A Covid Discovery of the only remaining sketch book from Art School days

And so to Art School
to be a born again Leonardo da Vinci

It’s possible that there has never been a time of such hedonism since the Roman Empire as there was in the late 1950’s and 1960’s.Art school

After a good “old boys” education, and to the discontent of the family, I won a scolarship to Chelsea School of Art but chose to attend the renowned local art school in Harrow. It was just two miles from the family home and thus provided the benefits of all things domestic that I would otherwise have to do myself.

In 1960, Harrow was very much a “school” with some children entering at 13 years of age and continuing with their National Curriculum alongside studies in the art rooms.

This format continued up to O-Level exams and, according to results in both academia and art, students would continue until the NDD Exams in their preferred course.

In the art rooms, Harrow Art School was an equally bipolar enviroment with some brilliant tutors in the classical style and some modernists of the “Pop Art” ilk – or – the post war “Women’s Institute” patchwork quilt band.

Not wishing to be part of the scissor brigade I instead chose calligraphy and bookbinding taught by Mr Bell – nicknamed of course, Ding Dong. “Like playing scales on a piano you must excerise every day writing ‘the quick brown fox’ pangram at least five times”, and he was right. Laying out a page of text, the format and scaling of margins has endured to this day when visually finding the proportions for a frame to the scale of elements in a painting.

Michael Casson has been described as one of the greatest figures in post-war pottery and later had a BBC television series The Craft of the Potter, which was originally shown in 1976. It was both Casson’s skill and enthusiasm that infected everyone he taught. He had the patience of Job, never spoke down to us, it was encouragement all the way.

Alongside Casson working in the bowels of the school was Mr. P. Turner the sculpture tutor. A man of very few words, always armed with a blunt table knife he would say “do you mind if…” signifying he wanted to work on one’s clay maquette. Not waiting for a reply, he would attack the “precious” piece.

And with each lunge he would make a different grunt that was his language to explain “form” – and it did!

The jewellery department had a good reputation and briefly attracted the young Vivienne Westwood – who stayed for one term only! On leaving she reputedly said “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world.”

And of course there was the delectable Sonia. A petite young lady with bright smiling eyes, very dark hair and an almost oriental beauty.

Sonia Lawson, RA RWS RWA, born 1934, was then 26 and only a few years older than some of us; all the boys fell in love with her – and she knew it.

In 1955 Sonia had gained a place at the Royal College of Art in London. Graduating with First Class honours she won a travelling scholarship to France and on her return was one of four young artists selected for John Schlesinger’s BBC TV documentary Private View, part of the Monitor series.

As a Yorkshire lass and mentor she had a brevity of explanation and demonstration that elevated her to a level that none of us thought we could aspire to. A brilliant draughtswoman with a professionalism that kept the heaving hormones at a distance, which only heightened her desirability.

After the morning classes we would tumble out of the school and cross the road to the pub to get a hot pie, half of mild and finish off with a Batchelor or Park Drive cigarette that came in packets of 5’s – useful for impoverished art students.

At least once a month we would visit the V & A museum to sketch anywhere we wished. I primarily stayed in the cast room which was dominated by the cast of the Trajan Column and Michelangelo’s David. The Trajan lettering on the base of the column was incredibly beautiful, and so was David, although I always thought he had a big head. In fact he does to counter the perspective of being on the roof line of Florence Cathedral.

The evening classes were quite fun with a disproportionate number of “mature” ladies who flirted with the male staff. I often borrowed my father’s car to attend in the evenings, and at the time, to be “with car” aged 18 was quite an accolade. It was a largish Austin which became my passion wagon for dalliances in the church yard of St Mary, Harrow on the Hill, a totally approporiate place being the site of an old hilltop settlement that may have been a pagan religious centre.

In 1955 music came to the UK’s youth with the film “Blackboard Jungle” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”. It was a turning point with Teddy Boy riots wherever it was shown. By 1960 there were the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and the aspiration of youngsters to become performers. One such local character was Reginald Kenneth Dwight, born 1947, and raised in the Pinner area near Harrow School. With his mother’s and stepfather’s help, he was hired as a pianist at a nearby pub, the “Northwood Hills Hotel”, playing Thursday to Sunday nights, gaining some notoriety by playing like Jerry Lee Lewis. He was much talked about amongst the pupils at Harrow and was known as “Reggie”.

We now known him as Elton John.

 

Notwithstanding, it was suburbia, very pedestrian and I wanted more. And there you have it.

Back to see Lawrence Gowing and re-enroll at Chelsea School of Art. I could hardly believe it but he remembered me and commented that I wasn’t really ready before but that now the time was right.

The main Art Schools were the bastions of new designs, changes, nonconformism, music and nudity, curious little triangular blue tablets meant for depressed housewives and the intoxicating smell of “Wacky Baccy” and real turpentine.

And so I joined the other war babies emerging from their cocoons to a world demanding change and a sexual freedom provided by the newly invented pill.

But it was all done in the best possible taste.

On leaving Chelsea to face the real world the bubble burst, as I realised that any artistic skills I may have possessed were outdated. I collected together all my work of the previous five years and threw it away – except, apparently, the sketch book I found due to a Covid-19 clear out.

John Davies sketch book

 

Copyright John Davies