Clothes and Materials.

When I went to art college I had no idea what sort of clothes art students would wear, I’d had years of wearing school uniform. I was considered a bit of a rebel at school. We were expected to wear navy blue shorts and a white airtex shirt for sports. My mother was very fashion conscious and a brilliant needlewoman, she made my shorts into a navy playsuit that would not look out of place on a catwalk today. The teachers looked askance but allowed me to wear it. In the sixth form I insisted on wearing a black polo neck pullover rather than a blouse and tie. Mum loved quality and made all my other clothes…the patterns were the best from Butterick or Vogue. I can remember Viyella dresses and a beautiful coat. Her own clothes were always elegant. I believe that this was part of her that my father couldn’t understand. There was a major row when she bought a pair of Clarks sheepskin lined, expensive boots (her view was that quality products would last longer), I loved those boots, it was so hard to get rid of them when she died at fifty.

When she left I was sixteen, I was a bit at sea when it came to clothes, fortunately the fashion was for dirndl skirts which are about the easiest thing to sew. I borrowed my neighbours hand Singer sewing machine and bought cheap material from the market to make my own. It was very common for people to make their own clothes, the clothes on sale in shops still suffered from the shortage of cloth during rationing. they had the Utility mark on them.

Before the war my father called himself a journeyman. His speciality was in painting and decorating plus sign writing. I was impressed by his sign writing brushes which were crow quills very long and thin, he used them for shop and pub signs. He worked for himself and could turn his hand to most trades in the building industry.

Old thatched cottages were being bought up as status symbol homes, we had lots in the villages around us. The woman owner of a high class independent dress shop employed my father to renovate hers. She went bankrupt and couldn’t pay him but in compensation I could choose some clothes. They were definitely not the sort of clothes I would wear but he insisted. I chose a brown tweed suit and a pair of corduroy olive green trousers. My father insisted that I should wear the suit for my interview, he said I needed to look respectable! I took it to college with me and never wore it until the end. My suit became the interview suit for everyone to borrow when their bohemian looks wouldn’t do!

 

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When I got to Corsham my polo’s were OK and the green trousers. Trousers weren’t that usual for women at that time, I think jeans were just coming in but we couldn’t get them. I soon noticed that the women students were wearing circular skirts teamed with a black high necked cardigan worn backwards (with the buttons at the back.) To finish off the ‘look’ it was de rigeur to wear a small brightly coloured scarf. Women were more numerous (3/1) and much younger than the men, we had mostly come straight from school. The men were either ex servicemen taking the opportunity given them to retrain as teachers or young men who had just finished their National Service. The most ubiquitous piece of clothing for both men and women was the duffle coat. We bought them from ex army stores, the men wore the sand coloured ones, the women white ones as worn by the navy in the arctic and Howard Hodgkin (a fellow student) a black one! Howard married one of the girls in my year, they split later.

Living quarters. Monks Park the hostel for the women. The barracks were behind the house.

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The art school was split between three sites Corsham Court itself, Beechfield which also contained the hostel for the men and Monks Park the hostel for the women. The women had rooms in the old army barracks. They were wooden huts some long ones with separate rooms for about ten students and smaller more desirable ones for four students. I was allocated a room in a long hut. There was a communal kitchen and bathrooms at one end plus two music practice rooms with pianos. By the time you had imported some of your own things the rooms were totally adequate. I was one of the first to move in, the others came gradually and we shyly encountered each other making tea in the communal kitchen. We were from all over, you could hear Welsh, Geordie, Lancashire accents. We soon made friends and you felt a sort of loyalty for ‘your hut’. In the second year I moved to a smaller hut and felt quite a traitor. Having a boy friend, as I did all the time I was there, also cut you off from the female bonding.

We ate breakfast and our evening meal in the Monks Park house. The men living at Beechfield had to go all the way to Corsham Court for their meals. It couldn’t have been much fun getting up early then having to cycle or walk quite a way especially in bad weather.

Beechfields, the hostel for the men.

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Materials

We could buy all our art materials in the college shop in the basement at the Court. I had a county grant but I still needed to earn extra money, I worked in the college kitchen on Sundays and always had holiday jobs (more later) Materials were always short . We painted on board which we primed in our huts. Anyone who wanted the experience of painting on canvas had to go back to the army surplus store and buy up old canvas mattress covers. Wood could be bought locally for the stretchers. It was years before I had the experience of painting on canvas. Shortages really bit in when it came to teaching practice; schools had hardly any materials. Most of us had to take paper with us. The cheapest paper that we could buy in the shop was newsprint but it was too flimsy for children to paint on. On the few drawings I have which I did at that time the newsprint has gone yellow. We took the newsprint back to our huts in our portfolios (not easy carrying a portfolio when you are on a bike) and painted the sheets white with decorators paint. Wherever you went at Monks Park during Teaching Practice time there were pieces of paper laid out to dry, all down the corridors in the huts and on the floor in student rooms. You were lucky if the school had paint. It is difficult to believe now that there is such a huge variety of materials available, how much we had to improvise because of the shortages.

 

Sculpture

Malmesbury Abbeymalmesbury.jpgThe basic course was for two years, there was an intake of around thirty. Ten students were offered a third year of study, I was eleventh on the list BUT somebody dropped out, so there I was with another year. Of course I was overjoyed but Eric had finished his three years, we got engaged, he gave me the ring on the banks of the River Avon at Bath. He took his Bergen rucksack and set out to hitch hike round Europe for a year.

It had been noticed that I had an aptitude for three dimensional work and it was suggested that I should keep painting but take up sculpture as my main study.  Before the holidays I was sent to Malmesbury Abbey to make a large drawing in chalk and charcoal ,of the wonderful relief sculpture just inside the main porch. I found it very moving…still do. It started my love affair with the sculpture and other work of this period.

We were always given an assignment to do in the long summer holiday, mine was to go round Surrey making drawings of all the effigies. I had no proper home to go to only a series of dingy bed sits with my mother. It was so hard to get anywhere to live in those days. It was a bit embarrassing for me because sometimes ‘Uncle Joe’ , her lover would be there and at other times she was on her own. My parents had divorced because of my mothers affair (but I had good reason to believe that my father had had a liaison too.) Uncle Joe refused to leave his wife so he had the best of both worlds.drawingeff2

At that time she was living in Fasset Road, Kingston and working for the Min. of Ag. and Fish in Tolworth on the Kingston by pass. She had the shared use of a bathroom with a terrifying gas geyser that made sudden great gurgling noises and threatened to go off like a bomb. I cycled to so many villages on my mission. I was usually the only one in the church and I just loved the smell of old churches and the quiet time spent drawing these personages…I almost felt that I was getting closely in touch with the Middle Ages, that they would get up off their bases and start to talk. I still can’t resist a good effigy and am delighted when I find a new one to draw.

When the new term started I worked in the sculpture studio in the lofty riding school building at the bottom of Corsham Court front Drive. My tutor was Kenneth Armitage but I can’t remember a huge amount about him except (like plenty of other people) he spent time in The Pack Horse not very far away. He was quite laid back, I vaguely remember making an abstract plaster form. Whilst I was there he was replaced by Bernard Meadows who subsequently became Head of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art. He was a big shock because he was very disciplined, you had to be there on time in the morning and at the start of the afternoon session. He brought in a life model and we learnt how to make proper armatures. Our pieces were about a quarter life size, we made the general shape out of solid clay then painstakingly added tiny pieces with the thumb as we built up the forms that we saw on the body. I enjoyed the process of hard looking then building.

drawingeffbrecon.jpg We then learnt how to make a plaster cast from our clay model. Mine had about four pieces. We had thin ribbons of metal about two inches wide which were cut to the right size then pressed into the clay to make walls. We were  taught the right way to mix the plaster by sprinkling it until it formed a sort of mountain in the water. In order to prevent air bubbles you put your mixing hand in very gently and mixed the plaster under the surface of the water. It could start going off (i.e. going from fluid to cream) quite quickly. The first layers of plaster were thrown against the clay once again to stop air bubbles, after that you could smooth it on. It was a delightfully messy process, there was something magical about the way you could feel the liquid plaster getting hotter. Plaster went everywhere, all over your clothes, your hair, your shoes. That’s wasn’t the end though, as that was just the mould… which then had to be coated with shellac and soft soap, the separate mould pieces bound together then filled with more plaster. After a while the mould was chipped off and if you were lucky you had a beautiful plaster replica of your clay model in every detail. I know that later art students had the opportunity to have their pieces cast in bronze rather than plaster.

In our last term we were given a project to complete. I was sent to Dorchester abbey, in Oxfordshire to draw and record the dimensions of an effigy of a recumbent knight who is drawing his sword. The abbey remains one of my favourite church buildings, it seems to be full of light and the stone itself is pale. Apart from the knight it has another great treasure, a Tree of Jesse window. Jesse is lying at the bottom of the window and the uprights and tracery have little figures of his family, it’s very unusual. Dorchester was only a few miles from where I was born and I wrote to my father asking if I could stay, he didn’t reply.dorchester_abbey_knight_s1_r140

Back at college I had to make a life size replica in plaster of the knight for my final exhibition. I did it, but I really didn’t enjoy it, there was nothing exciting or particularly creative about it, it was a bit of a chore. As I might have indicated Corsham was usually rather poor on teaching technique… the emphasis was more on empirical learning…after that experience I think I’m rather glad, though there have been times when I have regretted it.

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Poetry and Music

There were elective courses that you could choose if you wanted to, no compulsion, but they were all of high quality. I had always liked to write so I took the opportunity to study poetry with James Kirkup. James was a gentle homosexual who had been a conscientious objector during the war and for his service he worked on the land.. It was interesting to me later to find out that he trained with the Quakers at Pontelands. There were about six of us in the group. He introduced us to the Japanese haiku form.

There was a kind of secret garden at the back of Corsham Court, it was behind the open air  bath house. All of the grounds were designed by Capability Brown, including the bath house. The garden was enclosed by shrubs and roses, in the centre there was a circular stone pond. It was a beautiful hot summer and he held his classes there. I can’t remember what I wrote but I do vividly remember that we had to go to the opposite side of the pond to declaim our work because water was a natural amplifier. I associate the sound of poetry with the heavy perfume of roses and lavender. My great friend Janet Harrison did the course with me, she became a published poet in her own right and later became Professor of Creative Writing at one of the leading universities in the USA. Sadly she died in her fifties.

James was a very prolific writer during his life, he died at 92. His autobiography called An Only Child is a beautifully written account of early childhood. He was born on Tyneside and his father was a carpenter. Although he was quite gentle he liked to be shocking and sadly all his other work has been eclipsed by the provocative side of his nature. He is mostly remembered now for his poem ‘The Love that Dares to Speak it’s Name’ (which deals with the homosexual love of one of the Roman centurions for the dead Christ’) it was published in Gay News. Mary Whitehouse won a case in the High Court for Blasphemous Libel. It was a notorious case.

Afterwards James spent most of his life in Japan writing and lecturing in Japanese Universities. His most valued poems are in the  form of  Japanese tankas.drawingkirkup

Music.

I’d grown up with music, and studied the piano for a bit but above all I liked to sing I , I’m took a short course in singing. The musical director was Henry Boys, a quiet erudite man but full of zeal to promote contemporary music. I can’t say that I enjoyed the singing lessons as he kept telling me that I was a soprano not an alto. I felt uncomfortable in the register that he was making me use. I had sung in the school choir and as one of a duet but always as an alto. I gave up after a term but I did go on with the choir.

There was an elegant drawing room at the Court with red plush chairs, huge original 18th century paintings on the walls, a decorated plaster ceiling, polished wood floors and fine rugs. The first thing I noticed when I went in there was a very old fashioned looking gramophone with a gigantic horn, it was in fact a state of the art sound system. Every week Henry put on a concert of recorded music and introduced us to the best of avant- garde music. I have already said he was a friend of Benjamin Britten, we listened to Ligetti, Stravinsky, Aaron Copeland et al. Some people that elected to do the course were examined by another friend of his William Glock. William eventually Sir William,  became Director of Music on the third programme and was responsible for the BBC Proms. The greatest contribution that he made to music however was founding the annual music school at Dartington, which attracted the best musicians from around the world, Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, Nadia Boulanger and others too numerous to mention. So we learnt about classical music but of course our young hearts were already into different music.

Women greatly outnumbered men, this didn’t affect me much as I always had a bloke in tow, first Eric then later Robin. The principal thought the solution was to have country dancing in the barn every week. Some people loved it but others wanted proper dance music.There were two solutions 1) to hitch hike to Bristol and go to the club with The Avon City Jazz band (Trad) or 2) to go on the coaches that picked up females to be partners for the Navy Base (called the Royal Arthur), the Air Force Base at Colerne, or Cirencester Agricultural College, all male establishments hungry for women. Before I met Eric I went on the bus to Colerne, it was pretty horrible with drunk sweaty men trying to paw you and get you outside. One of the girls in my hut brought her bloke home with her. He stayed in her room, strictly forbidden. When the warden came around she hid him in her wardrobe! There was a sad end to the story she got pregnant and had to leave in disgrace.

The photograph shows the Royal Arthur camp as it was in 2011 , are there ghosts there?.Drawingroyalarthur

It has been my misfortune (or maybe fortune) to have three men that have all played in bands. Eric played the fiddle for the folk dancing band, Robin played the piano in the dance band and later Ken played the sax, clarinet and flute also in a band. The snag is that you are at the dance but you don’t have your own partner. Later I played in bands myself, and that was much better.

drawingpaletteArt and Artists

I had every intention of writing about Music and Poetry at Corsham (and I will later) but then I remembered that I actually started this blog to think about art, now that I have had a lifetime involved in it in one way or another. Certain things still exercise me…one of them the most basic ‘Who or what is an a artist?’ It sounds an easy question but there are so many levels of definition and such a variety of understanding. Dictionary definitions don’t help much. I always wonder whether I qualify… under certain definitions I do and yet there are some that depend on judgement. I have been so unsure about it that I call myself a Maker as this I know to be true.

Here are some dictionary definitions.

Definition 1) A person who produces work, paintings and drawing

as a profession or hobby.

Yes, I can tick that box but that definition is not enough for me.

Definition 2) A person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to criteria.

Getting closer but the question comes up who defines the criteria? There is an element of judgement. For years I have marked creative endeavours and have always felt uneasy about it. Would I qualify under those criteria whatever they are? Who knows? Clifford Ellis, the visionary who set up Corsham would not let Bristol University award degrees or marks. You either passed as a teacher and were awarded a certificate or not according to your ability to perform in the classroom. We had final exhibitions of our own work but were never given marks…if there was something good about your work that would take you further, they told you. I think it is true to say that a more than average number of Corsham students have gone on to teach in colleges and we have always had this problem of the lack of a degree hanging over us. I still find it painful in the extreme when art is ranked. The annual Beach Creative Water Colour competition gives me the ‘heeby jeeby’s.’

Definition 3) One such as a painter, sculptor or writer who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value.

Yes, getting closer but still a bit problematic for me. Imagination, that’s usually fairly obvious but aesthetic value…who’s values. I think it’s fair to say that people with lifetime experience at looking at colour, form, tones, balance, movement, mark making etc. should be given a bit of credit but you can still have very different views.

I could go on but none of them have been quite satisfactory for me. I haven’t seen the word ‘intention’ anywhere. There is a huge mismatch between the general public’s view of art and artists and the views of those in the trade (as it were). By and large technique is valued by the public at large almost above everything else.. If you have the ability to use a pencil to create an image like a photograph you are often widely admired. It is not my usual way of drawing but I can do it just to test out my theory. If you look at my Jan’s Art Trail you will see that I have put one in as a test case, The steps to the abbey at Whitby, I thought it would be admired and it was, but for me it was a bit of an empty exercise…yes it’s like a photograph but why not take a photograph? Then there’s subject matter that most people admire? Sentimentality is right up there,  cute manga type girls, crying eyes, animals, sun sets, they all cut it, just Google ‘Drawing’ and you will see.

Steps to the Abbey at Whitby.

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I think  ‘intention’ is important…(yet I didn’t see that in any definition) what do you want to do? Is it personal to you? Is it original? Does it push the boundaries a bit? What do you want to say? Why have you selected those materials? Does it express your feeling? Why have you chosen those colours. Does it form part of a development of ideas? etc. Is it hackneyed, have loads of people done it before?

I don’t have much sympathy for artists who refuse to talk about their work at all, it doesn’t have to be a massive amount of information, just a little clue. I have had experiences that make it clear to me that a little explanation can create a clearer understanding quite quickly. I have a friend who on her first visit to the St Ives Tate, seeing abstract work by Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron etc insisted that it was all a big joke, ‘modern artists are pulling the wool over your eyes, taking you for a ride etc’, all art tutors have been there, heard these words. I went round with her looking at the paintings and talking about them a bit, it makes all the difference. She now tells me that she wants to go to more galleries with me in tow. How many tutors like me have taken their first year students to London galleries, to hear them say ‘You’re never going to get me to like that stuff’ I always said ‘I’ll ask you again in your third year!’ I did retire in !978 so things have probably changed a lot, there is more exposure to art on TV and other media.

Having said all these things it is true that there is a huge following for the arts, so something is getting through somewhere. The Tate Modern is always packed

(maybe not some of the less trendy galleries where there is equally good art)

When I think about, it a lot of the work that I love most, –  beautiful Romanesque and Gothic Sculpture, The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, artefacts from ethnography -were all made by ordinary craftsmen who didn’t call themselves artists. Of course I admire, Piero, Vermeer, Masaccio, Leonardo, Matisse great artists whose work is sublime, but if I am honest only in the same way. I think I have a strong egalitarian streak in me.

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Back to Corsham…it was good for me because it introduced me to so many different forms of making but that in a way has become my downfall

I have become a ‘jack of all trades and a master of none’. I don’t seem to be able to focus on one thing, for me it is the subject matter that calls for a print, or a textile piece, possibly a ceramic. I wouldn’t have it any other way. So I think I’ll go on calling myself a maker (as that isn’t in question) and ignore the ‘artist’ thing!.