Memories of Newport Art College

I entered Newport Art College in 1958 at age 17. I had been working for two years since leaving school so it seemed amazing to have shorter days and long holidays again. In those days, the qualification at the end of four years was the National Diploma in Design, with an intermediate assessment halfway before specialising in the final two years.

For the intermediate exam I was put into the Letter/Calligraphy group. There were four of us, myself and three girls, and we were taught by the Principal’s wife; two days a week for two years. I managed to pass but it didn’t seem like ‘art’ to me, so when the chance came to specialise, I chose Painting/Special, which was as far removed from lettering as possible. I mustn’t be too bitter however, as my ability in lettering proved useful in my career as a teacher.

My student days were strange by modern standards in that I lived at home, as did most of the students. At the time the art college was the only educational establishment for higher education in Newport so there was relatively no need for student accommodation. This meant that we were sometimes targets at dances when some folks had too much to drink and the local lads picked on us because we were ‘different’.

My dad bought his first car when whilst I was a student and I passed my driving test before he did. This meant that often, after he had driven himself to work, with me in the passenger seat, I would get to use the car for the rest of the day. I have fond memories of taking a car load of students ‘sketching’ around Newport, although mostly we seemed to end up in the pub. It seems scandalous now, but nobody worried about drinking and driving in 1960! We all survived.

I made some great friends in college, two of whom I am still in contact with. Phill Jenkins ended up lecturing in graphic design at Liverpool Art College, and Tim Sainsbury, like me, went down the secondary school art teaching route. Tim and I have continued painting and exchanging ideas over the past fifty years. He is an excellent painter, mostly narrative and Welsh orientated, do look him up!

My Painting tutor, Tom Rathmell, was a quiet man and he must have spent time discussing my progress but what sticks in my mind was a question he asked me in my final year; “Peter, what are you going to do next year?” I really had no idea but I did need a job and the only one available with my qualification was teaching. So, another year of study followed at Bristol where I obtained my Art Teacher Diploma and set me up in a steady job for life. Teaching was the ideal job in those days for someone who wanted to ‘find himself’ as a painter, due to the short working day and long holidays – very different to the experience of teachers now!

Despite the fine times I had, I still wanted to leave college. I was finished with being told what to do, I wanted to find my own way and over the next few years I pushed myself to try different approaches and ways of doing things in my art.

But I digress, back to my memories of being at college. I remember when a group of us were being taught by John Wright, a new young lecturer. We like him and he played music whilst we worked. Unfortunately, on this occasion one of the older more senior lecturers came in and told him to turn it off. I remember John Wright blushed and was very embarrassed. A few years later he became Principal, the youngest in the country! I wondered if the older lecturer was still there and if so, for how long.

We had a male model called Billy Howe who lived in a tent. He was a strange man, one day he arrived dressed as Robin Hood! He wasn’t there for long. In those days most models were female and one in particular was excellent. She arrived one morning having just been in an accident as a pedestrian, knocked down by a car. She was ok but badly shaken and insisted on modelling. I remember her standing, completely still as always, but this time with tears streaming down her face. What a strong woman. My final life painting was chosen for the NDD exhibition in London, something which must have pleased and surprised Tom Rathmell.

There was plenty of jobs for the long holidays, I can’t remember being given work by the college but I know I would have at least used my sketchbook. Summers were filled with general labouring jobs and of course in the winter there was the Christmas post. I recall that the last summer holiday I had left it too late to get my usual holiday job working for the Parks Department, so I put an advert in the South Wales Argus as a portrait painter. To my surprise I had some replies, which filled the time nicely. One of the bookings was a girl from the valleys who came every day to Newport by bus where I met her in my dad’s car and took her home for the day, where I painted her in my bedroom. On the day that I completed the painting she mentioned that she was going to Abergavenny that night to see a band called The Beatles! In 1961, this meant very little to me. However, the previous summer some friends and I had gone to Butlins in Pwllheli for a holiday. It passed in a haze of drinking and dancing. It was the early days of rock n roll and the resident band that year was Rory Storm and the Hurricanes with Ringo Starr on drums! He was the most popular member of the band. I also have a memory of Rory Storm being thrown in the swimming pool one night.

I hope these few reminiscences will amuse you and will remind you of similar times you may have had.

Pete Ross

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