Schools, Students

Summer Studio at Sion Hill 1988

Summer Studio at Sion Hill 1988

I need to address those forty years when I earned my living by teaching at BAA, BCHE, BSUC and BSU, all acronyms for the same institution, more or less (and I also taught at a dozen or so other Art Schools).This was when the establishment I worked for went from Art School to University College and then became a University. My teaching span covered Foundation, BA and MA and now, well into retirement, I have been working alongside Post-graduate and PhD students at Corsham Court.

The Art School was originally a building accommodating students and staff, (teaching, admin, maintenance and technical) as well as equipment, materials and workspaces, all dedicated to teaching and learning Art. My area was Fine Art, which included painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography. Although at Bath Academy of Art there were other subjects (and in earlier times it was a place to train to be an Art Teacher), the Academy was nevertheless Art-compelled. It offered an environment that demonstrated confidence in the purpose and belief in its subject, and the conviction that Art is a necessity for a humane and civilised world.

I would argue that, within the University structure, Art has now been sidelined, downgraded as an expensive indulgence – it is thought to be a Subject that makes a contribution only to leisure. Art courses are often considered as ‘hobby’ courses, not as significant contributors to the economic health (or wealth) of the nation.

At Corsham, the two Sculpture studios were in and next to the building formerly known as the Riding School, neighbour to St. Bart’s in Church Square. For a long time there was only John Hoskin and me. We had no technical help, that is, until the Plaster Master Mancini (“call me Mac”) arrived. This meant that I was jack-of-all-trades. It was my job to be involved in making armatures, clay modelling, mould-making, working direct in plaster or casting with Ciment Fondu (my material of choice at that time). For my first Open Days at BAA I worked with students to make nine sculptures, all dotted around Beechfield for the edification of its innumerable visitors. These were all works made on a larger-than-usual scale. John was welding every day, doing something similar in the metal workshop.

The change from an Institute of Education Diploma and a National Diploma in Design to the DipAD (Diploma in Art and Design) meant an expansion. The Art school needed new staff, new buildings and more equipment, if the Academy was to be granted the powers to award this latest Degree.

Martin Froy, as Head of Fine Art, took me to lunch at the Royal Oak in Corsham High Street, to sound me out as to whether or not I would wish to be full-time (rather than two days a week for thirty-two weeks of the year). He tempted me with a larger all-the-year-round salary and health insurance which would protect me and my family, plus a contract that gave me security of tenure. These were benefits that were of little consequence to me then. I was horrified at the prospect of becoming a ‘teacher’ only making sculpture at weekends, rather than a sculptor who was teaching part time. If Froy had suggested that it would be good for my work, my response might have been different, but he did not pretend that this would be the case. Froy asked me again some weeks later and I still said, “No. Thank you”. By having two days’ work at BAA, with some extra teaching at other art schools, I earned just about enough. The time to make sculpture and my need to build a career was of prime importance to me.

Tim Scott came to look at BAA. I took him on a tour, but he did not apply for the job, possibly for the same reasons as me. Two full-timers were appointed soon after this, Ray Robinson (straight out of the Slade School) and Kenneth Hughes (formerly Slade School and Birmingham). I was not involved in their selection. Prior to this I had looked after the management of Sculpture but gradually Ken Hughes took over, and soon afterwards John Hoskin, who did not respond positively to these changes, left for a Residency at the University of Lancaster and Hughes took charge. Meanwhile Robinson had been asked to leave. He was a follower of the Slade sculptor, Anthony Hatwell and it was thought that the ‘narrowness’ of his teaching was counter to the Corsham ethic. It was unacceptable to preach a dogma which narrowed the student experience and only enabled work  produced within severe limitations. Rather than working as creative individuals, his students were taught as a group, with entirely predictable outcomes.

During my time at BAA, there were those among the senior staff who were troubled that a Fine Art course did not equip graduates for future employment. For example, Clifford Ellis suggested for Year Two Fine Art students, typing courses; that is, for the women. For men, a welding course – both to be taken at Wiltshire College. There were not too many candidates for either of these lessons. The next attempt to prepare my students for life after Art School – handed down from the Principal’s office on the second floor of Corsham Court – were a series of tests to determine the level of their technical skill, and measure their achievement in the metalwork or the casting workshops.

 Anna Horton neighbour, friend and Fine Art graduate 2013

Anna Horton neighbour, friend and Fine Art graduate 2013

I judged it unnecessary to be so prescriptive. My students developed manual dexterity, and technical proficiency with a range of methods and materials, an understanding of the making process, problem solving and the development of their individual creativity. These are all attributes that made sculpture students, in particular, extremely employable at a staggeringly wide range of jobs. I have knowledge of a number of ex-students who supplemented their income as a sculptor with occasional teaching, and working as a Plumber or an Electrician.

Beechfield was the second Academy campus, on the northern edge of Corsham, just off the A4 at Pickwick. Here the Ceramics, Graphic Design, Painting, Photography and Printmaking Courses were housed; located in the Main house, in the stable block and in the collection of white painted breeze block ‘huts’ that were occupied as painting studios. Additionally there were several huts for male students’ accommodation.

The third campus was at Monks Park, to the south of Corsham, this was female accommodation and also contained Silk Screen workshop.

The consequence of moving the Sculpture Course from Corsham Court to Beechfield in 1974 was that Sculpture occupied larger studio spaces, better workshops and there was additional staff, including regular part-timers Peter Green and Laurie Whitfield. For a while Clive Shepherd, with his wit and wisdom, was a regular visitor before his horrible and untimely death. Green became full-time when the job became available. I was not invited to apply; I was after all incompatible with the others, who were ex-Slade and not Royal College! It is bizarre for me to go on exercising such a distinction, nevertheless it seems to me that they were more culture and less sculpture; I was the other way round.

There was John Repper, (stalwart of the metal workshop), John Webb (in the plaster shop) and Geoff Hawkins (in woodwork and everywhere else). At some point Ken Hughes had a sabbatical term (as did I before him, to make three sculptures for public places). Replacing Ken’s teaching, we had a succession of visitors that included Richard Deacon and Anish Kapoor. The permanent safe worked together and played together (Boule, Badminton, Squash), for fifteen years, friends in and out of college.

Bath Academy amalgamated with Bath College of Higher Education with some reluctance. The move, under protest and demonstration from Beechfield to Sion Hill (in Bath), finally took place in 1986. The several senior staff that had determined not to go to Bath had taken early retirement. Jo Hope had gone to Camberwell School of Art and Colin Crumplin took over as Head of Fine Art. I welcomed the move to a city school – my experience at other Art schools had shown that the best applicants for sculpture applied to urban schools. At Corsham it was becoming increasingly difficult to achieve our quota of promising sculpture students.

At Sion Hill the new provision for sculpture was built to accommodate thirty undergraduates. A decade later this number had doubled. We were, for a time, almost independent of BCHE and the Main campus at Newton Park. A leaner fitter group of staff at Sion Hill began to reinvigorate Fine Art, to put in place courses informed by the lessons we had understood at Corsham. Good artists make good teachers, make good students, make good artists.

I was Senior Lecturer Responsible for Sculpture. To start with, my room at Sion Hill was within the workspaces. During most of the four days a week that I was employed at Sion Hill in term time, I was able to spend the largest part of my day as a teacher working with my students and the technicians: Mark Van de Woestyre in the casting shop and Simon Butler in the Metal workshop. My fifth day, either a Monday or a Friday, was for Research, usually taken within the College studios or my own studio. With Saturday and Sunday this gave me three consecutive days for making sculpture.

Although the administrative burden gradually increased (and as far as I can tell goes on increasing) I worked with colleagues who were content to do paperwork and to be in charge. Senior staff, Alan Carter and Colin Crumplin left me to teach and encouraged me to organise innovative projects; study trips, student/staff exhibitions and the Henry Moore Fellowships. The visiting lecturers to Sculpture in Bath included Denise de Cordova, Cathy de Monchaux, Andrew Sabin, Charles Hewlings, Janet Emery, Rachel Evans, and Tina O’Connell. Denise de Cordova and Charles Hewlings went from Bath to the RCA of Glynn Williams (Glynn was an External Examiner at Sion Hill, so was Phyllida Barlow and Gerard Wilson). Before he moved on, Andrew Sabin recommended Alex Landrum as his replacement. Alex was then doing his MA at Chelsea. He proved to be a good partner – modernism with tradition!

Visiting staff to Sculpture regularly stayed over with Marlene and me, both at Marshfield and Atworth – a list of notables like Anish Kapoor, who charmed Marlene’s niece, Karen; Mark Dunhill, Simon Read, and Richard Deacon who was very good at washing up (knives and forks first), and afterwards there were long conversations about the state of British Sculpture. Rachel Evans was almost our lodger, Peter Kinley stayed and Denise de Cordova too.

Kathleen Cumming, Peter Green and Ivor Heal Sculpture Studio, Corsham Court

Kathleen Cumming, Peter Green and Ivor Heal Sculpture Studio, Corsham Court

Retained in memory, but rigorously sorted into the good, the bad and the ugly, are the young and not-so-young people that I have worked with. However I can remember more clearly their sculpture, painting, drawing, video and performance, rather than their features. I can recall their creative struggles, their seriousness and unselfish commitment to understanding and enriching their world, and for the most part the absence of greed and self-interest.

I taught about five hundred students and by and large enjoyed working with almost all of them and I was friendly with very many of them. Lovely Laura Ford, Peter Randall-Page and Victoria Woollard, for example. However, very few became friends. One definition of friendship that I have is that it is love without sex, and, not surprisingly few of my students attained that status. Additionally, another of my characterisations of a friend is someone who eats at my table and sleeps in my house. My first sculpture student Ivor Heal qualifies as a friend and so does Bridget Heal, who after some days as a sculptor went on to do Graphic Design and became very good at it. Nick and Janet Pope are friends too.

Almost unique though, is my friendship with Jo Giles. She was a student for whom it was a pleasure to go to work. We formed a bond then that has persisted well beyond the cut-off point of Graduation, and has been a constant for more than twenty five years.

I am told that nowadays the rising flood of paperwork and endless meetings – together a sizeable distraction – are exhausting the hours that were formerly spent teaching. Not that Art can be taught. What can be given to students are the technical and material means and the encouragement to develop their innate creativity. I know that making and learning through the acquisition of skills and the time available to explore and test ideas has now diminished. The job that meant so much to me, and was by and large reasonably well paid, is now a mish-mash, a blur. In recent years, and especially during this time of funding cuts (coupled with increased fees), Art Education within a University has become Pupil-led, directed by those who pay for their tuition. The Masters, mired in an administrative bog, may be abdicating their responsibilities.

Did the Art Schools do such a bad job? I don’t think so, but then I would say that wouldn’t I? Nevertheless it seems to me that now is the perfect moment to start again, to launch the New Independent Art School!