the decades of Futurism, Cubism and Roger Fry as “the nonsense boom”.

There is no doubt that where art education was concerned Britain had plenty of catching up to do. For one thing an increase in high ambition and seriousness was required, not to mention the appearance of proselyting individuals with a lighter touch than the arch and snobbish Fry could manage. The curiously unambitious state of British art schools in the 1930s was referred to in a 1992 interview by sculptor Bernard Meadows who had trained during that decade at Norwich, Chelsea and, later, at the Royal College:

 

“Up to the war schools of art tended to be run as sort of spare-time art clubs, never on the basis of anything like a professional training.”

 

Meadows escaped this unsatisfactory inadequacy by volunteering for the time-honoured system of apprenticeship. From the age of 21, in 1936, he became a part-time assistant to Henry Moore, eventually graduating to become full-time chief assistant to our best known Modernist.

 

Revolution: Art Colleges Fit For Heroes

Only after the Second World War when a young generation of eagerly anti-establishment British artists, many of them returning from military service which had interrupted or had caused to be deferred their art training, were alternative teaching methods adopted that were deliberately calculated to prepare students for a future in advanced Modernist experiment. Twenty five years later, abstract painter Patrick Heron would refer to their work as “The brilliantly successful revolution of the art education of this country.” These ambitious and proselytising individuals promoted boundless latitude of expression and a releasing from what was increasingly seen as the academic, drawing-based straitjacket of the past. They were uncompromisingly opposed to tradition, had no interest in furthering what they saw as exhausted conventions, and they were damn well going to be heard.

Post-1945 was a different age. A new Government had been elected to represent the interests of the working class. Figurative painting and sculpture were irredeemably bourgeois and class-ridden and demanded what later Leftists called “a class way of seeing” in order to understand it. It all had to go.

The beliefs of these young turks were undoubtedly part of far-reaching changes in society generally in which removal of class divisions became an almost obligatory belief. These ideas were a natural part of Prime Minister Attlee’s reforming agenda whose target was greater equality of access and nationalisation of strategic infrastructure. With its posh connotations few subjects were more riddled with class associations than art. The mores of a traditional art education were an obvious sittting duck.

A long history of snobbiness was deemed ripe and overdue for demolition. The new mood identified conventions as no longer sacrosanct but breakable. New art for new audiences everywhere was the order of the day. Unfortunately, as we shall discover, the direction of the new current in art education eventually meant that one form of supposed snobbery – the ‘middle class’ art of figuration – was replaced by another far more recherché version of art which even fewer could understand, recognise or even cared about.

Post-war years up to around 1970 were those in which the ethos of British art education changed irrevocably, first to embrace and then to be replaced by experiment for its own sake. This revolution was remarkable for the speed of its widespread, seemingly unopposed adoption. Revisions irrupted simultaneously in art schools around the country, as though an unstoppable new idea had suddenly come of age.

Belgian theorist of art teaching, Thierry de Duve, has summarised the change which took place in the first half of the 20th century:

 

“Soon, art schooling was affected by the avant-garde. As the examples and standards of the past could no longer be trusted, as imitation and observation could no longer provide the basics for the apprenticeship of art, the teaching of art had to look elsewhere for roots in both nature and culture. This it achieved in two ways. The figure of Man – the universal measure of all things in nature – was relinquished as outer model for observation, but was recouped as inner subjective principle. Psychology replaced anatomy in its function as foundation discourse for a new artistic humanism. The new doctrine stated that all men are endowed with innate faculties which it is the function of education to allow to grow. Thus, specialisation in the visual arts meant the specific training and growth of the faculties of visual perception and imagination. How to train them became the pedagogical issue … In principle, if not in fact, the learning of art became simple: students should learn how to tap their unspoilt creativity, guided by immediate feeling and emotion, and to read their medium, obeying its immanent syntax. As their aesthetic sensibility and artistic literacy progressed, their ability to feel and read would translate into the ability to express and to articulate. Nurtured perception and imagination would produce artworks of a different kind.” (From an essay in The Artist and The Academy, John Hansard Gallery, 1993)

 

The most famous initiators of what became known as Basic Design (though few of its adherents ever admitted referring to it in that way), which openly acknowledged its adoption of precepts practised at the Bauhaus, were the forceful personalities of William Johnstone (Principal of Central School from 1947), Tom Hudson, Harry Thubron in Sunderland and recently apostate figurative painter Victor Pasmore at Central School in London. The move towards a free-spirited approach gained significant momentum in Newcastle from 1954 with the appointment of Pasmore and his personal appointee Richard Hamilton, who was straight out of the Slade and had previously been expelled from the Royal Academy Schools for “not profiting from the instruction”. Pasmore himself had abandoned figurative painting after seeing the Picasso/Matisse exhibition at the V&A in 1946, an epiphany which left him in no doubt as to what the future direction of art and art teaching must be.

The ideas and programmes of these individuals spread quickly, in part through their running of summer schools for art teachers, most notably in Scarborough. Their precepts received a surprisingly sympathetic hearing, especially from a newly minted breed

of working class art student forged in rebellious youth cultures and inspired by the exhibition of in-your-face vanguard work from abroad.

 

Debate and discussion around the purpose of art education under Modernism, often acrimoniously conducted in the newspapers by eminent artists of mutually hostile opinions and stylistic persuasions, emboldened other schools to encourage a relaxation in their teaching conventions. Leeds School of Art, to which by the mid-’60s Thubron had transferred, soon became a hotbed of anarchy where students were encouraged to do as they pleased, including on one occasion setting fire to the place. James Charnley’s recent account of this period at Leeds School of Art gives a detailed, often amusing critique of the liberating ferment and chaos which inevitably results when one regime is superceded by its diametrical opposite. Leeds was probably the first art school in Britain where the cut with past teaching methods was absolute. Patrick Heron deemed it “the most influential [art school] in Europe since the Bauhaus”.

Artist Derek Hyatt remembered his experiences of Leeds in the mid-’50s; that is, even prior to the Thubron regime:

 

“In 1956, Eric Taylor and his staff set in motion a daring and experimental approach to art education. Official Ministry examination requirements were side-stepped. Final year painting students still completed a set piece figure composition, but it was clear art was taking other forms. The vacuum former, the power drill and sander, the film camera, became fine art tools along with brush, pen and charcoal. Fine art studios became workshops, knee-deep in plaster and perspex offcuts. Paintings became reliefs, constructions became mobiles filmed in motion. Time and space became materials of art, like line and colour.”

 

Soon after this there was no recognition at Leeds whatsoever of traditional skills, and no going back. Lecturers who had worked under Hudson, Thubron, Hamilton and Pasmore spread the word when they joined the staff of other colleges. Art schools in Leicester, Portsmouth, London (Central and Goldsmith’s), Cardiff and Coventry were soon also embracing change and formulating courses based on theoretical novelties. Those requiring yesterday’s tuition were politely encouraged to go where such skills and regressive attitudes were still taught, for there remained sufficient colleges where old disciplines were indeed still adequately instructed. It is worth pointing out that drawing was also encouraged in Thubron’s initial courses, the significant deviation from convention being that students drew from moving not static figures.

 

Other reasons obtained as to why even the most conventional art colleges couldn’t hide from what was happening elsewhere. There was no avoiding the fact that after 1945 a fundamental shift in stylistic priorities of painters

in particular was taking place. Sir Alfred Munnings’s infamous and embarrassing speech at the Royal Academy dinner in 1948, broadcast live on the Home Service, in which he drunkenly expressed a desire to kick Picasso’s backside, was really the last feeble fart of an establishment which for the young had become a laughing stock. For the new generation everything a clapped-out hierarchy stood for was epitomised by a pissed, one-eyed horse painter, speaking alongside Monty, Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, mocking a founding father of Modernism to the general approbation of a lot of complacent stuffed shirts.

Internationally in painting the dominant idiom was now abstraction not figuration. Investigation of abstract form was the core component in Pasmore’s teaching. Until this moment every abstract painter from Mondrian and Kandinsky onwards had received the same art education as everyone else. The same had been true for Pollock, Kline, Still, Newman, Rothko, Gorky, Motherwell, Hofmann and the rest of the American abstract expressionists, whose works were being exported to Europe in bulk and avidly promoted as google_ad_height = 90; a style which rendered everything else passé. Here was a new art for a bright new democratic consumerist world. All of these American titans had evolved naturally, logically from figuration to abstraction. For most of them it had been a long and rational step-by-step journey, an edging forward towards the Promised Land of purity Clive Bell had described as “significant form”. But students were now emerging who wanted to learn abstraction straightaway. Art schools needed to accommodate this and other sudden novel demands for which there were no pedagogical conventions. Thus was introduced the tricky problem of how a college established to teach one approach could adapt to teaching, in the instance of abstraction, another style which had only existed at the very earliest since 1910 and for which there were no accepted criteria of either tuition or judgement. Before there was any developed market for their work (not least on account of its massive canvases being incapable of accommodation anywhere but institutions or the 5th Avenue mansions of the superrich), abstract painters taught in schools where they could doubtless pass on the gnomic alchemies and ‘skills’ of their chosen style.

Abstract painter Patrick Heron, a teacher at London’s Central School and a vocal advocate of experimentation in art schools for its own sake, and who was also at this time an influential critic on the New Statesman, wrote that in his opinion works produced by the eight major American abstract expressionist painters between 1948 and 1952 changed everything utterly, forever. The most influential British show of this work was held at the Tate in 1956. Virtually everyone who was there at the time (and has subsequently written a memoir) testifies to the effect of this exhibition on art students who from then onwards began devouring art magazines for inspiration in order to keep immediately abreast of seemingly weekly evolving trends, particularly in America. The pressure of outside vanguard forces was becoming irresistible. From now on learning from the art of the past would itself be a thing of the past. Innumerable art college lecturers from this time have bemoaned the uncontainable tendency of art students to derive their ideas from art magazines rather than from the world about them and their own place in it. They copied anything new and saleable, for here was also the beginning of student desires for instant success and financial reward. Writing in The Listener in 1937, William Coldstream had observed:

 

“None of us ever sold any pictures; we had the idea that only second-rate artists could sell their work before they were dead.”

 

How the mood had changed in only 20 years. The greatest dread of students was now being left behind, their worst nightmare being mocked as ‘square’. Following Moholy-Nagy’s belief cited above that only the innovative is worth attention, the assumption that the only significant art was subversive and novel now became the First Commandment of art teaching. Thus, art magazines replaced national galleries and museums as the dominant source of inspiration. As late as 1976, the year of R B Kitaj’s The Human Clay exhibition at the Hayward Gallery – this being a collection of figurative artists working in London standing up against “the rigid avant-gardism of the time” – David Hockney was still referring to this period as one when “Abstraction was king”.

A 1959 exhibition, The Developing Process (conceived for and first shown at King’s College, Durham) at the ICA, a gallery opened by young artists in 1948 to be a showcase for new art and ideas which probably wouldn’t have been shown or aired elsewhere, and in which Pasmore played a critical role, set out the philosophical foundation for alternative methods of art teaching. The content and date of this exhibition are crucial because it demonstrated that new thinking in art education was already well established and racing along the back straight before the watershed of the first Coldstream Report, whose authors must have been well aware of the groundswell represented by the show’s contents, not least because Pasmore was also a Coldstream committee member.

 

The Coldstream and Summerson Reports

It was inevitable that the Government would eventually have to get involved with art education. In 1959 William Coldstream, Euston Road School painter, principal of the Slade School since 1949 and, from 1958, Chairman of the National Advisory Council on Art Education, was asked by the Education Secretary to look into art schools, whose egregious anarchy was raising eyebrows in the papers. Part of the political objective in forming this committee was ultimately to make art education less expensive by, if possible, amalgamating institutions and departments, where this could be achieved, and by raising an agreed standard so that the eventual qualification became degree-equivalent – it would in fact take over a decade to integrate art schools indissolubly into the wider system of higher education. There was also a growing anti-élitist faction in government which believed that numbers in higher education needed to be dramatically increased to match levels of access to tertiary education

witnessed abroad, where many times more young people were at universities. Coldstream was charged with making “recommendations dealing with the content and administration of courses for an award to take the place of the National Diploma in Design (NDD).”

The NDD had been created by the Ministry of Education in 1946. This Diploma was awarded as the culmination of four years of study, the first two of which qualified the candidate for a Certificate in Arts and Crafts. At the time of Coldstream’s appointment and his committee’s deliberations there were 106 art schools offering a two-year NDD producing around 1,700 students a year. The failure rate was just under a quarter, and the majority of those who passed who didn’t go into industry went on to teach at secondary level, where art was a subject taken far more seriously then than now.

The resulting Coldstream Report, a brief document of only twenty pages published in October 1960, and its fine-tuning supplementary addenda, called Summerson Reports, until the final Coldstream report in 1970, are frequently and flippantly claimed to have laid the groundwork for the destruction of art teaching. It has become customary to blame Coldstream and Summerson, both of them political and artistic conformists, for everything that has subsequently gone wrong. It is certainly true that the reports changed art’s organisation and certification, but in truth there is little in the wording of the main original report to suggest a path was being embarked upon leading to the state reached today where there are ‘right’ styles and ‘wrong’ styles, and where the learning of traditional skills has been all but eradicated. The Report encouraged liberalising tendencies and experiment, but always with the longstop of a necessary foundation of skill, an

awareness of art history and a complementary general knowledge.

 

Coldstream, who had had his views about the need to make art appeal to a wider audience encouraged by experiences with Mass Observation and the GPO documentary film unit in the 1930s, had earlier written privately:

 

“The slump [of the 1930s] had made me aware of social problems, and I became convinced that art ought to be directed to a wider public: whereas all ideas which I had learned to regard as artistically revolutionary ran in the opposite direction. It seemed to me important that the broken communication between the artist and the public should be built up again and that this most probably implied a movement towards realism. But such a direction was difficult for me to take wholeheartedly because my generation of painters had been taught to regard all movements except those away from realism as reactionary. A direct realistic approach was considered to be something which had been finished with at the end of the nineteenth century.” (The Listener, September 15th, 1937)

 

It is unlikely that one holding such opinions, and whose own style of painting was stalely academic, would have endorsed a trajectory leading to what we endure now as the end product – namely, styles totally divorced from popular interest, appreciation or understanding. Those who wish to find a scapegoat for the current disastrous situation in which nothing at all is taught, and in which contemporary art has placed itself beyond the care or ken of the majority, need to look further than Coldstream for reasons, for, plainly, blame resides elsewhere. It is, however, true to say that Coldstream’s report did nothing to arrest a pre-existing and anyway irresistible momentum in the direction of wholesale change. Whatever the Coldstream reports may have stated as their intentions it is hard to find evidence of anyone anywhere who appears to have taken the slightest notice of what was contained in them. Those already eagerly re-inventing art teaching appear to have continued as they had before, except that now the end certificate awarded bore a different name.

In Coldstream, the four years of the Certificate and NDD qualifications were replaced by a one-year pre-diploma, which, in a 1965 addendum to the report had its name changed to ‘Foundation Course’, followed by three years leading to a Diploma in Art and Design (DipAD). Only in unusual circumstances – such as conspicuous natural ability – would a pupil be allowed to begin the new three-year google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; DipAD if the introductory year had not been completed. Objectives of the courses were: “to train students in observation, analysis, creative work and technical control through the study of line, form, colour and space relationships in two and three dimensions … A sound training in drawing is implicit in these studies. All courses should include some study of the history of art and some complementary studies.”

 

The report was not as prescriptive as it might have been about how these vaguely stated objectives were to be achieved. Crucially, it left the details of imposition to individual schools. Variants of the phrase “art schools should be free to

work out their own ideas” are repeated throughout the texts.

Too much emphasis on this point shouldn’t be made because, like most speculations in hindsight, it can’t be conclusively verified, but the presence on the committee of Victor Pasmore, who had previously disagreed with Coldstream over future art school policy, and who had already spent over ten years re-configuring art courses with which he had been associated, may have been significant. He was in a position to ensure the sort of ambiguous final wording allowing the revolution in art education he had helped kickstart to continue unimpeded. (Pasmore and Coldstream had been colleagues and co-founders of the shortlived Euston Road School in 1936 until their individual stylistic paths and teaching philosophies diverged.)

Any familiarity with what was happening in art schools during the 1950s and the contents of the Coldstream Report lead to an inevitable conclusion that the Report was responding to pre-existing movements instead of dictating new directions. The Report was an attempt to give the impression that changes in art education were under official control whereas, in truth, they were anything but. It was in the interests of those who were already way in advance of any principles in Coldstream to leave the Report’s conclusions as open as possible to interpretation to enable those of a progressive bent, of whom Pasmore was one, to proceed much as they had before without hindrance. Hence, the Report states:

 

“Within the simple structure that we propose art schools can construct their own courses free of complicated rules.”

 

However, this wriggle room is underpinned with:

 

“In the area of fine art the fundamental studies are painting with drawing, and sculpture with drawing.”

 

Such remarks doubtless satisfied conservatives, like Coldstream himself. And so the Report could be everything to everyone.

Difficulties created by the 1960 Report were caused not by pedagogical novelty or prescription but by the replacement of the NDD with the DipAD and the administrative upheaval caused by implementing this change. A document (no. 46) produced during the Hornsey School occupation in 1968 (see below) put its finger on the problem:

 

“Precisely at the period when the new diploma courses were being conceived, the historical conditions they reflected were disappearing for good.”

 

Inaugural DipAD courses began in 1963 and the first graduates received their certificates in 1966. Colleges’ re-accreditation from NDD to DipAd was overseen by a committee set up in 1961, The National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design, responsible for the implementation of the report’s findings. The NCDAD, headed by architectural historian Sir John Summerson, who published short reports in 1963 and 1965 concerning the tuning of Coldstream’s recommendations, was responsible for travelling the country deciding which NDD courses were suitable for upgrade to the degree-equivalent DipAD level.

Reading about this implementation today, it seems nothing short of chaotic. Only a minority of NDD courses, for example, were accepted for the upgrade in status which for a time led to the confusion of both qualifications running side by side. That majority of students who remained on courses deemed unsuitable for DipAD status qualified instead for the interim Certificate awarded after the first two years of the four-year NDD course.

At this point an important new phenomenon and catalyst appeared in the push towards art educational reform: the bolshie student. Coldstream and Summerson, Edwardians both, could not have suspected the rebellious new mood among recently liberated young people. Thus far students had passively done as they were told, but from the mid-1960s the student body became vocal and confident, indeed uncompromisingly dictatorial about what it required from its own education. It was the hamfisted imposition of the controversial DipAD which lit the touchpaper and propelled students to action. Their grievances were many and general, some of them inevitably overtly political with Left-inclined students always shouting loudest. And they had more complaints than the Futurists. They griped about dilapidated facilities; they lamented the inappropriateness of academic selection procedures for ‘creative’ subjects and wanted the elimination of academic qualifications for art colleges – it was subsequently proved statistically that DipAD entrants with the highest qualifications were more likely to be the least able art students; they objected to ossified curricula and staff dictating what they would learn, particularly disliking the de haut en bas attitudes in general about art education; they wanted to be in control of their own learning demanding “a genuinely more creative higher education”; they objected to arbitrary and inconsistent testing procedures not least because the criteria for judgement were never actually revealed; they wanted an end to written examinations and the study of art history especially when it bore no relevance to what they were doing, one rebel citing Ruskin’s comment that art history was no more relevant to an artist than the history of surgery is to the teaching of a surgeon; and most importantly, they wanted to be rid of teaching methods which prepared them for the past – which some in their revolutionary fervour referred to as ‘the ancien regime’ – not for the future. A dangerous mood was simmering, a storming of the Bastille seemed imminent.

 

Until this point educational reform had been selfishly driven by tutors effectively using students as guinea pigs for untested ideas. (It’s appropriate to remember here that despite over fifteen years of existence the Bauhaus produced no artists of outstanding reputation.) But from the mid-’60s students themselves took over as the main driver of reform. Looking at the freshest works in exhibitions and magazines – abstract expressionism, colour field formalism, Pop and Op art – they realised that courses retaining vestiges of 19th century tuition were irrelevant, pointless for the new needs of a truly ‘Contemporary’ artist. The DipAD’s clinging on to the old was not what they wanted, and many anti-establishment college staff became sympathetic to their aims.

Discontent came to a head in May 1968, a spring and summer notable worldwide for the flexing of student muscle, when undergrads at Hornsey College of Art began a sit-in. Sit-ins were common at this moment, a sort of student’s rite of passage – all of us who were there at that time ‘sat in’ about something or other we didn’t really give a toss about. Most often they were fires of straw quickly exhausted when the union bar opened. Desultory at first and defying the usual expectations of a sit-in, the Hornsey row quickly developed into a full-scale occupation. It began mundanely over the inadequacy of facilities and a freezing of union funds. Then, as students built up a head of steam, undoubtedly encouraged by considerable newspaper commentary, outside support and political-activist lecturers, their grievances expanded to a virtual manifesto for the entire overhaul of courses allowing “the cultivation of the individual”, the non-teaching of outmoded bourgeois art and “the complete freedom of individual or group research”. In a letter to the Guardian, one student even called for “social revolution”. The occupiers’ letter to college authorities at the end of the first month included the following:

 

“We are demonstrating that it is entirely possible [to] …

organise in //--> cooperation with our tutors a curriculum in which individual needs are no longer subordinated to a predetermined system of training requiring a degree of specialisation which precludes the broad development of the students’ artistic and intellectual capacities.”

 

Beautifully quixotic, the inventory of demands became a utopian recipe for doing everything and nothing, a panacea for all the world’s ills. After six weeks, and with the promise of an inquiry and a Select Committee hearing, the revolt collapsed as students, who were running out of money, drifted off for the holidays. The inevitable betrayals and scapegoat sackings ensued, but nothing significant was achieved immediately, except that a benchmark had been established. The main account of the Hornsey rebellion, published by Penguin as The Hornsey Affair in 1969, included many of the copious policy documents busy students and supportive staff produced at the time describing their grievances and their national rather than local reform agendas. It gives a detailed, microcosmic insight into the anti-academic

psychology of art students at this crucial juncture for the future direction of art education. Hornsey demonstrated that reformist theories of idealistic teachers were at the very least being matched by intakes of some students themselves demanding a total overthrow of old systems.

Given what happened subsequently Hornsey can be seen as a victory, for it predicted almost exactly what was to come. In one important document (no. 46) it foretold  – again echoing Moholy-Nagy – the fundamental philosophy of art education today:

 

have passed down through the art establishment hierarchy and now strangle young painters. The pressure from tutors on young impressionable students to conform to the dictates of the market for trendy installations is inescapable for all but the most willful individuals. I have heard a talented student warned by a tutor with great authority: “Include those self-portraits in your degree show and it will adversely affect the outcome of your grade.” Not everyone wants to draw and paint, but proper professional provision must be made for those who do. If the art school experience is to be of any value tutors must keep their prejudices to themselves and be willing to help students develop their own particular interests. At worst they should leave them alone to get on with it.

 

The dictatorship of the conceptual/theoretical approach described by Pearson Wright is now so absolute over the apparatus of contemporary art and learning that state-run galleries, especially those created and funded by the Arts Council, almost never

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stage exhibitions of traditional painting and sculpture whose adherents have been officially dismissed as “the wrong kinds of artists”. Official bodies responsible for unfairly administering contemporary art are thus biased against conventional styles. This art of the state enjoys a stranglehold on all levers of influence in contemporary art from education to exhibition and collection.

In any other field of learning the exclusive promotion of a narrow doctrinaire position in an academic department of any serious university would be intellectually unacceptable, yet in the teaching of art it is celebrated as the norm.

 

Conclusion

The earliest, most complete and readable paintings in western art are frescoes and murals in and around Pompeii. Though now inland the town was, before its spectacular destruction, a prosperous mercantile port idyllically situated on the Bay of Naples. Some paintings are at least 2,200 years old, yet we can read them perfectly, as if they had been painted yesterday. The drawing is expressive sufficient to convey exactly those subtleties of emotion and meaning the painter intended whilst convincingly illustrating the required narrative. Gestures, postures and facial expressions, right down to the most complex and tricky foreshortenings, are instantly legible, utterly convincing. We have a good idea what these people might be thinking. In one suite of beautiful pictures by an unnamed artist at the Imperial Villa at Oplontis, built for Nero’s wife on the outskirts of the town and painted only a few years before the Vesuvian eruption of AD79 which buried and preserved them, the drawing of figures is as acutely observant as Goya’s sketches of everyday folk in the streets of Madrid 1,700 years later. This ability still to communicate feelings between distant cultures, individuals, economies and social structures across millennia is surely not a connection between people to be so casually jettisoned, and especially when figurative art is still so demonstrably popular with artists, audiences and collectors. Whether it has ‘bourgeois’ connotations or not the art form beloved of the majority is, incontestably, figurative art. This should not be a cause for derision, but for some reason it is.

And yet, perversely, figuration is the one style that finds no place in art schools. We have a duty of responsibility to teach properly this now alternative art form. Those skills needed to master it should be available in at least selected art schools alongside the currently exclusive diet of ‘theory’. The truth is that there will always be a need for artists of a non-radical kind requiring specialist tuition.

Despite desperate claims to the contrary by the art establishment, there is no significant audience for conceptual work, except among those whose careers rely on its continued ascendancy – and not forgetting those who hoard and speculate in it. Conceptualism is as much an art form exclusive to the rich as ever was any aristocratic (or bourgeois) art of the past – the only difference being that the new aristocracy try to forcefeed their whimsies down our throats at every opportunity whilst pretending that it is the best of what is currently being produced. And just as in those former days most working people never encountered an oil painting, so the same group now never see a work of conceptual art, at least not one they will recognize as such. The overwhelming majority own no interest in conceptual art and wouldn’t walk two feet to see it. Even those purporting religious devotion to it certainly can’t accommodate most of it even in their mansions. Recent ‘Challenging Contemporary Art’ is an art form made for institutions, theorists, and colossally rich investors, and for the great profit of storage repositories. It is certainly not for general audiences and domestic consumption.

Thus, two generations of students of painting and sculpture have already been let down by recent tendencies in fine art education, not least its refusal in many cases to teach anything practical. The uncompromising prescriptiveness of official contemporary art, in its Minimalist and Conceptualist forms, is intolerant and unreasonable and should be revised in order to accommodate those wishing to learn a different approach.

Art schools must surrender their current dictatorship. They should provide the necessary tools required by artists of all stylistic leanings and not solely of one approach that has become accepted by default as the officially approved method. No reason suggests itself why different philosophies of art and its education should not co-exist in mutual respect. And no plausible reason obtains why the learning of skills should be considered so oppressive, especially if this is the student’s wish. Neither is there any reason why the so-called ‘de-skilling’ of art education should be considered laudable, as indeed it is by many of the art establishment’s younger adherents who have no experience of any other methods.

Whither Now?

Is the approach underpinning current fine art teaching in universities likely to reform any time soon? The simple answer is ‘No’. In order to change a system which has served its carefully selected devotees so assiduously would require a miracle. Nothing will change until a more vocal and influential groundswell exposes the obvious inadequacies within the present system. Those in authority have hitherto easily deflected opposition to the status quo as the opinion of reactionary cranks. When control over all aspects of decision making and supervision are allocated only to undeviating true believers dissent can be brushed aside, ignored until it goes away. Those responsible for having engineered the current system are in positions of unimpeachable authority; as previously stated many are considered beyond criticism and some have even been awarded the highest honours for their ‘contribution to art’.

The status quo is endorsed wholeheartedly by the Establishment, and is ferociously defended by them against all opposition. For those sinecurists secure in positions of power, and supported in their dogma by sympathetic national institutions, their boards of trustees and influential artists who benefit from current policy, there is no pressure to alter a system which operates like clockwork and which delivers the raw materials institutions, galleries, rich collectors, investors and markets require. Any change would depend on the agreement and co-operation of predominantly young staff members who have never known anything other than what is on offer. They are unlikely to agree to an undermining of their authority or the widening of a curriculum to include tuition in practical skills they are so demonstrably unequipped to teach. And the prospect of improvement is not advanced by the unhelpful fact that a supine Department of Culture, from where any policy change would have to originate, is a transit lounge for second-raters eager to do nothing that might jeopardise quick promotion to a grander department.

There is, however, a possibility that the edifice of fine art education might eventually collapse under the weight of its own redundancy, complacency and arrogance, not to mention the widespread public mockery of such an educational travesty. Weighing the prospects of a qualification rendering them redundant of either skills or job prospects, future students may calculate that the resulting piece of paper is debased currency not worth the expense incurred to acquire it. In this case universities will have to make the content of courses reflect what students want rather than the limited fare they are prepared to offer.

The most probable catalyst for change, therefore, is likely to be market driven. Since 2010 when tuition fees were increased to £9,000 a year, students have become more demanding of courses they believe are failing or inadequate, or cost too much for their limited offerings. Facing an average debt on graduation of £36,000, BA students as a tribe are increasingly vocal when they believe they are not getting their money’s worth. In these circumstances, and ever mindful of losing valuable revenue, universities will have to be more responsive than they have been. Students requiring something that is not on offer, but which they believe should be, are in a powerful position to force provision of such services.

 

Any sort of reform would, however, encounter insuperable difficulties not least because of the extremity that has been reached. Like Modernism itself, which hit the buffers when it produced the reductio ad absurdum of a white monochrome painting, art education has itself reached the full stop of teaching nothing at all. With such a terminus reached there is nowhere to go, forwards or backwards. Change would require reversing a current which began in 1837; that is, when the stranglehold of the most conservative teachings was first recognised as inappropriate for everyone. This won’t happen. And neither should it, because, like it or not, conceptual art is here to stay and has achieved in its relatively brief life some stimulating innovations. Besides, museums, galleries, storerooms and tax-free depositories the world over are packed with the stuff. A nine-floor extension has recently opened behind the already enormous Tate Modern in order to house yet more of it. We must all learn to recognise excellence across the diversity of styles and techniques now being used by artists. It is not my purpose here to suggest an end to anything, or its replacement by something else – that was the autocratic, ultimately destructive approach of Thubron, who stupidly believed he knew better for everybody – but merely to encourage a broadening of what is on offer in art education in order to meet the specialised requirements of those who have not been properly catered for since the last century.

While this has the obvious shortcomings of exclusiveness and considerable expense, increased availability of private alternatives to public art education has assisted the acquisition of skills by many figurative artists still succeeding in the non-fashionable gallery system. Cutting-edgers may have won after 1970 but conventional painters and sculptors didn’t go away – far from it. The considerable number of surviving and prospering figurative artists is testimony to an art form which, despite an absence of official teaching provision for it, has refused to die, inspite of institutional and critical forecasts to the contrary. Figurative art is also enduringly popular – every year the country’s most popular exhibition of contemporary art, at least in terms of raw attendance figures, is the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery.

As stated previously figurative painting is the style preferred by the majority. A walk through St James’s and Mayfair demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of galleries sell figurative painting, compelling evidence of a living demand. Hundreds of galleries nationwide give the lie to the mantra first stated in 1840 by French history painter Paul Delaroche that “painting is dead”.

 

There is a second and more important reason why a re-direction in fine art teaching is unlikely to happen any time soon. The trend in reducing space available for students, which began half a century ago with the absorption of art schools by polytechnics, would have to be overturned. But at a time when universities are ‘rationalising’ entire departments out of existence, which institutions would realistically pay for the necessary re-instatement of rooms, studios, teachers and materials? This won’t happen because, as indicated above, changes have gone so far as to make reconsideration impossible. We are all encouraged to ‘skill-up’ but the acquisition of practical art skills is paradoxically too expensive during times of recession and austerity. The regrettable truth is that in the public sector we can no longer afford to teach traditional skills in art. If students want them they will have to pay for them elsewhere or revert to the old apprenticeship method of the past whereby they learn in exchange for assisting in a working studio.

The shocking truth is that in today’s fine art education the State can only afford to deliver a worthless piece of paper.

The reversal of long-established trends of ever increasing student numbers occupying reduced space would not be entertained by university administrators for whom the teaching of nothing has the considerable virtue of cheapness. The unfortunate reality is that reviving the teaching of conventional skills would require an unaffordable building programme.

Now for the inevitable question: should all art students be taught how to draw effectively? Outside of the current hierarchies in university art departments I have encountered no one who believes this is less than desirable. It is undoubtedly advantageous if only because those who fail to make their way as, say, Turner Prize nominees in google_ad_width = 970; the conceptual realm will have a residue of skill to fall back on in order to make a living, even if only as a teacher.

Many today still agree with a precept most concisely stated by French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century:

 

“Drawing, properly taught, is the best way of developing intelligence and forming judgement, for one learns to see, and seeing is knowledge.”

 

Echoing this sentiment, painter John Wonnacott said recently:

 

“Every art school should have one life room, with one teacher who loves drawing always present, and it should be open all the time. There is no point in the existence of art schools if they don’t do this.”

 

Desirable perhaps, but, notwithstanding the unavailability of space, is the teaching of drawing, with its required concentration and focus, any longer realistic among students with a mindset conditioned by worshipping two successful generations of artists who get other people to make their work for them and whose fame and wealth have arrived easily and certainly, in the majority of cases, drawing free? I’m not convinced that it is.

As the take-up at private art schools demonstrates there are quantities of students still willing to dedicate themselves to the perfection of extremely difficult crafts. Those who require ‘skills’ are getting on with acquiring them despite the public art system. But given that there exists a market condition in which there is already a surfeit of artists whose average annual income is, according to Arts Council England, significantly below the state-designated poverty line, it is not obvious that we need more artists of any kind. On the contrary the only sensible conclusion is that we need fewer and better.

In such unfavourable circumstances what changes are practicable now?

Immediately possible is to allow private art schools teaching the traditional arts to award degrees for their full-time courses. This would enable their students, who are currently denied access to loans because of the non-degree status of their courses, to enjoy the same qualification as those attending universities. It is unfair to discriminate against students simply on the grounds of their stylistic preferences.

 

Degree adjudication bodies should be instructed not to prescribe what private school courses must teach for fear of diluting what made them independent in the first place, or of coercing them towards the nihilism available in the public art system. Current curricula of private art schools must be accepted for what they are and their distinctiveness respected. Students select these courses precisely because they offer the skills, tuition and materials they need.

As I write the success of private art schools is underwritten by the fact that both the winner of the 2016 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery and the 2015 Jerwood Drawing Prize were won by students from The Royal Drawing School – BP winner Clara Drummond had in fact previously been taught at the Rome Academy and had passed a period of apprenticeship under a recognized painter before attending the drawing school in London. Indeed, out of 53 works exhibited in this year’s BP Portrait Award 31 of the artists were trained in academies abroad and a handful of these were Britons who had presumably chosen a foreign school because of the better tuition offered there.

Why should it be that only in Britain do we have a problem with the comprehensive teaching of conventional approaches to painting in state-run institutions? Certainly, they don’t have an issue with it abroad. Nowhere else does the orthodoxy of conceptualism seem to exercise such a relentless stranglehold over all aspects of public art education.

Those attending private art schools in Britain have to pay fees often less than the £9,000 a year currently payable for attending, say, London’s University of the Arts. The amount of studio time and teaching given is also greater in the private sector, so they receive more teaching for their money. Their students, however, have to pay fees and living expenses without the advantage of State assistance, because only those on degree courses qualify for loans. This is unfair. Even if degree status is not vouchsafed, students on non-degree courses should still be allowed equal access to state finance. There have been recent criticisms, in particular aimed at the acting profession, about the arts becoming the preserve solely of the privately educated. This is also true of those wishing to receive a proper training in figurative art which, through warped Establishment attitudes and prejudices, depends less on talent and more on an ability to pay.

The disadvantage of not being awarded a degree in the private sector is further compounded. As has always been the case with art students, many fine art graduates wish to become specialist art teachers in primary and secondary schools. Currently only those with degrees can apply for such vocational courses. Those who have been taught nothing but theory, and therefore have no practical skills to pass on, walk into teacher training courses whereas