Tuesday, 12 January 2016

A Brief Introduction to the Blackheath School of Art

Blackheath Art School: An Introduction and depictions of the local area

I am hopeful that this will be the beginning of an exploration of the history of the Blackheath School of Art through regular blogs focusing on artists and personalities connected with the school. Thanks must go to Sydney Thornbury who has encouraged my endless fascination with the 'lost history' and John Bartram of the Blackheath Society who expertly edited my research into a more easily understandable text. Anyway, here goes...

Two of the best known artists who attended the Blackheath Art School (now a part of the Conservatoire) as students did so before it closed for World War I and World War II. John Skeaping studied under Frederic Halnon in 1914 (at the age of thirteen) for one term before enrolling at Goldsmith’s. In his career he became one of the foremost equine artists in Britain, producing sculpture for the Getty family, and is perhaps best known for his “How to Draw Animals” books. Those who have closely followed the career of Barbara Hepworth may recall him as her first husband.

One of the last students at the school was Joan Eardley, who attended for two terms in late 1938 before enrolling at Goldsmith’s in 1939. She subsequently attended Glasgow School of Art and became one of the most admired Scottish modern artists through her touching paintings of Glaswegian children and depictions of the coastline at Catterline, Aberdeenshire.

The 1904 Blackheath School of Art students’ exhibition was reviewed in the Arts and Crafts Magazine which provides a fantastic resource of names for researchers. In the review a young student Percy Noel Boxer, whose watercolour 'capital' work was included amongst the praise for this medium at the school: ‘In water-colour painting… excellent studies were shown, evidencing a degree of practical appreciation of the capabilities of the medium not often met with in school work.’  His drawings of Charlton and Greenwich featured in the Studio Magazine in 1916 and he is renowned for his drawing of Limehouse and of Greenwich and its surrounds. Tragically, he died young after a long illness and today little is known about him, although his works definitely deserve another look.

Another student who featured in this exhibition was Nora Cundell who received the following mention about her exhibited work: ‘In spirited conception, at least, Miss Norah Cundell is not far behind Miss Stanton, in her Nursery Panel of a Children's Cake-Walk’. Cundell subsequently studied under Walter Sickert and in her later years travelled to Arizona to spend time in the desert painting cowboys and the Native American Indians. Her 1940 tome, Unsentimental Journey, describes one of her many trailblazing adventures and is full of simple yet descriptive line drawings of the characters she encountered there.

Blanche Goff also receive a mention for her metalwork describing Blanche’s ‘beaten silver work and enamel jewellery [as] deserv[ing] commendation’. Her sister Bertha Goff, who attended Holloway School of Art, continued with this career and her arts and crafts style jewellery is sought after today. One of the two sisters later became a teacher at the school as a B Goff is listed as a teacher of Enamelling in 1909.

One of the local artists who attended the school was privileged to study under some of the foremost British printmakers of the day. This was Meryl Watts who is perhaps best known for her striking depictions of Portmeirion which were made into postcards. Living in nearby Saint Germain’s Place, some of her early woodcuts show Blackheath as it looked in the 1930s. Watts also features in the records of the Music school, having attended from 1919 to the late 1920s, participating in physical education classes and piano lessons. Currently she is the first student we have evidence of attending both schools.

Blackheath, 1930’s by Meryl Watts

A plethora of new names have come to light from documents in the London Metropolitan Archives and the National Archives, Kew. Some have particular claims to fame, including Phillip Boydell who taught ceramics and design at the school in the 1920s and designed the typeface for the Festival of Britain (Festival Titling) in 1951 and various iconic advertising images. Harold Nelson was a renowned bookplate artist who taught Black and White Illustration, according to the 1909 prospectus. He also designed a stamp for the 1929 postal union conference and worked for Punch magazine. A well-known local artist Hugh Bellingham Smith taught the ‘Study of the Figure’ (Life Drawing/ Painting) in 1909 and he painted numerous landscapes and works that survive depicting nearby Greenwich Park.
Children in Greenwich Park, sold at Bonham’s 2010, by Hugh Bellingham Smith
Placing existing works into the context of the Art School has been one of the most exciting parts of this research. The first discovered extant piece of ceramics, and also the earliest piece from the school, is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The vase, created by Frances A Baker, was made in 1901. 

John Edgar Platt and Charles Paine, two esteemed printmakers, worked together at the school in the 1930s and both men produced advertising posters for London Transport. A work by Platt, The Lamb, appeared at auction at Bamford’s in the summer of 2015 and is inscribed ‘From JP to CP, 1934.’ It is, along with the vase in the V&A, one of a few artworks that are documented as having been completed at the school.

Michael Platt, the son of the principal, John Edgar Platt, studied at the school in the 1930s, later becoming a painter and teacher of art. One of his paintings depicted Blackheath during the war portraying how the Heath appeared in World War II looking towards Shooter’s Hill in the background.

Barrage Balloons and Tank Traps, Blackheath by Michael Platt1940 sold at Cheffins 2011

In the past the art school has been associated with Eric Gill as he was a guest lecturer in 1939. This is slightly unfair as other eminent artists and art historians including Muirhead Bone, Francis Dodd, Barnett Freedman and James Laver either delivered lectures or gave out awards at prize-giving events here.

There is a wealth of material surviving in the archives of the Conservatoire relating to its music school but very little original material that belongs to the art school before its 1940 closure. Neil Rhind’s research provided a starting point along with some interesting letters from Margaret T Holden Jones, Douglas Percy Bliss and Norman Sillman which provided names to look into.

The pride of the archive is the 1931 prospectus with names of teachers and a beautiful frontispiece which looks as though it may have been designed by James Woodford, but what happened to the art school’s original documents from this period remains a mystery. Various possibilities have been suggested, for example that John Edgar Platt, the principal at the time of the 1940 closure, was not interested in keeping paperwork, that the material was destroyed when David Moir Carnegie’s house was destroyed by bombs or that it was left on a bus. Spencer Jones, the Chairman of the school’s board of governors at its closure, had the final word, writing in a letter to Mr Houghton of the London County Council on 22 June 1959 that all the material, including minute books and accounts were destroyed when Moir Carnegie’s house was bombed.

These names are just a fraction of the people who either studied or taught at Blackheath, Greenwich, Lee and Lewisham School of Art before its closure in 1940. Hopefully more names will come to light to further enhance its reputation as a respected and renowned school. The Conservatoire waiting room has on display works by a number of the artists mentioned here, so please feel free to come and have a look. 

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