Life is often interpreted as a series of milestones; the older you get, the greater the distance between them. Also they seem more familiar—second marriage, second child, moving house, changing job and/or lifestyle—that kind of thing. No – the best milestones are the ones at the beginning of the story, when you’re young, and they are all “firsts”.
My early “firsts” were things like having my first beer, playing the first gig where people had paid to see me, winning an art prize, first kiss—you know the kind of thing I mean.
Back in the days when you just needed talent to get the most suitable education, I went to Croydon College of Art to do a Foundation Course, followed by a Pre-Diploma Course.
It had just occurred to somebody high up that since you could get First degrees in Music, Literature and Drama, why not Art & Design? The old National Diploma in Design was warmly regarded, especially by those who had studied Bookbinding, Calligraphy, Letter-cutting, or what was called “Commercial Art”, but it had no academic status at all. You didn’t need O-levels, let alone A-levels to get into your friendly local art school. Once ensconced, there was no particular pressure to leave. One of the students at Reigate School of Art went there after leaving school at 15, and was still there at the age of 33! I did actually apply there myself, but the chain-smoking Principal showed no interest in my work, just the fact that I had O levels, and was probably about to get A levels, and he wanted at least a Foundation course in his school, even if it couldn’t get the full Diploma in Art & Design recognition. (Or DipAD, as it came to be known until it was renamed BA in the homogenising processes of the late 1970s) I was offered a place but declined, opting for the more “sophisticated” college at Croydon instead.
Arriving at the entrance to Croydon College, a large brick-built vaguely Georgian-style building, in September 1965, I met up with what looked like hundreds of other budding Picassos. It was pointed out that only half of the building was the College of Art, the half nearest the railway. The rest was Croydon Technical College. We were split into groups, told about the college shop, eating arrangements, and the timetable. And that was to be another milestone!
Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays were to be Basic Design, or Objective Drawing, (skeletons, pigs’ heads, plaster feet etc.) but Wednesdays and Fridays were to be…………Life Drawing! There was a huge amount of excitement, mixed with embarrassment and anxiety about Life-drawing. Those of us who had done A-levels had had to produce a Costume Life drawing, i.e. a clothed model, typically a fellow-pupil. But this was different! I had been to a boy’s school, and the idea that a woman would obligingly strip off and lie down while we drew her, was as likely as being selected as a NASA astronaut. This was 1965, and I don’t believe any of us had ever seen a naked woman! Roll on Wednesday!!
There were twelve of us in our group, gender-equal as PC jargon has it. When we walked in on the Wednesday morning, a screen had been put up at one end of our studio, and the artist’s dollies arranged in an almost complete circle in front of it. (A dolly is a small bench which you sit astride. One end of the seat part lifts up so you can prop up a drawing-board. In so doing it reveals a tray for putting pencils, charcoal etc. in.) Our usual tutor walked in, told us what we already knew, checked we had all necessary materials, and then asked the model to come out.
There was absolute silence. As Mac, the tutor, posed the model, chalking on the floor where her feet and hands were, (so that after she had a break, she could be returned to the identical pose), everybody gazed intently at the tray in their dolly. Then Mac said: “OK? Three-quarters of an hour, and I’ll be back to see how you got on. I’m just nipping out for a smoke.”
Eventually heads began to rise, and we contemplated the figure in front of us. Not a great looker, but voluptuous enough for inexperienced draughtsmen. We tried desperately to avoid her gaze. We also tried equally hard to study and objectify those three things we had never seen before, without giving the model the impression that we were leering. Obviously she was accustomed to being gazed at in the altogether, but we were well brought-up lads and that never occurred to us! As Rod Stewart might have said: “The first breast is the hardest!”
When I mentioned earlier that none of us had ever seen a naked woman, I was not being entirely truthful. Obviously the girls had, but we lads had only had access to publications like “Health and Efficiency”, “Playboy” and what passed for porn in those days. The thing was…….the women in those magazines had no pubic hair!! Neither did they have nipples!! Or aureoles!!! And now, here is a lady that has all three!!
We had just discovered that airbrushing and retouching of negatives had been protecting us from sin and damnation for years! But we hadn’t actually drawn anything yet. And we hadn’t grasped that it was a person either, a human object, not a sexual icon.
The girls began to get on with the job first. They had done dressmaking at school, many of them, and so were used to drawing figures, even if it was only the elongated Fashion Drawing style of work. Eventually we boys began to draw, tentatively at first, and with the odd snigger and rubbing out. Silence still reigned, apart from the scratching of charcoal on sugar paper, and the dropping of pencils, until Tony, next to me said “Have you got a rubber?” This seemingly innocent question brought forth a chorus of laughter which was smothered by mouth, and impeded by nose. The girls looked across, baffled and condescending, but that one ambiguous remark broke the ice, and the session continued.
Most of us were still fairly red-faced, and by the time Mac returned, little of any note had been achieved by anyone. However, that was our first Life-drawing session, and a Milestone in our Art Education. We did another pose before Break, and the atmosphere became much more relaxed, and so more productive. Somewhere, I think, I still have that first snigger-free Life-Drawing, and, although it is not very good, it represented, at the time, the start of a wonderful career as an Art Teacher. I would go on to gain a DipAD (later converted to BA (Hons) in Fine Art, which continued to feature Life-drawing, once a week.) Trouble was, in the forty-odd years I was a teacher, I never had the opportunity to do any more Life-drawing. It was only when I retired that I got back to it, and, would you believe it? I had to start all over again, but this time without the embarrassment! I kind of missed it!
©Bari W Sparshott 2016