Saturday, 30 July 2011

Thomas Ablett at BGS

As promised in ‘Ability to draw’:

Thomas Robert Ablett (1848-1945) lived long enough to see great changes in the nature of art education. As a young man he taught art at Bradford Grammar School and, choosing to depart from the contemporary practice of hard outline drawing in pencil, encouraged the children to draw freely from memory and imagination, maintaining that the so-called Freehand Drawing of the Department of Science and Art was not freehand at all, but rather attempted geometrical drawing without instruments. His success at Bradford led to his appointment to the London School Board in 1882.

In 1888 Ablett read a paper to the Society of Arts on drawing as a means of education, and he was encouraged in that year to found the Drawing Society. Lord Leighton, Holman Hunt, Lewis Carroll, Sir John Tenniel, Viscount Bryce and Lord Baden-Powell were early supporters ; and Princess Louise, the artist daughter of Queen Victoria, was the Society's president from its inception to her death in 1939....

Ablett also organized graded art examinations and, by this means and by its exhibitions, the Society has since discovered and assisted many budding artists from Britain and abroad with awards and advice. Out- standing artists who received early encouragement from the Society included Sir William Rothenstein, Rex Whistler, Sir Gerald Kelly, P.R.A., Edward Halliday, Claude Rogers, A. R. Thomson, Robert Austin, and Anna Zinkeisen. Drawings by Whistler submitted from the age of five, and 'Babyland', are still in the possession of the Society.
Ablett made two notable contributions to methods of art education. One of these, 'written design', arose from his conviction that a child would get delight from drawing and arranging letters freely, and consisted of using letters of the alphabet as motifs for design. The modern practice of letter patterns for juniors and Marion Richardson's 'writing patterns' stemmed from Ablett's written design.

'Snapshot drawing' was Ablett's other innovation. The child was encouraged to observe an object carefully but quickly, say a plant or figure, and then draw it when removed from view. It was one variation on Boisbaudran's system, others being Catterson Smith's 'shut-eye drawing' and Marion Richardson's mental imagery. Lord Baden Powell took up this method from an early age and later introduced 'snapshot drawing' for tests for the Scout's artist's badge, appointing Ablett as examiner.

Both Cooke and Ablett arrived at their views on child art primarily from the current new theories of child education and psychology, rather than from a special appreciation of the aesthetic merit of child art. This is evident from the phrases used by Cooke in his paper of 1885: 'exercise of function . . . to evolve expression . . . to stimulate voluntary mental activity' ; and from the words of Ablett, such as 'freedom' and 'muscular sense is the element'. Ablett arrived at his methods by grasping a psychological principle. Like Bain, he believed that art must arise from an instinct of which the fulfilment was pleasurable emotion. Ablett called his system 'Drawing from Delight', and his belief that art must be primarily delight led him to seek appropriate media, such as brush and paint, for the child, suitable for easy and natural manipulation.

Both Cooke and Ablett pioneered investigations into children's scribbles and were deeply interested in the theories of Sully, which were made known to a wide public in the nineties.

From MacDonald, Stuart, History and Philosophy of Art Education. U of London Press, 1970, 327-8 -- excellent book I found when trying to find out why Britain, uniquely in Europe and America, had a respectable art school/college in nearly every significant town. Turns out it was the efforts of one man, Henry Cole, the man behind the Crystal Palace. (Other good books turned up in the same quest were by Carline, Draw They Must : a History of Teaching and Examining of Art, and Bonython and Burton, The Great Exhibitor: The Life and Work of Henry Cole.)

Does art education any longer have a connection with child psychology, let alone with the Boy or Girl Scouts and the Royal Family? (Prince Charles, perhaps?)

Incidentally the inspiration behind these guys -- Ablett and, before him, Ebenezer Cooke - and the first to take up arms against the Science and Art Department that controlled the art exams and grants -- was Ruskin.

Bradford Grammar School has, or had, a Delius Music Room and a Rothenstein Art Room.  If the second art room hasn’t been named it should clearly be the Ablett Art Room.


Andy Wood said...

Thanks for this article. I have been researching members of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and found your blog while reading up on Thomas Ablett RI. If it hadn't been for Ruskin, Cooke, Ablett. et al (and Henry Cole of course) I and many others probably wouldn't have learned to love drawing so much that we became artists.

Pete Medway said...

Thank you for the comment, Andy. I'd forgotten all about this post!

Not much of his influence was left at Bradford GS when I was there, but then there didn't need to be: the effects of the artists and teachers you list were in the air and you couldn't escape drawings and paintings produced in their wake.