Robert Upstone on Teaching Art for Modern Times

175 Years of Design at the RCA

From Henry Moore meeting the prime minister at the RCA's principal's house to the introduction of the College collection, former Tate curator and director of the Fine Art Society, Robert Upstone explores how the RCA took itself out of a Victorian mindset and built connections for the Modernist era. Part three of our 175th anniversary interview series with Gina Lovett.

The arrival of Rothenstein as principal in the 1920s was a radical shift for teaching at the College. What was his vision, and how did it shift the prevailing approach?

Self-portrait , William Rothenstein 1930
Oil on canvas
585 x 735 mm

One of the important things to note was that when Rothenstein arrived at the College, he was in middle age and had already achieved quite a lot. He was a well-known painter, had gone to art school in Paris, and had met just about every artist that there was to meet in France and in Britain. He was very well-connected and was a well-known figure that students could look up to.

He was also very encouraging and nurturing of his students and would use the College premises to paint and draw portraits of people like TE Lawrence and Rabindranath Tagore – people of cultural significance. He would make a policy of trying to get them to talk informally to students in the common room. Every Sunday he would have a bunch of students over to his house, where famous people would gather.

There’s the well-known story about Henry Moore being left with Ramsay MacDonald, then prime minister. Moore treated it as a turning point in his finding his identity as an artist: he was left alone with MacDonald but they got on and had a nice conversation. It was all very relaxed. What he took away was that if he, from a simple background, as he described himself, could get on with and have the confidence to talk to the prime minister, then he didn’t have to worry about anything or anyone.  It gave him the confidence to move forward as an artist.

That was Rothenstein’s style – an enabler, seeing his students as equals and giving them networks and confidence. The overall effect was to make the College somewhere where people wanted to go.

Rothenstein also reformed the staff and brought on professional, practising artists, many of whom taught three days a week. It meant the students became involved in the creative process that those artists themselves were going through. It seems, by our standards, quite simple now but at that time in the 1920s, it was an important and unusual thing to do. One of the fundamental questions was what was the College for? Its principal purpose was to produce art teachers but after Rothenstein, this changed dramatically and the College began producing artists in their own right.

Henry Moore's copy of Domenico Rosselli's Virgin and Child from the Victoria and Albert Museum signifies the change that Rothenstein had sought to bring about. What was the story behind it?

In the nineteenth century, sculptors would model their work in clay, and if it were to be translated into marble or stone, they would use a pointing machine. This was basically a machine for translating three-dimensional forms into stone by setting out the points all over the stone and carving an exact copy. There were professional companies that did this for you. Indeed, many of the great late Victorian sculptors didn’t carve their own stuff. They sent it away to be done.

Fast forward to the 1920s, it was still a process being taught at the Royal College of Art. The head of sculpture then was Francis Derwent Wood. He was a very innovative sculptor but insisted students be taught how to use a pointing machine.

One of the great things about the College was that it evolved alongside the V&A, and its collection was used as a teaching resource. Students were often invited to make copies of such works.

Moore was asked to copy Domenico Rosselli’s Virgin and Child but objected to using a pointing machine because he believed in direct carving. This is the genesis of the particular kind of Modernism that starts with Moore and Hepworth, who was also a student at the same time. Moore was thinking of the achievements of the Medieval sculptors or of the Renaissance carvers. He believed in the emotional and practical importance of direct carving.

So, Moore refused to copy with a pointing machine, and instead carved a copy, a wonderful and exact copy, totally freehand. He then made little pencil dots all over the piece, so that when Derwent Wood came round to inspect his work, he had no suspicion that he hadn’t used a pointing machine. He got away with it.

We don’t really know, though, whether it was it intended as a challenge to the established order, or was something he needed to do. In putting on the pencil dots, was he avoiding direct confrontation, or was he trying to hoodwink Derwent Wood? But he got away with it. You can still see the pencil dots. 

In 1928, Rothenstein arranged the commission to decorate Morley College for Bawden and Ravilious, working alongside Charles Mahoney. This was hailed as the most important decorative scheme of the modern era. Why?

After the First World War, there was a very strong growth in the belief of decorative and mural projects, putting into institutional settings, elaborate large scale inspirational works of art by the best artists. Indeed, at the College in the 1920s the painting course was typified as a mural painting course. There was ambition to raise the standard and the scope of what those painters were doing. It also goes back to how people like Rothenstein, as principal, saw their students, and how they believed they should get involved.

The Morley College commission was one of the most elaborate of its time and had a particular figurative model approach. But it was one example, of which there were many others, of Rothenstein and his professors engaging the students in large-scale public projects and putting them into the real working world – not just doing exercises sitting in a classroom. The principle was about a foothold in the art world to do something important. The great tragedy is that it was totally destroyed by bombing in the war. You can’t have even a sense of it now.

There was a difference between Redgrave in the 1840s, who was asked to design a new utility postbox for the Post Office, which he did with a team of students. There was every evidence that Rothenstein’s approach was a nurturing one, and that he tried to promote students’ own identities rather than absorbing it within a College one or that of one of the tutors. 

Rothenstein's tenure ended in 1934 after tensions between Fine Art and Design within the College. What was this dilemma?

This goes right the way back to the founding of the College as a national school of art and design. The founding principle was to produce art teachers and the other, that ran parallel, was to introduce a higher artistic standard into the world of manufacturing. In teaching art, it wasn’t to create independent art works for exhibition, it was to train artists to have an input into the things being made in Victorian factories. One of the great moments where that becomes clear is the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Prince Albert’s interest in promoting this level of decoration and design.

But if your mission is only to be able to draw the figure so that you can put it onto a plate, for example, then you’re not really moving towards making an independent work of art. The tension between art and design, rather than their integration, became more apparent, and certainly, by the time Rothenstein was principal in the 1920s there was a booming world of galleries and artists showing their work as professionals, not as wanting to settle into becoming designers in a factory.

There’s evidence that Ravilious and Bawden – design students rather than Fine Art students – found their course really boring because there was no teaching of expression. Their highlight of the week was when Paul Nash would come and teach them on a Friday. He taught art and how to be an artist. Ravilious and Bawden described it as ‘Paul Nash day’.

The person who brought about Rothenstein’s resignation by applying pressure through the Board of Education was Frank Pick – an amazing man, the person who commissioned all the artists and designers for the Tube. He had this particular vision that art and design could be unified. A good example was the London Transport headquarters in St James’ Park, which has an incredibly Modernist architectural design, embellished with the work of top-rate artists and sculptors like Eric Gill and Henry Moore.

Pick’s feelings were that there was too much of a gulf between art and design and that Rothenstein really hadn’t brought them together as they should be. Interestingly, you have this process where, over the period, Rothenstein was first viewed as a moderniser, but by the time he leaves, is viewed as a brake on moving forward and progress. It was also to do with status. The design students, according to Ravilious and Bawden, were viewed as second rate and they didn’t have the same status as the Fine Art students. They all sat at separate tables in the common room. We tend to think there was the same numbers but in those days, there were far fewer.

Darwin's arrival as principal in 1948 was, as you described, 'the greatest artistic convulsion'. What did this shake-up do for teaching at the College?

From all the accounts, shaking up was part of Darwin’s personality. The College had become much too set in its ways. The standard of many of the teachers was not high enough and he felt that the artists who were teachers were not good enough artists. He wanted wholesale change and got rid of a lot of the old guard. Some stayed on for a little while but were axed. He could be quite brutal.

Gilbert Spencer, one of the painting tutors, was asked to give his resignation by Darwin. Spencer actually complained to the Board of Education. As someone who had spent many years putting his time into teaching, it was very cruel to be dismissed in so peremptory a way. He felt Darwin had taken against him. If that was the case, then he took against several people. He was an abrasive character, who wanted rapid change. There was an enormous degree of energy behind what he wanted to do. What happened was more to do with this personality than external forces.

He also brought in a new administrative form, imposing new structures, creating new departments dealing with particular topics and extended the schools that taught them in a way that took account of modern society. On one hand, he was incredibly hard but on the other, he really understood the administrative measures that a big institution needed and what would put them into place.

What were the key changes Darwin brought about?

He introduced Industrial Design, taking into account the change that had occurred in society and brought in the appropriate people to teach this. When asked, he said his greatest ambition was to give the College a flavour of a Cambridge college. He was quite appalled that there were no portraits of those who had been there before, no silver. It had no real record of what was a very long existence.

The Slade School, which opened in the 1870s, was innovative in having a collection of Old Master drawings and photographs that students copied. It was far from a new idea, but Darwin could see the benefit of taking that line. He was also a little snobbish about it. The College was an important place and should reflect that in the way it presented itself.

He realised that if the College wasn’t keen to celebrate its own history, it showed some lack of confidence and inability to be proud of what it stood for. He set up the College collection, which has grown and grown since with successive generations of tutors and students presenting work – Darwin made many approaches to people to give works. This was partly to decorate the environment, and partly to have a sense of history and identity and worth. It was also something the students could have and could learn from – good high-quality artworks from which to get inspiration. It sounds obvious, but it just hadn’t been happening pre-Darwin.

The Young Contemporaries exhibition of 1961 was a milestone because of the pivotal artists associated with it. How did it signify a change in RCA teaching?

In the 1950s, Tate was showing quite conservative art by our standards, and the Royal Academy had 'advanced art' in a separate room on its own. The Institute of Contemporary Arts was only just formed. New advanced art wasn’t particularly visible, so it took on a status we find hard to understand today. It was a new way of showcasing young artists. It was about age as much as style.

Young Contemporaries was a new development, and the idea of [painting tutor] Carel Weight. He had proposed it pretty early on in Darwin’s day. It was designed as a showcase for the best students’ work and new types of work.  Weight was quite open when he gave interviews that he believed in enabling his students, teaching them all the skills they needed but not imposing a particular style or set of artistic beliefs on them. It was for them to discover their own identity. It partly grew from that, and partly grew from this idea that students should be visible in the wider world. That exhibition became a crucible for fine art and all the people we recognise from that era – the Hockneys, the Kitajs, the Blakes – were very exciting artists working in that period. The exhibition became a focus for advanced painting at a time, in the 1950s, when there weren’t so many outlets for that. 

It seems there’s always been tension between the need for students to adhere to a syllabus while encouraging independence. How have alumni over the years dealt with this?

If you look at two of the famous artists to come out of the same course at the College from the 1950s, both took away very different things from it. Bridget Riley has given interviews, where she said she felt cut adrift and not given clear direction, or not steered in a particular way. Perhaps, she felt she was missing out on something the teachers should have been more directive in what they thought she should learn. The course didn’t give her the skills or vision that she wanted.

On the other hand, if you read Peter Blake’s recount of being a student, he thought it was a wonderful course, and in fact, he describes how tutors would sit down next to him and draw on top of his drawing to show him how it should be – that is quite directive.

It comes down to individuals and the way they relate to the course. When Blake was a teacher in the 1980s, he said he wouldn’t have dared to do it to any student because they would have all got up and left. It was interfering. As an art student, it can be difficult to get to grips with what you’re being taught and how to resolve it with what you want for your life. It can be a difficult process of evolving into the person you become. There’s always that time when they’re trying to work out who they are and what they want to do. It’s the College’s job to nurture that process.

Read the other interviews in our series:

"As an art student, it can be difficult to get to grips with what you’re being taught and how to resolve it with what you want for your life. It can be a difficult process of evolving into the person you become. There’s always that time when they’re trying to work out who they are and what they want to do. It’s the College’s job to nurture that process." Robert Upton

Director, Fine Art Society