R.H.BEST AND ROBERT CATTERSON-SMITH (2)

Robert Catterson-Smith’s method of memory drawing became widespread and was used in teaching for the School Certificate. Many of his young students at Birmingham Art School, who were being trained for local trades, produced good work (below).

Drawings by a young student at Birmingham School of Art, 1916

The differences between R.H.Best and Catterson-Smith (which I wrote about in my last post) are alluded to in Charles Holmes’s Arts and Crafts, a 1916 review of art schools, though it’s not possible to understand exactly what the problems described there are without reading Best’s biography. Courses for printers, house painters and bookbinders were set up at the school of art in consultation with employers, but agreeing a syllabus for brassworkers proved more problematic, as Arts and Crafts recorded:

“In the case of the brassworkers’ classes, there were difficulties in the way of complete success which the [School of Art] committee hopes yet to overcome. It is not easy in such trade classes to fix a standard of excellence that shall obtain the joint approval of the art teachers and the employers. Pure technical training is not the province of School of Art and is, moreover, amply provided elsewhere. Nor can a demand to teach a certain style – and possibly a bad one at that – which may be in vogue in the trade, be always met in a satisfactory manner, especially at a moment’s notice without regard to the proper training in general principles of art and design.

The voice of Best, who was a member of the committee, resonates throughout this passage. He wanted students who could design for the market and who understood “styles”. The art school wanted to impart general principles, and there was the unspoken influence of Catterson-Smith, a Morrisonian socialist who hated trade, commerce and profit-making. “I ask Catterson-Smith for Louis Quinze and he gives me a rabbit,” said Best. This difference of outlook between art school and the employer is found repeatedly in the period and may go some way to explaining the hand-wring about “bad design” and the failure of British manufacturers to compete in international markets.

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