The Perfect Place to Grow
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In 1837, the year that Queen Victoria came to the throne, The Government School of Design was opened in Somerset House. Over the years The Royal College of Art as it became known, has played an important role in the artistic life of the country and it is now celebrating that fact with an Exhibition entitled ‘The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 years of the Royal College of the Arts’. The RCA describes the event as a dodransbicentennial (175 years) and with the number of famous artists and designers that have passed through its doors you would expect there to be some interesting work on display.
From Christopher Dresser to Chris Ofili the roll call of artists is impressive and the work selected is either in the RCA collection or borrowed for the occasion. Chance combinations are revealing. William Lethaby’s handmade Arts and Crafts sideboard of 1898-9 stands near to Matthias Kulla’s precision built 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S. Lady Elisabeth Butler’s imperial ‘Charge of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo’ (1881) also known as ‘Scotland Forever!’ is a celebration of military prowess and contrasts with Sylvia Pankhurst’s painting of working class women ‘In a Leicestershire Boot Factory’ (1907). Sylvia was the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and while a student, served a period of time in Holloway Women’s Prison for her Suffragette activities.
Ian Drury is not primarily known as a painter but his work stands up well next to his mentor Peter Blake. It is not often that you see two horticulturalists in the same exhibition, the likes of Gertrude Jekyll and Tracy Emin. The former has a design for a ‘silly gate made of nonsense tools’ while the latter restricts herself to a few potted plants in her installation ‘The Perfect Place to Grow’ (2001) but when you trawl through the names of students and teachers who have come and gone in this major institution such serendipity is bound to occur.
The fortunes and reputations of art schools have varied over the years and The Royal College is no exception. Founded as a school of design at a time of Victorian industrial expansion, the design departments are still a major part of the school. Its mission was to enhance the artistic values of British industrial manufacture and consumer design but by the 1850s it had become a centre for the training of art teachers. The Applied Arts are firmly back in the RCA curriculum, and its most famous designer is the entrepreneur James Dyson who having graduated in 1971 went on to invent and market the cyclonic vacuum cleaner – and in so doing put an end to Hoover’s domination of the market. A more recent graduate of note is Thomas Heatherwick who is making waves with his inventive and creative designs such the UK pavilion for Expo 2010 known as the ‘Seed Cathedral’ and the memorable 2012 Olympic Torch.
The roll call of illustrious names continues with Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear. If you haven’t heard of them before, you’ve certainly seen their work, as they designed the directional signage for motorways for the Department of Transport. Edward Johnston is represented with his Underground roundel, Lucienne Day for her textile designs, Ossie Clark, Bill Gibbs and Zandra Rhodes for fashion. There is Ridley Scott famous for his film ‘Blade Runner’, and John Pasche for the Rolling Stones logo – and these are only some of the 350 works by 180 former staff and students.
The major art schools have had periods where their students seem to define an era. The Slade School of Art is known for its distinguished roll call of artists who were students in the first decade of the 20th Century, while St Martin’s was famous for its sculpture department under Anthony Caro not to mention its continuing reputation for producing Fashion Designers. Goldsmiths College became known for its YBAs and Glasgow School of Art was famous for its figurative painters of the 1980s. Now its Environmental Art Department produces Turner Prize winners with repetitive regularity.
The Royal College of Art had its period of fame in the 1950s with the Kitchen Sink Painters and then it reached its apotheosis in the early sixties with the English Pop Art Group of Peter Blake , David Hockney , Patrick Caulfield Ron Kitij and Peter Phillips. This was undoubtedly its greatest moment. Then in the 70s and 80s the painting students all succumbed to the type of expressionism favoured by the late Peter De Francia while the contemporary action moved south of the river to Goldsmith’s College.
The college’s relationship with some of its most famous artists is also revealing. David Hockney although well represented in the show, was at first refused his Diploma, while Tracy Emin (who destroyed all her work after graduating) has said “the best thing about the Royal College was receiving a letter saying I got in and after that it went downhill.” She subsequently took up with the Goldsmith crowd and found success as a celebrity artist. Gavin Turk, who figures prominently, was another student to be refused a degree. His portrait of himself as Johnny Rotten greets you as you enter the exhibition and the Blue Plaque which he exhibited in an empty room for his degree show simply states ‘Gavin Turk Sculptor, worked here 1989-1991’. Perhaps the time is now right to award him a belated degree.
Reputations have to be nurtured and this show is a celebration of the students and teachers who have not only benefited from association with the college but have gone on to make significant contributions in the world of Art and Design.