Great Day Plaque Day 13 July 2008

(This page is under reconstruction)

Two years ago it was proposed to the London Borough of Bromley Urban Design Dept. that as 2008 was the centenary of our art school, a commemorative plaque should be installed somewhere on its former site.

As nothing remained of the former BSoA building, it having burnt down in 1978, the quest was to find a suitable place to display a plaque. One suggestion was to have a metal plate imbedded in the pathway that ran through the former site of what is now known as the Beckenham Library Green. However, after much deliberation this proposal was rejected. On visiting the site, it was noticed that a red brick wall surrounding a seating area with shading trees had been placed in the centre of where our art school stood. Photographs of this wall with a superimposed drawing of a plaque were then presented to the authorities who agreed that this was the ideal place to display our plaque.

The plaque design was to resemble our BSoA scarf that came into existence a few years before the school closed. Originally designed by Johnny Frost BSoA 1957-61, the scarf had the usual set of coloured bars associated with college scarves, however what was so different and distinctive about it was the choice of colours, as shown here.

The inscription had to be minimal and indicate that this was the former site of the BSoA and the dates it existed. Choice of fonts was important, as they too needed to reflect something about our art school. Two fonts were chosen, the first being Gill Sans as it was a popular typeface during our time as students, it being clean, simple and yet dignified in character. This was used for the dates and drew the reader’s attention to the purpose of the plaque. The major feature of the inscription was of course the name of our art school and this needed to be artistic in character. It became obvious from the handwriting of our fellow former BSoA students on the envelopes containing the donated cheques that as calligraphy was an integral part of our art education, the chosen font for the name of our school would have to have a handwritten appearance about it. Lucida Handwriting met this provision perfectly.

The next task was to find a plaque maker who could meet this unconventional plaque design. Most important was the matching of the original scarf colours, be able to incorporate the chosen fonts and present them on the plaque crisply and with the desired spacing, proportion and positioning. As the same Urban Design Dept. who had approved the plaque installation recommended Davis Architectural Services in Charlton, they having made plaques for the London Borough of Bromley, and following several visits to their premises that included a tour of their workshop and description of the production procedure, it was decided that they should have our commission.

Impressively the plaque appeal met its target within the first two weeks of its announcement. Cheques came in from all over the world and touchingly from John Cole’s family and relatives of former students.

13 July was chosen as Plaque Day as it was the closest to the final week of the closing of the BSoA in 1962. Invitations were sent out and our website displayed an announcement. Permission had to be granted from the parks authority to assemble at the site and letters of approval were issued in case we were challenged.

On the previous day, Bill Brooker BSoA 1957-62 and Peter Cornish BSoA 1959-62 ably attached the plaque to the wall. It was a tricky undertaking as the brickwork was a little off line and of course we all knew that we had in our fellow alumni perhaps the most critical of observers. In positioning the plaque, we were reminded of all of the aesthetic decision-making criteria that we had been taught; therefore the placing had to be perfect.

A beautiful sunny day greeted our fellow former students at the Beckenham Library Green. The ceremony was rightly delayed as many arrivals, who had not seen each other for over fifty years greeted each other and much rejoicing filled the air. Over forty former BSoA students assembled representing every year from 1942 to 1962.

Following the welcoming, a speech that included a potted history of our art school was given. The speech included a few accolades, its many successes and a roll call of our teachers.

The plaque unveiling ceremony commenced with a poetry reading. Mollie Russell-Smith BSoA 1937-40, wrote the poems. Sadly, Mollie was not well enough to attend and read them, however her son Garnet Frost deputised and read them most movingly. Mollie’s poem Cleared Site was particularly poignant with its references to the clearing of the former site by machines and echos of the sights, sounds and even smell of the BSoA that lingered in the minds of those present on Plaque Day.

The plaque was proudly unveiled by Margaret Cuddon BSoA 1942-45. On each side of the plaque, standing like sentinels were two sculptures by Kass Cohen. Following group photographs we all adjourned to the Coach and Horses which was one of our favourite watering holes over the decades.

A display in the pub’s back yard of student’s art and BSoA memorabilia dating back to 1912 was a great attraction. Free food was provided by the pub landlady and Robin Gray BSoA 1958-62 and Chas Wethered BSoA 1958-62 provided music. Much merriment was heard, reminiscences and stories that over the years have gained in exaggeration were exchanged over the next four hours. Plaque Day was a great success and it along with our website, the publication of the Kass Book and the archives are proof that the BSoA still has a very special place in our hearts.

Plaque Day Speech

It was the success of a few art classes held next door in the Technical School having commenced in 1902 that prompted the building and opening on this site in 1908 of what became the BSoA. For fifty-four years it provided a full-time art education leading to a diploma.

In no time, it rose to become a centre not just of national but international excellence providing some of the finest artists, craftspersons and designers in the land. We produced, if I may use that term, two official war artists namely, Henry Carr and Carol Weight who’s work is kept at the Imperial War Museum in London. Some of Tom Freeth’s work of that time is also in their collection.

We can also boast that a font ‘Beckenham’ was designed in honour of our school, (refer to A Font of Our Own in the News Section of this website).

Most impressively, the Royal College of Art recruited more students from here than from any other art school in the world. In 1949 for example, no less than nine students gained entrance. Considering that the BSoA’s student population in 1949 was about thirty, this was an astonishing achievement. Eric Thomas BSoA 1945-49, one of those recipients is here today.

With such a post graduate success rate, it was not surprising that the BSoA became one of the first art schools in the UK to recruit students from abroad.

The most coveted prize at the Royal College of Art, the Prix de Rome was awarded to Lawrence Norris who was a student and teacher here.

Two of our former students received Queen’s Honours Awards, namely Brent Malone BSoA 1959-62 received an MBE, and was one of Tom Freeth’s painting students, and this year, Prof. Chris Orr RA, BSoA 1959-62 received an OBE, and was one of Kass’s students.

Not forgetting of course that many of our students went on to various academies, architectural schools, universities and teacher training colleges. Many of our alumni also successfully set up their own businesses around the world.

Needless to say, little of these achievements would have been possible without some very talented teachers. Starting with our Principal John Cole, who’s greatest asset to us was that he knew who were the best teachers, and they were without question teacher-practitioners. They could all practise what they preached and what they learnt one day, they taught us the next. John Cole’s other asset was that when it came to our art school culture, he just let us get on with it.

A roll call of all of our teachers would take too long, but I shall mention in name a few who over the decades have taught those of us who are here today. They are Robin Day, Carol Weight, Henry Carr, Clive Latimer, Jessie Collins, Doc Weissenborn, Peter Werner, Tom Freeth, Don Buley, Kass Cohen, Ron Wildman, Peter Midgley, Vanda Cutler, George Fry, Wally Banham, Owen Frampton, Lawrence Norris, Fred Packer, Miriam Goluchoy, Ivor Johns and Peter Pierce.

It seems that what they taught us is always with us.

When asked to describe our curriculum and from where it derived, I reply that it was a successful mix of Modernism, the Bauhaus and the Classical, as we were trained to draw, explore the rules of perspective, colour theory and were introduced to the great masters of previous generations.

Most importantly, we were not slaves to fashion as we believed that innovation comes from respecting the past rather than aping the latest trends.

Ours was an education that went beyond the classroom as we were taken to galleries, museums, and concerts.

We were also introduced to the history of film, classical music, the Marx Brothers and the great works of literature.

Our art school had a thriving in-house culture for there was much music making, the acquisition of other art school mascots, and of course there were those wonderful school plays that Kass produced each year.

Our summer exhibitions were the envy of other art schools, and head hunters from the commercial arts industry would visit and recruit from our ranks.

One of the joys of our art school was that it had a student population numbering only about forty and as such it was much like a family. It beggars belief that there are art schools today with two to three thousand students.

Professionals outside our art school could recognise the BSoA’s distinctive characteristics, as we had our own design style, colour preferences and even distinctive handwriting.

However, by the late 1940s it was evident that the BSoA was becoming too popular. Although three annexes were added, plans were drawn up for a new BSoA. Land was purchased just around the corner, but a new BSoA was not to be. It was decided that as two other local art schools were also over subscribed, all three should amalgamate under a new building, a new name and remit.

So, in 1962, after fifty-four years, the BSoA closed as a full-time diploma awarding institution.

Thinking back, little did we know that our time here was part of the golden age of art education in this country… it was a time of the small and autonomous art school untainted by enrolment targets, league tables and exam results.

It was the end of an era in art education when our managers were successful artists, designers and craftspersons, rather than the accountants they are today.

For us here, it was the end of an era when school dinners were delivered, often not too carefully in metal containers and our morning and afternoon tea breaks were graciously hosted by Mrs Epps at the Bath’s Caff.

It was also the end of an era when our most famous model, none other than the Naked Civil Servant posed for us.

We worked hard in those days, often from 9 am to 9 pm, and when that wasn’t enough, and I can confess now after forty-six years, that secret keys were made and windows left unlocked so that we could sneak back in and work all night. It seems unthinkable today that we worked all night, unsupervised and with machinery, but it got results. We must have been the only school in the world where students actually broke into to work.

In 1978, the building that had been an Adult Eduction Centre since 1962 was burnt down. I sense, as I’m sure many of you do that this pathway we have gathered on is exactly where the central corridor was.

In conclusion, at the heart of this appraisal and perhaps sentimentality, the truth is that we were deservedly very lucky because we were in the right place at the right time. In hindsight, it is easy to claim that the past was always the best, but we did know then as we still do now that the BSoA was a wonderful place and we did have a wonderful time here.

It is evident that our website, the archives, the Kass book and the plaque are proof that we have not and have no intention of recovering from it!

Thank you.

July 2008

Cleared Site
There is an arid gap in my landscape;
Chawed out by earthmovers:
Where sprawling shrubs are clawed by metal teeth.
A great tree remorselessly hacked down,
A tree which bloomed with cobalt violet flowers,
A tree hacked down and burnt away to ash.

This was the garden of the old Art School,
Which was itself mysteriously burned;
The black acrid scars
Softened with weeds and grass and budlia.

I mourned the poor old building,
Home from home to countless students:
Leaky, dilapidated, full of charm,
Smelling of linseed oil. Such happy days!

But while the garden stayed,
I could construct it in my mind again,
Walk through those doors and greet my vanished friends:
Old tunes, old laughter, canvases and paint.
There is an acrid gap in my lifescape
Chawed out by earth movers.

Mollie Russell-Smith

(Plaque Day photo gallery here. If you have any photographs of Plaque Day that you would like to see displayed here, please email them to me.)