The sign on the door is refined and neutral; the warehouse building cool and understated. Number 22 Charlotte Road could easily be mistaken for one of the trendy design agencies that populate this thoroughfare between Hoxton and Shoreditch in east London. In fact, this former factory is home to a quiet revolution in art.
The Royal Drawing School was founded (as the Prince’s Drawing School) in 2000 by the then Prince of Wales — now King Charles III — and the painter Catherine Goodman during a perceived crisis in traditional drawing. It is difficult to imagine such a thing today, when a sketch by Lucian Freud can fetch around £500,000 at auction. However, there was a time, not so long ago, when late-night TV panel discussions and three-day seminars were given over to heated debates about the death of the traditional arts.
At the turn of the century, there was a clear idea of what art shouldn’t be, and one of those things was observational drawing. The main condition of culture was post-modern, with a focus on the potential future galaxies of the newly formed World Wide Web. There would be no need for drawing where art was headed.
Life-drawing classes were dropped from the curriculum in British art schools in the 1980s, and by the mid-1990s nearly all life rooms had closed down. Julia Balchin, principal at the Royal Drawing School, explains that the decision wasn’t just ideological: ‘The truth is, life-drawing rooms are expensive to run. There is the cost of the model, the cost of having a teacher there all day, and the space — you need a room big enough to accommodate all the students.’
Dissenting voices — among them Peter Blake, Anish Kapoor and David Hockney — invoked the painter Pierre Bonnard’s argument that learning to draw is like learning your ‘ABC’: you can’t write poetry until you know your letters. Catherine Goodman and Prince Charles were also of that mind. They believed that this vital skill should not be lost, so they opened a school where the public could access specialist tuition in observational drawing.
It began, says Balchin, with ‘a handful of students and a life class in a top-floor attic’. Today the school offers a 15-month postgraduate-level programme, public courses and online classes. More than 1,000 students study at the RDS every week, with access to five generations of teachers.
‘We can trace our teaching back to Walter Sickert through his nephew, John Lessore [co-founder of the school] — that’s an amazing legacy,’ notes Balchin. There are also international residencies in India, the United States, Antigua and Jamaica, and four studio spaces at Dumfries House in Scotland.
The school recently added a programme for young artists aged 10 to 18, at the suggestion of David Hockney. ‘He asked our students what they planned to give back after graduating,’ says Balchin. ‘The young artists initiative enables our graduates to hone their teaching skills while also encouraging children to learn to draw.’
All the artists on the postgraduate-level course are awarded a fully funded scholarship, and there is also access to a living-wage allowance to help students relocate to London. Most of the capital comes from patrons, foundations and through the public programme. ‘There was a deliberate decision not to be state-funded because we want to be nimble and teach the way we want to teach,’ says Balchin.
That said, the director sees the school as working alongside the universities, not against them. ‘We are all part of the same ecosystem,’ she says. ‘We are niche, and can offer something those institutions cannot provide.’
Has the tide against observational drawing turned? ‘Absolutely, we are seeing a renaissance in drawing,’ says Balchin. The school’s Monday evening life-drawing class, which is free to all London art students, is a case in point: ‘There are students queuing around the block to get in.’
An exhibition of drawings by recent RDS graduates is held annually at Christie’s in London, with one work selected to go into the King’s archive in Kensington Palace. This year, in honour of its founding patron, the RDS has also commissioned alumni to create works that represent their personal reflections on the Coronation of Their Majesties King Charles III and Queen Camilla. The exhibition runs until 25 May at Christie’s King Street galleries in St James’s.
All this suggests that the school has come a long way from those early attic days. ‘We have learned a lot in the past 23 years,’ agrees Balchin. ‘Many art schools have come and gone. If you want to stick around, you need to listen to your students and be flexible.’
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Does she see the RDS model translating to other independent art schools in the future? ‘It is already happening,’ she says. ‘Tracey Emin has just opened her art school in Margate, which works on a similar model, and past alumni are also setting up their own initiatives. As I see it, the more of us there are around doing things differently, the richer the environment will be for everyone.’
The exhibition, Royal Drawing School: Celebrating the Coronation of Their Majesties King Charles III & Queen Camilla, is on view at Christie’s in London until 25 May 2023