History of Royal College of Art

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never did i think that one day i would actually read a book about RCA from the context of a former student looking at its long history.

Christopher Frayling's book


  • RCA receives royal charter and becomes university, 1967.
  • Robin Darwin leaves his post as rector in 1971. Lord Esher suceeded him as rector from 1971-1978. he was aged 58 at time of his appointment.
  • interesting, the island site idea was floated. Lord Esher (a liberal mind and considerable political skill as president of the RIBA, large measure of tolerance, knowledge of whitehall and reason) suggested that the RCA could move to a series of five warehouses at London Docks near St Katharine's, which had just come on the market. College Council was in favour but staff and students were not. Although kensington gore was far from things and you always had to say to taxi drivers "you know that college next to the albert hall), but EAST LONDON? "Suddenly everyone was concerned about the RCA's history and its long-term association with the South kensington Museums. (pg 177)
  • Lord Esher's lecture at Royal Society of Arts 1973 "Easy does it" - he spoke of the 'half truths promoted by the antidesign movement:

"... a senseo f futility in making minor design improvements in machine products like type writers or telephones when the world is running out of raw materials, a a sense of guilt in helping vast international corporations to promot, write off ,and replace luxury goods when half the world population doesn't ahve enough to eat. it is a half truth that we should or could stop improving our products or our productivity. The other half is that we know no other source except economic growth from which to draw the wealth we need to build hospitals and care for one another... the trend in art schools away from industrial design and towards personal expression and the crafts should not be obstructed, but it needs to be balanced by stronger spirits with the guts not to run away from industry, but to get in there and steer it..."

  • " a leitmotif of the lecture was that art colleges might appear radical but were actually a great deal more conservative than they realised."
  • 7 years later Lord Esher retired in 1978, hurt by protracted and painful deliberations, torn between insiders who wanted return to good old days and outsiders who wanted to remind the college of its industrial obligations.
  • Richard Guyatt (the Lord Esher's pro-rector, who was within 3 years of retirement) was offered the post of rector, hoping it would return to the good old days but in reality grants were cut by govt, public sector instituitions hit by inflation, unfinished business
  • dick Guyatt tried to reorg, then in 1981, lional march took over as rector, the first complete outsider to be appointed since 1948..
  • anecdotes about V&A and RCA's relationship at a low in 1980s. an rca student fell through the room in 1975. v&a doormen came to the life drawing classes and put off students by standing about in uniform and making suggestive noises. bizarre rumours illustrated what happened to the dream of albertopolis. low - smbolised by fact that door linking the two instituitions in exhibitoin road was sealed off since 1975.
  • Royal Albert Hall was covered in black soot for most of its life. so RCA was designed to be the same to fit into the fabric. now its colourful again. RCA is only black one... stark and black, amidst cream stucco, red brick, yellow terracotta. the expensive fill was its use of black brick and black concrete fondus! by the usual perverse stroke of fate, london has cleaned up. RCA designed in 1961. caked with nearly 90 years of soot. that albert hall's colourful exterior had not been eaten away by acific grime is tribute to victorian ceramic tech. poly chromed wedding cake.
  • it was explained to the students thaby cadbury brown (when the gore site was developed) that money should be spent on space rather than finishes. "that as a place where art is in continual process of being made, the interior shoudl be plain. its principal function being to act as a background to art and not assert itself as an "art thing".
  • note that design school proudly list the number of students who go into industry as consultants and employees. whilst fine art do not. because a fair proportion went into teaching, and they were not about to say that rca still trained art teachers. rca producing more artist designers than artist engineers. certain themes keep recurring. bridge between world of studio and world of industry. "theone of its main purposes was to convince industrialist that if they wanted quality, then they should treat their young designers better, and the college should be a pilot plant, to develope new ideas and test them out.

In his introduction to the lectures, robin darwin preferred the concept of "experimental research" to the concept of "art". all were agreed that the college existed for the promotion of ART in design. robert goodden also said (challenging the conclusion of countless post-war reports that the main purpose of design was to help britain buy its way out of the age of austerity: "in talking of industrial design, it has been the practice in recent years sedulously to avoid this compromising or comprising word art, this well known irritant, and to try to catch the industrialist napping by whispering repeatedly that good design is good business, or that bad design is a kind of immorality unaccountably overlooked by parliament, or something of that sort. these pieties may or may not be respectable, but would in any case, take many long years to prove respectable. A much more forthright description of good design is that it has design in the creation of which true art has played a part. following this train of thought i have found (belated you will think) that the name of the Royal College of Art was by no means carelessly decided.

  • 1960s. students insisted on calling department of general studies as department of words: folkloric occasion when an eminent philosopher form oxford came to give a series of four lectures on aesthetics to the painters. neatly typed and well footnoted lectures, butt not illustrated. at first lecture there were 50 students. at the second, 20. and the third 5. and finally, only one student. the philosopher turned to the student and said, there isn't much point in going on with this. why don't we just have a cup of tea and talk about aesthetics?" to which the student replied, i do wish you could go on with the lecture, i've been trying to draw you for four weeks!"

and since that time under prof chistopher cornford, they offered a range of courses on philosophy, psychology, literature and art theory..... "Supportive students" was the unforunate name given to it, which gave the impression that the department consisted entirely of intellectuals who wore the postcoldstream equivalent of design briefs. darwin's concept of the well tempered mind was becoming out of date in the bad-tempered 1970s.

  • page 183: "Where the young RCA avant-gardist of the Craftsman's Art generation were concerned, the "rules" which had been taught in craft or design faculties of post-Coldstream art colleges in the late 1960s and early 1970s - that 'less was more', that 'the pattern should fit the form', and above all (following Leach and Cardew) that "there was no beautiful without utility" - were all open to question." [an example given in the book that when several well known artist-craftspeople were asked what books influenced them, the writings of John Ruskin, William Morris, C R Ashbee, W R Lethaby, and Bernard Leach were not mentioned once. no old fashioned moralists or improving society; crafts only)
  • page 184: "By the early 1980s it wasn't unusual to hear (at private view of craft exhibitions, or in intense seminars on the subject "are you a crafts person or not?")conversational gambits suchas "i make small sculptural pieces in non-precious metals which subvert the traditional values and meaning of jewellery". With the almost simultaneous appearance of ceramic sculpture, fine art textiles, also known as soft art or fibre art, redefined jewellery and wooden sculptures bearing the message "do not sit on this", things were becoming thoroughly confusing. What if... the crafts went conceptual?

One reason why conceptualism, minimalism and performance art never developed solid roots within the existing Fine Art schools was tthat from the 1975 onwards, the department of Environmental Media had been created to teach the more avant-garde students who were emerging from post-Coldstream painting, Sculpture, and Film courses. This catch-all Department started life as "the Light Transmission and Projection unit" under Bob Hyde, rather uneasily sharing studios with Hugh Casson's interior designers. But as the unit came of age - and in particular, as it proved to be more expensive than anticipated, with increasing use of video (or rather "time-based media") - no one seemed to be sure whether it had more incommon with Stained Glass (coloured light) or Sculpture (spatial art). Eventually Lord Esher was landed with the problem [...] "In which case," yelled the Glaswegian, "you're like a surrealist painter trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture... If you're not a dialectical materialist you're not in the picture at all. At that point he stormed out of the room, muttering about the secret police. I reckoned, never to give up and admit that all lines of communication had become blocked: always to try to bring the seminars back on course.

  • in spring 1981, visiting committee reported that the RCA may be thriving but it was neglecting its duty enshrined in royal charter., saying some departments have let their links with industry slip.
  • CHARTER: "The objects of the college are to advance learning, knowledge, and professional competence particularly in the field of fine arts, in the principles and practice of art and design in their relation to industrial and commercial processe and social developments and other subjects related thereto through teaching, research and collaboration with industry and commerce."
  • undersecretary for higher education threatened not responding enough to national needs and priorities, so i fear that the future may hold for it the prospect of ... less recurrent grant." - it was clear in late 1970s that college was becoming test-case pour encourger les autres. student union cried blackmail, professors denied that we live in a world of academic whimsy, etc.
  • professionrs are like individual barons running empires. they manage to repel the invaded. like feudal barons they want as little as possible with trade - prof lord queensberr replied that asking for a close partnership with industry was a bit like asking someone to go to bed with you. if they say no, it may be something to do with you as well as with them.....
  • all must work towards the revitalisation of the THE BRITISH ECONOMY
  • page 194 - algorithmeic aestehtics specialist was rought in. lionel mark. etc. collision story.