“From the beginning it was clear Camberwell School of Art wasn’t for the faint-hearted – the expectation was that we would arrive promptly at 9.30am, work through until 4.15, then continue at 4.30 with one of the compulsory evening classes that ran four nights a week and ended at 7. Then home to work on the weekly essay, the fortnightly (and massively important) Creative Brief or our daily sketchbooks. Saturdays kicked off with another compulsory class, this time a field-trip to one or another of London’s lesser-known sights of artistic relevance – the meat market, The Daily Express building, gallery archives, museum private collections; more sketching, more art history. As we moved on up through the school, some of us dared to flex the rules, but never without repercussions – Camberwell had a history and reputation to maintain and we were there to maintain it while we benefitted. Compared with my friends in Universities, suffering anything up to 6 lectures a week and a couple of tutorials a term, I had it tough, no matter how many times they called me a skiving art student…
Life drawing was an essential (and again compulsory) element of the education we received, viewed as one of the foundation disciplines – even though at the time (1979) drawing was in general far more fundamental in art education than today, Camberwell was still regarded as relatively hard-line on Life and all other drawing. The compulsory sessions (there were optional classes too) were 3 hours long and involved lots of easels, lots of silence and a fair bit of tension as well. As the tutor moved slowly round the room, pressure would build until it became almost impossible to put pencil to paper for fear of making a wrong mark. That there was a definite ‘way’ of making a mark didn’t help either, it was as difficult identifying and adopting a foreign way of drawing, the Camberwell style, as it was getting foreshortening right.
‘The Camberwell Style’, established between the wars and tumbling through the practice of the school 40 years later, was developed alongside the figurative painting style that put the school on the fine-art map. Drawing was an exploration, an information gatherer, a question and answer session using the pencil to record the process – accuracy was imperative and in order to ensure accuracy the lines needed to show each step. Rubbing out wasn’t frowned upon because nobody was stupid enough to try it – if a line wasn’t right then why was it drawn in the first place? No prisoners in the life class…
But this rather stern approach to what has become for me now a very instinctive process was extremely useful in instilling a sense of Thought as part of the creative act. My own style of drawing was always anathema to the Camberwell style, too expressive and undisciplined, less Q & A, more Therapy. But as long as it was accurate I would get away with it and so I thought about my marks, I measured, above all I looked at the model and when I had done all those things, I drew.
At Camberwell I learnt to draw by learning to look; once I knew how to look, I learnt to see and after that drawing was relatively easy. It taught me skills that I use every day, every hour and also skills that, amazingly, people now pay me for! Today, distanced from the mortuary-quiet life room and the eagle academic eye, I’m thankful for learning to draw at such a good school of drawing before drawing became old-fashioned and I’m proud to have had a part to play within the marvellous piece of social and artistic history that is Camberwell School of Art.”
Shelley is a long standing member of the life drawing class. I’ve been nagging her for ages to contribute towards the blog because I like her work and I thought her time at Camberwell would be interesting to read about also so thanks to you Shelley. You can see some more examples of Shelley’s work at www.shelleydavies.co.uk