James Charnley’s authoritative and long-awaited book on the history and development of art teaching in Leeds has just been published by Lutterworth Press, Cambridge.
Creative License – From Leeds College of Art to Leeds Polytechnic (2014, Lutterworth Press) is the first study of its kind to focus on the revolutionary approaches to art teaching that were born in Leeds (instigated by Harry Thubron at Leeds College of Art in the late 1950s) and developed throughout the 1960s and 70s into the radical, experimental and at times controversial art associated with the Fine Art department in the Polytechnic era.
Thubron’s Basic Course is credited with having invented the model of what we know as the modern art school, characterised as a place where ‘process, imagination and spontaneity were elevated over technique’. The traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture torn down, literally – the studio space opened up and students encouraged explore new modes of creative expression.
As painter and former tutor at Leeds Patrick Hughes notes in his foreword to the book, “The idea behind the revolution was to drag art schools into the twentieth century, to get students to practice modern experimental art instead of pursuing academic compositions with figures.”
Throughout the 1960s the College’s reputation grew as Thubron’s successor Eric Atkinson brought in artist tutors Patrick Hughes, Robin Page, George Brecht, Jeff Nutall, Tony Earnshaw and many more; poets mixing with painters mixing with sculptors mixing with musicians. The taste for the avant-garde is reflected in the names of visiting artists passing through the studios; Bruce Lacey, Walter de Maria, Yoko Ono, Brian Eno, Ivor Cutler…The era defined by Fluxus-inspired events, ‘Happenings’ and burgeoning ‘Performance Art’.
As noted in a previous post this posed challenges to those that were working on shaking up the Higher Education system and the independent art schools across the country were gradually swallowed up and amalgamated into the Polytechnic system. The book goes into this in some detail; Eric Taylor then Principal of Leeds College of Art at the time of the mergers resigned in protest after initial early support and there are the famous letters written by Patrick Heron published in the Guardian in 1971 where he decried the ‘Murder of the Art Schools’.
James Charnley ( a Fine Art student at Leeds himself from 1969-72) chose to launch his book at Leeds Beckett University’s Broadcasting Place (home of the current incarnation of the Fine Art course) at a packed out event attended by tutors, lecturers and ex-students spanning some 50 years. I was privileged enough to go along and talk to some of the people involved.
An exhibition charting the development of Fine Art at Leeds was mounted by third year Graphics students and after some words from the author, a special performance of Kevin Atherton’s piece ‘In Two Minds’ was reprised – Atherton conversing with an on-screen version of himself some 40 years his junior.
There then followed a rare screening of artist Simon English‘s films (on Super8) documenting some of the performance events of the time.
As a student of Fine Art in Leeds (Leeds Metropolitan University as it was known by then) I feel a great connection to the stories and the ideals of the era examined by this book; it is fascinating to see how far the Leeds experiment went. When I studied (in ‘the hangar’), conceptual and installation art were very much the thing, it was considered almost anachronistic, rebellious even to want to paint – ‘oh really you still paint?!’
There is I now realise a deep irony there.
James Charnley’s book is a major work in one sense because it pulls everything together – what had previously been only anecdotal or oral history, names, events and places; these stories have finally been written down and contextualised in an attempt to make sense of what happened. In the intervening years there has been much myth-making and speculation (I remember hearing the rumours and stories about what students and lecturers got up to even when I was a student); much of this has been lost partly because so much of what went on just wasn’t recorded (it wasn’t really the done thing; you know performances and ‘Happenings’ – the transient nature of the work being the work, etc!). Yes there really were sheep grazing on campus on the grass on Woodhouse Lane…
Times were very different of course back then. Remember the student grant system meant you were effectively paid to go to University (!!!), and as for teaching you were pretty much left to do what you want (with both good and bad consequences as the book shows) – it is a world away from what we see around us today, the departments were very well funded and the emphasis was on originality, opening minds (not just wallets) and pushing of boundaries. The experiments in learning that were taking place were not following any kind of business model or regimenting students to take their place in the ‘creative industries’.
Note: A couple of startling facts from the book; the student to staff ratio in the Fine Art dept alone was 1 member of staff to every 3 students and what’s more by 1970 the total number of students in Leeds (both University and Poly) had reached the giddy heights of..wait for it..16,000!
This is something of a lost history tinged perhaps with a sadness that we will probably never see the like again. It is a fitting tribute to those people that made the Leeds experience what it was and it also goes a long way to explaining my own experiences as a student of Leeds College of Art/Leeds Polytechnic/Leeds Metropolitan/Leeds Beckett as the 20th century gave way to the 21st.
More information on the book can be found on the publisher’s website.