Happy Days

Beckenham School of Art – Student reminiscences by Dave Muriel

I have tried to capture some of the successful, and alas, shameful practises that took place, specifically involving our group, during the period between September 1959 and July 1962. Therefore it is with some discretion, that I have not disclosed the names of those involved to protect the guilty, for fear of reprisals.

In the beginning.

At the start of the Autumn term in 1959, at the tender age of sixteen, I arrived from Hastings, dressed (at my mother’s insistence) as if I was going to attend an interview at Coutts Bank.

Lost, I followed an ambling bloke, who looked like how I imagined an art student to be, and I entered Beckenham School of Art for the first time. Being away from home, I felt apprehensive and out of my depth, embarrassed by my over-dressed appearance. However, within days I ‘blended in’ amongst the sloppy-jumper and faded-jean brigade, happy to be taught, conscientious and eager to learn, in the hope of achieving a future career, yet to be decided.
(see Beckenham School of Art – First day impressions in Stories Section on this website for further details).

Some of the school staff who taught me.

Teaching was under the auspices of the Principal, John Cole, who, when he spoke, sounded like he had a blocked-up nose with a permanent cold. He could occasionally be seen hurriedly walking from his office down the corridor, like Groucho Max, when any emergency occurred, which, fortunately, was not that often. On the odd occasion, Mr Cole would kindly give me and another student a lift home, since he was visiting his brother who ran Rye Pottery. (Incidentally, one of his paintings of Hastings still hangs in the town museum). His staff, on the other hand, had the painstaking task of teaching our group. Some of these patient long-suffering tutors were: Don Buley, who taught us composition, still life and life drawing; Ron ‘Willie’ Wildman, who taught us colour theory; Fred Packer, who taught us basic printing; Doctor Weissenborn, who taught us perspective; Vanda Cutler, (known as ‘Auntie’, and sister to our family doctor in Hastings) who taught us sculpture; Bob Butler, who taught us photography; Miriam Goluchoy, (known as ‘Mim’, or ‘Aggie’) who taught us calligraphy; Peter Pearce, Michael Davis and Michael Chalk, (known as ‘Chalkie’) who taught us graphic design; David Gentleman, who occasionally taught us illustration; Mr Collins, who taught us lettering; Mr Frampton, (father of Peter Frampton) who taught us about the history of art and architecture; Grahame Arnold, who taught us historical costume drawing; Michael Peacock, (technical assistant) who was in charge of typesetting and printing; and George Fry, who ran the school film club in the annexe basement of No 80 Croydon Road, who’s passion and love of film encouraged us to go and see films directed by Fellini, Kurosawa and Eisenstein.

Student japes and pranks.

Being in our adolescence at the time, (and I can only speak for the boys in our group) tricks were played on each other, including the long-suffering staff. There was an occurrence when some bright spark placed a dustbin on the chimney, causing smoke to fill the room in which a life class was being taught. Another ‘incident’ involving a balloon (filled with oxyacetylene gas, from the furniture department) was ‘accidently’ sucked up the same chimney and exploded, filling the room with soot that covered the member of staff, the life model and students. I just happened to be in the general drawing room next door at the time and was deafened for some minutes by the noise. One daring and dangerous ‘achievement’ that took place was at the rear of the school. This involved the making of a home-made cannon from a piece of gas pipe. Hopefully this contraption, when loaded and then lit, would be able to fire a lead missile at a target some yards away. This it successfully did. Unfortunately, not only did the projectile go through the target, but also a row of dustbins, the fence, and no doubt embedded itself in the wall of the property next door. Other less harmful but childish pranks, involved sitting at the back of the class near an open window during Ron Wildman’s lesson and every time he turned his back to write on the blackboard, we would escape out of the window, up to ‘Mother’ Epps’s tearoom above the public baths. This took a degree of precise co-ordination and timing and as the lesson progressed, Mr Wildman continued teaching to an ever-depleting audience that finally left only the front rows still in attendance. Another jape during Doctor Weissenborn’s lesson in the annexe of No 25 Beckenham Road, (across from the school) was putting a joke plastic dog turd on the floor and adding a drop of water to make it look authentic. “Has anyone brought a dog in here?” the doctor enquired, to which we all shrugged our shoulders in negative response. One creative idiot constructed an artistic representation of a bird made out of a contraceptive with feathers for a tail that was mounted in a wire birdcage and hung from the ceiling in the entrance hallway. Don’t ask me why this took place – I have no idea – but I confess, that guilt did not enter our minds at the time, and I dread to think what the more ‘mature’ students were getting up to. It was a period when various places of learning had their own much-prized mascot that was religiously guarded, lest it be stolen by students from other schools. Our mascot was a huge wooden propeller mounted on the corridor wall. Nevertheless, we did manage to successfully purloin a selection of mascots from various other establishments, including a stuffed crocodile from Sidcup Art School and a sculptural figure from Croydon College of Art. This reproduction of ‘Venus de Milo’ was believed to be quite valuable and understandably needed to be returned. Croydon students battled in vain to retrieve it without success, bringing the traffic to a halt, during which our dear Principal observed the proceedings, grinning from his office window.

The geodesic disaster.

I remember watching with interest the attempt to construct a geodesic dome out of tubing on the back lawn, supervised by Mr Werner. Buckminster Fuller would have been proud, I thought. Intrigued at the prospect of the fact that, if this feat was successful, it would be a good result for all concerned. However, instead of working out the circumference of the structure and building it from the ground up, a decision had been made to start at the top, which involved holding it in the air from underneath. Consequently the larger and heavier it became, the more students were required to support it, until it finally collapsed. Such failure is a hard pill to swallow.

Drawing ‘life’.

Occasional ‘incidents’ occurred during life classes. One day, suddenly the girls gradually moved round to where I was sitting, drawing Quentin Crisp, who was strategically posed in the centre of the room. ‘Was my aftershave working?’ I thought. This subtle retreat to where I was working seemed strange, and I finally discovered that his testicles were on display, having accidentally come out of his posing pouch! Another very ‘Rubenesque’ life model that we nicknamed ’Smiler’, (due to her permanent expression) on this particular occasion, regrettably, had a flatulence problem, which caused chaos as she kept apologising, which made things worse. This resulted in us trying to suppress much laughter, each of us hiding behind our drawing board, while she attempted to concentrate and keep her pose. A further ‘event’ took place during a lunch break one summer, down at the tennis court beyond the playing field by the railway. It involved a somewhat shapely model playing tennis in the nude, (which was completely her decision, not ours). The effect of this flagrant display – (not surprisingly) – caused British Rail line- maintenance workers on the embankment to stop work, throughout our game.

Achieving a qualification.

As ‘Prelim’s’ we then took the Intermediate Examination, having to produce a varied selection of work that included examples of composition, life drawing, lino-cut printing and history of art and architecture, along with submitting a sketchbook. Having successfully accomplished this accolade, we were divided into the recommended subjects of study related to our final career, (mine being graphic design) under the direction of ‘the Captain’, Peter Werner. The next two- year course prepared me for my final exam – the National Diploma of Art and Design. This I successfully passed. (However, throughout my many years of working, unusually no employer has ever asked to see evidence of my qualifications).

Extra ‘Muriel’ activities.

A small group of us decided to produce a school magazine entitled Omnium, which had many contributors, and was sold for a modicum amount throughout the establishment. Despite the cover being printed in colour, costs were kept to a minimum, due to the father of a student, who kindly gave assistance, supplying the printing and materials. The contents covered the 1961 school exhibition, along with various articles by the students, who, being involved in its production, began to learn about art directing, designing, writing and editing.

A departure from our normal studies resulted in three of us appearing on a television rock and roll programme called ‘Wham’. This involved us dancing with the shows resident female group ‘The Vernons Girls’. The show was a vehicle for promoting many of the pop stars at that time and was transmitted from the ABC studio in Manchester in 1960. Hopefully, the recording of this embarrassing brief departure in our careers now may possibly be lost. At this stage, we, (like so many others) attempted to form a rock group, which became more successful much later during our education, playing at college social events.

Another embarrassment was a photo-experience with Bob Butler who, in a state of panic, chose me to model for a film’s publicity that was due to be released entitled ‘Some People’, starring Kenneth Moore. As a result, I appeared on cinemas, buses, posters and records for the grand sum of £5.00. End-of-term school celebrations were sometimes an excuse for producing the odd play in which both student and staff participated, thus continuing the school’s ‘work hard’, ‘play hard’ ethic. It was on these alcoholic occasions that a group of us would troop down to The General Jackson in Penge, to fill up our empty flip-top lemonade bottles from the bottom of the pubs cider barrel for a few pence, which – (being students) – is all we could afford. This ‘gut rot’ would be carefully transported back, since sealing the bottles would cause them to explode. As a result of consuming a quantity of alcoholic sustenance during one end-of-term social, I regrettably found myself in the embarrassing predicament of having passed out – (on route home) – in a rose bed opposite The Clock House Tavern. Was it fate on that very night that my eldest cousin just happened to be driving past and recognised the soles of my shoes protruding from the Floribundas? Whatever it was, he did save me from probable hypothermia and thank God, ran me back home to my digs. It was many years later, before I was able to face drinking a glass of cider.

The end of an era.

The final closure of the school in 1962 took a considerable amount of organisation from all concerned, and the passing of such an influence, not only to our lives, but many of those students who had proceeded us. The ‘Chippys’ from the furniture department made a coffin to symbolise the school building, adding the front door handles to their creation, and a pulpit was also constructed. An old hearse was ‘borrowed’ and a full-blown funeral procession, complete with mourners, was planned to make its way through Beckenham High Street, terminating at the school gate. But unfortunately this was quashed by the local constabulary and alas, could not take place. Despite this set back, we continued, and with heads bowed, the coffin was brought into the rear studio, where a service complete with sermon and choir was performed to celebrate the occasion.

In conclusion.

Looking back, my student years at Beckenham School of Art, were some of the happiest and crazy days of my life. The ever encouragement and persistence of dedicated staff set me on course to further my education at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design on Bromley Common. It is fair to say that art school training equipped me with the basic requirements to be employed, and by working and developing further skills, these assets completed one’s education. Proof of this is evident, in that many past students now hold senior positions in industry, (some running their own businesses, thus continuing to give employment to more students) both in this country and abroad. My personal working experience over the years has involved me in working for design groups, publishers and architects, running my own practice and teaching. Now retired, I have written two comedy plays, (yet to be performed) and co-written a book published by Olympia and available from Amazon or Waterstones. (see Book promotion in News Section on this website for further details).

Since this account of my student past at Beckenham was written out of extreme boredom, there may be the odd mistake, and in the likelihood of this being discovered, please keep it to yourselves and don’t ring me!