Happy Birthday RCA!

RCA Building with BicycleThe Royal College of Art is 175 years old this year. It opened in 1837 as the School of Design. To put this into historical perspective Queen Victoria became Queen that year and Robert Stephenson was putting the finishing touches to the London and Birmingham Railway which began to run trains between Euston and the Black Country in 1838.

The point was to help British industry compete with European rivals and to ‘advance the humblest pursuits of industry’. It was to become the ‘Head School’ of a network of institutions throughout Britain. Thus the art schools predated a very large number of the universities into which they were eventually absorbed. Could it have been better the other way round?

The RCA that we know today really began in 1948 when Robin Darwin was appointed to sort out what had become a rather limp institution. He did a brilliant job, valuing design as well as fine art and appointing an extraordinary team of practitioner-professors including Dick Guyatt, Misha Black and Hugh Casson. The college could choose the cream of the students from all over the country. At the same time the network of art schools was re-invigorated. As is now well-known they played a vivid cultural role in Britain, not only in art and design but also in music, theatre and film. British designers were in demand all over the world.

When I edited a special RCA edition of Design magazine in 1964, there was a lot to celebrate. Andrew Marr celebrated the Birthday on Start the Week on 19 November. Christopher Frayling made the case for the contribution made by RCA and the other art schools to the cultural and economic life of Britain. He could not understand successive Governments inability to give the sector more support. He pointed out that the ‘cultural industries’ are only a fraction behind financial services in wealth creation and employ twice as many people (2 million). He also put in a word for the vital importance of practical art, design and craft education in schools. Amen to that.

Of course LDP aims to play a role in providing practical education with ammunition. We want to improve the theoretical basis but to do it through the experience and wisdom of practitioners. And we want to make an assault on the ignorance and philistinism that marks most Government thinking about schools, colleges and universities. We recommend that Mr Gove should contact Sir Christopher and find time to read some of our publications.

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