Memories of John Cole by Margaret Cuddon


John Cole

John Cole was the Principal of the Beckenham School of Art, which I attended from the autumn of 1941 until the summer of 1945.

It was war time and Beckenham was badly bombed, food was rationed and life was generally dreary and difficult, yet for me it was one of the best times of my life. I had been a pupil of the Grammar School in Beckenham and hated it there. Having achieved a reasonable School Certificate I was glad to get away.

Because I could draw and it seemed like a good idea, I persuaded my father much against his will, to let me go to the Art School. He probably expected it to be a den of iniquity (I was only 15 at the time) but my mother went to see Mr Cole who must have given her confidence because she was more cheerful about it. There was no entrance examination and no fees to pay, which helped, and I found myself in the blissful situation of being one of the few females in an all male establishment. What was more I could spend all day (and evenings as well if I wished because there were always evening classes) drawing and painting – just the way I liked to spend my time. It was great.

In my first year I studied anatomy – (we even had our own skeleton) – drawing from the Antique, perspective, still life, drawing from Life (with proper models) and figure composition – a very useful series of skills to study for which I have since been grateful.

Later I specialized in Book Illustration and learnt about typography, lithography, etching and so on. It was a good subject for me and I am sorry that I abandoned it completely when I left Beckenham.

J. C. called the boys by their surnames but the girls were always “Miss”… so and so and teachers ‘Mr’. It all seems quaint now but was quite acceptable then. I suppose he liked the formality and perhaps it made us more respectful to each other and to the Staff. I remember him as very energetic and organised. He would burst out of his office and charge down the corridor on some mission or other with a loping walk which reminded me of Groucho Marx. He did not appear to notice us or look at what we were doing but no doubt he was actually observing everything. We all like and respected him.

He must have inspired loyalty too. Miss Forrest, the school secretary, and dear old Mr Jenn (he seemed old to us) the caretaker, had been and would be there forever it seemed. I do not know for certain but guess that J.C. had some or total choice in the employment of staff.

We certainly had a marvelous collection of teachers – the full-time staff usually stayed a long time but there was a series of part-timers who added colour to the scene. Most were interesting, some inspiring. In my time I was taught by Carel Weight (a hopeless teacher but delightful man). Jesse Collins (one of the best teachers ever by general consent. It was a sad day for Beckenham when he took a full-time appointment at the Central School). Henry Carr (taught drawing and painting until he became an official War Artist). Lucienne Day (Robin Day was there at the same time). George Chapmam, Louis Crombeke (lithography) and many more. Last but no means least was W. Kassemoff (Mr Cohen as we knew him then) who was my teacher for book illustration. It was he who put on marvelous performances of Victorian Melodramas which were great fun to take part in and entertaining to watch.

We once put on a serious election, which candidates for the Labour Party, Conservatives and the Communist Party They each made speeches and we took a proper vote – but alas I don’t remember the result!! But we took it quite seriously.

Without taking part in these activities himself (and he kept his own views to himself) he seemed to give total support and encouragement to us. I leaned about Socialism at Beckenham but I also learnt about the Bauhaus and T.S. Eliot and Impressionism and classical music etc etc etc.

He seemed very tolerant and I only remember him once making a stand about something and that was when Quentin Crisp came to model (I have a painting of him still). We were mesmerized by his camp manner and appearance – a new and startling experience. How ignorant and naïve we all were! He never came again. I understand that J.C. had decreed that he was not to be re-engaged as a model. I don’t imaging that this due to a personal prejudice – more likely he would have thought his presence was not beneficial to the students. I think he was genuinely concerned for our welfare!!

We students were a motley crew but there was an abundance of talent. J.C. was obviously pleased and proud when any students did well. We were all overjoyed when John Smith (later a president of the RIBA) and Norman Whicheloe got scholarships to the AA School of Architecture. Norman went on to run a successful practice in Bristol and I believe still lives there. John Smith died alas a few years ago.

Many students went on successfully to the Royal College of Art and I think J.C. was delighted with their progress.

He reprimanded me only once – when I applied to the RCA and got a place but not a scholarship and he made it clear that I had not done my best in the examination and hadn’t seriously worked at it. I probably did not like the plain speaking but he was absolutely right. I had been a student there too long and had got lazy and complacent.

However he suggested that I apply to take a teaching diploma rather than be called up or the services, as women were in those days. Teaching gave one deferment. I took his advice and became a teacher and did not regret it. He was right again.

I am sorry that I did not keep in touch with Beckenham and John Cole after I left. I wanted to move on and so I left that world behind. But my time at Beckenham had a profound effect on my life (not least because I met my future husband there when he was one of Robin Day’s students before going on to Regent Street Polytechnic – where he became an architect – I was fortunate to be at Beckenham during his time there.

Margaret Cuddon
May 1999