Since Mr Gradgrind and his descendants moved into the Department of Education there has been a slow and depressing decline in that part of our school life called Creative Studies, or “Arts” as they were known before becoming regarded as a four-letter word . This is strange, given the recognition of the amount that the Creative Industries contribute to the nation’s economy, beginning I guess, when Harold Wilson awarded The Beatles an MBE each, back in the mid-1960s. Music and literature have long been hugely positive sectors: think of the Proms, the Old Vic, English National Opera and Sadlers Wells. However, it was with the rise of British Pop Art in the mid-1950s that the cosy little provincial and municipal Schools of Art began to come into their own, as numbers of students, especially from grammar schools, began to arrive in increasing numbers. Nowadays, sadly, those schools of art that survive have mostly been swallowed up in Colleges or Universities, where they are mere Departments rather than discrete bodies with an identity and personality of their own.
Given the resources in those grammar schools, this was an amazing outcome. The three Ps; pencil, powder paint and paper, ruled the roost. In the sixth form, if you were lucky, you got to use charcoal! Drawing was of the essence, usually on cartridge paper, and painting was carried out on sugar paper. The powder paint used came in 25cm cubed tin boxes, and was spooned out very carefully into a plastic palette, as it was in the form of a fine-ground pigment, and a careless sneeze could result in the maximum dispersal of it, before it had been introduced either to water or brush. To be fair, good work was often achieved with these basic materials, and colour-mixing was the first thing we learnt, long before perspective, and still-life techniques. The mixture of powdered glue and coloured pigment was capable of effects as diverse as water-colour and impasto.
The first art teacher we had at my grammar school, Mr Sweatman, with his grey centre-parted hair, bow-tie and goatee beard, couldn’t have been anything but an art teacher, but he only lasted a year, before retirement claimed him. The next one, a Miss Budgen, who wore long colourful cheesecloth dresses, didn’t even last that long. As she bent over a friend of mine’s work one day, he did sneeze, and his unwatered paint did go everywhere, but particularly over her dress. “Chown!” she said: “Look what you’ve done! I’ve got blue all over my dress!” “Don’t worry, Miss. Just slip it off and I’ll wash it out for you!”
She was absolutely stumped for words, and just stood there with her mouth open, as we tried to avoid bursting into laughter, but mostly failed. Punishment was inflicted, but the damage was done.
The next art teacher would come to very influential on me. He it was, after all, who suggested I go to art school. I certainly would never have thought of it. Mr Robinson also managed to increase the Art Department’s staff, resources and materials, and so we began to do wax-resist paintings, and even the very occasional lino-print. His interest in printmaking extended to showing us the etchings by Goya from the Disasters of War series. This happily coincided with a big exhibition in 1964 of the work of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes at the Royal Academy. We were taken, eight of us, in our teacher’s Humber Super Snipe to London to see the show. (Bench seats, and no seat-belts in those days!)
Mr Robinson took us around the galleries, explaining techniques used; the difference between etchings and engravings; the picture content, and so forth. This was done in a hushed tone, as establishment art galleries in the 1960s had much in common with libraries, silent reverence being de rigeur. This was also in the time before admission was by timed ticket, which means that a mass of people move through the galleries like a slowly evolving marine sandbank, thickening here and thinning out there. Eventually we came to a gallery which contained the two paintings of The Maja, one clothed, the other nude, each at opposite ends of the gallery. Mr Robinson explained the context in which the paintings had been done, with Goya being a court painter, but not the full story.
“So,” he said, finally, “which of these paintings do you think was painted first?” He looked around.
” Yes, Pattenden?”
“The one with clothes on, sir!”
“Indeed, that it is quite correct. How do you know this?”
“Because tits don’t hang like that, sir!”
It was early afternoon; the lunchtime viewers had gone back to work and the tea-time audience had yet to arrive, so the gallery was fairly empty, which caused Pattenden’s response to reverberate mightily around the room, there being little to muffle it. Mr Robinson sought to talk over the situation, explaining how the Maja’s husband, a nobleman, had affronted Goya, and therefore why the painter inflicted his revenge by humiliating the man’s wife in this rather speculative way. The eyes of The Naked Maja are noticeably more enticing than those of the clothed version.
Nevertheless, people were looking and pointing at us. Was it the content of the remark, or its volume that had created this embarrassment? We would never know, because, perhaps fortunately for us all, Mr Robinson included, this was the last gallery of the exhibition, and we could leave in a measured way, without giving any impression of guilt. This was my first experience of a major exhibition of work by an acknowledged Master, and it had been utterly and doubly memorable.
In the car, on the way back to school, there was much laughter, and tacit admiration for Pattenden. After all, strong rumour had it, that alone amongst us, he actually knew the effect of gravity on mammary bodies. It is not, I believe, a coincidence that his forename was Roger!
Bari W Sparshott 2016