To coincide with its major relocation to a new site in King’s Cross, artist and teacher Malcolm Le Grice traces the history of Central Saint Martins, from the mid-19th-century to today. This is the first in an occasional series of essays on art schools around the world
With the Salon des Refusés of 1863, the academy was emphatically rejected as the judge of style or quality, and the decades following this revolt saw various attempts to find a more relevant basis for art, craft and design education. In the UK these developments were often led by distinct philosophies. In 1871, for example, John Ruskin founded his own School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, reacting against the restrictive training model known as the South Kensington System; his focus on ‘nature’ and an observational emphasis on drawing from life was at the time seen as radical. Following this lead, a more dramatic and influential change in British art education came through the Arts and Crafts Movement led by William Morris, and was embodied in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s magnificent Glasgow School of Art, which opened in 1907. Though more distinctly Modernist than Ruskin, the movement also ran counter to the uniformity of industrial manufacture, stressing instead artisanal creativity. These ideals led to the foundation of London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1896, which from 1908 inhabited a similarly spectacular building designed by Morris’s friend William Lethaby. A co-founder of the Art Workers Guild in 1884, which sought to break the distinction between fine and applied arts, Lethaby not only designed the building but, as its principal, set its pedagogical direction, fostering a creative approach to crafts such as book-binding, typography, silversmithing and stained glass. Though the subject areas evolved with an increasing emphasis on design, the stamp of Lethaby’s influence remained intact for more than 80 years and survived the merger with Saint Martins in 1982.
Postwar art schools across the UK played a major role in making higher education available to young men and women who would not have considered university but could get a grant to study art. This shifting student demographic was reflected in changes of attitude in art education. A key moment was the appointment in 1952 of Victor Pasmore to lead the art course at Kings College, University of Durham, which was based in Newcastle (the course became part of Newcastle University in 1953). This was one of only a handful of British art schools to be attached to a university before the national incorporation of polytechnics in 1992. Pasmore, who had studied at the Central School, soon appointed Richard Hamilton – who had been an evening-class student at Saint Martins – to a regular teaching post that lasted until 1966. Both Pasmore and Hamilton encouraged their students to give free rein to individual creativity unfettered by artistic dogma. Hamilton was, of course, equally influential on popular musical culture, designing the artwork for The Beatles’ White Album (1968) and working with his student Bryan Ferry on a reconstruction of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass (1965–6), now in the Tate collection.
During the same period, Harry Thubron at Leeds College of Art was particularly influential in translating a radical artistic attitude into a defined curriculum, sub-sequently widely adopted across the country. As Head of Fine Art, his ‘basic design’ concept, specifically influenced by Paul Klee’s lecture notes and diaries from his time at the Bauhaus, replaced traditional and specific skills by a notion of visual literacy. But this was not a rigid system: Thubron encouraged students to explore their contemporary experience outwards from themselves and, as artist and curator Jon Thompson has put it, to ‘exercise their intuition, to explore their own sensibilities’.¹
Attracting artists as teachers and the pick of talented students, the Royal College of Art (RCA) and the Slade School of Fine Art continued to have an impact in the 1960s. At the RCA, painter Carel Weight provided a course in which David Hockney could thrive as a student, while, at the Slade, Harold Cohen and R.B. Kitaj (who had been at the RCA with Hockney) opened an alternative to the previously dominating, measured aesthetics of William Coldstream’s Euston Road School and the heavy impasto figuration of David Bomberg and his pupil Frank Auerbach. This was a shift which benefited artists including Terry Atkinson and John Stezaker, who graduated in 1964 and ’69, respectively.
Up until the 1950s, Saint Martins had an interesting if unspectacular history, its identity as nondescript as its building on Charing Cross Road. Since the middle of the 19th century, the college had occupied a series of ad hoc buildings through arrangements with the Church School of St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Mary’s Church, as well as various short term annexes – anything from a floor above Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road to a studio on top of the Musicians’ Union on Archer Street, as well as bits and pieces on Greek Street. To my knowledge, the lift didn’t work properly for at least 40 years. Saint Martins was not one of Britain’s fancy art schools, nor was it generously funded like the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles or the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, both of which were founded earlier in the century. But this was an important factor: Saint Martins had no tradition to uphold and its artistic responses could be as adaptive as its building.
The college’s rising reputation rested first on developments in the Sculpture Department, under its benevolent head Frank Martin. Appointed in 1952, he brought in Anthony Caro a year later, then a little-known figurative sculptor still only in his twenties. Caro’s near-30-year tenure coincided with his own transition to abstraction and with his growing international status as an artist, primarily through a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1963. As a teacher Caro had an enormous influence on a generation of sculptors which included Philip King, David Annesley, Michael Bolus and Tim Scott, all of whom attended Saint Martins in the late ’50s before returning to teach there shortly afterwards. The institution soon developed a reputation as the leading school for sculpture’s ‘New Generation’ – a title chosen for the group’s 1965 Whitechapel Gallery show, curated by Bryan Robertson. Following Caro’s lead, the work explored colour, sat directly on the floor rather than on plinths (at the time dubbed ‘floor art’) and extended the use of non-traditional materials including plastics and fibreglass. (Donald Judd’s seminal essay ‘Specific Objects’, which describes ‘work that is neither painting nor sculpture’, was published in the same year.) However, even by the mid-’60s, the Caro influence that had become stylistically dominant was already leading to a backlash.
The second major influence on sculpture at Saint Martins was Peter Kardia, who in 1965 devised a single ‘Fine Art’ programme, combining the painting and sculpture departments for the first time. Though this was initiated as a strategic convenience to satisfy national diploma and degree requirements, the programme immediately resulted in a radical shift. Like Roy Ascott, who had studied under Pasmore and Hamilton in Newcastle, and whose highly innovative ‘Groundcourse’ at the Ealing College of Art and Design had been curtailed in 1963 after only two years by a local educational authority that understood neither contemporary art nor cybernetics, Kardia did not start from notions of artistic style but from much more fundamental questions about the creative process, exploring its meanings and uncertainties. Kardia, like Caro, had worked as an assistant to Henry Moore, though from 1953 he had spent six years teaching in the African College in Natal, South Africa, where he developed a special interest in Zulu art. But the main impetus guiding his thoughts on art education began when teaching with Harry Thubron in Leeds. Kardia’s impact on students and staff at Saint Martins – and later, from 1973–86, in Environmental Media at the RCA – was considerable. In 2010 this was documented for the first time in the survey exhibition ‘From Floor to Sky’ at Ambika P3 in London, which showcased works by past students of Kardia, including, Roger Ackling, Nina Danino, Richard Deacon, John Hilliard, Richard Long Jean Matthee, Katharine Meynell and Bill Woodrow. Describing Kardia’s methods in the exhibition catalogue, Hester R. Westley says: ‘Put simply, his projects did not anticipate a specific finished “art object”; instead they were designed to consider the behavioural, cultural and even political forces that motivated the sculptor.’²
Of course, Kardia’s influence was only one of several. Reaction against the Caro school also led to Gilbert & George, who did the post-diploma, Advance Sculpture course: I saw them present The Singing Sculpture in a corridor of Saint Martins just prior to its 1970 presentation at Nigel Greenwood Inc Ltd (which, together with Situation, Lisson and Jack Wendler, was one of the only galleries in London prepared to show emerging artists). If Gilbert & George were influenced by Kardia it was indirectly, through the unavoidable debate going on in the school at that time, and was part of a resistance to the sculptural object seen also in Richard Long and Bill Woodrow, who attended Saint Martins at the same time.
Located in Soho, the school was always close to popular culture, fashion and rock music. I recall early performances from various experimental bands including Pink Floyd and former Saint Martins student Bruce McLean’s silent and prophetic Nice Style, which he describes as: ‘Not mime, not theatre, but live sculpture. My colleagues, Paul Richards, Ron Carr, Garry Chitty, Robin Fletcher and I created Nice Style “The World’s First Pose Band”, which performed for several years.’³ Joe Strummer of The Clash also studied at Saint Martins in the early 1970s and, in November 1975, the Sex Pistols played their first gig there while their original bass player, Glen Matlock, was still a student. This connection with music has, of course, continued, with ex-students including Jarvis Cocker and M.I.A, who graduated in 1991 and 2001, respectively. (Indeed, Pulp played an impromptu gig at the party to mark the closure of Saint Martins’ Charing Cross Road space.)
The period around 1966 saw significant changes in the way art was made and reached the public. There was a growing interest amongst artists in media technologies, particularly film and portable video (the Sony Portapak was introduced in 1967), but also an emerging interest in computers and cybernetics; artists were also often engaged with political groups including the anti-war movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. At Saint Martins these influences were reflected by a wide range of visiting tutors. John Latham, for example, organized a series of seminars – not just the infamous chewing-up of Clement Greenberg’s book Art and Culture (1961) – at his home, with students including Barry Flanagan. But his returning the glass vial of fermented sputum, rather than the book, to the school library resulted in his sacking by an out-of-his-depth principal, Edward Morse (though Latham received some consolation when Essence of Art and Culture, 1966, a work comprising his dismissal letter and the vial of liquefied book, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1969). Latham also connected the students to a radical London art scene that included provocative public performance often leaving little or no trace of an object including Latham’s own book burnings (the ‘Skoob Tower Ceremonies’, 1964–8) and the auto-destructive work of Gustav Metzger. This came together in September 1966 with the ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’, at the Africa Centre in London, where participants included Yoko Ono and the Austrian actionists Otto Mühl and Günter Brus. Latham also introduced students to the Artist Placement Group, the organization he founded in the same year with his wife Barbara Steveni (an active member in Fluxus circles), to arrange residencies for artists in industrial and administrative organizations around the UK.
I taught at Saint Martins for 20 years from 1964, and between 1966 and ’68 I also linked students to newly formed artists organizations working outside the gallery system: the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, the Arts Laboratory and the Computer Arts Society. In 1967, I set up an experimental film unit at Saint Martins that aimed to provide a framework for pioneering British artist–filmmakers including William Raban, Annabel Nicolson and Gill Eatherley; in the 1980s a second generation came through the programme, including Cerith Wyn Evans, Sandra Lahire and Isaac Julien. All these influences and initiatives contributed to an erosion of media boundaries that has since become widely accepted and fully integrated into a fine-art context in UK art education.
Around the same time that Kardia was transforming fine art, the Fashion Department at Saint Martins began to put greater emphasis on the concept of fashion as design. Saint Martins Fashion began when, in 1931, RCA graduate Muriel Pemberton taught fashion illustration two days per week, establishing a distinct department in 1946. By this time fashion education had completed an evolution from its Victorian origins – training young women in dress-making and textile production. Jane Rapley – previous Dean of Fashion and now Head of Central Saint Martins, who has also masterminded the move to Kings Cross – sees a parallel in the early development of the Fashion School to those in fine art: ‘A more creative and challenging attitude and a greater conceptual underpinning was introduced to the new concept of the Fashion School in the late 1960s by artist-designer Muriel Pemberton.’4
During the 1970s and ’80s, the teaching of women artists – including Tina Keane, Anna Thew, Anne Tallentire, Joanna Greenhill and Pam Skelton –was one of Saint Martins’ major contributions to art education. Their influence helped create a lasting shift in the gender profile in British art, and Saint Martins in general maintained a committed concern for gender, ethnicity and sexual politics throughout the Thatcher years. This ran counter to the art/business strategies underpinning the yBas, and the Saatchi Gallery and its approach to collecting, which was reflected academically at Goldsmiths College where the commercial was favoured over the social. While this attitude fitted well with Thatcher’s infamous ‘no such thing as society’ line5 and comedian Harry Enfield’s character Loads-a-Money, Goldsmiths clearly fostered significant work capturing and reflecting the mood of the age. More problematic for art and art education at the time were course closures, including Kardia’s ‘Environmental Media’, made at the RCA by Thatcherite rector Sir Jocelyn Stevens. At Saint Martins, the development of a politically aware theoretical underpinning to creative work continued, ultimately leading to the 1998 launch of the influential journal Afterall founded by curator Charles Esche and artist Mark Lewis. The journal now also operates as a book publisher, overseeing both the ‘One Work’ series and a new series of books focusing on exhibition histories.
Artists remain rightly suspicious of the academic. Incorporation of UK art schools into the university system began with the first degrees in Art and Design in 1976, and was completed in 1992 when all polytechnics were upgraded to universities. This raised their perceived status – art education was no longer seen as a form of craft training, but fully accepted alongside all intellectual education – but it has also brought problems. Incorporation of art education into the university system included assimilation into the research funding process. This began in 1992 with an enlightened attempt, under a panel chaired by artist and writer Colin Painter, to define research in the arts in a way that suited art practice. Subsequently, however, the criteria have veered inexorably towards accommodating a more conserva-tive academic research model, where art practice is required to pursue a ‘research question’ and assessment of art and design must justify itself by explaining its ‘research process’. Additionally, for undergraduate study, increased tuition fees, voted for by the coalition government in December 2010, has added to the burden of an existing system of student loans. David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, has stated that: ‘The package is fair for students, fair for graduates and affordable by the nation.’ There can be little doubt, however, that the ensuing debt will seriously discourage poorer students, inhibit art schools from taking risks and strengthen academic conservatism. In this context, an anti-academic attitude still has value – it remains necessary to protect the unpredictability and idiosyncracy essential to art’s creativity against conservative educational models. I hope that students of Central Saint Martins at the Granary will, to paraphrase Rapley, continue to rattle the cage.
On 26 September this year, students of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design began their courses for the first time in 1 Granary Square in King’s Cross, London, UK. The converted mid-19th-century Granary building replaces the institution’s 11 scattered sites – including the historic Central School in Holborn and Saint Martins on Charing Cross Road – and for the first time brings together almost all of the courses offered by the College under one roof.
1 Jon Thompson, exhibition catalogue, Harry Thrubon: Collages and Constructions, 1972-1984, 23 March - 27 April 2007, Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London, UK.
2 Hester R. Westley, exhibition catalogue, 'From Floor to Sky: British Sculpture and Studio Experience', Ambika P3, London.
4 Interview with the author, 13 June 2011
5 Woman's Own, 31 October 1987.
First published in Issue 142