Teaching and learning

Drawing was taught in Britain during the 17th century by travelling tutors whose students sometimes sought diversion but often needed the skills with which to record their observations, particularly on military campaigns and voyages of discovery.

It has been suggested that the first attempt to formalise the teaching of art was supported by the Treasury of Charles 1 [1].  Later, when Parliament decided that art practice should be harnessed to design for industry in the cause of trade and the national economy, the authorities sought a suitable model.  When a report was made to Parliament it was to recommend not the French but the Prussian approach.  The Prussians lived up to their military reputation, and Clive Ashwin has given a hilarious account of the regimentation of a drawing class – students chanting a response reminiscent of the training sequences in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket as they wield their drawing instruments in unison [2].  In 1836 the House of Commons voted the sum of £1,600 to enable the Board of Trade to set up a "Central School of Design" and The Government School of Design was duly opened on 1 June 1837 at Somerset House. Reflecting the Prussian model, art and industry were expressly linked and the approach to teaching was didactic in character, seeking to impose supposed standards of aesthetic excellence.

At the beginning of the 20th century drawing from the antique began to give way to drawing from the life model - at, for example, the Slade School.  Britain's art schools nevertheless remained somewhat conservative in character while the seeds of Modernism were being sown in France.  A search for realism was still under way when, in 1937, Claude Rogers, Victor Pasmore, William Coldstream and Graham Bell published a prospectus for a private art school in Fitzroy Street, later named The Euston Road School.  They taught their students to consider urban subjects in an objective way, but could not be said to teach from a theoretical position.  After 1945 they continued teaching and their methods had an enduring influence on British art, not least through their participation in the re-shaping of the system whereby institutions and courses were validated.  [3]

Changes that stemmed from the 1960 "Coldstream Committee" report gave impetus to the new ideas that had already been fermenting in some of the art schools in the 1950s.  A preoccupation with craft gave way to a world of ideas, such as those of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson ("On Growth and Form"), Norbert Weiner ("cybernetics") and Walter Gropius (the Bauhaus), from which new curricula began to emerge.  An example is provided by the energetic Harry Thubron, who taught in the 1950s at Kings College at the University of Durham with Victor Pasmore, Tom Hudson, Richard Hamilton, Alan Davie and Terry Frost.  All sought to articulate the basis of their teaching: Thubron was concerned to get his students to experiment in a constructive manner and favoured the basic design principles articulated during the life of the Bauhaus.  He did not have a theory or formula for his teaching; his model was Paul Klee and his goal was to engender a vital awareness of colour, shape and of the materials to hand.  Like many other influential artist-teachers, Thubron's influence was felt through the many institutions in which he held teaching and leadership posts.

[1]  Gilbert Benthall, a manuscript on the Early Art Schools in London, circa 1965.  (Held by National Art Library.)

[2]  Clive Ashwin (c1981), Drawing and education in German-speaking Europe, 1800-1900. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press.)

[3]  NACAE (1960, First Report of the National Advisory Committee on Art Education, (London: HMSO.)