In this article we look at the history of Art Education in Leicester, from the earliest documented rise of educational institutions through to the contemporary courses being offered today.
This article is based on an Interview we did with Linda Butt, the Archivist of De Montfort University, made on 5th April 2012. The pieces in [square brackets] have been included by the Editor, based on separate research.
The early days of art education in Leicester
The School of Art opened for lessons in 1870. The development before that was quite long. They had been trying to get an institute going for about ten years before that. It kicked off with the Mechanics Institute. As was the case in so many of the industrial cities, efforts had been made to get an art school going until finally various philanthropists in the city got involved.
Plans were put in place and preparations were made throughout 1869; in April 1870 the first classes were held, at a disused warehouse in Pocklingtons Walk. I don’t know the precise location of that building.
The history of art education went back before that at a national level. The Great Exhibition of 1851 kicked off the interest in good design in industry, The London School of Art (or school of design), had started in the 1750s, somewhat as a result of the European Tours that great people undertook. They were bringing back influences from Europe – from painting sculpture and architecture – and thought that Britain needed to start its own cultural efforts in that direction. In London the School of Design became the Royal College of Art (founded in 1837.)
[The RCA was founded in 1837 as the Government School of Design. In 1853, it became the National Art Training School with the Female School of Art in separate buildings, and, in 1896, it received the name Royal College of Art. During the 19th century, it was often referred to as the South Kensington Schools. See Richard Burchett, an early Headmaster, for more details on this period. After 130 years in operation, the Royal College of Art was granted its Royal Charter in 1967, which gave it the status of an independent university with the power to grant its own degrees. ]
It always had an emphasis on design and applied rather than fine art. The Schools of art in the regional cities, were also set up primarily for design and there was a lot of pedantic teaching for shading, for drawing, from life or still life.
The ultimate goal was to feed designers and artists in to industry, to whatever industry that city was supporting. In Leicester it was textiles, shoes, printing – Leicester was a very big centre for printing. They needed the kind of draughtsmen skills that could be taught at an institution.
So in 1870, the first classes were centred around art of various kinds. In the 1880s there were technical classes, starting at what was then the Wyggestons Boys School, organised by the Reverend James Went. Those carried on there and were augmented by the various engineering and draughtsmanship courses.
In 1890 the Hawthorn Building was built – although, at that time, is was known as the Leicester School of Art – it was named Hawthorn some time later.
The building dervies its name from John H. Hawthorn, the first headmaster of the newly established technical school.
The technical classes then joined the art classes which had moved from Pocklingtons Walk up to a building that was on the side of the current New Walk Museum building, which was started as a school begun by non-conformists for their children. The art classes went into a wing on the side.
When the Hawthorn building opened in 1897, everything came on to our current site. The classes expanded to take in a lot more vocational education – architecture, building, food trades, textiles – art was very central to what was done and still is.
The vocational courses that we teach now in textiles, shoe design, graphic design, interior design, still pull very much on that core of applied art. A very good modern example of that would be the shoe that was designed for Catherine, The Duchess of Cambridge. That is so close to the original purpose of this establishment. You can see the link between 1870 to 2012.
Early courses were qualified. They were validated by the South Kensington body which was tied to the Victoria and Albert Museum, when the whole of arts and technology education was based in South Kensington. I believe that a lot of the examination papers were sent down there to be marked. Prizes were awarded from that body and the various standards were decided by that body. Our courses always have been externally validated and nationally accredited.
Initially it was thought that part time courses would be better for people who were already in employment, or who had other commitments, although there were always full time courses available, a lot of courses at that time where in the evening or at the weekends, when working people could come.
The tutors on those courses were highly qualified people. The first headmaster was Wilmot Pilsbury who was a very talented water colourist. He specialised in landscape painting and particularly that which included water. He got the school up and running and off the ground.
Benjamin Fletcher was another pivotal character and Principal of the school from 1900 to 1920, had been and still was a very able artist. When Augustus Spencer was appointed headmaster here he brought Fletcher along with him as a teacher. So Fletcher began his career here in 1888, taking up the principalship in 1900. Fletcher was an able artist and designer and also a noted pedagogue, who wrote pamphlets on how art should be taught. He was very influenced by the arts and crafts movement. He was a great friend of William Lethaby (1857 – 1931) and was close friends with Harry Peach who set up the Dryad business. That started by making cane furniture but widened out to arts and crafts in general.
At that time the two of them were very influential in furniture design and tied up with the arts and crafts movement. Fletcher was pivotal to art teaching within the institution.
Some of the milestones in the development of art education?
I think it is difficult to give artistic mile stones. The education that was offered and is offered, was built, very much in those early days, around the needs of local industry.
The institution of course has changed out of all recognition, in that we went from being The College of Art of Technology, to being Leicester Polytechnic, and then to becoming De Montfort University. The training in art history and fine art has always been there. What has been added on have been specific courses, in graphic design, interior design which are now strong courses, and are leading directly into industry, which is really what we are here for.
They now run very much in the way that they always have. The Institution has changed around the courses, rather than the courses having changed around the institution. So there are very strong threads, of fine art, of history of art, of applied arts, of various kinds. These have continued through the changes in the institution, and are continuing now.
We are still training artists and designers, to go out into industry, into fashion, in to architecture, into shoe design, interior design, graphic design, which of course are the new names for printing, dress making, all the things that we did back in the early days.
The Scraptoft campus was teacher training and health studies, and youth studies, and dance. Community dance developed there, one of the earliest in the country, that has been continued now here, and links very closely with the Foundation for Community Dance.
Performing arts were at Scraptoft but Fine and Applied arts were always here on the City Campus. Performing arts are still very strong. The departments have branched out into media studies, theatre and film studies. All of the new media have been incorporated into that.
Music and computer gaming
We are also now strengthening our teaching into computer gaming, which is a new strand of art education, so the new technologies have been brought in. Music forms a part of performing arts, particularly cutting edge modern music in that we have the links with Gavin Briers, that kind of very forward looking minimalist music, which was carried on there and that links with the American minimalist music.
That has actually branched out now, and seems to be basing itself again in the Baltic countries. There are composers in the Baltic countries, who have taken on that minimalist aspects of music, and there is some phenomenal work coming out of there. People like Arvo Part is a slightly different aspect of it but the strands are still there.
Scraptoft was linked into that and that is being continued here on the City Campus within the Institute of Creative Technology, which is pioneering electronic forms of music. We have the link with the Curve Theatre. We are training students go into theatre.
Our Theatre Studies students do productions at Curve, they are looking at modern play writes, and producing extremely good theatre. We are becoming increasingly known for music technology.
Shoes and fabrics, dresses and corsets
We began teaching dress making, tailoring and shoe design, from quite early days when the college came into the Hawthorn building in the late 1800s. That would have been for people who were already in the trade, who wanted to learn that kind of skill.
Dress making, tailoring was taught as a formal subject. There were also general craft classes, where embroidery would have been done, certain types of lace were made, competitions were held to design lace. Lace making was taught to women from Ireland so that they could augment their family income.
I don’t know what kind of lace that was, but there are mentions in the Annual Report – that prizes were given to students for their designs. Unfortunately we don’t have those designs now. The dress making courses fed into the city industries, as did tailoring.
In 1946 we began corsetry classes which fed into what we now call ‘contour fashion’. As rationing came to an end, after the second world war, the materials for that kind of garment started to become available. The college decided that that was a good area to go into and to get into an an early stage. That has always been one of our most successful courses, within the textiles area. We are still the only full time degree course in the country in Contour Fashion.
Shoe design was done from quite early days, but in various guises. In the early days it would have been called ‘cobbling trades’. After the end of the second world war when soldiers were de-mobbed, and needed a trade, we held classes, to teach those soldiers, how to make and repair shoes, so they could then go into civilian life with a trade.
Our most recent success is the student who designed a pair of shoes for the Duchess of Cambridge on the recent Royal visit [see our news report on this.] That is really coming full circle from 1870 when we started teaching designers and artists to feed into city industries, we are still doing this now.
Lace making was particularly interesting. I found a photograph that was taken in the 1930s, of a women’s craft class. Most of them are doing embroidery; some of the women are working on large embroidery frames, so I would assume they are working on quite complex pieces.
One girl, right at the front of the class, is working on a bobbin lace pillow. The photograph is quite clear but not clear enough for me to see what kind of lace she is making but she seems to be using East Midlands Bobbins with a continental pillow. Quite how that combination came about I am not certain. I am not sure what kind of lace was made then, East Midlands-type laces had not at that time been developed.
There is a large collection of East Midlands Bobbins in the Museum and I do know that there was bobbin lace making in Leicester as early as 1610.
I wonder whether that girl in the photograph had brought her skills with her. If you look very carefully at the photograph, the girl sitting next to her, who is working at an embroidery frame, is wearing very antiquated clothing, that you would almost associate with peasant garments: a long skirt, hair in a coil round her head, shawl, and a frilly blouse. This does not look like the kind of garment that a 1930s girl here, would be wearing. It looks Eastern European.
Those two girls – if you look very closely at their features – I have a feeling they are sisters or possibly cousins. Now, if those two girls are related, and they have those skills, the centres of bobbin lace making (apart from England and Northern Europe) were in the region of what became Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia. I do wonder whether those girls came out of Eastern Europe, prior to the outbreak of the second world war, brought their skills with them, and then were honing their skills in order to fit themselves for employment. It is just a surmise, because I have not had time to research the registers, but they look very much as if they might be of Eastern European extraction.
The Midlands would have been known in Eastern Europe as a centre for lace making at that time. Nottingham was machine lace, which is a very different discipline to hand made lace. The machines were developed in Nottingham because the technology was already there. There is no tradition of hand made lace in Nottingham – that resided in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and in Devon. Those were the centres of hand made lace.
Nottingham started to make machine lace because the skills and the factories and the know-how about to the build and maintain them was already there. Machines were then taken to Northern France, so the industry spread out but I am not aware of machine lace being produced in Eastern Europe.
There is some bobbin made lace in Leicester from 1610 and there is a notice (at that date) of money being given by a particular charity to a lace maker in Leicester to employ girls to make bobbin lace. Leicester was right on the very periphery of the hand made lace area but I do know that one of the Ellis family was a very competent lace maker and her collection of bobbins and lace appears to have formed the foundation of the collection within the museum.
Agnes Ellis may have known some of the girls who trained here in the very early days. I am not aware of bobbin lace being taught as a separate subject here, which me think that the girl in the photo probably brought her skills with her rather than having learnt them here.