'Why can't you draw the model like that?' Remembering the life room through Artists' Lives
An aquatint print made in 1808 by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin shows the life room at the Royal Academy of Arts at Somerset House in London. At the centre of the room a model sits naked on a podium illuminated against the gloom by a lamp angled to spill light across his muscled body. Rows of male artists are arranged around him. Hunched over on tiered seating, their attention is split between scrutinising his posture and drawing on boards propped-up upon their splayed legs.
Drawing from life. Royal Academy, Somerset house. Image taken from The Microcosm of London.View images from this item (1)
This practice, called life-drawing, remained central to art education in Britain well into the 20th century. The interviews collected by Artists’ Lives offer us a glimpse into the many life rooms across the country when this began to change. Disrupting any idea of a clean break with the past, they highlight a complicated but exciting period in the history of art education when, during the 1950s, the long tradition of life-drawing was unsettled.
Focus on life drawing
The artist Sheila Girling studied at the Royal Academy from 1948-1953, almost 150 years after Rowlandson and Pugin depicted its life room. In Girling’s interview with Artists’ Lives, she describes an early attempt to bring a hint of abstraction into one of her own classes:
Sheila Girling: On the drawing studio
Sheila Girling. Courtesy Barford Sculptures Limited. Image not licensed for reuse.
In this audio extract from her Artists’ Lives recording, painter Sheila Girling (1924-2015) weighs up whether the limitations imposed on her at the Royal Academy Schools were good training or not. She was a student at the RA Schools from 1947-1952.
Sheila Girling was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in 2009. The interviewer was Hester Westley.
The drawing studio was like an amphitheatre with two circular tiers looking over each other, and the model was in the middle. Hardly any teaching at all. I started to try and simplify the model. I started to try and, I suppose, get into some sort of abstraction. And I was told, ‘If you’re going to draw like that, you’ll leave the school.’ So I had to go back and draw what I saw.I suppose in London you became conscious of all the things that were going on, Futurism, Cubism. You wanted to try and analyse the figure in a different way. But obviously, the Academy wasn’t into that. And perhaps they were right. You learnt your craft, you know.
More than a few of those interviewed by Artists’ Lives remember feeling frustrated with the old-fashioned attitudes of their tutors. As students, they saw a contradiction between all the excitement to be found in the contemporary art world and the classes where they were still expected to draw from antique casts and posed models.
As we heard, Girling’s tutor insisted that she should draw what she could see. This was one of the primary functions of life-drawing at the Royal Academy. These classes were not designed to teach students to take quick impressions or develop their own individual ways of seeing. They were where students were expected to put into practice all that they had learnt at the Academy about the correct way to depict anatomy, line, light and shade.
Other art schools and colleges in Britain had emulated this ‘academy’ model in the 19th century. By the post-war period, life classes invariably featured on every art school syllabus. Between 1944 and 1953 Jack Smith studied at Sheffield College of Art, Saint Martins and finally the Royal College of Art. In the following extract, he recalls a busy curriculum that included anatomy, architecture, composition and of course life-drawing:
Jack Smith: On drawing lessons
Jack Smith, Inside and Outside, 1964, Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 91.4 cm. © The Estate of Jack Smith, image courtesy Flowers London / New York. Photographed by Antonio Parente. Image not licensed for reuse.
Painter Jack Smith (1928-2011) finds wry humour in listing the subjects he was expected to include in compositions at art school in order to pass the exams. In the 1940s Smith was a student at Sheffield College of Art. In the 1950s he was a student in London, at St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art. Early in his career Smith’s figurative paintings saw him grouped as a ‘kitchen sink’ painter, a label he rebelled against. From the 1960s onwards his work was abstract.
Jack Smith was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 1999-2001. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.
The curriculum was drawing and painting from the model; anatomy, where you learnt not just to draw the skeleton, but to draw the skeleton in motion. You draw a skeleton digging in the garden, what that would look like. Then, the second part of the question would be to draw the muscles on that skeleton digging in the garden. [laughs] By that time you were supposed to have learnt all the bones, what they were called, and how they would function in a moving figure. You’d have to draw that. Then onto that you would have to put all the muscles, which you had learnt also. So the idea was, you would end up with something that, I suppose they hoped, looked like a Michelangelo figure [laughs], full of muscles bulging in all the wrong places of course, like it does with Michelangelo. And, therefore you would have this knowledge of anatomy, which was supposed to help you draw the human figure. It’s absolute nonsense, absolute nonsense. You don’t need to know any of that to draw the human figure. In fact, it gets in the way. So you had that. You had the drawing from the nude. Architecture, so you went out and studied buildings and drew them, and, read an architectural book. Somebody taught architecture to you. And then you had composition. That was ludicrous as well.
It was all geared to examinations. Even in London, when I came to London, they had an examination in composition, which if I remember rightly had to include six figures, not four figures or five figures or ten figures, six figures had to be in it. So you had to learn how to put together, shall we say a market scene, with six figures in it. Some behind a stall, some buying, or in a shop, or… Well I mean it’s ludicrous. It’s not nothing to do with, [laughs] with, with art, at all. I hated it. I failed the exam. It was inevitable. The tutor asked me shortly after I got there whether I wanted my work to be looked at as an artist, or whether I wanted it to be looked at as somebody who was going to pass the examination. And he gave me a week to make up my mind. And he was right. All right, I chose to be looked at as an artist, and that’s the way he dealt with me, and that was right. And I failed. Of course I did, because I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it as you were told to do it. They were told to paint the figure in a certain way, and he showed them how to do it. And they all did it and they got though the examination. So, well all right, you can say, all right, you left knowing what you shouldn’t do. [laughs] I mean whether that’s a positive result, I don’t know. They taught you everything that you need to forget.
Smith would not have been the only student who saw passing his academic exams and becoming an artist as two different things. For some, this kind of academic training in the mechanics of anatomical drawing was infused with a ‘sense of its staleness’.1
Despite the misgivings of students like Smith, it sounds like the life rooms at the Royal College of Art were abuzz with energy. During this period the college was at the epicentre of a pop explosion. The artist Frank Bowling remembers his life classes being ‘absolutely crowded’ with everyone drawing from the figure. Crucially, in contrast to classes at the Royal Academy, ‘most people were trying on their own ways of “this is how you do it.”’ Some students evidently saw it as a chance to see what their contemporaries were up to. The Pop artist Peter Blake studied there from 1953-56. He recalls the students who you didn’t want to be jostling with for space in the busy life room:
Peter Blake: On life drawing classes
Peter Blake and Richard Smith (right), as Royal College of Art students c. 1956. Robert Buhler, Courtesy Royal College of Art Archive. Image not licensed for reuse.
Artist Peter Blake (b. 1932) sets the scene in the life rooms at the Royal College of Art, where he was a student from 1953-1956. Fellow students, tutors and models are among his cast of characters. His account captures the interactions between them all, and includes his own reassessment of the work of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, who had been taught by David Bomberg before becoming students at the Royal College.
Peter Blake was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2003-2005. The interviewer was Linda Sandino.
There would have been about five life rooms, three models in each life room. So, so there were at least fifteen models, all the time. And what you would do, you would stake your claim. So on a Monday morning you would go in, and get an easel, and put it where you wanted it to be, and you could either keep it there for the whole session, which might be a week, might be two weeks, or you could then give up your place and find another place. So, round each model would be, fifteen people, something like that. You’re in a circle. The people you wouldn’t want to be near were people like Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, because they drew in charcoal, and they were very physical, and they drew very vigorously. They always used three sheets of paper, because their passion is so much that they know they’ll draw through at last two. But they never drew through three. [laughs] I mean it was never four sheets of paper.
You could either stand at the easel, or you could sit on what was called a donkey, which was a long bench which you straddled, and at one end it had a kind of prop which you leant your drawing board against. So you were sitting facing this drawing board and looking round it at the model. And at any time there’d be two or three tutors, like vultures, going round the studios, and they could say at any point, ‘Stand up, I’m going to demonstrate how you should be doing that.’ And you’d dread them coming. And they’d, at that point they’d actually draw on your drawing; I mean they’d rub out your drawing, and show you how… You couldn’t do it now, I mean you’d be taken to some tribunal if you tried to do it now. So you were always aware of these kind of figures, like sharks I suppose, circling around. And you didn’t want them to come and talk to you. But of course looking back, it was always wonderful, and they could all draw well, and they could all teach you. So they would actually teach you to draw. If you were drawing from a figure and you had got the angle of it wrong, they’d come and sit down and, and explain why it was leaning like that, because the weight was on that leg, and this muscle was doing that. And it was a great way of learning.
I was always rather a meticulous drawer, in the kind of, spirit of Ingres or, or Degas or somebody like that, so, so that’s what I would be aiming for. And I suppose I would judge the other students by those standards. I probably didn’t at the time, wouldn’t have understood what someone like Frank Auerbach was working towards. I mean he would have been working in a completely different tradition, having been trained by Bomberg, and, aiming for something different. You know, I mean I, I would have thought these weren’t very good drawings, whereas now I see that they, I mean he’s a brilliant draughtsman.The models were interesting. Because they, they were professional models. You’d often get families of models, and they, they would have been the same families as were posing for Millais or whatever. I mean they would have been the younger members of… So you’d get Italian families for instance, professional models, and they’d arrive, there would probably be a, a man and wife and a, maybe a daughter, and they’d arrive with their holdalls. So if you wanted a Roman centurion, or, if you wanted a Gypsy, they’d have their costume with them. And they were incredibly professional models.
Blake’s memories conjure a very different scene to the one recalled by Jack Smith. It goes to show the danger in assuming that an artist’s experiences were widely shared. Though they were contemporaries, Smith and Blake remember their time at art school quite differently.
Life drawing loses its prominence in British art education
For others, this period is remembered as a time when life classes seemed on the verge of extinction. A new style of course called ‘basic design’ was becoming increasingly popular. Basic design was inspired by the foundation course taught at the Bauhaus in Germany. Its advocates in Britain sought to reinvigorate art education by teaching students to manipulate line, form and colour free of received, and especially academic, ideas about making art. Some artists, such as John Ward, even recall casts of classical sculptures that were used to prepare students for life-drawing being broken up or thrown into rivers around this time. Stories like these may rely more on metaphors than fact. Nevertheless, as we will hear in the next extract, it was clearly an emotive time to be teaching and learning. Here, the sculptor Elisabeth Frink remembers with anger the new approach she felt had been imposed on both tutors and students at the Chelsea School of Art:
Elisabeth Frink: On life drawing
Elisabeth Frink with Dying King, Fleming Close studio, Winterton Place, London (1954-65). © The executors of the Elisabeth Frink Estate and Archive. Courtesy of The Frink Archive, Dorset History Centre. Image not licensed for reuse.
In this extract from her recording, artist Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993) revives her anger about changes to the art school curriculum which led to her decision to give up teaching. Although the role of life drawing certainly lost its prominence in most art schools, Frink is not correct in saying it was entirely abolished.
Elisabeth Frink was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in 1992. The interviewer was Sarah Kent.
All the art schools said no to figurative, no to the model, no to life drawing, which was so intolerant, and such a ghastly mistake. Whole generations of art students have come out not knowing how to draw. They were crazy. I left. I stopped teaching at that point.
But Frink’s insistence that all art schools said ‘no’ to life-drawing at that time is too simplistic. She imagines this period as a battle in which alternative methods of teaching – such as basic design – actively suppressed the practice of life-drawing. In doing so, Frink too readily writes off many instances in which basic design and life-drawing were taught alongside each other. Some interviews recorded by Artists’ Lives paint a more complicated picture of this period.
Harry Thubron and basic design
One such interview is with the printmaker Norman Ackroyd. As a student at Leeds College of Art from 1956 to 1961, Ackroyd studied under one of the more experimental advocates of a basic design style course, Harry Thubron. In the following extract, Ackroyd explains how Thubron’s exercises resulted in a rigorous process of investigative mark-making:
Norman Ackroyd: On changes to art education
Norman Ackroyd in the studio. © Sandra Lousada. Image not licensed for reuse.
Norman Ackroyd (b. 1938) contrasts his tutor, Harry Thubron’s innovative approach to teaching drawing with the academic traditions of earlier decades. In particular, he highlights the effect of Thubron’s ideas on the students’ experience of life drawing. Ackroyd became a student at Leeds College of Art in 1956, where he first encountered Thubron.
Norman Ackroyd was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2009-2012. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.
It’s only in, when, you know, in hindsight that you look back and you see that you were part of a brave new world, and a complete new attitude to art education. We didn’t realise we were guinea pigs even in that experiment. It was a good move, the art school system had got very hidebound. I was very lucky to be there at Thubron’s time. It did have discipline. A lot of people misread it, and thought it didn’t have discipline. It had tremendous discipline. He believed very strongly in drawing, and you get out what you put in. So there was a tremendous work ethic about. It wasn’t a, you can come in, splash paint around and go home and think you’ve been successful. You, you really couldn’t do that until you had… You know, you, you did have to learn things. And he was dead right.
A lot of the drawing was not just academic. He would bring in a branch of a tree that had been blown down, and say, ‘Right, I just want you to analyse the lines that you think give the direction. Don’t draw the tree trunk. Draw the lines of the growth in it, from the marks that you can see.’ So you would end up with an abstract, he said, but, not… It, it really is abstracted from that. You’re getting the life without actually having to draw the tree photographically. So analyse something, and draw the marks that, that mean something within it that kind of hint at the thing without just drawing it. And then you actually start to bring that principle next time you come in to the, to draw the life model, and you think, it’s the, actually it’s the shadow down the thigh and the shadow just under the belly, and the shadow on the inside of that thigh, and the shadow on, and the shadow on the neck and the breasts. And, and suddenly you’re not drawing the model; you’re drawing the parts of the model that are in shadow, and you’re analysing the shapes. But you’re still drawing the model. It made you start to think differently. You do that, and then… You know, there was, there was the great etching of Picasso’s, of the man standing holding a hand of a little boy. He did it in about 1910. He started on the big toe of the man, and he did it in one line all the way round, all the way round the little boy, back to the big toe. Why can’t you draw the model like that, you know? So you would try it. So you would start to… You’re still drawing the model. And, and you think, there’s all sorts of ways.
As Ackroyd notes, even in the more experimental classes life-drawing was never abandoned wholesale. Admittedly this was not life-drawing as it might be recognised from Rowlandson’s 1808 image, or indeed at the Royal Academy in the 1950s. The new life classes advocated by the likes of Harry Thubron were alive with movement and music. A short film, Drawing with the Figure (1963) shows a course he directed at the Byam Shaw School in London in 1963. Set to improvised jazz, it demonstrates how the ‘static and contemplative relationship’ of the traditional life class could be disrupted.2 The film shows models moving cheek-by-jowl amongst the students – their soles dusted black with charcoal from walking over sketches that littered the floor. Similarly, at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, Adrian Heath would unfurl reams of paper and pin them up in a single strip around the studio. Students would then draw continuously as various models spun their way about the class. Norman Ackroyd believes the experimental exercises were often misunderstood:
Norman Ackroyd: On drawing lessons
Norman Ackroyd in the studio. © Sandra Lousada. Image not licensed for reuse.
Norman Ackroyd (b. 1938) corrects misconceptions about Basic Design as it was taught by his tutor, Harry Thubron, who pioneered the approach in British art schools. Ackroyd was a student at Leeds College of Art in 1956, where Thubron taught and was developing his ideas. Basic Design had an enormous impact on teaching but Ackroyd feels his ideas were often misapplied and misunderstood by others.
Norman Ackroyd was recorded by National Life Stories for Artists’ Lives in sessions between 2009-2012. The interviewer was Cathy Courtney.
It would then get to very simple things where you would get a piece of black paper and cut it up into all sorts of bits, and then you’d have a rectangle. He said, ‘Right, now you just move them about.’ And you’d just have to move them about, your eyes and hands working, moving the thing. And you could carry on moving them forever. And then you suddenly group a few in a corner. Well that’s what people took up on, and thought this was what it was all about, and it wasn’t really; it was just, a part of it. And it was getting you to, sort of saying, it can be very beautiful, just black pieces of paper on a white background.It’s a contemplative thing. You had to contemplate this, without any kind of need to, to get the hip bone joining to the thigh bone [laughs], or… You just could contemplate the movement of squares and think, oh let us overlap them, yeah? Very meditative, you know. And so it wasn’t about trying to make a picture out of these things. It was… To me, basic design was that kind of thing, but it’s not what I got from Thubron. But it’s what a lot of other art schools copied from him, and started doing a pastiche of what he did, but it wasn’t based on the discipline of, of objective drawing as well.
Students worked through the kinds of exercises described by Ackroyd in order to come to new and stimulating artistic conclusions for themselves. One consequence of this exploratory method of teaching was the importance placed on the student’s learning process. This meant that, in some instances, they came to be seen as collaborators rather than just students.3
Gradually the practice of drawing from antique casts or a model under instruction in the life room was side-lined. Following the 1960 Coldstream Report, a degree-equivalent Diploma in Art and Design (DipAD) was established in 1964. Amongst a mixed bag of other reforms this introduced art history and complementary studies (which included other humanities subjects) as compulsory parts of the syllabus. All the while, variants of basic design became more and more mainstream. Though life-drawing itself may have already been contaminated with a ‘sense of its staleness’ well before the reform years of the 1960s, the interviews collected by Artists’ Lives prove that it has always been the subject of much lively debate.4
 Annette Wickham, ‘Strike a pose: 250 years of life drawing at the RA,’ RoyalAcademy.org, February 2018 [https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/from-life-history-of-life-drawing-annette-wickham, accessed 6 Jul. 2018].
 Beth Williamson, ‘Recent Developments in British Art Education: “Nothing Changes from Generation to Generation except the Thing Seen,”’ in Visual Culture in Britain, 14:3 (2013), pp. 356-378. DOI: 10.1080/14714787.2013.817845
 Alexander Massouras in Elena Crippa and Beth Williamson, eds., Basic Design (London: Tate, 2013), p. 23. See also Kate Aspinall on David Bomberg’s peer-relationship with many of his students at the Borough Polytechnic: Kate Aspinall, ‘Leader among Equals: The “School” of Bomberg in Context,’ talk delivered to accompany the Borough Road Gallery exhibition ‘Keep the Paint Moving’: David Bomberg and the Art of Radical Teaching, April 2016 [http://www1.lsbu.ac.uk/w2/boroughroadgallery/files/2016/07/Kate-Aspinall-Leader-among-Equals.pdf accessed 6 Jul 2018].
 Wickham, ‘Strike a pose: 250 years of life drawing at the RA’.
Related oral history recordings
Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:
Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.
Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.