Peter Blake and Richard Smith (right), as Royal College of Art students c. 1956, photographed by Robert Buhler.

'Why can't you draw the model like that?' Remembering the life room through Artists' Lives

Thomas Powell tracks the shifts in attitudes to British art education between the 1920s and 1950s.

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.

Drawing from life. Royal Academy, Somerset house. Image taken from <i>The Microcosm of London</i>. Originally published/produced in R. Ackermann: London, 1808 - 1811.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

[1] 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].

[2] 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

[3] 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].

[4] 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:

Sheila Girling, Jack Smith, Frank Bowling, John Ward, Elisabeth Frink, Norman Ackroyd, Adrian Heath

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.

  • Thomas Powell
  • Thomas Powell is an independent researcher focusing on modern art and visual culture in 20th century Britain. He studied at the University of Nottingham and the Courtauld Institute of Art. He has since worked with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art as a research assistant on the Royal Academy’s 2018 exhibition The Great Spectacle: 250 Years of the Summer Exhibition. He also contributed to The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018, a digital publication produced by the Paul Mellon Centre. He is currently cataloguing work by the artist and long-time art teacher William Crozier.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.