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Remembering RCA Students Who 'Laid Aside the Brush... to Wield the Sword'

Around the sites of the post-1960s Royal College of Art buildings, in Kensington in particular, are traces of the history of the College – fragments of the past that often go unnoticed, that are part of the fabric. These are not just pieces of the College’s past, but reminders of our collective narrative as students at the College, with our own distinct history that we share with our fellow students and alumni through the ages.

A sign made of ceramic tiles on the staff entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum marks the former home of the RCA Painting Department, hidden at the top of the V&A maze and now occupied by History of Design students. The view from the terrace of the RCAfé includes a reminder of our nineteenth-century past – the Royal Albert Hall frieze, designed by students of the College under a Victorian, paternalist public-service commission. And in the 1980s Stevens Building, preserved on the wall in an innocuous corridor, is the College's memorial to those who gave their lives in the war of 1914–18.

These traces of the College’s past – though often overlooked as we rush to finish work to seemingly endless deadlines – are physical reminders for us not only of the College’s institutional history, but also of our student experience.

The centenary of the First World War prompts us all as citizens to remember, reflect, give thanks, and formulate our views. Remembrance on 11 November is a part of the yearly routine, part of public ritual. Our challenge – perhaps – is how to understand how we, now, 100 years later, connect to this event, and to the people who were involved at the time.

As students at the RCA, we have a common history with those commemorated. Our memorial object  – made in 1921 by a former student, the sculptor Percy Metcalfe who had fought, and was injured, in the war – is a focal point, from which we can consider what it meant for those students (all of whom were affected by the conflict, whether enlisted to fight, or staying here in College) to be thrown into an utterly alien context.

The rich collection of student magazines held in the RCA’s archives give us glimpses of the College’s experience of the war. The ‘Students’ Magazine’ published in the 1910s and ’20s, shows that at the outbreak in 1914, the RCA continued to teach its students, but life changed immediately.

In the first months, 21 current students and 18 former students signed up, and are listed in the magazine as ‘Students Who Have Joined the Colours’. And not only British students and staff – overseas students left too, in some cases to fight for their own countries. The gender balance in the College shifted, with many male students and staff leaving or not registering.

The 1914 edition explains how rooms in College were requisitioned for the war effort, and women students worked to make clothes for troops. When conscription was introduced in 1916, another wave of students and staff was to leave the College. The last student magazine of the wartime period was published in 1915; after which, we are left with an evocative gap in the archive of student experience.

Reflecting their training, many men from the RCA were enlisted into the Artists’ Rifles. They would serve in a number of locations across the globe – France, Flanders, Italy, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, Palestine, in roles including draughtsmen, intelligence officers, machine gunners, drivers and sappers, as well as serving in non-combatant roles such as the medical corps.  Several were decorated for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’.

Many served, and then returned to the RCA after the war, to continue their education. But many died in the course of the war. It is these men that the memorial in the Stevens Building commemorates. The memorial was also reproduced in the Students' Magazine of 1922, the first to be published after the war. In its most simple form, the memorial is exactly that – a memorial, and a symbol – of the students who fought and who lost their lives. The honour roll is engraved in stone, and repeated in remembrance here:

Batty, William Liley | Belton, John | Benton, John Walford | Brown, G A | Brunton, Frederick Seed  | Denham, George Parsons  | Holt, Wilfred | Kershaw, Joseph Franklin  |  Lockwood, William Gordon  |  Melling, Thomas Benedict | Morton, James Hargreaves | Norris, Cyril Norman | Norris, Leslie Archibald  | O’Brien, James Hadcock | Pape, Edmund Rogers | Paul, Philip Read  | Pearson, Reginald Oswald | Peters, Albert Wallace | Porter, Arthur Osgood | Robertshaw, Walter | Shackleton, Thomas Smith | Sketchley, George Harold Alexander | Spencer, Hugh Manning | Whitham, Charles | Jones, Frederick Wigan | Young, David Buchan | And all others

The ‘And all others’ is perhaps the most evocative part, pulling the focus back to the wider story of the complicated history of this war and its effects.

War-time experiences of RCA students were varied; some did not fight but undertook war work such as making munitions, or the harrowing work of tending casualties or the dead on the battlefield. Like the student body today, there were international students enrolled here – which prompts mindfulness of the need to avoid 'jingoism' in our memorialising of an event that was so closely intertwined with concepts of nationalism.

The College’s records also indicate those who, after conscription was introduced, were arrested for refusing to serve, those who served in the Non-Combatant Corps, and those who were conscientious objectors. One such was George Demaine, a non-conformist and absolute conscientious objector, who repeatedly undertook sentences of hard labour and prison sentences. In a College like ours, the presence of dissenting voices is an absolute necessity.   

There are numerous individual stories, heart-shattering accounts and snippets that show people’s lives destroyed by this conflict. But then there are the collective stories, and the concepts of service, and the belief in our role in wider society that has been a consistent feature of College history. This was the school, for example, of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst – an artist using her skills outside of an art and design context for political and social purposes. This impulse was present too, after the war, through the work of Charles Sargeant Jagger.

Jagger was a student at the RCA from 1907, a sculptor who enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles in 1914, and during his service was wounded twice, in Gallipoli and in France. After the war he was commissioned to make a number of memorials, the most famous of which is the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, dated 1925. It was reviewed at the time as depicting the true nature of war, of endurance, of the horror and destruction that was experienced. Jagger’s work exemplifies art as a method of communication, of understanding, of allowing for our societal memory and our emotional life to be encompassed in an object.

For me, the memorial in College holds this kind of power. Although not anywhere near as harrowing or as emotionally charged as Jagger’s Hyde Park memorial, it does something else – it speaks to us now, as art and design students, and it does this through ways we understand – in its materiality, its presence as an object, its processes of making and craft, its evidence of the human hand, thought, authorship.

The small errors and the slight changes in the object hold its power as a connection between us and the students of that war generation. There is a small chip in one of the letters, a ‘G’ on the right-hand side, about half way up, betraying the physical realities of carving into stone. And on the left-hand side, a ghost of an error – a shadow of a letter ‘R’ that has been filled in and replaced with an ‘N’. And there is a poppy taped to the top of the memorial; simple and sad, and utterly powerful in its everyday nature, its lack of grandness in its gesture.

This is the language that we also speak – the sketch, the composition, the draft and the redraft, the practice of making, the slight errors that shift away our focus or that make us more determined. It is in these material objects, these pieces of art, that we can engage with our pasts – including our collegiate pasts as part of a community of designers, artists, writers and thinkers with shared goals, and shared experiences, with each other and through time.

Our act of remembering those students who fought and died is part of our duty on this day – and we do this through our understanding of shared practices, of a collective past, and communal student experiences with a generation both far from our own, and materially connected.   

Remembrance: the Royal College of Art and the First World War
Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, SW7 2EU
Admission free
Open 24 October – 19 December 2014

To visit the exhibition please book an appointment by contacting [email protected]. There will be availability for group bookings on Saturday 15 November 2014.