Please upgrade your browser

For the best experience, you should upgrade your browser. Visit our accessibility page to view a list of supported browsers along with links to download the latest version.

RCA students respond to international crises in 2020 and 1914

Sarah Mercer, the RCA’s Special Collections Project Officer discusses the parallels between current student responses to Covid-19 and the student response to World War I, as documented in the Autumn 1914 edition of The RCA Student Magazine.

Initially produced between 1911 and 1915, The RCA Student Magazine documented the comings and goings of the College through the eyes and voices of the students. Often irreverent and satirical, the magazine offers a glimpse into everyday student life at the time.

The outbreak of World War I caused significant upheaval for the magazine and all students of the College. Many students departed for battlefields over the following years, including the magazine’s editor Ion Beresford Pite, son of the then Professor of Architecture, Arthur Beresford Pite, who enlisted in October 1914. 

The Autumn 1914 issue includes written pieces that describe the changes to College life, offer a supportive voice to students in a time of confusion and fear, and promote the idea that art and opportunity could (and should) still be pursued despite and in support of the crisis of war. Descriptions of student activities reveal parallels between the spirit of the students 100 years ago, and the RCA students and alumni responding to the COVID-19 crisis today. 

An illustration from the Autumn 1914 Issue of the RCA Student Magazine, showing female students winding wool, one of many new activities undertaken by students to contribute to the war effort. Artist unknown.
An illustration from the Autumn 1914 Issue of the RCA Student Magazine, showing female students winding wool, one of many new activities undertaken by students to contribute to the war effort., Artist unknown

War took many students away from London and completely changed the demographic of the College almost overnight; however, the buildings remained open and a physical community still existed within their walls. Nellie Flexen (ARCA Diploma, 1917), organised sewing parties in the Common Room to wind wool and produce garments for soldiers at the front. One of these events was illustrated in one of the magazine’s many comical caricatures, accompanied by fragments of overheard conversation – “Is mine right? Surely it’s too big...” – evocatively capturing the frenzy of activity, excitement and confusion as they turned their hands to a new skill. 

This photograph of 1905 shows the female Modelling students at work, a scene typical  of Annie Acheson’s studies at the College. Photograph from RCA Archive, photographer unknown.
This photograph of 1905 shows the female Modelling students at work, a scene typical of Annie Acheson’s studies at the College.
© Photograph from RCA Archive, photographer unknown.

Annie Acheson (ARCA Diploma, Sculpture, 1910), a volunteer with the Surgical Requisites Association during the war, developed the now widely used technique for setting broken limbs in plaster, alongside fellow sculptor Elinor Hallé. The pair were tasked with designing improvements to surgical splints, then made from wood, which were expensive and relatively ineffective, often resulting in permanent damage and sometimes leading to amputation. Having first used plaster of Paris in the production of sculptures, Acheson suggested a method using old sugar bags to make a direct cast of the broken limb, reducing healing time and improving prognosis dramatically. 

In 2020, though the studios and workshops are currently closed to all, RCA students are forming communities online, turning to digital platforms in lockdown and reaching out to their classmates across the globe. RCA Textiles Social meets regularly online to maintain a sense of community and cohort among Textiles students scattered internationally, and student magazine The Pluralist is already planning its second digital-only publication. RCA students and alumni are also channelling their skills into the design of PPE for frontline healthcare workers, and V&A/RCA History of Design students Anna Talley and Fleur Elkerton have founded an online archive, Design in Quarantine, collecting and recording design and innovation in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.  

The RCA 1920 Armistice Day wreath commemorating students killed in action, reproduced in halftone and tipped into each copy of the 1921 issue of the RCA Student Magazine.  Photographer unknown.
The RCA 1920 Armistice Day wreath commemorating students killed in action, reproduced in halftone and tipped into each copy of the 1921 issue of the RCA Student Magazine. Photographer unknown.

The RCA Student Magazine sadly managed only two publications between 1914 and 1915, before the inevitable strain of wartime life caused production to cease, leaving a telling gap in the College’s records of student life. The magazine reemerged in February 1921, and the first issue of this ‘New Series’ opened with a foreword by the then Principal Sir William Rothenstein. In his short text, Rothenstein encouraged the students to learn from their experiences and shape an alternative future; to “piece together the fragments of rich clothing which the human spirit has worn in past times, and learn to weave a garment in which to dress the living spirit in the fashion of our day.” 

This was followed by a touching article by the magazine’s new editor, Rudolph Pickles (ARCA Diploma, Design, 1923) reflecting on the unique insight a student publication provides into the lives and activities of the College and its students, past and present: “Whimsy records and old jests explain the worth of a man with a thousand times the clarity that a mere list of academic achievements can ever do… This, after all, is the engrossing personal quality of a College Magazine… The College spirit has a voice of infinite cadences, and the singing should be rich with possibility.”


A complete run of the RCA Student Magazine, 1911–1924, is available for view digitally on request, alongside digitised photographs, documents and artworks spanning the history of the College. For more information about the Royal College of Art’s archives and collections, please contact [email protected] or visit the College’s website.