It was a great day for me when I was accepted by the Slade School in London and was awarded a special grant by the Drummond Foundation for the further education of Bradford Grammar School boys. I had never stayed in London before or seen any of the galleries and museums. So in the summer before I was due to join the Slade I went with Mother and some of the family to stay in a flat belonging to some friends who exchanged it for a holiday in our cottage in Ilkley. My lodgings had to be arranged and after that, I was free to ramble round the galleries.
Quite naturally I spent a lot of time in the Tate Gallery looking at the Turners which I had read so much about. I was not disappointed though some of them were difficult to see, a layer of yellow varnish and glass over The Shipwreck and Calais Pier in particular. These two early works, in which the structure of water and disposition of weight predominate were those I wished to study. Fortunately they have recently been cleaned and show colour which was not apparent before.
At the National Gallery there was a large painting on loan which made a great impression on me. It was Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral with Thunder Storm Clearing Up. I had never before seen a picture in which one really seemed to be standing in the landscape and the clouds were overhead. The magnificent sky perhaps one of the finest ever painted, was like a cauldron and one could sense the reverberations of receding thunder. John Crome and Rembrandt were my other favourites and when we got home again I began to design my pictures more deliberately and in fact composed my first figure composition which was a large Crucifixion with a group of figures at the foot of the cross in the manner of Tintoretto. I also took some quite large canvases onto the moors in the early morning before the flies and people were abroad. I worked very hard on these, attempting to achieve greater solidity in construction. They were almost in monochrome and very low in tone.
The Slade was a great disappointment to me. I don’t quite know what I expected to find but I probably thought there would be a lot of young men talking about painting. Strangely enough it was never mentioned in my hearing by anyone during my first term. I was put into the antique room among a crowd of giggling girls and hardly received a visit from any instructor. I did no painting there, no still life or composition classes. Towards the end of term when I was most profoundly depressed, Professor Tonks came up to me and said 'Why aren’t you in the life class?' I was only too glad to go.
I found the high throne or platform on which the model stood very disconcerting after a while. The feet were on one’s eye level so that all the rest of the figure was foreshortened. This was interesting for drawing sections but I longed to see the feet on the floor and the possibility of drawing the figure in space and related to something.
What I saw of the painting in the school horrified me; all smooth gradations of tone without a sign of any colour and completely lacking in vitality. I decided I wouldn’t paint there and kept on with drawing. Professor Tonks was very kind to me. I heard him occasionally dispensing his famous withering remarks to other students but I was spared them. He once again asked me 'Why aren’t you painting?' to which I simply replied that I wanted to draw. As drawing was the one thing he believed in I knew he would not pester me any more.
I seem to remember that a student couldn’t join the so-called Sketch Club until he had been a year at the Slade. Once a month, this club held a show of compositions painted out of school.
A criticism was given by Professor Tonks or another instructor and about three prizes of a guinea each were awarded, I contributed regularly to these showings and usually attempted to do one of the compositions set, such as The Flood, The Last Supper etc. I was very astonished when I was awarded first prize for a figure composition. I sent in a landscape or two and one of these called forth the only memorable saying by Professor Tonks 'This student is being influenced by painters who have not been dead long enough to be respectable'. I had found Cezanne. Tonks could not understand Cezanne. He said he was just flat 'and that’s that.' I thought this remark very amusing at the time and still do but for different reasons. I thought I was being rather clever and Tonks rather stupid. I think I was quite right to study Cezanne as long as I was studying the right thing. On the other hand Tonks was quite right in that students should study the very earliest paintings to learn the rudiments of design and clarity of vision.
During my last term I was awarded a prize every month which was very gratifying, I was astonished to hear many years later that two very distinguished fellow students still remember these individual works.
I must confess that I played truant a good deal during my second year but I do not regret it as I was employing the time mostly at the British Museum. I made drawings of archaic Greek sculptures in the cast room and gazed on the Elgin Marbles many a time having drawn casts of them in school so often. But there were the Egyptian sculptures and Etruscan groups of tremendous vitality and the Indian reliefs on the stairs. I was also doing a little carving myself. The need to construct something and to feel it growing in one’s hand has always been strong in me and I think it was this that led me to a way of painting which I still adhere to though with some modifications. That is, never to sketch a subject in in a generalised way but to start where the germ of the design lies, painting it in full paint and colour as though modelling or carving, and then allowing the rest of the painting to follow, relating everything to the initial form.
I was also going to those wonderful institutions, lunch time organ recitals. The organ works of Bach were being played in their entirety at Christchurch, Westminster, now destroyed. The Fleet Street Choir was also at this time trying out the works of Tye, Tallis, Taverner, Byrd and Gibbons. My previous experience of the Sistine Choir with Palestrina and Lassus had made me aware of the store of music in Tudor times but I hadn’t dreamed of the wealth that has been revealed to us during the last twenty years
There was also Shakespeare at the Old Vic where Edith Evans and other now famous actors and actresses were appearing. To see Anthony and Cleopatra for a few pence from the gallery was good value indeed. The gallery was populated by 'regulars' and it was worth going to be in their company. There was an old man in a cloth cap who was always there and invariably had a bundle of firewood under his arm to which he clung throughout the performance. There was the young man in the bow tie who in the interval carried about ten cups of tea stacked one above the other to his adoring girlfriends. The audience was a motley crowd but they had one thing in common and that was that they had come to see Shakespeare. There was no applause when a favourite actor came on to the stage or anything to hold up the action and flow of poetry. In fact we were all taking part in the performance and that is how it should be.
John Bickerdike the sculptor and his wife had both come to London before me and as it was possible to be very lonely in such a large city, their company and greater experience were of untold value to me. There were three concerts we managed to get to in as many years which stand out as musical landmarks. First, a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion conducted by Vaughan Williams at the People’s Palace, Mile End Road. Stewart Wilson sang the Evangelist recitatives and Keith Faulkner sang the Christ music as I have never heard it sung since.
The second concert was in truth a series lasting a week; performances of all the Beethoven String Quartets by the London String Quartet. One can hardly say anything about these wonderful works but having got to know them from gramophone records, they are a possession which can never be taken away.
The other concert was a piano recital in Queen’s Hall. It was the first appearance in this country of Artur Schnabel. The programme consisted of two or three Schubert Impromptus and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The hall was packed. It was really a most moving sight to see this stocky little man with a countenance that never changed expression, commanding that attention and respect. I can still see him as he sat gazing into space playing the variation which consists of a few progressions of slow chords. The chords seemed miraculously sustained and he appeared to be listening to them attentively as he pushed his hands into the keyboard as though the strings were an extension of his fingers, as with a clavichord player.
There were other landmarks such as the Rima panel row. It is extraordinary to think now of the anger that Epstein’s fine carving as a memorial to W.H.Hudson in the bird sanctuary at Hyde Park, brought forth. Students at the Slade signed petitions in its favour as letters signed by celebrities both for and against appeared in the press. There were many who blamed the Labour Government and our old friend Fred Jowett of Bradford, was the Minister for Works who had passed the design. John Bickerdike and I went to see Epstein and it was then by the light of a candle, that we had a preview of the masterpiece known as The Visitation which he was working on.
These were the highlights of my student days at the Slade.