Mollie Russell-Smith at the Beckenham School of Art

Mollie Russell-Smith 1940

I started evening classes at the age of fourteen while at school. A year later in 1938 I became a full time student.

It was bliss! Being encouraged to work hard at something so enjoyable.

I started by drawing from the cast. These were larger than life size replicas – in the first instance, of an eye, a nose, an ear, a foot and a hand. From these one graduated to drawing hedge sculptures of classic antiques: The Venus de Milo, The Discus Thrower, and The Belvedere Torso.

Mr Goodwin taught memory drawing. We had a limited time to look at a bicycle or a deck chair, which was then removed and we drew it from memory. Carel Weight taught plant drawing and Cas Cohen taught illustration. In those days students and tutors were not on Christian name terms; it was Mr Cohen and Miss Russell-Smith and the boys were addressed by their surnames only.

By my second year, studies included Perspective, taught by a quiet man named Alistair Dunnet, and Anatomy by Roland Gill. Mr Gill looked the part of a ‘proper artist’ wearing a faded blue smock and a floppy bow tie. We drew from the skeleton and had to know the names and function of all the bones. Also of the muscles, aided by diagrams.

One a week we trekked across to the Tech., to be taught The History of Architecture, by a fearsome philistine of a tutor called Jock Gillespie. This mostly consisted of copying minute illustrations from The Bannister Fletcher History of Architecture. Thus I was able to draw Salisbury Cathedral in detail and from memory, although it would be another forty years before I actually visited Salisbury and saw the real thing.

At last I got to do a life drawing, which I loved and have continued to do on and off throughout my life. The Principal of the School, Henry Carr took most of the life classes, also Laurie Norris and for a short while a mercurial man named Lesley Hurry who became a successful set designer for Covent Garden. We were encouraged by Mr Carr to make our own quill pens from goose or turkey feathers.

Many of the students were balletomanes, and we would go to London to queue for seats at Sadler’s Wells or Covent Garden. Back at the school, in tea break, Don Bewley and I would cavort about The Life Room doing improvised dance. Actually we had a real dancer in our midst; a part time student – a small red headed boy called Raymond (Tich) Cope whose ambition was to join Rambert.

In those days there was a piano in The Life Room, and my twelve-year-old brother, who could play anything by ear, would come in after school and do requests from the students.

Carel was a charming man; his slightly formal manner leavened by a quirky sense of humour. I remember him organising the students to paint the walls of the corridor dark red, on which to mount the annual exhibition. And I remember him lounging in the long grass at the edge of ‘the field’ with me and Keith Lucas listening to Bach on Keith’s windup gramophone.

As 1940 wore on, the war hotted up. There were air raids when we had to shelter. On my way to school I picked up still warm pieces of shrapnel.

At the time of Dunkirk, the students would abandon Life Drawing and rush down the field to the railway line to wave to the much bandaged soldiers hanging out of the windows of the troop trains coming up from the coast. On one evening Dorothy Hope had to walk all the way home to Slade Green at the time when the Woolwich Docks were on fire.

I am not sure whether it was the end of that year or the Spring of 41 that Henry Carr painted my portrait. Like Carol Weight he later became an official War Artist.

He gave me two good pieces of advice: to paint from the shoulder, rather than from the wrist, and always to accept compliments gracefully.

Soon after the portrait, I was devastated by having to leave the school and my friends. The war had not only damaged my house, but also rubbed out my family finances and we decamped to Suffolk.

I wept as I broke the news to Henry Carr. But that old building had not seen the last of me. I would be back; but it was some years before I walked through the front door again.

Mollie Russell-Smith
December 2005

The Perpetual Art Student Mollie Russell-Smith 1999