One of Britain’s oldest independent art schools celebrates its 170th anniversary
The Heatherley School of Fine Art, one of Britain’s oldest independent art schools and the first art school to admit women on an equal footing as men, celebrates its 170th anniversary in 2015. Founded in 1845, the School counts John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Sickert, Roland Penrose, EH Sheppard, Franz Kline and, more recently, illustrator Posy Simmonds among its alumni. Alfred Gilbert, who sculpted one of London’s most iconic statues, Piccadilly Circus’s Eros, also attended Heatherley’s.
Today Heatherley’s is among the very few art colleges in Britain to offer a strong emphasis on the skills and techniques of portraiture and figurative painting, sculpture, illustration and printmaking. Each year around 700 students take part in 40 full and part-time courses led by 50 practising artists. Courses include full-time two-year diplomas in sculpture and portrait painting, for which Heatherley’s awards student bursaries, as well as open studio life model classes. Tutors and students frequently show their work in museum and gallery exhibitions including the BP National Portrait Gallery Award and with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.
A year of celebratory events to mark the 170th anniversary begins on 29 January with an exhibition opened by award-winning filmmaker and current Heatherley’s student, Sir Alan Parker CBE. The exhibition of 40 Heatherley tutors’ work at the Bankside Gallery will include work by Allan Ramsay, winner of the 1988 John Player Portrait Award and Melissa Scott-Miller, winner of the 2008 Lynn Painter-Stainers Award.
Filmmaker Sir Alan Parker CBE said: ’I have so enjoyed my time at Heatherley’s. Such lovely people in a great place: it’s been most inspirational.’
In March, a display of photographs from Heatherley’s archives will be complemented by a talk on the Victorian art world by Alison Smith, curator of Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in 2012. Later in the year topics of discussion will consider the landscape of art school education in Britain today as well as women’s experiences of art education and as practising artists.
Heatherley’s teaches traditional techniques with access to the life model in natural or well-lit studio spaces and in small classes with intensive one-to-one tuition. This is in contrast to the autodidactic and theoretical environment found in universities offering fine art degrees. Heatherley’s offers courses where traditional painting, printmaking and sculpture skills are highly valued and complement current contemporary art practice. In recent years, Heatherley students have sculpted work for a Turner Prize artist and made the first London statue of a black woman.
Veronica Ricks, Principal of The Heatherley School of Fine Art, said: “The UK offers some of the best and most diverse art teaching in the world in its art colleges and universities. As Heatherley’s celebrates its 170th year, it is also celebrating the continuing relevance and importance of what are often considered traditional ways of making art whether painting a portrait in oils or sculpting a figure in clay.”
Heatherley’s is open to adults of all ages and provides a stimulating environment in which to make art with the guidance and support of professional artist tutors. There are courses for both career artists and those making art purely for pleasure. Many courses offer access to professional models. The School is a not-for-profit organisation run by The Thomas Heatherley Educational Trust and running costs are currently met entirely through course fees. The School does not receive funding from local or national government. By expanding the School’s fundraising activities Heatherley’s will be able to offer more student bursaries and ensure that its teaching remains of the highest standard. In 2015, Heatherley’s will launch a painting award that will raise funds for the Thomas Heatherley Educational Trust in order to support artists under 26 studying at Heatherley’s.
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History of The Heatherley School of Art
Artist James Matthews Leigh became the first Principal of Heatherley’s in 1845, followed by his assistant Thomas Heatherley in 1860. From the beginning the School, whose teaching style was similar to the French atelier system, focused on depicting the human form and studies of human anatomy lined the walls. Students drew from antique casts, life models and dissected cadavers. That tradition continues today with the Open Studio life model classes. For much of the last 170 years Heatherley’s has been an important part of the London art scene. In the first half of the twentieth century, its students regularly contributed to the infamous Chelsea Art Balls at the Royal Albert Hall, and the Heatherley’s annual fancy dress ball also earned notoriety.
Heatherley’s diploma courses are an alternative to a BA degree. Other courses facilitate the development of an art portfolio that might lead to further study. The latter, particularly, goes back to Heatherley’s founding roots. Initially it acted as an unofficial prep school for entry to the Royal Academy Schools. 77 students were accepted between 1846 and 1861. In 1848, Heatherley’s was the first art school to admit women on an equal footing with men and almost all successful nineteenth-century women artists attended the School. They included Laura Hertford, who in 1860, was the first woman to be admitted to the RA Schools.
In the 1960s, as state-funded free art education became increasingly easy to access and non-figurative forms of art more prevalent, Heatherley’s position began to wane and the School was bought by a publishing company who in 1969 attempted to close it completely. Saved by the joint efforts of its staff, particularly John Walton RP, who served as Principal from 1974 to 2013, Heatherley’s was rebuilt and is currently located in a purpose-built home on Lots Road, Chelsea.