Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Our Schools of Design


The various schools of art and design are now doing excellent service to the young aspirants of the brush, by sending forth from their walls first-class teachers of drawing and painting, whose rigorous training of eye and hand renders them able masters and mistresses to government, public and private schools, and private families of the highest rank; and the teacher’s first-class certificate is as valuable to the talented possessor, and as highly prized, as a “double first” to an University man. Since, then, there are places where drawing is correctly taught to students of both sexes at small cost, why do not all artists, who can possibly afford the time and expense, avail themselves of the privileges afforded by the Head Department of the Government Schools of Design, at South Kensington? Where, as at all the district schools, correctness of outline and distance are looked upon as the first, not last, principles of art; and where no students, however talented, are permitted to handle the brush till they can thoroughly and skilfully wield the pencil—in fine, they are taught to walk before they run; to spell before they read.

Some account, perhaps, of the Head School of “Art and Design,” at South Kensington, whilst specially intended for the benefit of the artist, may not be either unamusing or instructive to the general reader, as to the scale of fees, daily routine of duty, and the general arrangement and conduct of the establishment. There are then two terms of sessions (as they are called) in each year, the first commencing in March, and terminating in July; the other in October, and ending in February. August and September are the long vacation months. At Christmas and Easter, a week’s relief from duty is permitted: and gladly do the weary students avail themselves of the permission. The fees are but 4l. a session, which (not very large sum) includes admission to all the lectures. Hours of study from ten till four—a quarter of an hour being the prescribed time for luncheon. Each student is expected to provide himself or herself with an easel, large drawing board, maul stick, plummet, pencils, paper, india-rubber, case of instruments (containing large and small compasses with pen and ink legs, dividers, and scale), note book, T-square, and, if possible, a set of models for home study. The female classes are under the same roof, but quite distinct from the male schoolrooms. They receive the most careful instruction, under certificated mistresses; and the masters of the male schools, on certain days, attend to the more advanced classes. On first entering, the student is placed in the “Elementary Class” room, and a simple geometrical diagram given him to copy, always remembering that no measuring with strips of paper, or the pencil laid actually on the copy, is for one moment allowed; the former held at a distance and the eye alone are to be relied on by the would-be artists. For, at this early period of his art education, whatever proud ideas may exist in the scholar’s own mind regarding his ability, the authorities think only of training the eye and hand to obey the mind. Gradually, progressive copies of “ornament” follow these simple diagrams, till step by step the student, rejoicing in his progress, attempts the magnificent prize piece, with its flowing curves and wreathing flowers. The horror and dismay with which these copies are at first regarded is almost ludicrous. “I can draw people, horses, dogs, houses, trees, any thing in short; but these detestable two sided things,” is the common exclamation of the dismayed beginner. But in these horrid two-sided monsters, the utility of ornament consists: for every leaf, point, curve, or flower, on either side, being exactly the same size, height and distance apart, the skill and patience of the novitiate is tried to the uttermost to make them agree: and for the first few weeks Mr. B.’s mark, Miss C.’s mark, are written in very legible pencil dashes on “broken-backed curves,” “crooked verticals,” and “ill-balanced points,” without the slightest regard to the miserable student’s feelings. ¿There are no half-measures of condemnation at Kensington; no making believe that a crooked line is standing straight, or that figures, drawn upon the inimitable Dutch-doll system, are perfect copies of flesh and blood anatomies. But, with iron gentleness, if we may so speak, every fault, however minute, is pointed out, and marked with the fatal black sign. Be sure, that when praise is awarded, it is most richly earned and deserved, or it would not have been received.

The Rubicon of “ornament” once passed, the student enters upon a course of model drawing, and the “figure from the flat” for which his previous studies have fully prepared him; geometry and perspective having been studied, hand-in-hand with “ornament.” Models consisting of cones, cubes, vases, &c., are gracefully grouped in the class-rooms for the purposes of study, whilst once a week a lecture is given by one of the masters on the same subject (model drawing); when both schools, male and female, assemble in the lecture-room for a morning’s hard work, the teacher stands raised above his pupils, and having ‘‘set up” a model in such a position that all may obtain a good view of it, executes a correct copy of the same, from his point of view, on the large black slate which occupies one end of the room, explaining at the same time to the attentive students the best method of measuring and drawing each line; after which, one hour is allowed for the completion of the lesson, by the expiry of which time every one is expected to produce a pretty correct copy of the model. No cheating at model drawing by forbidden measurements, or looking for assistance at our neighbour. For as no two persons can possibly obtain the same view of the cube, or whatever it may be, from the different dispositions of their seats, every student is thrown entirely upon his or her own resources for the completion of the task. Once or twice during the lecture the master examines carefully each individual copy, and then returns to his stand to await the termination of their labour. It is a highly amusing sight to watch a large number of students engaged in this branch of their studies. Suddenly, and as if moved by some spontaneous and irresistible impulse, thirty or forty right arms, with pencils in hand, firmly clutched between their fingers, are rigidly extended towards the model, exhibiting an infinite variety of young ladies’ undersleeves, and gentlemen’s more sombre coat sleeves. The left eye of each student being tightly screwed up, and in stern silence they effect their measurements. In a few seconds they fall as swiftly as they rose, and every one appears to be engaged in amateur scrubbing—to judge by the vigorous movement of the right arm—up and down the drawing-board. When Mr. C—— speaks all the scrubbing ceases instantly, whilst all eyes are turned somewhat confusedly on the speaker’s amused countenance.

“Young ladies and gentlemen, I have been watching you for some time, and find that every one of you, without exception, have been rubbing out. I must beg you will think more before using your pencil, for it is great carelessness that causes such constant use of india-rubber, and I wish you would not use it at all.”

In silence, and with many darting out arms at the model, as if hurling imaginary javelins at it, and many furtive applications of india-rubber, the lesson continues till the clock strikes—at the first stroke of which the lecturer leaps from his stand, and, finished or unfinished, carries off all the drawings for private correction, and the scholars disperse to their several occupations. The lectures on geometry and perspective are conducted on precisely the same principle; the student following the master’s diagram on the slate, line by line on their paper. The female anatomical classes are held in the summer, those for males in the autumn session. Those students only who are drawing from the “round” figures, &c., are expected to attend them. Strangers to the department can also attend these lectures at the moderate charge of ten shillings the course; and, singular as it may seem to all who shrink with horror and dismay at the very thought of the picture of a skeleton hand or foot, the anatomical classes are the best attended and the least shirked of any in the schools—yes, positively shirked, as several of them actually are. For the old school distich, applied to Kensington studies, and written by one of its harassed students in the moment of vexation, would, most probably have run thus:—

Ornamentation is vexation,
All models are as bad;
Geometry perplexes me,
Perspective drives me mad.

These two last-mentioned studies are absolutely detested by the majority of the younger, and a great many of the elder students; and, if they can by any means avoid attending them, they will. And to confess the truth, there are easier tasks than obtaining clean, clear, correct geometrical and perspective diagrams, whether in pencil or in ink. And on examination days, woe be to those who are not “well up” in these absolute essentials of certificated merit. To model drawing succeeds the “figure from the flat,” “ornament from the cast,” and lastly, the “figure from the round.” Let it be remembered that each of these studies must be thoroughly mastered in its outline before the pupil is permitted to attempt its shading. And, to those unacquainted with the inexpressible beauty of correct outline, the drawings exhibited annually at South Kensington appear all but marvellous. Take for instance that awfully-wonderful anatomical marvel, “the Laocoon.” In the flat copy there is not one line of shading; yet we gaze at the “mere outline” completely fascinated by its terrible beauty. The straining eyeballs upturned in death’s intensest agony. The heaving chest with its quivering muscles, starting as from the torture-stricken frame, are all so truthfully, so terribly expressed in simple outline, that it is impossible to gaze for any length of time on the school copy without shuddering.

If “the grand old masters” did not consider their dignity at all lowered by severe studies of anatomy, surely the young masters of the new school would do well to follow their example. We might then hope that in a very few years the entire race of deformed quadrupeds and bipeds (those painted libels on nature) whom art has afflicted with crooked wooden legs, twisted shoulders, jointless arms, and worse than all (when a lady’s in the case), distorted throats and countenances, would disappear, and no longer disgrace the canvas they were meant to adorn. And that in future no great works, otherwise of the highest order of art in every particular, would be deteriorated by that fatal want—the absence of correct outline and good drawing.

Intending students, of course, should inform the Head Master of Kensington what branch of art they particularly wish to study, and the time they can afford to stay; so that he may best advance their desired end. So, wishing all such well through ornament and perspective, we say farewell.

Isabella Kentish.