Exterior of the Dyson building on Battersea Bridge Road. Image © Philip Vile.
The Royal College of Arts is celebrating its 175th anniversary, a milestone that marks it out as the oldest art and design school in the world. Founded in 1837 under Prime Minister Lord Melbourne as the Government School of Design, it was created to train young people in ceramics, textiles and ornamental crafts for British manufacturing, and incorporated photography into its courses early on. But the medium didn't acquire its own department until 1968, which, as Rector Dr Paul Thompson of the college admits, "is quite late when you think where the States was at that time." Photography was also part of the School of Communication for a long time, as Professor Olivier Richon, who leads the current photography MA, points out. He studied photography at the Polytechnic of Central London under Victor Burgin in the 1970s, and says that, at that point, "it would not have occurred to me to go to the Royal College to study photography because it was all editorial."
These days things are very different, and the RCA is generally considered to be the place to go in the UK if you're an aspiring art photographer, as the success of the graduates of its MA course attests. Richon credits this year's Deutsche Börse Photography Prize winner John Stezaker as a key figure in "setting up the Royal College as a place for art photography", even though he never taught in the department [he was in critical and historical studies in the School of Humanities from 1991-2008]. Peter Kennard, still a senior tutor in the photography department, carried on the good work, but by the time Richon took over the department in 1997, there was some way to go.
Women's Life Modeling Class, c.1905. Image © Royal College of Art Archive.
"By then photography was in the School of Fine Arts, but the students on the course were a mixed bag," he says. "We tried to do something else, to mix educational backgrounds" - fine art BAs and photography - so they could learn from one another. We don't have anything against editorial photography, it's just I don't know how to teach that - there are other institutions that do it very well. Plus, I think that at MA level for two years, people should be in their own world."
The MA is unusual in that it lasts for two years full time, which for Richon is the optimum length of time, and there is no part-time option available. But, with fees at £9000 per year for EU students and £27,000 for those from the rest of the world, he says the number of applications is down. Although the RCA lost £1m in public funding from 2010-12 (down from £14,496,000 to £13,479,000), however, it is still better off than some, attracting donations from alumni such as James Dyson, who put £5m towards a new photography and printmaking building. And, if all else fails, it has a world-class collection of art. The college sold a Francis Bacon for £8m in 2007, for example, putting the money towards an expanded campus in Battersea (where the £21m Dyson Building is located). This campus houses painting and sculpture, as well as photography and printmaking, and the ceramics and glass-making departments will soon join them.
Developed by architects Haworth Tompkins, it's a mixture of new buildings and redeveloped factories and, for Richon, it's a welcome change from the RCA's older Kensington home. "I think this area is much more creative," he says. "The architects' idea was to refer to art-making as production, and it shows - the building is not a visual statement. It's very functional." BJP
Gallery space in the Dyson building. Image © Philip Vile.
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