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A photograph of the Leeds College of Art mosaic. Mosaic against a brick wall. Central panel reads 'Leeds College of Art' flanked by allegorical figures: Sculpture on the left, Painting on the right.
Leeds College of Art mosaic by Gerald Moira

York and Leeds Colleges of Art: arts education in the north

At the start of this week, we learned about several important sculptors who were born and trained in Yorkshire.

Nearly all of them – Moore, Hepworth, Hirst, and Armitage – trained at one school: Leeds College of Art. In this activity, we discovered that Arnup was the respected and beloved Head of Sculpture at York College of Art for many years. Art schools are the first place many young artists discover their talents and have them nurtured by supportive teachers.

The art school curriculum can be varied, but sculpture students could expect to learn:

  • Drawing. This could be life drawing (the study of nude bodies), drawing from plaster casts, or still life (the study of inanimate objects). Drawing skills are crucial, even for sculptors. 

  • Modelling. Working in a variety of materials such as clay and plaster to learn about shape, form and the practical techniques of sculpture. 

  • Critiques. This is a modern innovation in art schools. Students are expected to show work to their teachers and the rest of the group, who will then ‘critique’ the piece in front of the artist. This can seem like quite a daunting class, but it’s there to improve an artist’s work and prepare them for the (sometimes harsh!) realities of the art world.

  • Art history and theory. Just like we’re learning about modern sculpture, art students are expected to be able to contextualise their work amongst artists who came before them and the predominant critical concepts and theories in their field.

In England, from the 1760s through to the late 1800s, there was a single art school that dominated arts education: the Royal Academy. By attending the Royal Academy schools, students were introduced to the country’s leading artists, they were able to take part in an important annual exhibition which took place every summer which, in turn, led to important patrons seeing and buying their work. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, new art schools began to emerge which challenged the dominance of the Royal Academy and instead sought to teach emerging artists a new type of arts education which took on board new types of art and influences from Europe and America.

However, most of these new art schools like the Slade, Camberwell School of Arts and Central St. Martins were based in London just like the Royal Academy. As a consequence, the capital continued to control the art world and determined what type of students would go on to become great artists. Leeds and York Colleges of Art, along with other art schools in the North, with their track record of successful alumni worked to devolve some of the power that the London art schools historically held.

They emerged from the Government Schools of Design in the mid-Victorian period. These schools were established in the wake of the Great Exhibition, an international design and manufacture exhibition that took place in London in 1851, that was intended to equip artisans with lessons in good art and design. The Schools on Design focused on teaching applied arts which are crafts such as furniture making, ceramics, stained class or textile design. It was until the early twentieth century that these Northern schools of design added fine arts (painting, sculpture and architecture) to their curriculum.

What role do you think arts education plays in modern sculpture? Do you think it’s important that a young artist attend art school?

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This article is from the free online course:

Modern Sculpture: An Introduction to Art History

University of York

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