Beckenham School of Art 1916

Beckenham School of Art

20 Beckenham Road, Kent, home to the Beckenham School of Art 1908-62

I felt I had come to Heaven.
Margaret Cuddon
Beckenham School of Art

It is with the first and last known photographs of the Beckenham School of Art (BSoA) that I welcome you to the official website of what was a wondrous and magical institution. It was on this site between 1908 and 1962 that many of Britain’s most distinguished artists, craftspersons and designers were trained. This was no more evident each year as the Royal College of Art accepted more students from the BSoA than from any other art school. The BSoA was also one of the first art schools in the UK to attract students from abroad.

We had our own distinctive design style, colour preferences and handwriting that the larger art school community could recognise as ours. Our curriculum was drawn from a successful mix of the Classical, Modernism, and the Bauhaus, and it was this that made us famous and has remained with our fellow alumni ever since.

It was an art education that called for the rudiments, principles and rules of art, craft and design to be understood before experimentation was permitted. As a consequence we had to learn to draw. It is pertinent to observe that within two decades and drawing ceasing to become compulsory, conceptual art became de rigueur. This meant deskilling and where concepts or ideas took precedent over aesthetic concerns and the mastering of a craft resulting in, as many claim the replacement of artistry with anarchy. In our time as students at the BSoA we drew from the cast, we undertook exercises in colour theory, perspective, type setting and pursued anatomy, calligraphy, graphic design, painting, furniture making, typography, pottery, costume drawing as well as studied the history of art, architecture, furniture design and costume. Because our foundation course was so comprehensive, we never needed to become slaves to fashion or the sensations of the day, an issue we always noticed whenever we visited other art school exhibitions. Ours was a curriculum that encouraged us to seek a good balance between the head, the heart and hand. As such, it enabled us to create as students and later in our professional lives fine and commercial works of art, craft and design that were figurative, abstract and innovative.

The art school building, being a collection of wood and corrugated roofed studios and workshops had its own distinctive smell. Upon entering, one was met by an odour derived from a concoction of paint, printing ink, turps and linseed oil.

Life, work and play at the BSoA was an integrated feature of our culture. We all lived within easy commuting distance and even relatives had attended the school before us, therefore traditions of life style and customs were kept. Our dress code, not particularly given to the fashions of the day was decidedly arty. Corduroy trousers, sandals and floppy pullovers were worn by the chaps, while big flowery dresses, beads, bangles and large earrings were popular among the girls. Although it has to be said that the graphic designers, for some reason were much more smartly dressed. Curiously, it was also evident at the time, although nothing was ever said about it, that most of the chaps came from the working class, whereas most of the girls came from the middle class. Although this may just have been a coincidence, it was quite apparent, but of course it made no difference to our social milieu.

We worked not competitively nor secretly among ourselves and often we held our own critiques where a week’s work was given a polite beasting by our peers.

Students would also go on sketching holidays together during the long summer breaks, although it was evident that not much sketching took place…

Our socials, i.e. end of term dances, had become legend and tickets were sought by ‘outsiders’ including students from other art schools. Many of the socials had a theme and we dressed up accordingly. While traditional jazz bands provided the music for our erratic skip jive and inebriated gyrations on the dance floor, students would take to the stage during the intervals. On one occasion, no less than fourteen guitarists strummed merrily their three chords in variable standards of tuning and timing. Their repertoir was drawn from Big Bill Broonzy, early Elvis, R & B, skiffle and folk music. The highlight one year was Aunty Vanda Cutler’s Spanish Flamenco Assemble.

The last social to be held at the BSoA commenced with a funeral parade held outside the front of the building complete with a coffin and band playing a funeral dirge. It was a sad occasion as it was the end of an era of art school education the like of which would never appear again. However, we did have a great social. Its theme was ‘Ug’ and early man. We designed and printed tickets with the title ‘The Rights of Man’, it being a pun on ‘The Rite of Spring’. However, Principal John Cole was not amused and we had to reprint the tickets with the latter title. Van loads of old metal, prams and anything made of wire including lots of springs were collected from the local council tip and hammered onto the walls of the corridor. Doubt that such antics would be allowed today.

Our end of term school plays were much looked forward to. For several decades Kass Cohen put these on while the last one was produced by Peter Pearce and was performed down the Chislehurst Caves in 1959. Several of the plays were comedies with moralistic undertones, others were from William Shakespeare. Much to the audience’s delight, but a surprise to the cast, Kass would sneak onto the stage during an act puffing a hudge cigar and strut about commenting on the acting. Props and furniture were made by the chippies and accompanying music was performed by the students. On one occasion, Mary Farmer on flute and John Frost piano played The Teddy Bear’s Picnic as the audience took to their seats. It was all rather wonderful, but like all wonderful things, it all had to come to an end.

By the middle 1950s it was evident that the BSoA was over subscribed and plans were drawn up for a new and much larger campus. However, as similar was also apparent at Bromley College of Art and Sidcup School of art, it was decided in 1962 to amalgamate these into what became the Ravensbourne College of Art and Design at Bromley Common. We will probably never know how Principal John Cole felt about this change of plan as he had devoted the previous few years meticulously designing a new campus for us. Evidence of his vision can be found in a large file of notes, drawings and letters of correspondence now logged in our BSoA Archives situated in the Local Studies Dept. of Bromley Central Library.

In 1962 after fifty-four years as a diploma awarding institution, the BSoA closed down. However, the premises were then used as an Adult Education Centre that retained much of the ethos of our art school. Then in July 1978 arsonists burnt the building down to the ground. The villains were never found, and the building was not replaced. Fittingly the area is now a public garden known as the Beckenham Library Green, and has become a popular lunch time sanctuary for the local office workers. In July 2008, the BSoA’s centenary, it was also where a commemorative plaque was installed on a wall that ran along just where the central corridor had been in our building. Unquestionably, our time at the BSoA left an indelible impression, and memories of those halcyon days still pull at the heart strings as the pages of this website prove.

This website has therefore been published for those of us who were former students and teachers of the BSoA to celebrate our years at ‘our old art school’. More than a celebration, it will also serve as an historical document as then unknown to us, the lifetime of the BSoA represented what were the golden years of the small and autonomous art school in England. It was an era that came to an end when it and other art schools of similar character were amalgamated, given names like ‘college of design and communication’ and ‘university for the creative arts’ and promptly lost all measure of individuality. It was also the end of an era at the BSoA when school dinners arrived in large metal containers and our morning and afternoon tea breaks were graciously hosted by Mrs Epps at the Bath’s caff. It was also the last time we would ever see Quentin Crisp, later more famously known as the Naked Civil Servant and venerated in song as The Englishman In New York by Sting, resplendent with blue rinse and holding a silver top cane mincing down Beckenham Road from Clock House Station to model for us.

In a sense, our community of art students and teachers was much like a family, and for sure, such will be reflected in the forthcoming pages of this website. Unfortunately, this culture did not survive the mergers as it was superseded by a factory environment and education becoming a business. This is no more evident as most educational establishments in the UK now need to advertise their ‘product’ and even sweep abroad to recruit students. Needless to say, the BSoA never needed to advertise nor promote itself as its results and international reputation as a centre of excellence was enough. After decades of art schools managed by teacher-practitioners, it seems that they have now been replaced by accountants – all the more reason for the justification of this website.

It is hoped that this home page will prompt former students and teachers to contribute by way of sending in photographs, stories, press cuttings and any other material that can be posted on its pages.

To date, over fifty photographs of formers students and teachers have been collected along with posters of school plays dating back to 1943. Most interestingly, a chronological history of the BSoA written by Principal John Cole was discovered in the library of the Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication in 2005. It stated that as early as 1902 art classes were held at the Technical School in Beckenham Road before a purpose built new art school offering a full-time art education commenced in 1908. Examples of prospectuses from 1917 to 1962 that show a fascinating range of styles of typography, drawing and design were also found. In time, extracts from these will be included on this website.

You will also find written reminiscences on this website including one describing what it was like being a student at the BSoA during World War II.

Our website will function not only as a repository for memorabilia but a valuable record of an institution that gained a considerable national and international reputation as a centre of art, craft and design excellence, the like of which will never reappear.

As a result of requests from the public during the BSoA’s traveling exhibition to see examples of our original work, I have arranged with the Archivist at the Central Library in Bromley, Kent to have an official BSoA Archives installed in their Local Studies Department. Over 400 pieces, and counting, of our art, craft and design as well as prospectuses, photographs, sketch books, albums, letters and memorabilia have been donated by our fellow former students and are being catalogued and stored in the library’s stacks.

The library catalogue will be placed on their computer for internet access as well as be referred to in this website. All of the items will be available for the public to examine and periodically some of the pieces will be exhibited and appear at lectures.

If you have any ‘masterpieces’ from your time as a student at the BSoA, they would be most welcomed into our official archives. Alternatively, photographs of your work could be displayed in this website’s Gallery. An email address for all correspondence is at the foot of this page.

As you will see, the sections are devoted to News, which acts as a notice board, and sadly includes a few obituaries. Click on History for a History of the BSoA, and Gallery that includes a separate sections for photographs and our art work. A Stories section has been added as well a Guest Book that enables readers to contact each other and submit inquiries. Be rest assured that no personal information such as the sender’s email address will be published in this section without the permission of the named person. Similarly, corrections are welcomed and requests for the removal of any items will be met. A Register of students and teachers will be added.

For those of you not familiar with the colours of the panels on each side and above this text, they are those of the school scarf that came into being during the BSoA’s last few years.

One wonders what our teachers of that time long ago and far away would have thought about our computer dependency today? Whatever, it is already evident from these pages that our BSoA website will grow with your contributions and so provide much pleasure for all to read. Enjoy.

Dr Cailean MacKirdy FRSA
BSoA 1958-62
Website Curator
This website was commenced in October 2005

Beckenham Library Green 2008, former site of the BSoA.