London’s grooviest art school is leaving the bright lights for the wide open spaces two miles north of their historic manor, where the impoverished Marx wrote Das Kapital and Hazlitt the finest essays in English, and the painter Francis Bacon was a founding member of the Colony Room, a notorious watering hole for misfits. Can our savviest creative spirits really thrive once uprooted from Soho’s 300-year heritage, its dissenters, eccentrics, streetlife and dens of inquity?
❚ AT MIDNIGHT LAST NIGHT, before an artsy audience spanning many generations, Jarvis Cocker and Pulp were bashing out their hit song Common People in the heart of his ramshackle old college, St Martin’s School of Art, as it was still called in 1988 when he met that girl made famous by its lyrics. While he studied film-making, she seemingly “studied sculpture”. The song says she came from Greece and her Dad was loaded, yet she wanted to slum it by going to live in down-at-heel Hackney. Jarvis explained years later: “It stuck in my mind what she was saying — that she wanted to sleep with common people like me.”
Common People has become much more than an anthem for Jarvis’s generation. Everybody knows the words and the 800 former St Martin’s graduates — gathered to bid farewell to their alma mater as it leaves Soho for King’s Cross — erupted into a riotous sing-along, because those lyrics are stiff with truths that aren’t entirely universal, but they are, or were, peculiarly British. What we now know is that, in real life, Jarvis hardly knew the girl and in the end they didn’t get it together, but what the encounter had triggered in him was an awareness about class differences in our society that, as a lad from Oop North, even at age 25, he’d been oblivious to: that she would always have Daddy to help her “never fail”.
The definitive song of the Britpop era begins as satire but ends in anger. In deeply felt rage. As with the socially mobile 60s, this was the edginess in the 80s that divided British society and in our art schools sparked tangible creative tension, when talented working-class lads came up against genteel gals from the moneyed middle-classes, especially those on the smartest degree course for fashion in the land. Many posh parents saw this as an alternative kind of finishing school, yet the sloganeering designer Katharine Hamnett tells fashion historian Judith Watt in a forthcoming film documentary about St Martin’s, directed by Oleg Mitrofanov: “I actually had to change the way I spoke because I’d come from public school and nobody would take me seriously.”
Why the Blitz Club became the potent subcultural melting pot that it did in 1979 was down to its geography — located midway between St Martin’s on Charing Cross Road, and Central School of Art & Design in Holborn, in the no-man’s land between the then trendily refurbished market area of Covent Garden and the sleazy, yet always cool red-light district of Soho. As one early 80s fashion graduate reminds us: “Essentially, the Blitz was an art students’ club.” Then into their midst, lured by new music, came the working-class soulboys and girls who were themselves several sharp steps ahead of their own class for style. Naked one-up-manship inflamed ambitions all round.
The pole position of St Martin’s has been reconfirmed with each generation of graduates who become household names: from Frank Auerbach and Joe Tilson, Lucian Freud and James Dyson, Terence Conran and his son Sebastian, Isaac Julien and Belinda Eaton, Bruce Oldfield and John Galliano, to Stella McCartney and Sarah Burton who stepped into Alexander McQueen’s shoes following his sudden death.
Through the 60s and 70s, both under Anthony Caro’s tutorship then in revolt against it, abstract sculpture had been St Martin’s strength, but with the 80s the fashion department responded to the force of Britain’s subversive street style which was exciting the international media. The impact of alumni such as Jacques Azagury with his New Romantics collection made London Fashion Week an essential stop-over for the fashion world’s globetrotting commentariat.
Is the old Soho alchemy about to lose its magic? Last night’s party for alumni was organised by one of them, Birmingham-reared Katie Grand, stylist and editor of Love magazine and coincidentally partner of Pulp’s bass player, Steve Mackey. It was a generous and fitting farewell to the shabby seven-storey building on Charing Cross Road that has blazed as the beacon among London’s half-dozen undergrad art schools for the past 50 years. Though technically St Martin’s School of Art (founded 1854) merged with Central School of Art and Design (founded 1896) two decades ago, only now does the resultant Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design have a purpose-built new home to house its 3,800 staff and students — two miles away from the life of spice that energises Soho.
Not for nothing did the anarchic Sex Pistols choose to play their first gig at St Martin’s in November 1975. GQ editor Dylan Jones, who graduated in 1980, told The Independent a while back: “We were 400 yards from the 100 Club, 200 yards from the Marquee, and a mere spit from the Cambridge, which is the pub everyone used to congregate in before they went onstage — the Pistols, the Clash, Adam and the Ants… St Martin’s at the time felt like the most exciting place on earth, not just because of all the wonderful painters, designers and boulevardiers who had studied there, but also because it was central to the whole punk explosion.”
So will the renegade artistic heritage that evolved with the growth of Soho over 300 years become somehow dissipated? Britain’s most visible sculptor Antony Gormley, another St Martin’s graduate, made a case more detached from bricks and mortar in Wednesday’s Guardian: “The place stands for a certain anarchic idea of permanent revolution – of every generation overturning the orthodoxies of the previous one.” Indeed, from the stage in the old St Martin’s studio last night, Jarvis Cocker capped his anthemic song by criticising the government’s introduction of £9,000 annual student fees that are bound to deter new generations of common people from even considering art school. He then indicated the walls of the buliding, and said, “It’s not about THIS … It’s about THAT”, pointing at the heaving dance-floor.
Which seems to suggest that the spirit of the age will ultimately trump any spirit of place. Aha! Germanic Zeitgeist versus the classical genius loci. Discuss.
HOW TO TEACH THE UNTEACHABLE
❏ SOME OF US WHO were later required to recruit new talent in our workplaces learnt a novel lesson in 1970 by watching a compelling BBC documentary shot at St Martin’s. How do you assess somebody for a creative job which has few boundaries and rests heavily on self-reliance? Invite them to an interview, don’t say a word and see how they react! Such was the inspiration yielded by Christopher Burstall’s documentary A Question of Feeling, which observed a dozen first-year sculpture students including Richard Deacon who were locked in an empty studio and not allowed to speak. Each was given one particular material — a block of polystyrene, say, or a bag of plaster. They were left to deduce for themselves that these were raw materials with which to work, without critical feedback, despite their tutors’ constant surveillance.
The experiment known as “The Locked Room” came in response to the prevailing trend towards non-objective art, itself a reaction to Anthony Caro’s giant abstract works in steel, all of which posed the problem of how you set about teaching conceptual art. This was a bold attempt to erase tradition. Tutor Peter Kardia said: “I wanted to put them in an experiential situation where they couldn’t grasp what they were doing. What I wanted was ‘existence before essence’.”
ELEGIES ON LAST NIGHT’S EXODUS
❏ JUDITH WATT, fashion historian who has taught the history of fashion and writing to Fashion Communication and Promotion BAs since 1998, reports:
“Most current students were not invited to the party; so it was helpers — many my lovely students — and those who graduated this June. It was a shame, as students are so much of what makes up St Martin’s unique character (with the added magic dust of some staff). There was a mix in terms of the alumni, but so many of the youngsters have no idea about those important days of the late 70s to the mid-1980s, when St Martin’s was the beating heart of British fashion and style; who the people were, or the magic uniqueness of it. Stephen Linard was there, and I thought of how many of my students have xeroxed pictures of him and his work from The Face, i-D and Blitz but didn’t know he was in their midst. Which spoke volumes about them, and the hideous metamorphosis of fashion, not him.
“John Galliano (obviously) was not there but homages of all kinds to him were graffiteed on the walls. I saw Dean Bright, Jacques Azagury, Ninevah Khomo, Claire Angel, Paddy Whitaker and Keir Malem, Christopher Brown, Andrew Groves, David Kappo, Tristan Webber, the lovely Christopher Kane. Sadly not there were Fiona Dealey, Rifat Ozbek, John McKitterick, Ike Rust, John Maybury, Simon Ungless, and, of course, Amanda Lear. Great line up really … Most asked-about former tutor was Bobby Hillson, who set up the MA Fashion course and was the person who arranged for Lee McQueen to enroll as a student and who supported him in those early days. She was sadly not there … and was sorely missed.
“Jarvis Cocker hit just the right note … it’s a long time since St Martin’s has felt like an art college to me — and last night it did again. Pulp playing Common People was particularly apt, as of course it’s the thread that binds so many of the people who make up the subversive British music and style underground. With the fees now at around £9,000 a year, that may be a lot more difficult to find.”
❏ HOW TO DRESS FOR A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME PARTY — Fashion note by Stephen Linard (class of ’81, pictured above):
“That suit is a one off from 1990, silk rep candy stripes, to my own design. I was the belle of the ball. Etro print shirt, Drake’s linen madras check scarf, printed pastel paisley hank, lime-green suede Paul Smith Hush Puppies.”
❏ Kay Barron, FCP/CSM graduate, reports at Grazia Daily:
“Everyone regressed to their student selves. In fact some (sorry) became even younger when Pulp took to the stage. I would like to apologise for pushing, screaming and bouncing on people’s feet like a 16-year-old as Jarvis (an ex-student himself) wiggled his way through Disco 2000, Sorted for Es and Whizz, Misfits and Common People (natch). They have never sounded better.
“This party was as legendary as the college. Beyond any fashion party, as no-one was putting on airs and graces, everyone was relaxed and felt bloody lucky to be there.
“St Martin’s is bigger than a building. Give it a year or two and the spanking new building in King’s Cross will be as rough around the edges as CXR, and another 72 years of creative genius will be shaped there. And there will be 800 new alumni enjoying Absolut cocktails, and drawing obscenities on the wall — really, all that talent, and penises are still the illustration of choice!”
❏ Iain R Webb, CSM professor of fashion, reveals all about his 1970s soulmates at the Harper’s Bazaar blog, and puts Friday’s bash in perspective:
“The Farewell to Fashion at Charing Cross Road party was a strange cocktail (fuelled by lashings of Absolut vodka) of nostalgic sad tidings and glittering ecstasies. Past generations of graduates, from Swing Out Sister’s Corinne Drewery (who DJ’d in the Illustration studio) to Katie’s ex-classmate Giles Deacon, rubbed shoulder pads with the current cohort and a Sex Pistol — Glen Matlock, who along with the original Pistols line-up played their first gig at St Martin’s. Dressed up to the nines (and tens in some cases — the boy in the gold knitted dress that unravelled as the evening wore on), the colourful crowd (who says fashion folk only wear black?) displayed a flagrantly flamboyant individuality that is the very lifeblood of the college and has played no mean part in the success of its alumni who have over the decades become big players on both sides of the catwalk.
“The St Martin’s media mafia still fills the international front rows, Twitter on about trends and play dress-up with popstars and supermodels. The party on Friday night was an appropriately loud, glittering and bumptious, sexy and downright messy affair. Confirmation of the enduring talent born out of St Martin’s School of Art.”
❏ CHRISTOS TOLERA, painter, musician and not a former student, who nevertheless idled many away teenage hours in the St Martin’s cafe, reports:
“Pulp started with Misfit and ended with Common People which I listened to in the rain from Charing X Rd as I left. If I was 22 I think I would have thought it was one of the best gigs ever. Jarvis was charming in between songs and had presence but was drowned out during the enthusiastic performance.
“However the energy in the room was palpable and reminded me of the olden days, of gigs in warehouse spaces and a certain abandon rarely seen in these overly organised and calculated times. I left because I wasn’t drunk and had seen enough. It made me feel old. I didn’t really have anyone with me who was looking through the same eyes, seeing what I was seeing. There was something quite romantic about listening to the last song from under an umbrella on the street, with no one really aware that the very audible racket coming from the first-floor window was actually Pulp and not a dodgy covers band.
“All in all I found it sad. Not the band but the memory of me as a 17-year-old hanging out in the cafe at St Martin’s thinking I’d arrived only to find out I was just passing through like the rest of us. My night was summed up when the girls in the cloakroom asked why I was there and I told them I’d modelled in a seminal show (Stephen Linard’s) there in 1980. ‘Oh, that was nine years before I was born’…”
HELLO TO THE SPECTACULAR NEW UNIVERSITY CAMPUS BESIDE THE CANAL AT KING’S CROSS
❏ THIS WEEK marks the end of an era, as CSM leaves its two buildings in central London and moves to a new premises in King’s Cross, just across the road from The Guardian. The move won’t be welcomed by Professor Louise Wilson, legendary course director of MA fashion, who believes that the very grottiness of the Charing Cross Road building has helped drive her students – from McQueen to Christopher Kane – to succeed. “You feel that you’re better than this corridor,” she says. “In the new building you want to hide…”