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Art & Design in Wolverhampton 1850-1970 Featured in Exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery
School Art Building.

WOLVERHAMPTON.- A new exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery traces the development of the Wolverhampton School of Art and the influential role it held in the advancement of art & design in Wolverhampton. Traced – Art & Design in Wolverhampton 1850-1970 is a new permanent exhibition profiling the success of the art school and its celebrated alumni alongside other key Wolverhampton artists of the time.

Early advancements in the provision of art teaching for Wolverhampton workers came with the creation of the Mechanics’ Institute in 1827. Local industrialists provided financial backing but the Institute failed to offer specialist art education to artisans from the local manufacturing industries. More appropriate developments emerged under the influence of leading local figures including Charles B. Mander and George Wallis who organised the country’s first art and manufacture exhibition in Wolverhampton in the late 1930’s to promote competition and encourage inventive design.

It wasn’t until 1851 that a small school of art opened in Castle Street, Wolverhampton. This was in direct response to the success of the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace which renewed calls for the creation of a school specialising in the teaching of artistic, design and technical. It was hoped this would facilitate competiveness between Wolverhampton industries and their foreign counterparts through the manufacture of high quality goods.

The success of this small school led to the creation of a new Government Art School, a striking building which stood until the construction of the Wolverhampton ring road in 1969.

The school operated but following growing demand a new Municipal School of Art was formed. It was located on Wulfruna Street next to the newly built Municipal Art Gallery and launched the start of a close relationship with this art institution. The Municipal School of Art opened on June 21st, 1885.

Classes ranged from life drawing, embroidery and leatherwork to sculpture, metal work and enamelling on copper. The exceptional standard of teaching delivered became nationally recognised and none more so than that of Robert Jackson Emerson (1878-1944). He joined the school as Second Master in 1910 and continued to inspire students there for over thirty years. Many of his students went on to have successful careers and four won the coveted Prix de Rome; Cecil `Atri’ Brown (1928), Thomas Bayliss Huxley-Jones (1934), Geoffrey Deeley (1935) and Albert Pountney (1938) and Sir Charles Wheeler (1892-1974).

The influence of the school on the development of Wolverhampton artists is clearly demonstrated in an exhibition of 1944 held at the Art Gallery. It displayed works exhibited at the Royal Academy by Wolverhampton artists and all but a few were connected to the school. These included Emerson, Wheeler, William Sidney Causer, Mary Gibson and Reginald St. Clair Marston.

Official recognition for the school’s achievements was granted in 1950 when it attained College status. On receiving this grade the Chairman of the Wolverhampton Education Committee, Alderman J. Clark, announced that the college was now “really on the map”.

The impressive sculpture school continued to thrive with teachers such as Stanley Wright, John Paddison, Ron Dutton and Roy Kitchin all providing encouragement to students. Pam Brown, a former student between 1964 and 1967, remembers that the “sense of freedom of what you could aim for was immense”. She and her husband, Roy Kitchin, went on to start the Ironbridge Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, in 1991. Other students graduating during the 1960’s were Vaughn Grylls, who later become the Dean of the School of Art & Design at the University of Wolverhampton, Glynn Williams became Head of Fine Art at the Royal College of Art and Bilston born Michael Lyons, a founder member of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

In 1961, the College of Art received approval for a new building, work on the building started in 1966 and completed in 1969. The School of Art & Design continues to thrive and possesses impressive alumni including artists Cornelia Parker, Anish Kapoor and Tim Mara.

The creativity of the art school can be seen today as you walk around the City of Wolverhampton through a number of prominent examples. Lady Wulfruna, by Sir Charles Wheeler stands tall outside the entrance to St. Peter’s Church. nearby is the Harris Memorial, created by RJ Emerson in memory of Douglas Morris Harris, a brave Wolverhampton born seaman killed in the First World War. On Queen Street, the winged figure of Mercury and symbol of the local Express & Star newspaper stands above the entrance to its offices.

Traced – Art & Design in Wolverhampton 1850-1970 opened on 15 January 2011 at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. View sculptures, oil paintings and watercolours by former teachers and students from our collection together with associated ephemera and recorded memories. Alongside these works you can enjoy artwork by other key local artists such as Edwin Butler Bayliss, A. E. Cooper and iconic photographs of old Wolverhampton by photographers Bennett Clarke.

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