A Reminiscence by Margaret Cuddon

Beckenham School of Art, September 1941 – Summer 1945

Margaret Cuddon née House
oil sketch by David Webster at BSoA 1942

Arriving at Beckenham School of Art in September 1941, having successfully got my School Certificate (later evolved into O levels) at the girls Grammar School and leaving behind school uniforms, school rules, Maths, Science, Gym and Games and other unpleasant things, I felt I had come to Heaven.

I could do, or at least enjoy attempting, every subject on the timetable. There was life drawing, figure composition, drawing from the Antique, still life painting, anatomy, graphic design, perspective even learning how to set type and, later, lithography. Wonderful! – and there were more boys than girls!

It was not easy to persuade my father to let me go to Art School. No doubt he feared I was entering a den of iniquity. As it happened all he had to be shocked by was that some of the students had long(ish) hair and someone (was it Mr Cohen?) actually wore yellow socks!

I suspect that John Cole would not have tolerated any rowdiness or bad behaviour at Beckenham but there wasn’t any! This was wartime London when the population was quiet and law abiding – we took the War seriously and everyone young and old coped patiently with shortages and air raids. Drugs were unknown and we had so little money to spend as students that alcohol was not a problem – in any case it was unusual for girls to frequent pubs and there were no supermarkets selling alcohol.

We were very formal. Teachers and girl students were ‘Mr’ or ‘Miss’ and boys were known by their surnames. I don’t recollect first names being used at all.

There was no entrance exam but no financial grant either. Everything was in short supply. I had little or no money but at the same time there was little to spend it on. For an old penny Mr Jenn would sell us a half-imperial sheet of cartridge paper every morning and somehow we managed enough pencils and paint to get by. It was a thrilling moment when I was able to buy a clutch of oil painting brushes for £1 second hand of course and somehow I acquired a half-imperial drawing board. I have it still.

It was a grim and wearisome period of War. We had bombs of every description, South East London was in the direct line of attack. We had food rationing, clothes rationing and every kind of shortage. I seem to remember always feeling hungry. But nobody complained that would have been unpatriotic. We actually had an air-raid shelter in the Art School – but no one went in there if we could avoid it – we preferred to take a chance.

At one time even soap was in short supply and one tablet was shared between the girls and boys cloakrooms located on either side of the front entrance. Why, I wonder, did no one think of cutting it in half? Perhaps we half enjoyed asking a likely lad ‘could we have the soap please?’ and a boy could press the tablet of soap into the hand and gaze into the eyes of a girl he fancied. An innocent way to liven up our days!

We also enjoyed the-true-story of someone going into a hardware shop and asking for turps substitute which the painters had to use. ‘No sorry’ said the assistant (we used to think that shop assistants enjoyed saying NO) would real turps be any good? Only someone who lived through the period could appreciate this story.

Whenever we could we went to London to see exhibitions or go to concerts and queue up for the gods – the new theatre in St Martins Lane was a favourite for the ballet when Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpman were dancing.

Kenneth Clark had the brilliant idea of bringing one painting out of storage in Wales and showing it for a week or so at the National Gallery. That was wonderful and so good to concentrate on just one picture at a time. There were also lunch-time concerts at the gallery memorable for anyone enough to be there.

I cannot emphasise enough how important these cultural experiences were for us being deprived as we were of so much that is commonplace and easily available now. We haunted the Redfern gallery in Cork Street because they nearly always had good paintings on show there – Sutherland, John Piper etc etc – the sight of which would refresh our spirits.

The library next door to the Art School was well used. They had a book of T S Eliot’s poetry which was always being borrowed – I doubt if it ever got back on the shelf and of course the Bauhaus book was passed around all the time in the school.

Someone at the library gave gramophone record concerts which we loved. It was always classical music which helped us through those dark days. There was of course popular music too from Vera Lynn to Glenn Miller but somehow serious stuff seemed to sustain us.

MC Self Portrait 1943
Margaret Cuddon née House self portrait first oil painting age 17

There was little to listen to on the radio – wireless they called it then – no TV of course but sometimes we had our own entertainment. Mr Cohen was famous for putting on plays, such as Murder in the Red Barn, and these were very popular. Ben the Bosun was another of his plays with Norman Whicheloe as Ben and I was his sweetheart. Costumes were made and scenery painted and it was good fun, enjoyed by everyone.

We also once had a mock election. Students spoke for their chosen party. We took it very seriously but alas, I don’t remember the result of the vote. However I do remember that the boy who was the Communist Party candidate began his oratory with a loud passionate cry of ‘Comrades!’ which brought the house down.

We were fortunate to have Jesse Collins to teach at Beckenham until he eventually left to become head of department at the Central School. Everyone who was taught by him remembers him with respect and affection. Not only was he an inspiring teacher but he also encouraged us to talk and discuss every subject under the sun. He did not impose his views but encouraged everyone to join in. We were also lucky to have Robin & Lucienne Day teaching at Beckenham.

John Cole was I believe very proud of all our achievements. There was great rejoicing when Norman Whicheloe and John Smith got scholarships to the Architectural Association and of course many students went to the Royal College of Art.

In those days we also took the Board of Educations examinations in drawing etc etc – I should have a certificate somewhere!

Mr Cole had a vigorous, loping stride when he dashed down the corridor which reminded me of Groucho Marx. He did not appear to interfere with student’s work or arrangements except perhaps when Quentin Crisp came as one of our models. We were fascinated by his make-up, nail varnish and curious clothes. I still have an oil painting I did of him. He told us he loved being a model but suddenly he disappeared never to return. Did J.C. disapprove and say never again? We never knew. But Quentin Crisp became famous never-the-less in later days.

It was a help that some teachers were part-time and were usually in the ‘real’ world outside at the same time. I think this was good for the students and stimulating. I am very grateful that I had to study anatomy, draw from the skeleton and learn perspective – all very useful skills.

Anyone who didn’t live through the War may not realise that at night everywhere was in darkness. There were no streetlights and windows were ‘blacked out’. The smallest light might been seen by a German bomber overhead and so Air Raid Wardens were appointed to ensure that every sliver was obscured. I don’t recall that we felt nervous in the dark – all we had to fear were bombs and falling shrapnel not criminals.

The darkness was romantic especially when there was moonlight and clear skies full of stars. It seemed enchanting but shall never forget the strangeness of the time when the lights came on at the end of the War. It was June and deliciously warm and the street lights fell on the streets and pavements and people. It was exciting and pure magic.

My time at Beckenham was good in spite of the War and it was a happy, hard working place. I was fortunate to be there at that time and remember it with great affection.

Margaret Cuddon
September 2005

Margaret Cuddon 2006