A meditation on those places where you can learn to see things and make things, and mess around with materials and forms and colours, usually for no particular purpose other than what Murdo Macdonald calls here a ‘true education’. What will come of it, what has become of it?
What should an art school be? Thinking about my own art school, before it was rationalized out of existence, gives some clue. It was called Hammersmith College of Art and Building, and the building itself was, and remains, worthy of that name. Looking at it in 2022 the façade was as I remembered it in the mid-1970s, a beautiful articulation of arts and crafts brickwork. My fellow students were an invigorating group united by the fact that we all wanted to study in London but were not necessarily particularly good at art, although some were. I was a less than competent artist, I still am for the most part, but trying to make good art is one of the most illuminating things I have ever done and remains so. A true education. Everyone should attempt it. And to draw from life is at the heart of it, teaching you so much about the dimensions of space, the dimensions of existence, the way information articulates, and the sort of being you are. Nothing else comes close. The entry qualifications were modest (had they been any higher, I wouldn’t have got in), and the award was a certificate, not a diploma. But even as I studied, the college was absorbed, disappearing into the bureaucracy of a more well-known art school, Chelsea. That was a tragedy, although I only realise it in retrospect. Hammersmith served the needs of its local community and at the same time attracted international students. It should have been an educational model not a sacrifice to reorganisation.
The college provided what was fundamental and important, namely having space in a shared studio, a context of art history, and frequent opportunities to draw and paint with a tutor’s guidance. I remember being engaged in a very tentative, wispy, life drawing, when the tutor took my pencil and simply made a few bold lines in the right places. Suddenly, I understood that drawing was about mark-making; a thing in itself, not primarily an imitation. That experience introduced me to an important educational principle, namely that teachable moments really do happen. There was also notably good technical training in printmaking. I wish that wonderful print workshop still existed so I could photograph it. And there was a decent library. When my art history teacher told me to go off and acquaint myself with Bannister Fletcher, there it was on the shelf. A revelation of a book. That particular tutor, Eric Shanes, became a life-long friend. At the time he was establishing his reputation as a scholar of J. M. W. Turner’s work and some thirty-five years later we together identified a lost Ossian painting by Turner, hiding in plain sight under the wrong title in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Eric’s early death in 2017 was a tragedy, but the celebration of his life held at the heart of the Turner bequest at the Tate was memorable, not least for the number of Hammersmith students who turned up.
One of my fellow students cured me of the casual racism I had learned at school by kindly and politely pointing it out to me. I was aghast at my lack of insight. It was another teachable moment and it also taught me that kindness can be at the heart of teaching, and that a peer may teach you as much as a lecturer. Another of my fellow students, in the traditional art school manner, started a band. I advised him that ‘The Clash’ was not a good name for it, because the name for a band of Punk lineage should end phonetically more sharply, preferably a rude word. Fortunately, Mick Jones ignored me. Another student was a thoughtful and well-read Anglo-Indian, probably about ten or fifteen years older than I was. I learned a lot from him: on occasion when I was criticising some artist on the basis of my own ignorance, he would chime in to the conversation with the simple statement ‘but I thought you’d like so-and-so’. And so, I would think about why I was saying that I didn’t like so-and-so, usually finding no good reason for my view. My fellow student could see more of me that I could. Thus, I started by being negative about Titian and ended up loving his work. At the same time, I was finding American minimalism compelling, and my own work was drifting into structured colour fields and small pencil marks on board. The art historical antecedents of minimalism were fundamental to my thinking, Claude and Mondrian in particular, who I saw as two sides of the same coin three centuries apart, as I still do.
By then I was reading philosophy books without understanding them but intrigued, nevertheless. I wanted to take philosophy further. I wasn’t qualified to go to university, but a decent grade in Art History might get me there, so I studied more or less on my own, which turned out to be much more effective than being taught the wrong subjects at school. I got two crucial bits of help. I was thinking of taking the Renaissance paper, because the Renaissance was beginning to interest me, but my Anglo-Indian friend commented (to the point as usual) that he was surprised by that choice because I knew much more about the modern period. I realised that he was right, and learned another educational lesson, namely that what you are interested in is not necessarily what you know about. So, I turned to the modern period and asked Eric Shanes how I should prepare for it. In typical cut-the-crap fashion he said that the key thing to understand were the endpapers of the Observer’s Book of Modern Art, which showed diagrammatically how each movement interacted with every other, and that if I grasped that as a way of organising my knowledge, I would be OK. He was right. That was another lesson of educational practice: visual methods work.
When I think about what an art school should be, I think of Hammersmith. The diversity of my fellow students, which ranged from Londoners born nearby to Americans and Japanese, educated me in the local and the international as I needed to be educated. Had there been high fees and high entry requirements, that diversity would not have existed. And there were enough tutors around to help effectively. I didn’t really think about the building at the time, but I knew it was well designed. In retrospect the fact that it was a good building was fundamental to my education. It was made to help you think and do. I now know it to be a product of the remarkable London County Council architect’s department under the supervision of W. E. Riley. I don’t know who drew up the plans for the brickwork of the façade. It was completed in 1907, so it dates very precisely with Glasgow School of Art, and a comparison would be interesting. Mackintosh’s work is a clear move to modernism, Hammersmith is the intelligent assertion of a sustainable vernacular, but both buildings are rooted in an arts and crafts sensibility.