Desmond Jones - Twickenham Art School - Extract
Below the photo of Richmond College is a fascinating extract from the diary of Rose Mortleman (formerly known as Rosie Pickles), who went to Twickenham Art School just after World War 2, from her book "At All Events" with descriptions of the life and teachers at the Art School. To read the whole book (and the whole book is charming and fascinating to a local, whose parents grew up at the same time and in the same area as Rose - thank-you for recording this Rose!), click on this link:-
Extract from "At All Events" by Rose Morleman - about life at Twickenham Art School
We all turned up in our new blazers and hung about the entrance until a secretary appeared and checked our names on a list. We
were shown to a room on the ground floor. There were about
thirty assorted pupils, boys and girls from different schools. Ourlittle group bagged desks together near the front – Marion, Jean
Hall, Woody, Jessica, Doreen and me.
A small bespectacled woman wearing a turban entered the
classroom. She eyed us slowly, waiting for the talking to stop.
Something in her sharp gaze willed us to be silent. She was
definitely in control.
“What have we here?” she asked. “Hmm... another group of hopefuls. Well, I can tell you now, you may think you need to know nothing when you embark on a career in art but you won’t get far without a bit of common sense! Where I come from, you can’t survive without it!”
Mrs Embleton was a North Country woman with socialist leanings. She said there was little she could teach us in the time allotted.
“I’ve got an impossible task,” she said. “You’re missing a year’s schooling by coming here. You’ll need to know about citizenship; that’s the most important thing. If you think you’re in for an easy time with me, you’re mistaken.”
She showed us how to read gas and electric meters, asked us general knowledge questions and talked for ages about the poverty in the north. When someone fidgeted, she made him repeat word for word what she had been saying. We sat up and took notice, she was difficult to ignore.
“You can go now. I’ll see you tomorrow – my colleague will betaking you for the next period. I’ll show you to the art room.”
We traipsed up the stairs to a light and airy studio with big windows. We had another lesson before our art teacher took over. A slightly bewildered lady was waiting for us. Mrs Heard taught English. She had a pile of reports on her desk, and singled one out to put at the top.
“Good morning class. I am your English teacher. I am sure youwould like to learn a little about our greatest English playwright... you have all heard of him and I have acted in his plays many times. His mastery of the English language is unsurpassed.” Mrs Heard paused. “You have all heard of William Shakespeare?”
There were groans at the back of the class. Mrs Heard’s faceturned pink.
“You will come to appreciate his works.”
We had to read extracts from ‘Julius Caesar’.
“Rose, you will be Cassius,” she said. “I will be Caesar.”
There were guffaws of laughter when she came to ‘Yon Cassiushas a lean and hungry look’; I was far from lean and hungry.
The lesson ended and Miss Parlby arrived. She looked past retirement age and every inch a lady. Grey hair cut short in front, the back piled into a haphazard bun, a dark skirt swirling round her ankles, hands thrust into the pockets of a long shapeless cardigan, she sailed into the room. It was love at first sight for most of us. Here was a true artist, a lady dedicated to teaching young people skills she had learned from her father and his friends, one of whom was Augustus John. Her late father had been a well-known stained glass artist – he had written books on the subject which we later obtained from the library. Miss Parlby stared at the new mix of girls and boys and smiled rather shyly.
“At art school,” she said, “you will receive a year’s tuition ingeneral art subjects, and in your second year you must choose a subject in which to specialise.”
Miss Parlby taught illustration.
“All subjects are connected to others. If you decide to specialise in illustration, you must also study life drawing. If you wish to be a fashion artist you must take life classes, dress design, and illustration. Poster design is allied to lettering and layout – tell me, do you understand?”
“Very well. Today, I will explain the mysteries of proportion and perspective, the basis of all good drawing.”
She was an excellent teacher. For the first time in my life Ilooked forward to going to school. There were no spiteful classmates, no strict teachers; we all had a common interest. I enjoyed learning. I raced home along the footpath at lunchtime, anxious to tell my mother about my first morning.
“We have to take life drawing classes,” I said. “People pose inthe nude.”
“What, nothing on at all?” She was quite shocked.
First-year students felt a little embarrassed in the life class; noone had seen a naked adult before. One boy giggled nervously and Mr Caine, the teacher, looked pained.
“Do you find something amusing?” he asked. “Perhaps youwould tell us what it is, then we can all share the joke.”
The small boy squirmed in his seat and turned scarlet. A lot of older students attended art school so we soon got used to working alongside adults. There were men and women in their twenties whose education had been cut short by the outbreak of war. One girl had spent five years in the A.T.S. She was twenty three. She told us she had been a driver in the desert. A middle-aged man with a beard joined Miss Parlby’s class. He also attended the life class; it was obvious Miss Parlby suspected him of voyeurism. He showed her his drawings of nudes – he had given the models huge black nipples and masses of pubic hair.
“Do you really see the human form like that?” she asked coldly.“I think you may be wasting your time here.”
Doreen and Jessica wanted to be dress designers so they attended Miss Briggs’ needlework classes. Marion, Woody and I opted for fashion drawing; we wanted to draw clothes for publication in magazines and catalogues. Jean Hall wanted to be an illustrator. I got on well with the boys and girls in my year. No one had enjoyed their previous schools.
“School teachers are so introverted,” Woody said. “They never leave the school environment and they think school rules are the most important thing in life.”
We agreed with her. Girls in my year started wearing long dirndl skirts and flat sandals. Some had straight hair and a fringe. No one wore makeup; it was considered common. I scrounged a floral overall Mum discarded and tried my hand at dressmaking. At Kneller School we had made awful French knickers with felled seams, and embroidered table runners. I made a dirndl skirt which reached my ankles. The only uniform for art school was a green smock with a black bow at the neck, and a blazer with ribbon trimming and a pocket badge for outdoor wear. Apart from that we could wear what we liked. I was proud of my art school blazer – I kept it on all day, even in summer, because Mum was still knitting jumpers with holes in them. I grew my hair shoulder length and chopped a half-fringe at one side.
Each day I walked home from school along the footpath andcrossed the railway bridge, just as I had done with Mum years ago. How different it looked now – I could remember the art school being built. What a long time ago that seemed. I passed the playing fields on my left and was crossing the small bridgewhen someone said
A young man in soldier’s uniform brushed past me and I caught a flash of white teeth. He looked just like Alan Ladd the film star. I reddened and said nothing.
Mum always wanted to hear what I had been doing at art school as soon as I got home. I told her about the students, the teachers, the lessons, and about the bearded voyeur’s crude drawings in the life class, but I didn’t mention the Alan Ladd soldier because she would have worried. I was sure I would never bump into him again, anyway.
There were many talented people at art school. I enjoyed looking at other people’s work; everyone had a different style. Rosemary wanted to be an illustrator and her style was very distinctive. She drew pictures of artists starving in garrets, and consumptivemusicians with long bony fingers... we liked her work.
Everyonewas intrigued by a confident and witty girl called Elvyn – she got furious if anyone called her Evelyn by mistake. Her older brother was in the army and she knew a lot about places abroad. Some of her tales made our hair stand on end, especially the stories about brothels in Cairo. I, for one, had not known such places existed; I had to look up the word ‘brothel’ in a dictionary. Up to that time I thought it was another name for a soup kitchen. Elvyn wanted to be a fashion artist and was very interested in clothes, but her ladies looked more like pin-ups than elegant fashion models; she gave them all prominent bosoms and highly-coloured tight dresses.
We all had to attend the lettering class but no one enjoyed it very much. Our tutor was a Liverpudlian with a cone of frizzy hair – a patient man who tried to teach us how to do hand lettering. The girls giggled at his accent and Woody nicknamed him Frisby Dyke; we were all familiar with the characters in Tommy Handley’s radio show. Poor Frisby Dyke must have dreaded that lesson and the sniggering that heralded his arrival, although some of the boys were keen to learn and kept straight faces when Woody mimicked him behind his back.
Everyone enjoyed Miss Parlby’s lessons. We spent several mornings drawing plaster-cast masks, lit from various angles. Miss Parlby told us this would be the basis for portraiture; we were not to attempt colour work until we had mastered proportion,light and shade.
From this, we progressed to drawing from life. Our first task was to draw a portrait of the person sitting next to us, each posing in turn. I sat patiently still for my neighbour while she sketched but she kept rubbing out and holding the pencil at arm’s length to re-measure proportions. Miss Parlby appeared and gazed critically over the girl’s shoulder at the drawing.
“Why have you not given the face form?”
The girl looked perplexed. Miss Parlby took the pencil from herhand and began making marks on the paper. She became engrossed in her work and drew up a chair.
“You have drawn a head with no bone structure. Look beneath the skin to the skull; see the position of the eye sockets and the shadow on the side of her face and nose. The face is broad, but not a full moon as you have drawn it. She has the high cheekbones and domed forehead of an Oriental person. You can see three-quarters of the iris in her eye, the lid does not obscure as much of the eyeball as in your drawing.”
I felt like a freak. Miss Parlby paused to take a long look at me, then asked me if there was any Chinese blood in my family. I saidthere was not, and she expressed surprise.
That night I laughinglytold Mum Miss Parlby thought I was Chinese. “Chinese? Wherever did she get that idea? Lord love us, your grandpa’s people came from Yorkshire, your gran’s from Scotland, and all mine was from down Somerset!”
Mum took Miss Parlby’s enquiry as a personal slight; her limitedknowledge of Chinamen gleaned from Charlie Chan films at the cinema.
“Do you hear that, Fred? I don’t know how anybody could say she looks Chinese! She’s the image of our Gladys!”
Dad just laughed.
“Well, as long as she’s got two eyes, a nose and a mouth I don’tsee that it matters,”
he said, but Mum told everyone and sought reassurance in the matter. I wished I had not mentioned it in the first place.
At the end of our first year, the English teacher Mrs Heard said it was usual for her students to ‘put on a little revue’ just for her and Mrs Embleton.
“We teach you for such a short time and there is so little you canlearn in one hour a day. You will specialise in your creative subjects next year so we want you to use your creative abilities to produce an end-of-term show.”
It was the very chance we had been waiting for! We werelonging to get our own back on Mrs Embleton, who was always telling us to see ourselves as others see us. There were several good mimics in our year – we would produce a satirical revue starring Mrs Embleton, Miss Heard, Mr Coulson Davies the Principal, and our old friend Frisby Dyke. Jean dressed up as Mrs Embleton; cross-over pinny, cloth tied on head, duster in hand. When shaken the duster became a red flag painted with hammer and sickle. She put on an exaggerated northern accent and appeared at regular intervals shouting “Up the Workers!” Elvyn was Mrs Heard, she carried a volume of Shakespeare andappeared in different costumes.
“I will be Caesar; Rose will beCassius... I will be Titania, Leslie will be Bottom.”
Someone with long hair impersonated our Principal. He was a remote figure as far as we were concerned so he had little to say.
Another, wearing false nose and shaggy wig, drew letters on ablackboard:
“Luke Chuck, draw yer capitals wi’ a noice fairmloine...”
Our version of the voyeur, complete with false beard, sat at thecorner of the stage drawing rather pornographic nudes.
I think the subtlety of this was lost on Mrs Embleton and Mrs Heard; they did not come into contact with older students. Our revue was a very amateurish production but we were convulsed with laughter from beginning to end. Mrs Embleton and Mrs Heard could not believe their eyes. At the end of the performance we all shrieked,
“Speech! Speech!” at them.
Mrs Embleton staggered to her feet.
“I don’t know what to say!” she said in tones of mock horror.
“I’ve taught plenty of first-year students in my time, but you lottake the biscuit. Do we really behave like that?”
“Yes!” we shouted in unison.
“Well, I hope we’ve learned something in that case! I shall keepeven firmer control of next year’s horrors!”
We hoped she wouldn’t tell our art teachers about the revue, wedidn’t want Mr Coulson Davies to expel us.
I told Miss Parlby and Miss Briggs of my intention to leave at sixteen. Dad still had his job as storekeeper at the factory, which now made parts for radios, but he would have to retire soon. He was already sixty-five. He would have no pension apart from the small sum provided by the State. Dad said he would have to do painting and decorating again if anyone would take him on, but Mum said we could manage to survive provided I got a job and Dad could do a bit of decorating work for the neighbours.
“I’ll not have you pushing they great barrows with ladders andstuff on again, Fred,” she said.
Miss Briggs had contacts in publishing. She liked me, and my drawings. Although she taught design and dressmaking, and I was studying fashion drawing for publication, I understood how clothes were put together and knew how to show them off to advantage in a drawing. I liked thinking up colour schemes and designing flattering accessories to show with the clothes. Miss Briggs complimented me on my work and said she was sure her friend in publishing would be interested in my drawings.
I was enjoying my final year at art school even more than the first; it was wonderful, this freedom to draw and paint all day long. I became very friendly with Marion, who was also specialising in fashion. Miss Parlby thought it essential for us to have some instruction in layout techniques, so she persuaded Mr Shields to include us in his class one morning a week. Mr Shields was Australian. All his pupils seemed to be male and a lot older than us; they were learning the techniques of printing, lettering, layout and poster work. Mr Shields did not want two fashion conscious young girls cluttering up his art room, but Miss Parlby went to see Mr Coulson Davies, pleaded on our behalf and got her way.
Marion and I could never fathom why Mr Shields’s students liked him so much, or why he was considered a good tutor, because he never allowed us in his room. He poked his head round doors until he found an empty room – usually the one where the plaster casts were kept – and made us sit in there on our own. He gave us drawing boards and sheets of paper and told us to draw the plaster casts. Once, he carried in an ancient tailor’s dummy, draped a dusty old cotton dress on it, and told us to draw that. He never returned to see what we had been doing, and he told us nothing about lettering or layout. We were bored. We drew caricatures of him wearing a bush hat and gave him legs like a kangaroo. By the end of term we had thought up plots for several detective novels, invented numerous nom de plumes for ourselves, and used up a ream of paper drawing plaster casts, caricatures, and writing limericks. It had been a complete waste of time. Miss Parlby asked to see our portfolio of layouts. All we could show her were drawings of plaster casts and the dress on the tailor’s dummy.
“Where are your layouts?” she asked. “This is the kind of work you were doing in your first year with me.”
“Mr Shields didn’t give us any to do.”
“What do you mean, he didn’t give you any? What were the other students doing?”
We told her we had spent all our time shut away in a room by ourselves. She went quite white and breathed heavily through her nostrils.
“I see,” she said, and walked stiffly out of the room.
She went to complain to Mr Coulson Davies but it was too late for anything to be done on our behalf. We knew Mr Shields had won.
Miss Parlby inspired great affection in her pupils. Marion and I were not in the least perturbed about our failure to learn layout techniques, we trusted her to teach us anything we needed to know. Miss Parlby lived alone in a studio in Parsons Green. She was devastated by the death of her cat, Bill, but was convinced his spirit lived on; she believed all cats possessed a sixth sense. She invited a few of us to visit her at home one Saturday.
“I’m having a small soirée,” she said.
Marion, Jean and I arrived at Parsons Green and had difficulty finding Miss Parlby’s studio-home; it was tucked away between some ordinary suburban dwellings. A tiny, single-storey building standing in its own small garden, it looked like a miniature chapel. There were statues and a white angel in the front garden. Urns contained trailing plants which had draped themselves around the statues, and the paths were covered in creeper. Miss Parlby came bustling out to meet us, her face pink and smiling. She ushered us into her living room. It had an arched ceiling and stained glass windows which dappled coloured lights on a wall hung with Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The furnishings were sparse: a low bed covered in cats hairs, a couple of wooden chairs, a hand-carved stool and a tapestry chair with arms. Piles of old books stood against the walls; canvases and drawings were propped against a huge wooden easel which she said had belonged to her father.
“Would you like to see some of Father’s drawings?” she asked.
She retrieved a battered portfolio from the corner and showed us delicately inked drawings of angels and cherubs, now faded and yellowed with age. We drank tea and talked about paintings. Miss Parlby greatly admired the work of Augustus John. She had many paintings and drawings done by her father’s friends, and was especially fond of portraits of pale-faced women with long frizzy tresses and haunted eyes. We drank more weak tea and nibbled biscuits.
“I should like you to meet my friends in the next road, they are At Home today and we are invited. They are both extremely talented,” Miss Parlby said, so we set off along the road.
A bright, elderly couple greeted us like long lost friends. Their house was very large and contained a lot of paintings and objets d’art: carved plaques, embroidered mats, hand-worked tapestries on all the chair seats.
“Look at this wonderful work!” Miss Parlby enthused. “It is all sold in aid of charity. My friends here organise sales of work and local artists and craftspeople give their services free. Isn’t that splendid?”
We agreed that it was splendid, admired everything on displayand marvelled at the craftsmanship, but we had no money to buy anything. No one seemed to mind. Miss Parlby was always generous in her praise of other people’s work, including that of her students. She inspired us to greater efforts. She had no time for those who refused to learn the basics of good drawing.
“You must experiment and find your own style,” she told us, “but first you must learn the anatomy of an object. Nothing in nature has a hard outline – it is not flat, it has form.”
I found it easy to talk to her about leaving art school. She knew it was from necessity, not choice.
“I have spoken to Miss Briggs about you and she may be able to help. Her friend in publishing is most interested in your work and is going to arrange an interview for you soon.”
My father was pleased when I told him and Mum wrote to Miss Parlby and thanked her for taking an interest in me. My mother had no ambitious plans for me; she assumed I would want to marry and have children at the earliest opportunity. That, in her view, was the only worthwhile career for a woman. She did not lack pride in my achievements; she was eager to show my drawings to friends and neighbours and frequently secured unpaid commissions for my work. Requests for hand-painted calendars and personalised cards came thick and fast at Christmastime! She hid my drawings of nudes in the cupboard in my bedroom.
“Fancy they people posing with nothing on! Better not let Auntie see them.”
Mum’s taste in art veered towards highly detailed landscapes and sentimental Victorian prints. Our walls were covered in old fashioned framed prints; cows in a field, child with a dog, thatched cottage beside duckpond, and a gigantic picture of a child in ruched dress, mittens and satin bonnet, which Mum called Baby Bunting.
“I wouldn’t part with that for anything!” she said.
Dad was a little more discerning in his tastes. He cast a critical eye on my efforts and often spotted mistakes in perspective, or too-heavy line-work in backgrounds.
“Can’t you smudge those trees a bit? They wouldn’t be as clear as that in the distance.”
It was obvious I would never become a great artist but that didnot matter, to me. I needed to earn a living – if I could do so by producing adequate work for publication I would be satisfied. I admired paintings and drawings by famous artists, and those produced by colleagues who wanted to explore new techniques, but I could not afford the luxury of experiment. Fine art was a thing apart.
Halfway through the summer term Miss Briggs told me she had arranged an interview for me. Dad accompanied me to London that day; he wanted to time the journey and find the exact location of Tower House, which was just off the Strand near Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market. We walked across Waterloo Bridge from the station. Dad waited downstairs in reception while I took the lift to the sixth floor. I had to walk through the accounts department to reach Miss Oliver’s room and was greeted by her secretary, who introduced herself as Mrs Parrish.
“Perhaps you’d like to wait in my room for a moment until Miss Oliver is ready for you?”She smiled and fed paper into her typewriter.
After a few moments Miss Oliver appeared in the doorway, a middle-aged lady with grey hair and square spectacles. She grinned encouragingly, showing a row of spacey teeth.
“Come in, come in. How nice to meet you. Miss Briggs has shown me some of your work already; I’m sure we can use your services.” She thumbed through my portfolio.
“You will be drawing clothes for our catalogues, and painting fashion figures on showcards for the window,” she said.
“Of course, you will have to practise our style first...”
She showed me the catalogues they published. Rows of stiff figures covered the pages; smiling women crammed close together, arms by their sides. Printing techniques were poor at that time and the paper was of inferior quality. Only the covers were in full colour; the drawings inside were printed in sepia.
“As you can see, we have to make the most of a little space nowadays, with these paper shortages. Come into the studio and meet my other artists!”
I was too bewildered and shy to take in much of what she was saying, but I glanced briefly at the four girls as she reeled off their names. They sat at drawing boards propped on slanting boxes. Four pairs of eyes looked at me with interest – our arrival had interrupted an animated conversation. Miss Oliver whisked me away again and completed the interview. I was to start work on January the fifth, 1948. That would enable me to complete the summer term at art school, and to have an extra term as a third year student. I had actually got a job! I couldn’t wait to tell my parents the good news. They were even more thrilled than me.