Bohemians in Exile
An Exhibition at The Armitt Museum and Library, Ambleside 16 April - 31 October 2011
Exhibition Curator: Deborah Walsh with Ruth Mark and Russell Mills
Published by The Armitt Trust
In the creation of this exhibition we have focussed upon the social history of what was an extraordinary period not only for Ambleside but also in the history of the Royal College of Art; when the experiences of these two disparate communities became for a time interwoven and the dynamics of the developing relationship between community and college lies at the heart of the narrative. The RCA was evacuated from its home in South Kensington to the relative calm of Ambleside after the bombing of London in the summer of 1940. Students were housed in two large hotels, the Salutation and the Queens, and it was from these two establishments and a myriad of local barns, stables, pigeon lofts, garages and the upper floor of the Market Hall that the work of the College continued.
Ambleside’s personal story is one of “assimilation”. Prior to the war it was a tight knit essentially conservative community, though far from narrow in its outlook. It had long since responded to the demands of mass tourism to become a village of guest houses and hotels, where transience became the norm. Its own young people left to join the forces or on war work, and were replaced by child evacuees, wealthy self-evacuees, locally stationed troops, and prisoners of war. Most extraordinary was the arrival of the 150 art students. These exotic creatures were initially met with suspicion; ration books were lost, and people were reluctant to hand over their own food to the newcomers. The students were equally bemused, one noting that most meals consisted of ‘sheep’. Some found it an idyllic haven where romance blossomed, while to others it was a wilderness of unreality. In time however there was integration. Students joined the fire watch, and with lecturers, tradesmen and farmers manned the Home Guard. Locals even found themselves drawn into discussions on modern art in the public bar of the Golden Rule! Unlikely friendships were forged against the common backdrop of the hardships and upheaval of war life.
For the Royal College of Art the ‘Ambleside Years’ have been considered by some as a period of stagnation and rustication. Others argue that it developed some remarkable talents and ultimately maintained the essential standards of British art education in the face of radically altered conditions. In many of the students it induced a lifelong interest in nature and natural lyricism and as another exile in Ambleside, Kurt Schwitters put it ‘No man can create from fantasy alone. Sooner or later it will run dry on him and only by constant study of nature will he be able to replenish it and keep it fresh’.
The title of the exhibition has been stolen shamelessly from the late Leslie Duxbury’s affectionate and highly entertaining memoir of his time as a ‘bohemian in exile’ in Ambleside. We simply could not think of anything more appropriate and are much indebted to Leslie’s son Joe for allowing us to use it.
In September 1940 Nazi Germany commenced the sustained attack on Britain known as The Blitz, starting with 76 consecutive nights of bombing of London. Students due to start at the RCA in September 1940 found the college closed; the windows of the college buildings in South Kensington blown out. A note on the door stated that the RCA would reopen “in the near future, somewhere in the country”.
The decision was taken to relocate the College. The stumbling block was where to send it. Two possible locations were considered, Bangor in North Wales and Ambleside. Eventually Ambleside was chosen and the college re-opened in its new home in December 1940.
Student numbers had been depleted as many were called up for National Service. Of the 150 students who did relocate to Ambleside the majority were women and many of the male students were unfit to enlist or were waiting for call up. Some were conscientious objectors. To allow students to complete their courses before they were called up, the age limit for entry was lowered from 19 to 18 (the age of conscription then being 19) and the length of courses was reduced from 3 years to 2.
Many tutors had also been called up; several being recruited as official war artists. Those left behind were medically unfit or too old (the average age of the tutors during the war was 58) to enlist.
Professor Ernest Tristram, Head of the School of Design, oversaw the transfer of equipment from London. He went to Ambleside in October 1940 together with a small team of teaching staff, Malcolm Osborne, Robert Austin, Cyril Mahoney and Percy Horton to prepare the buildings for the student’s arrival.
Although Professor Tristram was able to oversee the moving of much equipment, including presses, looms, benches etc., many heavy items such as kilns and furnaces had to be left in London. Pottery students had to travel to Lancaster some 30 miles away to use a kiln.
Despite the difficulties encountered in the move the college was able to retain the main schools: Painting, Sculpture, Design, Engraving and Architecture, and stayed in Ambleside for four and a half years until September 1945.
The staff and students of the RCA were not the only evacuees in Ambleside. Nationally, the first major evacuation took place in September 1939, with a second wave in June 1940 and a third in June 1944. Overall, three million people were evacuated from towns and cities that were in danger of being bombed, to rural areas. The majority of those evacuated were children. In Ambleside, as elsewhere, local billeting officers were appointed to find suitable homes for evacuees. Following selection, a host was compelled to take an evacuee. In return, hosts could expect to receive payment. Those who refused faced the threat of a fine.
On the 8th July 1940 the children of Dame Allan School in Newcastle arrived at Windermere Station where they transferred by bus to Ambleside. This group included Maureen Symington and her friend Joan who were taken to a large house at Waterhead. They were initially viewed by the lady of the house with some consternation, “Haven’t you got some boys?” Evidently it was felt that ‘town girls’ might present something of a challenge. Though many children suffered great trauma as a result of separation from their families, Maureen immediately fell in love with the area and formed an enduring attachment to it. She recalls that she swam regularly in Windermere from Whitsuntide to late September and in the winter climbed up Loughrigg after school to skate on Lily Tarn, with skates fixed to old hockey boots.
Maureen and her fellow school girls contributed to the war effort by helping with the collection of old newspapers which were sent off for recycling. These were collected on a Saturday morning by Stan with his horse and cart aided by the girls and brought back to the Salvage depot. Sadly a fire at the depot ended this activity, the girls watched in tears as their efforts went up in flames. Afterwards they concentrated their efforts on collecting nettles for medicinal purposes and conkers as food for pigs. However they sorely missed their Saturday morning ride out on the horse and cart.
Richard Laws was also fortunate in his new lodgings, a fine house with extensive gardens overlooking the lake. His growing interest in art was encouraged and he was taken to the RCA exhibitions mounted annually by the students as well as meeting the German artist and refugee, Kurt Schwitters and being one of the first to see his last great work the Merzbau at Elterwater.
Life as an evacuee in Ambleside was described by Jean Ward BBC WWII People’s War. Jean who was also evacuated from the Dame Allen School was billeted in a local hotel:
We slept, mainly in double beds, up to six pupils in a room and used the wash basin in the room for a daily strip wash. We had a weekly bath rota: there were only 2 bathrooms in the hotel - my time was 4.30 pm on a Friday! There were no laundry facilities so each week we packed up our dirty washing and posted it home, at a cost of 7d (or 3½p) for our mothers to wash on a Monday and return to us on Wednesdays, usually with a little ‘extra’ enclosed! Each week we also had to write a letter home, usually at the weekend after our homework was finished, in the dining room. As well as evacuees there were workers to be accommodated, such as those who came to set up and work in the Shorts Sunderland Flying Boat Factory at Calgarth. Although accommodation was provided on site for many workers the local billeting officer also had to find homes for some workers with local families.
WORKING AND LIVING CONDITIONS
On arrival in Ambleside Master of Drawing, Percy Horton wrote to his brother “The RCA has chosen a superb spot. The country is grand and fine landscapes & magnificent vistas abound on all sides ... I wish I had visited this kind of country before as it is inspiring in a big way and there does not appear to be any danger of being picturesque - for a serious artist that is.&rdquo
Whilst the surroundings of the Lake District appeared idyllic, the students and staff had to make great adjustments to adapt to their new surroundings. When they arrived it was very cold and the fells were covered in snow. North of Kendal it was as they say, ‘two overcoats colder’ and the rural environment was a new experience for both the students and staff. Materials were in short supply and working conditions difficult. The students had to make do with draughty studios and poor lighting in a variety of converted buildings. Horton remarks that the main problem was the lack of light. “The mountains tower over us and cut off a good deal of light and the prevailing greyness and mist and rain also play their part in making it dark - especially in the early morning.” Etching and engraving were taught in The Salutation. For painting, the students worked in studios on the second floor of The Queen’s Hotel. The Pavilion at the Salutation was used for architectural studies as well as lettering and calligraphy. It was often so cold that students arrived for class wearing overcoats, scarves and gloves or woollen mittens, making it almost impossible to handle compasses, T-squares and calligraphy pens. The Sculpture School was set up in a large garage where again heating was the main problem and the textiles department was based in a converted barn at the Salutation Hotel. The Design School was the largest, comprising a number of different disciplines and had to scatter its accommodation all over the place. As the ‘Picture Post’ reported in July 1943, students used “ ... a converted cowshed ... some have converted old pigeon lofts and garage attics into patched-up, whitewashed studios, isolated above rickety ladders.” The upstairs room of the Market Hall was also taken over for Mural Decoration.
Sheila Donaldson and her room mates converted the upper floor of a barn for both sleeping and working with access by means of an external wooden ladder. Four sleeping areas were created under the eaves, empty tea chests with patterned fabric draped over, became cupboards for kitchen utensils. The centre aisle housed a black horse hair settee, a folding table, four chairs, an oil lamp and a primus stove for cooking and heating water. Flowers and two Italian prints were used for decoration. The main hardship was the lack of a bathroom and necessity of using an earth closet, but baths could always be obtained at the Salutation. Despite these difficulties an important factor in the Ambleside years was the proximity of the various schools; students became more aware of the work of others, which opened them up to wider interests. Also it had the advantage of the spectacular landscapes and many took to the outdoors to work. George Jardine relates that, “A group of us would do a lot of mountain walking at weekends, taking sketchbooks, sometimes in the snow.” As Sheila Donaldson puts it, for all that it lacked it had one great advantage, “It had NATURE … ” and nature on a grand scale.
Gilbert Spencer was decidedly unimpressed by the accommodation provided for the RCA in Ambleside. Of the early days at the Queen’s Hotel he reports: “60 students sleeping 3 to 5 in a room. No Sick Bay. No fire escapes. No night watchman. No fires in bedroom. No means of drying clothes if they get wet. No matron. Food - breakfast 8.30. Dinner 1 o’clock. High Tea 6 o’clock. Food all right except High tea which was nothing like enough for growing lads.”
Others however were more sanguine. Percy Horton observed: “I have a decent smallish room here, comfortably fitted up with constant running hot water. The staff have also a very nice common room and dining room and altogether it is far better than I imagined it might be ... Certainly they are doing their best for us”. In the same vein, Leslie Duxbury a student from Lancashire commented that he had never been inside a hotel before and was much delighted by the plentiful supplies of hot water. Winter in particular was difficult for all and as Roger Nicholson told Leslie Duxbury “When Wansfell turns white, it gets bloody cold and stays like that for a bloody long time”. Coke and coal supplies were irregular and the hotel bedrooms unheated, a veto having been put on the lighting of fires. One antidote was the taking of frequent baths since the hot water system remained dependable. To some however the prospect of undressing and getting wet all over was unthinkable and relief was instead sought in the local hostelries.
Both the staff and students were thrown together largely within the narrow confines of the town. In London they had been widely dispersed, in Ambleside there was a sense of enforced intimacy. Two members of the staff, Charles Mahoney the rather stern tutor of composition and Dorothy Bishop the calligrapher fell in love and married in Ambleside. They had not known each other before the evacuation although they had both taught at the College for many years.
In the relative peace away from the war the students experienced great social freedoms. Most first year students lived in the two hotels and ate together in the Salutation Dining Room “with its long mirrors on the walls and long tables ... ” save at the window where a large round table accommodated the Student’s Union representative and senior third year students. In time many of the second and third years moved out into houses around the town and many lived together in what Sheila Donaldson described as “secretive quasi-married relationships.” Others lived in a “more groupy way- the ‘Attic Virgins’, Flora Swann, Benedicta Harrington, Joan Drummond and Chris Clegg were such, and attracted attention through their skill at long distance hitch-hiking but also their liveliness and sense of fun; anyone who had made friend with a young male student quickly lost them to that select group!”
One large property which was taken over by students was Eden Vale on Lake Road. Before the war it had been a private hotel for ‘discerning tourists’. The lease for the whole property was negotiated by a group of enterprising students. Here life could be turbulent with constantly shifting tenants and the inevitable disputes over domestic duties. Other properties rented by students included the Golf House, the Roundhouse, High Gale and Cambridge House where Audrey Dixon and other girls lodged with Mrs. Middleton.
It was Professor Jowett’s aim to integrate the life of the College with that of the local community and the social scene which developed, though limited was at least diverse. The first intake of 1940 bewailed the lack of cultural activity in the area, but Percy Horton, a keen violinist was delighted to discover a number of excellent local musicians including three Austrian émigrés. The group practiced in the Queen’s Pavilion, giving many informal concerts during the RCA’s residency.
Further musical entertainment was provided by the Saturday Night Hop, a regular feature of College life and again held in the Queen’s Pavilion. Records were brought in by students and played on a radiogram. Music ranged from jazz to the blues of Benny Goodman, contemporary jive, boogie-woogie and be-bop. Leslie Duxbury recalls his friend Fred Brill shuffling about all evening “ ... on a couple of square yards of floor space in very close contact with his partner, sometimes half hidden in the cloud of smoke from his pipe ... ”. He also mentions the jitterbuggers, in particular John Thistlethwaite an engraving student from Barnsley, who did everything with thoroughness and determination, including dancing, “On the dance floor he jumped, twisted and kicked. He whirled his partner upwards, sideways and around, no matter who she was.”
The College also contributed to the social events in the village, including a number of public lectures but the major impact was made by the RCA’s theatre group. The first play was “Ladies in Retirement”, a thriller, which had recently been a commercial success in London. The production was highly praised, promoting good relations between the College and the local population. Their second production, Chekhov’s The Seagull included in its cast Percy Horton, the senior Painting Tutor as well as Frederick Brill, Leslie Worth and Donald Pavey. This again received glowing reviews in the local press, followed in 1945 by a yet more ambitious project, A Midsummer’s Night Dream which included an adaptation of Mendelssohn’s incidental music.
Inevitably the students spent much of their leisure time in the local hostelries. The nearest was the White Lion favoured after Sunday dinner, the atmosphere being decorous, the landlady tolerating students in small doses only. For a more lively time they frequented the Unicorn on North Road where there was a piano, allowing students and locals to indulge in loud and spirited sing-songs. But the preferred venue was The Golden Rule on Smithy Brow run by Albert and Minnie Faulkner. Here students were more than tolerated; they were made welcome. Leslie Duxbury reports that “Sometimes groups of students congregated there for the sole intention of talking about art ... The talk was argumentative, fervent and often heated. The discovery had been made long before, that discussion was best conducted in a pub, especially in the Golden Rule” - a maxim which still holds true. It is evident that other customers took a positive interest in these discussions often joining in and taking sides.
In the summer the students walked, cycled and bathed in the lakes. During the winter months skating was a popular activity, Rydal Water being the favourite venue. The popularity of the activity was such that Professor Jowett issued a veto against skating during working hours. As a result a number of students continued at night. In Wordsworth’s time lanterns had been used for illumination, but because of the wartime blackout the students could only rely on clear moonlit nights. Sledging was another activity enthusiastically entered into by both locals and students, with slopes to suit all tastes and expertise.
May 8th 1945 was proclaimed a national holiday and the official end of the war in Europe. In Ambleside Market Place flags and bunting were hung and the church bells rang proclaiming victory. At the College a celebration lunch was organised for staff and students. Licensing hours were relaxed, the pubs were open all day and, probably as a result of the all day drinking fire buckets were thrown about; fire extinguishers were targeted at unsuspecting victims inside and outside the Queens Hotel. The long day ended, of course, with a glorious sing-song in the Golden Rule.
Winter Pursuits “Sledging was another branch of winter pursuit that gave [Professor] Jowett some unease. There was no lack of slopes, although a lot of the fields were too stony to use, with rocky outcrops as hazards. Some of the village kids tried out their skills in the lanes and alleys, making places like the Slack, Peggy Hill and North Road most dangerous for pedestrians. The favourite spot for sledging was further up the Kirkstone Road, a steep field on John Parson’s land with a track leading to a gate in his farmyard”.
Other outlets for the adventurous included skating, and Rydal Lake was a popular venue. This had been the past-time Wordsworth had so eulogised a hundred years before. Though few of the students were proficient, most could “keep on their feet long enough to get their circulations going and end up out of breath.”
COMMUNITY AND COLLEGE
The initial reaction of the local community to the students of the RCA was one of suspicion and occasional hostility: the mission of the Principal was to integrate the life of the College with that of the locale. Appearances were important. Beards met with disapproval and the wartime slogan “Is your journey really necessary?” was adapted by Professor Jowett to “Is your beard really necessary?” Unsurprisingly, the unshaven look became increasingly fashionable.
However, students began to make themselves useful, a number being trained to put out fires in case of enemy action and were able to exercise their skills on one of the local houses. For this they were to receive the grudging admiration of a populace with no awareness of air raids except as a glow in the sky from far away Liverpool.
The college held an annual art exhibition, the one held in 1942 attracting over 2,000 visitors. Students also painted murals in a number of local buildings. These included the one painted by students Bill Kempster and Barrymore Evans in an Ambleside school showing coal miners at work; one at the Parish Church by Gordon Ransom depicting the Ambleside Rushbearing, and one at the ATS recruiting Office at Kendal by Doreen Page and Barbara Harris. The College’s three theatrical productions enhanced Ambleside’s social life as well as the series of public lectures.
On another level, participation in the Home Guard was a major integrating factor. Gilbert Spencer‘s Home Guard cartoons reflect his perception of the absurdity of many of their activities with good humour. In his more serious painting on the same subject Grasmere Home Guard (1944) there is a strong sense of camaraderie. The haunt of the Home Guard in Ambleside, students and locals alike, was The Golden Rule. Indeed, its local clientele was a varied group, many having informed opinions on established Lakeland artists.
It is evident is that when peace came the students of the RCA had become an accepted and welcome part of the local community.
THE HOME GUARD
In May 1940 fears of an enemy invasion lead to the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers. Sir Anthony Eden on the BBC Home Service described the LDV as an opportunity for “ ... men of all ages who wish to do something for the defence of their country ... for which so many of you have been waiting.” The force became known as the Home Guard after Churchill coined the phrase during a BBC broadcast.
In Ambleside a number of RCA staff and students joined the Home Guard. Gilbert Spencer described some of his own activities in his autobiography. “No words can describe my own pride at being able to crawl a hundred yards without my behind showing above the skyline. I stormed the heights of Nabscar, helped restore the defences of Windermere when knocked down by the sheep, relived my moonlight walks in London patrolling the fells above the glistening lakes below, and by a mistaken choice of parades found myself shying live hand grenades at the side of Loughrigg”.
Spencer drew on his personal experiences for his paintings Grasmere Home Guard and Troops in the Countryside. He also produced a series of comic drawings of the life and times of the Home Guard. These drawings, produced between 1940-43 are satirical but affectionate accounts by one who joined the LVF at its outset and represented it as a living experience much in the tradition of the 18th and early 19th century caricaturists.
It was the Home Guard’s responsibility to defend key positions like the water works and the gas works. Each company of twenty men took it in turns on a rota to defend the village each night, on a twelve hour shift. Whilst there were not many incidents, they were at hand whenever anything untoward was reported:
“We had one alarm, one scare, in June, when somebody had seen parachutists landing up Far Easedale and the Home Guard were turned out to try and apprehend these. We thought they would be parachutists, and the local church bell was rung which was the warning for everybody that danger was about ... But the Home Guard, who were, after all, most of them middle aged or even retired gentlemen, had to rush up Far Easedale in hot, June weather and when they got there, it was a barrage balloon that had got loose from Barrow and they didn't know quite what to do with it, so they thought the best thing to do was to let all the gas out and fold up the outer covering and take it back with them, only to get very badly hauled over the coals from headquarters because the expensive part was the gas which they had let out!”
Other staff and students involved included Frederick Brill and Percy Horton. Brill became a sergeant in the Westmorland Battalion of the Home Guard and drew and painted the local members. Horton also became a sergeant in the Home Guard, though imprisoned during the Great War as a conscientious objector; his hatred of Fascism overcame his earlier dissent.
The Home Guard was stood down in late 1944 when the danger of invasion was recognised as past.
‘… soon it became evident that I was becoming a problem student.’
Arthur Berry the RCA student from the Potteries in his memoir A Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man described his first impression of the landscape around Ambleside as “ … what I imagined Switzerland would be like.”
By no means the outdoor type, Berry admitted that the furthest he ever walked was to the bar of the Waterhead Hotel a mile from the College. Whilst many students spent their weekends outside with sketchbooks sometimes camping on the fells, the appeal of the natural world appeared to be a malign mystery to the agoraphobic Berry. He states that he was “overwhelmed by the immediate vastness of nature. It was all too much for me, it smacked me in the face, it got round the back of my head, it roared at me. There was no beginning and no end of it, and in summer there were midges and flies and worse still people who looked at what you were doing and asked questions about it.”
Despite this he gradually came to respond to the landscape, describing the colours of his first autumn here as “ … saturatingly beautiful. I felt drenched in them. I’d never seen colours like it before.”
Berry’s initial excitement was sustained by the fact that amongst the students there were “enough attempts at various bohemian lifestyles to satisfy my Romantic idea of the art student.” The nature of the College changed with the arrival of students who returned wounded and traumatised from the war. Berry recalls that “One man had is leg off, another had no arms having had them cut off by a tram, another had returned from active service, his nerves shattered to such an extent that he wore bicycle clips around his trouser legs to stop rats running up them.” For Berry however the war seemed very far away and he suggests that even those returning from service soon settled down to their work and “seemed to forget it.”
Ultimately Berry missed the smoke and life of the Potteries. “Ambleside was a pretty place, well washed by rains, but it was only very small and in the winter very quiet and empty, and I was used to the life of a big industrial town filled with pubs and smoking chimneys.”
‘… there does not appear to be any danger of being picturesque - for a serious artist that is.’
Percy Horton was senior Painting Tutor at the Royal College for nineteen years, five of which he spent in Ambleside. A man of socialist convictions his early career was interrupted by two years imprisonment as a conscientious objector during the First World War. During his time at Ambleside his work was characterised by social realism. His portraits of The Shepherd and Mrs Simpson a local lady who took in washing, reveal the essential human dignity reflected in Wordsworth’s comment a hundred and fifty years earlier that ‘men who do not wear fine clothes can feel deeply’.
After enduring the Blitz in London, Horton’s first impressions of Ambleside are unsurprising, “Here the people don’t know there is a war on & presence of well to do evacuees (self evacuated!) & the bright shops give an air of security & prosperity -something which is beginning to desert parts of London.”
Horton was a deeply humane man, well regarded for his promotion of student welfare and considered by the students to be a “friendly intellectual” who involved himself in student activities. He was also acutely aware of the limitations and inadequacies of the RCA during this period, expressed in a letter from 1942. “ ... some of our students are mere children to whom one has to explain what one means by a word like ‘contour’! … they know nothing of Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Flaubert and haven’t by now seen originals by Rembrandt, Rubens or Raphael ... because the museums have been shut for three years!”
In October 1942 Horton had begun to find the atmosphere of Ambleside claustrophobic. He writes to his friend Walter Strachan to thank him for the gift of a bicycle, “It takes me out of Ambleside and away from the RCA in no time - and you can not imagine what a relief it is to see - if not pastures new - at least new mountain contours and fresh vistas. Ambleside is rather closed in and it is refreshing to escape from the enervating bowl!”
By November 1944 after prolonged illness which he attributes to ‘this dreary wet place, and the College food and the war’ he writes, “If I stay here much longer I shall cease to do anything but sleep ... my brain seems to be permanently weary. The war has certainly bitten a slice out of my life. To others it seems to have brought opportunity.”
‘… incalculable finesse.’
Donald Pavey who was a RCA student in Ambleside between 1943 and 1945 describes the personal legacy of his residence and education at Ambleside as:-
Firstly, the extraordinary beauty, grandeur and subtlety of the landscape has had an all-time enduring presence in my mind that never leaves me, and is of an incalculable finesse. Secondly, and even more important, contact with the residents themselves was so memorable as to colour the quality of the rest of my life. The locals that we mixed with showed to us what can only be described as a lovely sociability, full of kindness and loving concern for our aspirations. Our neighbour (Bonzie Alvey of Crossbow) often fed us if we looked hungry. Ambleside folk were people stature and pride. Even the shepherds who posed for me had a dignity that was easily translated into the church dignitaries of my altarpiece.
He also recalls what he describes as “Lakeland’s endearing eccentricity and humour.” There have been many more influences that are less easily described and more inscrutable, such as those touching on a sense of other-worldliness and wry humour. On one occasion, when I was very thirsty, I knocked on the door of a remote cottage to ask for a drink. The door opened slowly, and, before I could say anything, a lovely lady pointed heavenward, saying “Sh, sh, it’s a message coming through!” She often had data coming through from another world, she said, in a hushed voice. When she brightened up she introduced me to her German prisoner of war, who had been detailed to serve his time helping in her garden. I did not notice if he was designing the flower-beds in the form of an enormous swastika. It was so peaceful there that I doubt if he wanted to be rescued. On another occasion, a lady in a another cottage even deeper in the fells showed me a magnificent photo of her grandfather in a splendid big oval frame, about which she explained that the wood was so beautifully grained that it was a pity to use it for the loo, so she framed her grandfather in it instead. He was also inspired by the cultural heritage of the area and wrote an end-of-term review comedy called The Ghouls of the Lakes. This consisted of four students acting as four marble busts that stood on columns that encased their bodies and legs. The heads spoke, brought to life by a medium, and argued. I have tried very hard to remember the gist of the story but simply cannot recollect what they said, although, fifty years later, I actually found a fragment on a pencilled page stuck to an old drawing. All it revealed was: De Quincy to Ruskin, “You’re a frog! So are you all. You are all frogs.”
Of his fellow RCA students he writes: Being wartime, the RCA students were often unexpectedly unusual in some way. When I first met them at Ambleside, I felt as if it was an evening meal with Dr Frankenstein. One student near me injected himself, probably with insulin. Opposite me another unscrewed both hands to expose a knife and fork (Charles Fowler). Yet another had a wooden leg (Mr Butler), the result of having torpedoed. I am ashamed, however, that my leisure time was spent fencing with swords that consisted of foil with sharp edges, their protective buttons broken off and they could scratch into arms, occasionally causing alarm amongst other student spectators, but never seen by local folk. Unlike the Germans, we avoided slicing into faces as we wore helmets that included face masks. Strangely, one student who had a withered arm and a face like a Renaissance putto (Spencer Berry) had a deep bellowing voice like a great fairground orator though he could also speak with clarity and gravity. One man of culture never ever raised his voice above a posh “northern” Cambridge accent, namely, Jo Ledger, who said to me in quiet voice, when we were rock climbing on Nab Scar, “Dunald! Would you mind taking your foot off my hand.”
STAFF AND STUDENTS
Malcolm Osborne (1880-1963) known for his landscapes, urban views and portraits, was the President of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers from 1938 to 1962 and, during the Ambleside years, was Head of the Engraving School at the RCA. Whilst in Ambleside Osborne produced intricate landscapes; rarely travelling far from the town and from Rydal Water to find his inspiration.
Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979) was Professor of Painting at the RCA from 1931-1948 and was amongst the staff who served as an official war artist in the 1940’s. Spencer painted portraits, genre scenes and murals but was primarily a landscape painter. He was elected an Associate Royal Academician in 1950 and a full member in the 1960’s.
Robert Sargent Austin (1895-1973) was a noted artist, illustrator, engraver and currency designer and was widely considered to be one of Britain's leading printmakers. A teacher at the RCA during and after the war, he was recognised for his talents by election to membership of the Royal Academy and he succeeded Malcolm Osborne as President of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers in 1962. From 1957-1973 he was President of the Royal Watercolour Society. Whilst in Ambleside, on his non-teaching days, he worked as an official war artist covering subjects such as the Coastal Command Stations, workers at Woolwich Arsenal and the various Women’s Services.
Dorothy Mahoney (1902-1984) who taught calligraphy had studied under Edward Johnston and became his assistant at the RCA in 1932. Her teaching is encapsulated in her book: The Craft of Calligraphy (1981). It was during their time in Ambleside that she and her colleague Charles Mahoney were married. Dorothy was also skilled in the sketching of detailed studies of flowers.
Charles Mahoney (1903-1968) studied at the RCA from 1922 and continued there tutoring in composition from 1928 until 1953. A thoroughly conscientious man with a firm academic approach he was seen by his students as being somewhat stern and humourless but was also recognised as a gifted teacher. Mahoney’s own work often depicted the commonplace and during the Ambleside period much of his work was concerned with the room he shared with his wife, the chairs and tables and domestic details.
Percy Horton (1897-1968) attended the School of Art in Brighton from 1912-16. His studies were interrupted when he was imprisoned for two years as a conscientious objector during World War I. He later studied at the RCA and went on to teach there as Master of Drawing from 1930-1945. Whilst in Ambleside Horton commenced his series of paintings of the Lake District and its people as well as drawing portraits and painting scenes in war factories for the War Artists Advisory Committee.
E.W. Tristram (1882-1952) was Head of the School of Design at the RCA when he took on the task of moving the college to the Lake District. Here he developed his skills as a water-colourist, producing over six hundred drawings, two hundred of which are finished watercolours. As an English medievalist art historian he published four books on medieval wall painting, the first, English Medieval Painting being published in 1944 whilst he was in Ambleside.
Harry Thubron (1915-1986) studied at the RCA from 1938 to 1940. He was originally a figurative artist, but then moved to abstraction. His work was characterized by the use of resins, metals and wood and corrugated paper. He later became a teacher, with stints at Sunderland, Leeds, Lancaster and Leicester Colleges of Art and finally, from 1971 to 1982, at Goldsmiths’ College School of Art in London. During his ten year tenure in Leeds he helped to revolutionise art education in England by establishing the Basic Design Course, a programme inspired by the German Bauhaus college.
Frederick Brill (1920-1984) was an active member of the Ambleside Home Guard. After leaving the RCA he became a teacher. He taught at the Chelsea School of Art from 1951 to 1979, and was Principal from 1965.
Joan Williams (1922-2002) was a student in the School of Printing at the College and later worked both as a printmaker and a watercolour artist. She found her inspiration from bleak moorland scenery and outcrops of rock, fields, marshes and long, empty foreshores. The most important part of her career was spent as Head of Printmaking at Maidstone College of Art in Kent where she brought in, among others, David Hockney to teach. Her best known student was to be Tracey Emin. In 1971 Williams was elected to both the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers and the Royal Watercolour Society. She was also a founder member of the Printmakers Council.
Michael Cadman (1920-2010) was mainly a landscape painter with a special interest in architecture and plant forms. In 1947 Cadman became a tutor at the Epsom College of Art and also Croydon College of Art. He was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours in 1970. His work was representational but with some influence of cubism.
Margaret Green (1925-2003) was an inspired painter who carried off most of the prizes at the RCA, including a £160 traveling scholarship which allowed her and fellow student Lionel Bulmer, whom she later married, to spend several months roaming in France. Back in London, they were pioneers of the revolution in taste and style that emerged as wartime rationing gave way to the continental flavours championed by Elizabeth David. Green had a part-time teaching post at Walthamstow Art School before being lured to the Royal Academy School.
Lionel Bulmer (1919-1992) was a member of the New English Art Club and the Royal Watercolour Society. He formed a devoted artistic partnership with his wife Margaret Green. They met at the RCA in 1944, Bulmer arriving there after five years of war service. Like his wife he went into teaching, spending most of his career at Kingston Art College.
Leslie Worth (1923-2009) established himself as one of the finest watercolour painters of his generation. Failing his army medical in 1942 he worked in Civil Defense before taking up a place at the RCA, spending his first two years at Ambleside. Worth later took a job at Epsom and Ewell College of Art, where he was to stay for the rest of his professional life, eventually becoming head of the Fine Arts Department. He became President of the Royal Watercolour Society 1992. Although best known as a landscape painter and clearly influenced by Turner, he regretted that watercolour painting often seemed too insular and too rooted in the English pastoral scene.
Arthur Berry (1925-1994) was a playwright, teacher and artist described as the ‘Lowry of the Potteries’. Berry, who suffered from agoraphobia, did not find the rural surroundings of Ambleside particularly to his taste. He later worked in London and Manchester, but as a teacher he is best-known for his long association with Burslem School of Art, where he had studied. His individual creative work was deeply rooted in the culture, people and landscape of the Potteries. His first play was staged in 1976, followed by others and a remarkable autobiography, Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man. His 1979 work Lament For The Lost Pubs Of Burslem starts with the immortal lines: ‘I sat down and wept when I remembered the lost pubs of Burslem, the demolished Star that stood where the Moonglow Ballroom stands now, on the corner of the street of the Preacher and the Tote office; it was a gaunt, dark building nicknamed the Star of Bethlehem, a grimy stuccoed star the colour of years of wet smoke.’
George Jardine (1920- 2002) described as one of Merseyside's most celebrated artists; a 'Genius' painter who left the world a surreal legacy, took inspiration from the landscapes around Ambleside. Jardine always claimed that it was in 1936 when the first Surrealist exhibition moved from London to Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery that his eyes were opened. After the war he taught at for many years at Liverpool Art College and his fantastic scenes with unicorns, fairies and mermaids became very much part of the Liverpool art scene.
A series of tragic events
A Series of Tragic Events
Difficulties in adapting to their new living conditions were common amongst both staff and students. Several students suffered from malnutrition, depression and mental breakdowns became unexceptional and there were several tragic deaths.
At the end of the spring term in 1942, a first year student Marian Swallow died of a heart attack whilst working in the college garden. Marian had suffered from heart trouble since childhood and as she grew up was ‘overprotected’ by her widowed mother. For Marian the few months of exile in Ambleside were a life of freedom and bliss. She jumped at the chance of entering into anything that came along, and that included gardening. Unfortunately out in the cold and wet, the over-exertion was enough to be the death of her.
A second fatality occurred early the following year when Mr Harding, who taught the compulsory architecture classes, collapsed and died with an acute bout of asthma, his condition having worsened in the local climate.
The grimmest of these episodes happened in June 1943. The tragic death of Richard Seadon, aged just 18, was reported the Westmorland Gazette in June 1943. The Gazette told how William Kempster, Seadon’s roommate at the Queen’s Hotel, had found him lying with his head against the wall, a service rifle lying at his side.
Various accounts of the event were reported. In the Gazette Kempster described Seadon as “ … sometimes depressed and … temperamental. He wanted to be popular and liked by the opposite sex … he was quick-tempered and impulsive. The deceased’s depression took the form of morbidity and self-pity”.
Another student, William Wilkinson, told the Gazette “Seadon spoke of being lonely three weeks ago and was depressed at times and cheerful at others. He once said suicide was a way out for any man if things got too bad”. Whilst student Robert Sawyers said that Seadon confided in him and said he was “fed up with the general surroundings compared with life in London”. Earlier, on the evening of his death, Seadon had been seen at the regular Saturday night dance at the Queen’s Hotel Pavilion. He had asked Margaret Britton a student he had been ‘walking out with’ for a dance. She had promised to dance with him later but he had been upset by her response and was seen by a witness sitting with his head between his hands. Britton told the Gazette that “he accused her of being indifferent to him. He never mentioned suicide until Friday, but only conversationally.” Later that evening he was reported to have been overheard saying “All right Peg, now we shall see if a man can live without his brains” but the witness did not take it seriously.
In his memoir Bohemians in Exile Leslie Duxbury recalled that Seadon had joined the Home Guard and was looking forward to his call up. However, following his medical he was rejected by the assessment board as unfit because of an ill-defined ear disorder. It was following this that his depression and his personal problems began.
Along with fellow student members of the Home Guard, Seadon had been issued with a Lee Enfield rifle (a relic of the First World War) and five rounds of live ammunition. Duxbury recalled how these rifles were scattered throughout the hotel, casually propped in the corners of their custodian’s bedrooms or stuck on the top of wardrobes. Robert Sawyers was also in the Home Guard. He told the Gazette that when he returned to his room he found his rifle and ammunition missing and that it was his rifle that was found next to Seadon. Duxbury’s recollection is that Seadon used his own rifle to take his life, the shot blowing out his brains and making “quite an impact on the ceiling”.
It was the caretaker George Pascoe who had to tidy up. Having been a stretcher bearer during the First World War, George was able to carry out the grim task in a sympathetic, efficient and objective way. At the inquest P.C. Teasdale told how Seadon was found fully dressed except his jacket. Written in pencil were the words “Such a pity to spoil a nice jacket”. The coroner’s verdict was “that he had died from a gunshot wound, self-inflicted, whilst in an unsound state of mind.”
Seadon’s parents took his body back to London for burial and a memorial service was held in St Mary’s Church at Ambleside.
Debates over the Royal College’s perceived bias towards the fine arts, divorced from the applied and industrial arts, had rumbled on since the turn of the 20th century. These came to a head in the late 1930s when the Hambledon Report declared, “… notwithstanding the prestige it has achieved … it is impossible to feel that all is well with the Royal College.” Prior to its evacuation there was grave uncertainty about its future, with talk of amalgamation with the Central School of Art and Design, absorption into the London University, or even closure.
Ironically it was the Second World War and enforced evacuation, which saved the College.
Those Professors and tutors who travelled with the College to Ambleside, whilst being held in high regard, were old and insular, insisting on traditional, but out-moded teaching methods. The radical developments in the arts that had been rapidly unfolding in Europe - Cubism, Expressionism, Dadaism and Surrealism - had either passed them by or were actively ignored. Arthur Berry quotes Gilbert Spencer, the Head of Painting caustically comparing Picasso to “Little Titch walking down the Strand. You saw him because he was deformed.”
Very few exhibitions of these innovations had reached Britain and the rare ones that had were met by the majority with a mixture of incomprehension, anger and ridicule. In 1946 tutors at the Slade School of Art strongly advised students not to attend the Picasso and Matisse exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. British art during and immediately after the war was distinctly English, with a particular loyalty to the English landscape painting tradition.
Despite the culturally xenophobic atmosphere that prevailed, many of the students who emerged from the ‘twilight’ years in Ambleside went on to become highly successful professional artists and designers or influential teachers. Their legacy continues in art schools throughout the UK. Peter Bucknall founded and was Head of the first Department of Theatre Design at Wimbledon College of Art, later becoming Director of Drama at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Fred Brill taught at Chelsea School of Art and later became its Principal. Joan Williams became an inspirational Head of Printmaking at Maidstone College of Art. Leslie Worth graduated to become Head of Fine Art at Epsom and Ewell College of Art and is regarded as one of the finest watercolour painters of his generation.
Since the war, along with all English art schools, the Royal College of Art has survived frequent periods of uncertainty, governmental attacks and most recently, financial cuts and enforced hikes in tuition fees. Its survival has enabled the nurturing of some of the most influential and original artists, designers and cultural shape-shifters in the world. Had it not survived the war, the Royal College of Art might not be in existence now.