Taking stock: The Perfect Place to Grow at the Royal College of Art

The Perfect Place to Grow - RCA - 2012 view1

David Mach, Spike, 2011

How time flies! When I was a student at the Royal College of Art it celebrated its centenary. That the college is now celebrating its 175th anniversary either means that I am a lot older than I thought or that the powers that be at the RCA can’t count. Or that they really like big birthdays. As it turns out, it’s this last option that sees the college celebrating 175 years as an art school a mere sixteen years after celebrating its centenary: the then Government School of Design was founded in 1837, becoming the National Art Training School in 1863 and the Royal College of Art in 1896.

The exhibition charts the history of what is apparently the world’s oldest art and design school in continuous operation and it’s an illustrious and fascinating history. Given the pool of alumni (and staff, past and present) from which the curators could select work, there were always going to be surprises both in terms of inclusions and omissions but this is a show that amply demonstrates the impact of RCA alumni on our cultural and day to day lives.

Tracey Emin's The Perfect Place to Grow in the RCA exhibition of the same name

Tracey Emin, The Perfect Place to Grow, 2001

The exhibition takes its title from a work by Tracey Emin, who famously said “the best thing about the Royal College of Art was receiving that letter saying that I got in, and after that it went downhill” though she does now acknowledge the college’s role in shaping her practice. Gavin Turk’s Cave – the work for which he was failed in 1991 – is also in the show, loaned by the artist who would still quite like that his MA. David Hockney, who also didn’t get his diploma at the time but who has since been awarded an honorary doctorate three decades later, is represented by work from the RCA collection. These are paintings it’s great to see again; for my money some of Hockey’s best work was made during his years at the RCA.

David Hockney, Thrust (1962) and Going to Be Queen For Tonight (1960)

David Hockney, Composition (Thrust), 1962 and Going to be Queen for Tonight, 1960

There are also works here made by the likes of Chris Ofili and George Shaw as postgraduate students as well as more recent work by an interesting array of artists from the last 175 years. There’s a lot to take in here though inevitably there are also surprising omissions and inclusions and it’s hard to avoid re-curating the show in one’s head. (David Mach’s Spike – a sculpture of a cheetah made from wire coat-hangars – in the centre of the historical timeline is a curious inclusion for me.)

The first gallery gives an historical overview that puts the RCA into a wider context. This provides a fascinating timeline and means that it’s clear from the start the degree to which the RCA permeates our visual culture. Coupled with the final space which includes key designs, by students, alumni and staff, that we now take for granted – like the adjustable hospital bed, motorway signs or James Dyson’s ballbarrow – making a clear point not just about the importance of the RCA but about the need to foster creativity in art and design for the sake of us all. A healthy art and design culture has far-reaching benefits in improving our lives in ways that aren’t always obvious; without art in the school curriculum, art education in Britain, widely recognised internationally as extraordinary, will suffer – even in the most competitive institutions like the RCA.

Given that, as the Government School of Design, the college was founded to raise design standards in Britain as the process of industrialisation was getting underway, it’s an apposite time for the college to be taking stock and highlighting its importance as a place for both artists and designers to study and reminding this government that their predecessors nearly two centuries ago showed great foresight. Given the threat to art education in this country at the moment with the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at university level and the effective removal of art from the school curriculum that is set to accompany the arrival of the EBacc this is a point it’s impossible to over-emphasise and in a way one I’d like to see the RCA making even more explicitly.

The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art continues until 3 January at the RCA, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU

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