The history of Walthamstow School of Art: 1957-1967
‘The façade of South West Essex Technical College and School of Art, was as long as its name’ recalled Eric Hebborn, the infamous art faker and former drawing tutor at Walthamstow.
First opened in September 1938, South West Essex Technical College and School of Art was housed in a grand neo-classical building on Forest Road (now Waltham Forest College). Walthamstow School of Art, as it was colloquially known, was located within the east wing of the main Technical College building.
Until the mid-sixties, most art students at Walthamstow applied for the two year Intermediate Certificate in Arts and Crafts, providing students with a broad introduction to all aspects of arts and crafts. Students were then eligible to advance on to the two year National Diploma in Design (NDD) in which they specialised in one of the specific art and design disciplines, such as painting or dress design. Walthamstow also offered evening courses in crafts, such as photography, pottery and life drawing, which day course students supplemented their studies by also attending.
Exterior of South West Essex Technical College and School of Art, 1960. ©Vestry House Museum, London Borough of Waltham Forest
In 1951, Stuart Ray became Principal of Walthamstow School of Art, overseeing a period in which Walthamstow was to become one of the top art schools in the country. Ray’s success as a teacher was his personal conviction that talent required nurturing. Many students at Walthamstow first encountered him during an initial face-to-face interview, which he conducted personally with the majority of prospective students.
All the teaching staff at Walthamstow during this period were practicing artists, many of whom demonstrated a high regard for draughtsmanship and objective drawing. Stuart Ray, as well as teachers Ken Howard, Fred Dubery, William Bowyer, Fred Cuming, Jack Millar and Margaret Green were all members of the New English Club, a group of professional painters whose work is based principally upon direct observation of nature and the human figure. Through their teaching they placed great emphasis on process and practical application, this gave students at Walthamstow a proficiency in a range of skills, and arguably left them better equipped to test the boundaries of their chosen art form.
Walthamstow School of Art 58-59 (c)Waltham Forest Local Studies Library
Pop Goes the Easel
There was a keen awareness of emerging art trends and a concern amongst Ray and senior staff that Walthamstow should be seen to be ‘keeping up’. As the sixties began to swing, a new group of emerging Pop Artists joined the teaching staff. Peter Blake, a former graduate of the RCA was teaching part-time to supplement his income as a painter started at Walthamstow in 1961. In 1963, he was joined by Derek Boshier, who like Blake had risen to prominence whilst a student at the RCA. Their roles as pioneers of Pop Art was immortalised when they featured in the filmmaker Ken Russell’s (a former Walthamstow School of Art graduate) BBC Monitor documentary Pop Goes the Easel.
Bill Hayley and The Comets no.2, 1960, Derek Boshier (c)The Artist and Gazelli Art House
The influx of these young artists, alongside other teachers Derek Hirst, Joe Tilson, John Smith and the action painter William Green, was to have a major impact on the pupils at Walthamstow. Not long out of art school themselves, the relatively small age difference between the new influx of teaching staff and students opened up a dialogue between teachers and their students.
Blake and Boshier in particular, and who had grown up in suburban areas, had their eyes wide open to London’s youth culture and were receptive to the social mix of students at Walthamstow. They captured the imagination of their students, teaching them to celebrate their own experiences in their art. The musicians, Terry Day and Ian Dury, as well as the music photographer Laurie Lewis, who were all students at Walthamstow in the early sixties and taught by these artists, embraced the new style, producing prints of tattoo designs and drawing film stars informed by the Pop aesthetic.
Please No Gunfire by Ian Dury, 1963-5, graphite and pencil, 76 x 56cm (c)The Estate of Ian Dury
The Fashion Department at Walthamstow helped to shape the future of British fashion as we now know it, literally defining the youthful, clean and simple styles that are synonymous with the Sixties.
Jenny Boyd modelling Double D Dress, 1966 (c)Foale & Tuffin Archive
Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin first met at Walthamstow as students and would go on to create some of the most iconic fashion of the sixties. Their recollections of the art school, where they first met, echo that of the former part-time lecturer Celia Birtwell who taught surface pattern design two days a week from 1965-67. All three attest to the fantastic social atmosphere of the college and the opportunities for interaction between different artistic disciplines. Celia Birtwell recalls how they ‘used stickers to create patterns on paper, these were psychedelic patterns of course, they were very popular, they were then made into paper dresses and photographed.’
The opportunities which were afforded to the Walthamstow students would amaze art students of today. Students were taken to Paris for the Spring Shows, visiting Givenchy and Balenciaga. Paris’s simple chic style, and the influence of the Left Bank is clearly visible in their paired-down youthful design and fuss-free silhouettes of Foale and Tuffin’s later designs.
Reforms brought about by the Coldstream Reports of 1960 and 1970 enforced an unprecedented level of control for British art schools. Following the first report, the existing four year Art and Design scheme (incorporating Intermediate and NDD levels) was replaced by a one year Pre-Diploma course (later known as Foundation course) and a three year Diploma in Art and Design (known as the Dip AD), equivalent to a degree. 73 Art Schools submitted applications to teach the new diploma.[i] Walthamstow School of Art applied to teach the Dip AD in Painting and Fashion. Following visits from the newly formed National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design, only 29 Art Schools across the country had their applications approved, Walthamstow was not amongst them. The reason for this decision remains unclear but it prompted an outcry from senior staff at the RCA, who writing to The Times newspaper in 1965, expressed their incomprehension that an art school with the level of success that Walthamstow had enjoyed, should not be recognised. They presented statistics which showed that Walthamstow had submitted more successful candidates to the RCA in the three years between 1962 and 1963 than any other art school in the country.[ii] At a time when student’s admission to the RCA was a mark of an art school’s success, this was truly impressive.
Walthamstow School of Art students modelling clay, 1958 © London Borough of Waltham Forest Archives and Local Studies Library
Walthamstow School of Art’s inability to award the DipAD qualification undermined their ability to attract the most talented students. Moreover, the reforms brought about a new standardised system of art education, at odds with Walthamstow more ad-hoc teaching style. As the sixties progressed, students and teachers moved on, many to pursue highly successful careers in the creative industries. Whilst the individuals that studied at Walthamstow School of Art between 1957-67 continued to benefit from the art education they received there, the radical era there was over.
Voice from the Art School
London’s longest-established oral history group, Waltham Forest Oral History Network interviewed former alumni and teachers from Walthamstow School of Art in 2017.
Some of their stories can be listened to here, the rest are available to listen to at Waltham Forest Archives and Local Studies Library.
The artist Alan Kidd studied painting at Walthamstow School of Art 1960-62
The designer Kathy Lewiston studied Fashion at Walthamstow School of Art 1966-70