The curious thing about an art room is that you never remember the look of the place. Each summer, a school art room sloughs its skin: life drawings are unpinned from the walls, maquettes carried home for the holidays, canvases taken off easels, portfolios collected by school leavers, the whole place stripped of colour and finery. The room is white and empty again, a canvas primed for September.
What stays from year to year and what lingers in the senses of former pupils is the smell. Chalk and charcoal, oils and turpentine, wet clay and slip mix, Swarfega jelly and Pritt Stick, sugar paper (a smell like damp hymn-books) and the heady, headachy vapour of hot glue guns. It’s been ten years since I left school, but I only have to open my old watercolour box to be back in the art room, fingers black with ink, and clay under my nails.
One dreams, of course, of something like the Eton art rooms. ‘More of a pavilion than an art department,’ one O.E., now a professional sculptor, tells me. ‘Vast windows, natural light, silence, white walls, space, and in the sculpture studios 19th-century plaster casts of the Parthenon Frieze above us. We did not realise then how lucky we were to create work in such beautiful surroundings.’ The dream, yes, but having worked my way through GCSE and A-level art in a cramped ground-floor room, overshadowed by London plane trees, and a dingy basement pottery studio, I would say that the room itself matters far less than the teachers, the chaos of the cupboards, the spatterings round the sink and the books, stuffed with postcard-bookmarks, on the shelves.
I had the great fortune to move at 15 from St Paul’s Girls’ School, which had a magnificent top-floor art room lit by a double-height Diocletian window, but where I was not thought good enough to do art at GCSE, to MPW in Kensington, where I was allowed to take whichever subjects I liked.