Beckenham School of Art – First day impressions

David Muriel.

My mother always thought that I was a bit of an ‘arty-farty’ type as she sometimes smilingly referred to me to my dismay in mixed company, for it appeared that I possessed a modicum of ability to put pencil to paper and accurately colour up to the line in my colouring books. No doubt this could be misconstrued by some as lacking in freedom of expression, but this precision would eventually be useful in my yet unknown career. Further evidence came after my winning a children’s painting competition illustrating ‘The Golden Hind in full sail’ in the Mickey Mouse Weekly comic, the 1st prize being a Mickey Mouse wristwatch that promptly stopped keeping time after two weeks. My childhood was spent on the south coast, attending school in Rye under the watchful eye of my art teacher Mr Davy, himself an accomplished painter, who often sneaked into his materials cupboard to smoke a roll-up, while our heads were down concentrating on drawing fruit, but who gave me encouragement and an insight into art, with wonderful books that I was allowed to look at on the French Impressionists. Eventually I enlisted in evening classes at the Brassey Institute in Hastings, but it was to Beckenham School of Art that Mr Davy recommended me to go because he personally knew the principal John Cole through his brother who ran Rye Pottery.

Thus in the autumn of 1959 (having left home still wet behind the ears) I found myself lost on my first day, trying to find the art school in Beckenham. While attempting to get my bearings I caught sight of what I imagined a model art student might be, (not that they adhered to any strict specific dress code, due to lack of finances as I personally soon discovered) but this ambling bloke with longish hair dressed in a loud check windbreaker, roll neck sweater, faded jeans, battered suede shoes was carrying a portfolio, a good sign I thought. On the other hand I (unfortunately at my mum’s insistence) had a regular short back and sides and was wearing a sports jacket, shirt and tie pressed new cavalry twill trousers, polished sensible shoes and consequently looked like I was off to an interview for a job as a pox doctor’s clerk. Not wishing to appear more stupid that I already was, I felt reluctant to ask him for directions, so instinctively followed at some distance and sure enough found myself pensively walking into Beckenham School of Art for the first time.

The establishment consisted of a low white timbered building supported by cast iron columns with parquet flooring and a corrugated roof, with a central corridor with classrooms on either side, leading to a series of annexes overlooking playing fields at the rear. Some of the rooms had stoves while others had open fireplaces, a potential fire risk. Unfortunately, this proved fatal in 1978 when vandals broke into the building and burnt the place to the ground, a sad loss to the many students that had previously passed through its doors (entering vertically at times of immense study and productiveness, or leaving horizontally during the many social events).

After being shown round, given a drawing board and assigned locker, I was introduced to the rest of the newcomers while we queued to get our allocated art materials from Fred the caretaker who ran the school shop. It was also the first time that I was confronted by the full nakedness of the female form, while interrupting a life class in progress, which at the tender bashful age of sixteen, was a bit of a shock. During the afternoon however, I settled down to my first lesson being colour theory, taught by Ron Wildman, and got to grips with the exercise of producing a six colour circle (my competence to successfully paint up to the line now being a bonus).

With a living away from home allowance of £82 a term I had no idea what I wanted to do or be, but somehow I knew that if I applied myself to the school’s work hard, play hard ethic on what was very much an arts and crafts course, where students became apprentices in their specific field of study, it would lead to something and eventually I was guided onto the internationally known graphic design course under the auspices of Peter Werner (or the Captain, as he was affectionately known). Because the school was comparatively small in student numbers by today’s standards, there was more of a family atmosphere as you could find anyone within a matter of minutes, unlike the large ‘art factory’ conglomerates housing batteries of students that have proceeded since.

On returning back to my Aunt’s that evening, questions were asked as to how I had got on and what I had learnt. My views were very complimentary apart from my feeling ridiculously overdressed, complaining bitterly that – “even the teachers wear drainpipe trousers!” So to my mother’s dismay, my posh attire was abandoned the following day for a more practical solution for the work in hand. Later it transpired that the model art student that I’d been shadowing on my first day had been Mac, at present responsible for running the Beckenham School of Art website.

In conclusion, I still have vivid memories of that first day, shuddering even now at how innocent and naive I was, but I will never forget the great times throughout my study and will always be indebted to the patient and long suffering staff who contributed so much to my education, for without them I would never have succeeded in achieving my professional occupation.

David Muriel