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Harmony, Contrast & Discord: John Beck and Matthew Cornford

18 May – 3 July 2021

The catalyst for this exhibition is an ongoing collaborative project by writer John Beck and artist Matthew Cornford to track down and visit all of the UK’s art schools – including Rochdale School of Art – and record the sites as they are today in photographs and words. The project was prompted by the discovery in 2009 that the college they had both attended in the 1980s was now a disused building up for sale.

A documentary artwork in itself, the project is also a rich and multi-faceted investigation into the value placed on arts education and, in particular, reveals the legacy of the post-war boom in art schools. It questions the role that art should and could have in broader society, both now and in the future.

The exhibition is broken down into three inter-related spaces:

  • In Gallery Three we look at the local history of Rochdale School of Art and hear the stories of some of the people who taught and studied at the School over the years.
  • Gallery Four presents a special North West-focused display of Beck and Cornford’s project, featuring images of the art school sites that were once integral to the region’s creative life.
  • Finally, in Your Space (on the ground floor) we’ve created a ‘think-tank’. Introducing a range of new models for art education and hosting a programme of debates and workshops, we invite you to get hands-on and share your views.

The title, ‘Harmony, Contrast & Discord’ is taken from chapters in a book on colour theory written in 1915 by Henry Barrett Carpenter, the first Head of Rochdale School of Art. While Carpenter used these terms as ways of describing the visual relationships between colours, the words also capture the spirit of the art schools charted in this exhibition and their histories and changing fortunes.

Join Curator Bryan Beresford for a tour of the exhibition:

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Gallery Three

Civic Aspiration

Often evolving out of Mechanics’ Institutes or Technical Schools, many British art schools were established in the nineteenth century by industrialists, workers and civic leaders to provide factories and workshops with a skilled labour force. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the North West with its textile industry, and Rochdale was no exception. A Technical School was opened in 1893, then extended to house the School of Art in 1906.

Located in an area known as The Gank, the sloping site meant the building had entrances on different levels on King Street, Nelson Street and Church Lane. The grand Victorian architecture with its elaborate stained-glass windows and a terracotta frieze demonstrates strong civic pride. Art schools sat alongside other public buildings – town halls, libraries, museums and galleries – as embodiments of cultural values as well as of economic and political power.

The building continued to be used for art instruction throughout the first half of the twentieth century, but it was when Leopold Solomon was appointed as Principal in 1953 that it truly flourished, growing from just eight enrolled students to 190 full-time and 550 part-time students in just a decade, with twenty-six staff teaching a multitude of art techniques, from painting, sculpture and drawing, to lithography, typography and silversmithing.

In March 1969 disaster struck when fire ripped through the building. It re-opened after a costly repair, but by this time, art classes had already moved to a new, purpose-built facility on the corner of St Mary’s Gate and College Road, later the site of Hopwood Hall College.

After being used for a variety of other purposes in the 1970s and ’80s, the original building closed permanently in 1989 and was subsequently demolished. The terracotta frieze, depicting spinning and metal working was preserved and is displayed in the car park where the building once stood.

Gallery Three

A rite of passage

It was often the very idea of ‘art school’ – especially in the post-war years – that gave these institutions an aura of excitement well in excess of their everyday reality as places of study. ‘Going to art school’ as filtered through popular culture, came to represent taking a particular position within society, one that was slightly at odds with mainstream tastes and values. For multiple generations of students, art school became a rite of passage, not only for those who wanted careers as professional visual artists, but also for musicians, writers and many others who were simply looking to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Rochdale School of Art was no different. Over the past year we’ve researched and, where possible, made contact with some of the people who studied and/or taught art in Rochdale. They include the highly-influential Leopold Solomon, appointed Principal in 1953; Tony Smart and Christine Pearson, both members of the ‘Rochdale Sculptors’, a group of artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s who took their work to the streets to reach audiences outside of the usual gallery setting; the socially-engaged practice and international outlook of Emrys Morgan and the Rochdale Performance Collective in the 1980s and 1990s; and Angela Tait’s late, life-changing, career shift in the early 2000s.

While it wasn’t possible, in this exhibition, to include stories from everyone who participated in our research, we have valued the time and memories of all involved, and extend our thanks to:

Nicholas Blincoe
Kane Cunningham
Corrine Delargy
Paul Haywood
Bill Hutchinson
Andrew Lord
Martin Reiser
Mark Rothwell
Brian Woods

Leopold Solomon

Head of L.S. Lowry, c.1965
Leopold Solomon (1919–76)
Bronze with marble base
Collection of Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service

Leopold Solomon with L.S. Lowry, 1972
Collection of Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service

‘I think we can say there is almost a renaissance of the arts in this area.’ – Leopold Solomon

Appointed as Principal in 1953, Solomon greatly developed the reputation of Rochdale College of Art. Teaching was delivered with integrity, freedom and experimentation and with just eight students enrolled when he started, by the mid-1960s the College attracted over 700. He hosted public talks that aimed to challenge existing opinions about art and culture and ensured that the College was connected to the wider artistic community. With his links to renowned artists, Solomon offered many opportunities for students and staff. He sculpted this portrayal of L.S. Lowry on one of his regular visits to the College to critique students’ work.

Hear Smart talk more about his experiences:

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Hear Pearson talk more about her experiences:

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Hear Lomax talk more about her experiences:

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Hear Morgan talk more about his experiences:

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Hear McKenzie talk more about his experiences:

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Hear Tait talk more about her experiences:

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Watch Khan’s films:

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John Beck and Matthew Cornford
Heritage, History, Resources or Ruins?

As recently as the 1960s there were over 150 art schools across the UK. Most of them have now either closed or been absorbed into larger higher education institutions, their buildings repurposed, remodelled or demolished.

Since 2009, writer John Beck and artist Matthew Cornford have been tracking down the locations of British art schools and photographing these places as they are today. Sometimes the original buildings remain, sometimes they are in transition as building sites and sometimes supermarkets or (as in Rochdale) car parks have taken their place.

Seeking out the sites of art schools is partly a simple act of retrieval; there is no single, readily-available account that tells the history of all the provincial art schools. Aside from this cataloguing process, however, the project has also turned into a much broader investigation into the value of arts in society and how this has changed from past to present. As Beck asks, ‘Are the art schools heritage, history, resources or ruins? Are they just bits of an old order that is no longer relevant, or are they markers of a lost utopian moment where state-funded arts education could take root and help shape towns and cities all over the country?’

In this gallery, we present the photographs taken by Beck and Cornford of art school sites in the North West of England, once an integral aspect of the creative life of the region. The aim is to celebrate and reflect on the prominent place they once held – both actual and imagined – but also to consider the future state of arts education and the transformational role creativity can play in all our lives. Indeed, it is interesting to think about the creative rediscovery that has taken place during the pandemic.

Hear writer John Beck and artist Matthew Cornford talk more about the origins, process and impact of their project:

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Below is a selection of Beck and Cornford’s photographs.
All images courtesy of John Beck and Matthew Cornford

Your Space

Towards a more inclusive creative future

For much of the second half of the twentieth century following the 1962 Education Act, higher education was free for full-time, resident students. This made it possible for people from all walks of life to study at universities and art schools.

Over the last twenty years, however, with the introduction in 1998 tuition fees and their ongoing increase, access to art education and, by extension, to a career in the creative industries, has become far more exclusive. While people from lower socio-economic backgrounds make up 35% of the working population, recent research* has indicated that they represent only 12% of those working in film, TV, video, radio and photography; 13% in publishing; 18% in music, performing and visual arts; and 21% in museums, galleries and libraries. The lack of diverse voices within these realms ultimately narrows the forms that culture takes, limiting the issues and subjects it addresses and reducing its relevance to a broad section of society.

Over recent decades, in response to a variety of issues, including tuition fees, educational reforms, and funding cuts to adult education services that would previously have been provided through community centres, various forms of alternative education have emerged across the UK and internationally.

To try to offer new paths into creative careers, new models for art education have sprung up, and in this room we present just a few examples of these. The people involved have recognised and positively embraced the diverse cultural experiences and exchanges that help bring communities together. From the Islington Mill Art Academy, here in the North West, to the online platform of the Work Show Grow School, each provides food for thought – which is the very point of this ‘think-tank’ space.

Islington Mill Art Academy (IMAA), Salford, Greater Manchester

Founded in 2007 in response to rising higher education tuition fees, IMAA is a peer-led, free art school at Islington Mill artist studios. Welcoming anyone who wants to be an artist, students drive their own learning through workshops, residencies, coaching and projects, and become artists via self-discovery and experiential gain rather than formal assessment. Students meet weekly and are encouraged to ‘graduate’ when they feel ready.
For more information, click here

Open School East (OSE), Margate, Kent

A free, independent art school and community space that focuses on collective learning, OSE supports early career cultural practitioners to develop and sustain their practice. Young people and adults learn new and transferable skills, develop their confidence and shape their creative voice by being active learners in, and co-producers of, the School’s programmes. Originally founded in 2013 in Hackney, East London, the school moved to Margate in 2017.
For more information, click here

Cultural Community College (CCC), Slung Low, Holbeck, Leeds

CCC started out as a programme providing opportunities outside of formal education and training and has grown into a community of members who decide, and sometimes lead, the programme. Since 2018 they’ve offered an array of courses for adults, from basic life-skills such as CPR to creative hobbies, including vegetarian cookery and pewter casting. Courses are priced on a  ‘pay what you decide’ basis and before being advertised to the general public they are offered exclusively to local residents.
For more information, click here

Work Show Grow School, Online

Having started as an online art education platform in 2018, Work Show Grow established itself two years later as a school to provide access to experts in the creative industries, through mentorship, workshops and critique sessions, alongside an online showcase of member’s work. The school offers a monthly, quarterly or annual subscription at a small fraction of university tuition fees. The school is led and founded by artist and educator Natasha Caruana.
For more information, click here

Get involved!

For the duration of the ‘Harmony, Contrast & Discord’ exhibition, we are staging a free programme of workshops, classes, talks and discussions delivered online and in-person** by a range of makers and thinkers.

To find out more and/or to book a session, click here to view What’s On