RCA Society

The Art Schools of Kent By David Haste

Reviewed by Roderick Coyne MA(RCA)

In the recent past, Kent like every county in the country, possessed a body of small art schools catering for the art educational needs of the local community. The ubiquitous presence of these institutions bore testimony to the Government’s commitment to the sponsorship of universal education in the arts. These schools usually dated back to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century where they provided both full and part-time courses in art and craft based skills directed towards people of all ages and degree of professional ambition.

A survey of the twenty odd art schools of Kent in this period, many of which were strung out on a necklace of the principal coastal towns, will serve as a microcosm of the part played by such schools in the nation as a whole. The origin of these establishments would have varied greatly, but their rapid demise in the latter part of the last century was the result of a single syndrome, namely the dramatic contraction of government funding for what was deemed to be an inefficient use of resources.

Since the loss of this kind of art school, the City Degree art colleges for which many of these schools became a preparation, have seemingly continued to prosper regardless, albeit in new centralised configurations. What has changed however is the local nature of the first step on the ladder of an artistic career.

In his comprehensive 350 page new book,  David Haste has exhaustively chronicled the history of the many art schools that Kent once possessed, detailing the circumstances of their origin, their heyday and the turmoil of their demise. The very informative text is complemented by a generous and intriguing photographic survey of relevant architecture, personalities and student endeavour throughout the years in question.

The sweep of the text ranges through chapters dealing with the “art school idea”, “the founding” of the various institutions, the history of the art school curriculum and the various attitudes to teaching, the amalgamations and changes of status following the various government reports on art education, followed by “the great cull” and the intricacies leading up to the establishment of the University of the Creative Arts. – the monotheistic replacement for the many local institutions that had served Kent for the preceding 150 years or so.

Room is also made for many portraits of the various teachers whose resolve and idiosyncrasies made the schools at which they taught the places that they were, together with reminiscences from  the student  “veterans” who benefited from their efforts. 

This thoroughly researched book, even for somebody familiar with the subject, is full of surprises. It is as much a social history as a history of its putative subject matter. The demise of the many local art schools that Kent once had, has impacted the general cultural life of the towns concerned as much as the educational options open to prospective students. For many of these small towns, the art school was at the heart of a cultural milieu whose value was only fully appreciated in retrospect by its absence. 

David Haste’s history is timely as the opportunity for first-hand accounts of his subject matter is rapidly running out. For the same reason, this book should act as a challenge to some large gallery to mount a major exhibition devoted to this history now that the art educational landscape in this country has so dramatically and permanently altered.

Published by Werterpress • ISBN 978-0-9575638-0-3

Price: £25

Order/purchase direct from david.haste@btopenworld.com