How fine art and design coexist

Art and Design
March 24, 2000

This is not a straightforward narrative history of the Royal College of Art or of the changing art and design scene through which it has existed since its creation as the Government School of Design in 1837 or the award of its present title by Queen Victoria in the early 1890s. Rather it is a collection of contributions by a whole team of people, coordinated by the rector, Christopher Frayling. It includes some personal and illuminating statements by several well-known artists and designers, and short essays on a few key members of staff who are no longer alive. As such it is a highly imaginative and well-designed piece of work, each section being illustrated by numerous passport-sized photographs of work by members of staff and students of that particular period. The book as a whole represents an intriguing piece of vertical and horizontal thinking that anyone interested in the visual arts in England will find an invaluable resource.

The Victorian era of the institution is briefly described: its original, farsighted but unattainable intention to train designers to improve the competitiveness of British industry and commerce and its subsequent destiny when it became "the Vatican" and ultimate training ground for teachers in the proliferating art-school system. Under its new and royal title, its ideology became dominated by the Arts and Crafts movement and it was only in 1920, with the appointment of William Rothenstein as principal, that the college seemed to be set on course to become the institution it is today. Rothenstein shifted the emphasis away from teacher training, encouraged students in their final year to take part in public projects and exhibitions, engaged part-time practising artists to teach and, in his belief that good design could only emerge from a complete understanding of the arts, appointed Paul Nash, then an up-and-coming painter, to teach part-time in the design department. This, various contributors make clear, was a special time in the college's history: Henry Moore was exhibiting against Enid Marx textiles at Zwemmers Gallery alongside quotations from Le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture ; Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Ceri Richards, John Piper, Cecil Collins, Barnett Friedman, Sam Haile and Harry Thuberon were becoming well-known names. Pottery and textile firms were beginning to make use of artists; Frank Pick at London Transport and Jack Beddington at Shell began using these and other artists to convey a public-relations message.

After wartime evacuation to Cumberland and the return to derelict buildings, the college was in need of new impetus, and this was exactly what Robin Darwin gave it. The phoenix became his motto. The Festival of Britain was on the horizon, and commissions were successfully sought for staff and former students. Determined to free it of bureaucratic control and to raise its image, Darwin persuaded the government to give the college its own council of management, enabling it to control its own destiny, gain new buildings, achieve university status, offer its own degrees, and to become eventually what it is now - a solely postgraduate institution of international standing.

Contributors make clear that this great advance in status and reputation was not achieved without inner turbulence. Department-by-department, changes are charted that have taken place over the past 50 years. Darwin's phoenix becomes the next rector's dodo. As new artists and designers are brought in, structures, departments and courses are altered, many of the changes due to a constant flux of ideas of how to relate fine art to design and design to fine art.

Certain things emerge that seem to be important. Many former students coming into the college discovered it to be a very exciting place. James Dyson writes of his excitement at meeting live practitioners - professional designers and architects. David Hockney found that the staff did not impose on him as they had in Bradford and was surprised to find they welcomed argument. London was exhilarating, and so many of the staff and the students at the college were highly talented. Alison Britton in her essay draws attention to a shift in staff expectation - not to instruct but to advise and help students to find their own feet. After studying at the Central School, where she had gone through every technique but without much time to decide what to do with her skills, she found herself at the college "pitched into a complete playpen where you could do anything and I didn't know what to do. I really floundered." But she came through; for a creative person, having to find one's own personal way was a most valuable piece of education. Ominously, I feel, she remarks of the present regime - "more teaching, more engagement, more projects, less time and space". For weaker students, perhaps an advantages; for the more talented, probably a retrograde step.

The theme that comes most strikingly through this dense book, and makes it such a rich resource, is the college's success in the field of design, fulfilling at last the purpose of the original institution. Darwin's decision to move away from design as a general subject and divide it up into specialist areas was crucial to this development. Section by section, contributors take us through the progress made in each particular field and, where it comes to some of them, such as automotive design and fashion, the results are almost breathtaking. The involvement of the Ford motor company and leading fashion houses reflects the high esteem in which the college is now held. The secret of this success seems to have lain in two directions. The hierarchy of disciplines has gone - fine art is no longer superior to applied arts but has lost none of its importance. And all students are encouraged to work across disciplines, absorbing as a normal part of their studies both environmental issues and contemporary means of communication.

Peter Cox was formerly founder principal, Dartington College of Arts.

Art and Design: 100 Years of the Royal College of Art

Author - Christopher Frayling
ISBN - 1 85585 725 1
Publisher - Collins and Brown
Price - £29.95
Pages - 319

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