David Webster's Memories BSoA 1941-2 and 1947-8

My Beckenham Memories

My memories of BSoA are so vague and fragmented now that I can only write about general impressions and a few unrelated incidents which have, imprinted themselves deeply enough on my mind to have survived for sixty-five or so years since they happened.

In 1941 and 42 the school, in addition to being a relatively small building, also seemed to generate an intimate atmosphere. Teachers and students shared an easy relationship. It was some time before I realised that most of the staff were successful and well-known artists, destined to become even more so later.

During those years students worked hard and nearly all spontaneously produced work at home. We actually talked about art!

Sadly, I remember noticing a difference on returning from war service in 1947. There seemed to be more students; the school felt noticeably crowded for the first time. Dress had begun to change and, of course, there was a difference in maturity between the younger students and the returning ex-service men.

The BSoA website clearly shows the warmth ex-students feel for Beckenham and I share that. It was a place one did feel affection for, especially before it began to grow. When Lord Clark visited Beckenham in, I think, 1947, impossibly sleek and fragrant amid the homely atmosphere of the school and general aroma of turps and linseed oil, we could not know that his visit heralded changes which would eventually lead to the school’s closure.

Margaret Cuddon’s memoir evokes the school and its characters better than I could but among those characters and events which stick in my mind is charismatic little Mr Cohen (as he was always called in those days) who provided a couple of us students with a bit of extra pocket money by asking us to measure up an exhibition space in London for him and paying us to do it! Or Mr Freeth who, spontaneously pulled a ten bob note out of his pocket for a tiny oil sketch I’d done as a reference for a painting.

Unforgettable too was the arrival on the staff for a short period of the incredible Edward Grunspan in his dinky pork-pie hat, bringing in paintings by known masters which couldn’t possibly have been genuine together with printed reproductions and books which, it turned out, came illegally from Zwemmer’s bookshop. I still have a book inscribed ‘To Webster from Edward Grunspan’. He was later arrested for masquerading as a blind Air Force Group Captain and eventually committed suicide. Did all that really happen?

In a totally different way I remember how genuinely shocked and saddened the whole school was when the school Janitor, ‘Venn’ (or was it Jenn) suffered a terrible electric shock from the type setting table in the print room. It was as if it had happened to a favourite uncle. The relief when he was able to come back to work was huge and genuine.

It is impossible to convey how lucky I feel to have known the camaraderie of tea breaks in the baths café, to have been able to pop next door into the library or to nip off to London (only too often) to browse the galleries; even to have stood in the playing field and seen two Messerschmitts go by, probably following the rail way line through Clockhouse station.

By 1947 the ‘smogs’ had built up and some of my most potent memories are of the school sitting isolated in a silent yellow gloom with a paraffin flares burning in the road even at midday. For me the whole experience was a conjunction of time and place and people which is unforgettable.

David Webster (Student 1942-2 and 1947-8)

‘Sweeny Todd’ a production by Wolf Kassemoff 1947
David Webster is the vicar, back row 3rd