The Art Schools of North West England: A Eulogy for a Lost Culture

A visitor to The Bluecoat’s winter exhibition may initially consider the inclusion of John Beck and Matthew Cornford’s work as somewhat unusual. Are the photographs and artefacts on display worthy of a ‘gallery’, or rather are they ‘museum’ exhibits? Are the works on display historical records, or contemporary comment? They are in truth perhaps both, or neither; it is for the visitor to determine.

The Art School of the North West of England is the first part, in the Herculean task set by Beck and Cornford, to catalogue and record the buildings that once formed England’s provincial art schools, and what becomes immediately apparent to the visitor is the scale of the task. Placed immediately next to the introductory panel is a large OS map of the North West, dotted with miniature red flags, each indicating the location of a former art school.

Whilst examining this cartographical record, indicating those towns and cities which once hosted an art school, one was reminded of The Jam’s (The KLF) 1991, ‘It’s Grim Up North’. Here are Burnley, Bolton, Blackburn, Nelson etc.  Beck and Cornford have, however, sought to challenge the ‘grim’ stereotype by deliberately photographing them on cloudless days in which the blue sky acts as an almost uniform backdrop. Each of the thirty schools in the region are photographed, though two, Rochdale and Wallasey are images of their former sites. 

Most of the buildings are today, sadly, unoccupied. Despite the loss of their original utility one still senses the local civic pride that made their construction, usually in the later decades of the nineteenth century, possible. The sense of civic one-up-manship in the region – ‘ours is bigger than yours’ – is clearly evident. The variety of styles, Neo-Classical, Neo Gothic, Gothic Baronial, Third Empire, the plagiarism and ransacking of architectural pattern books made for some truly unique structures, and no two are in any way alike. 

Significantly each institutions was as integral to their communities as the other great buildings of that era; the railway hotel, the infirmary, the grammar school. These institutions were, for the most part, places of instruction, where people went to be taught and tutored, and whilst initially conceived to serve the industry of that particular area they morphed into something far greater. Among the artefacts is a small display and video dedicated to Deaf School, the ‘archetypal art school band’, a product perhaps of the egalitarian spirit in which social classes mixed and shared interests could be fostered, locally and at relatively little cost (University leaders take note, this is what accessibility actually means).

There is an adroitly implied sense of melancholy to Beck and Cornford’s images, devoid of people, or motor cars, (save those in Rochdale now parked on the former site of the art school), one feels that the very life of these vital institutions has been drained away, perhaps symbiotically with their host community.  

This project is not an exercise in wistful nostalgia, we are not assaulted with a sickeningly saccharine sense of ‘the good old days’. Rather what is hinted at is far more profound, a catalogue of what was once, but is no longer. This is, therefore, a poignant eulogy of cultural loss. 

The Art Schools of North West England was on display at the Bluecoat in an extended exhibition from 17 November – 31 March 2019

Article by Ed Montana-Williams

Published 01.04.2019 by Sinead Nunes in Reviews

563 words