THE REPUBLICAN COLLEGE OF ART
Republican College of Art was a moderate-sized art school. There might have been some seventy or eighty postgraduates in residence, when our hero appeared there as a freshman. Of these, unfortunately for the college, there were a very large proportion of the gentleman-commoners; enough, in fact, with the other men whom they drew round them, and who lived pretty much as they did, to form the largest and leading set in the college. So the college was decidedly fast.
The chief characteristic of this set was the most reckless extravagance of every kind. London wine merchants furnished them with liqueurs at a guinea a bottle and wine at five guineas a dozen; London and London tailors vied with one another in providing them with unheard-of quantities of the most gorgeous clothing. They drove tandems in all directions, scattering their ample grants, which they treated as pocket money, about roadside inns and London taverns with open hand, and "going tick" for everything that could by possibility be booked. Their cigars cost two guineas a pound; their furniture was the best that could be bought; pineapples, forced fruit, and the most rare preserves figured at their wine parties; they danced, slept by day, played billiards until the gates closed, and then were ready for vingt-et-une, unlimited loo, and hot drink in their own rooms, as long as anyone could be got to sit up and play.
The fast set then swamped, and gave the tone to the college; at which fact no persons were more astonished and horrified than the authorities of the RCA.
That they of all bodies in the world should be fairly run away with by a set of reckless, loose young spendthrifts, was indeed a melancholy and unprecedented fact; for the body of fellows of the RCA was as distinguished for restraint, morality and respectability as any in an art school. The foundation was not, indeed, actually an open one. St Martin’s at that time alone enjoyed this distinction; but there were a large number of open fellowships, and the income of the college was large, and the livings belonging to it numerous; so that the best men from other colleges were constantly coming in. Some of these of a former generation had been eminently successful in their management of the college. The RCA postgraduates at one time had carried off almost all the art prizes, and filled the young contemporaries lists, while maintaining at the same time the highest character for manliness and gentlemanly conduct. This had lasted long enough to establish the fame of the college, and great lords and statesmen had sent their sons there; art masters had struggled to get the names of their best pupils on the books; in short, everyone who had a son, ward, or pupil, whom he wanted to push forward in the art world--who was meant to cut a figure, and take the lead among men of culture, left no stone unturned to get him into RCA; and thought the first, and a very long step gained when he had succeeded.
But the governing bodies of colleges are always on the change, and, in the course of things men of other ideas came to rule at the RCA--shrewd men of the world; men of business, some of them, with good ideas of making the most of their advantages; who said, "Go to; why should we not make the public pay for the great benefits we confer on them? Have we not the very best article in the educational market to supply - almost a monopoly of it - and shall we not get the highest price for it?" So by degrees they altered many things in the college. In the first place, under their auspices, gentlemen-commoners increased and multiplied; in fact, the eldest sons of baronets, even squires, were scarcely admitted on any other footing. As these young gentlemen secretly paid double fees to the college, and had great expectations of all sorts, it could not be expected that they should be subject to quite the same discipline as the common run of men, who would have to make their own way in the world. So the rules as to attendance at exhibitions and in the studio, though nominally the same for them as for commoners, were in practice relaxed in their favour; and, that they might find all things suitable to persons in their position, the kitchen and buttery were worked up to a high state of perfection, and the RCA, from having been one of the most reasonable, had come to be about the most expensive art school in the land (and the only one to take only postgraduates and have no undergraduates).
These changes worked as their promoters probably desired that they should work, and the college was full of rich men, and commanded in the college the sort of respect which riches bring with them. But the old reputation, though still strong out of doors, was beginning sadly to wane within the world of art. Fewer and fewer of the RCA men appeared in the Royal Academy summer show, and even less amongst the prize-men at that august event.
The inaugurators of these changes had passed away in their turn, and at last a reaction had commenced. The fellows recently elected, and who were in residence at the time we write of, were for the most part men of great attainments, all of them men who had taken their use of colour and boldness of line to the very heights of perfection. The electors naturally enough had chosen them as the most likely persons to restore, as tutors, the golden days of the college; and they had been careful in the selection to confine themselves to very quiet and studious men, such as were likely to remain up at Kensington Gore, passing over men of more popular manners and active spirits, who would be sure to flit soon into the world, and be of little more service to the RCA.
But these were not the men to get any hold on the fast set who were now in the ascendant. It was not in the nature of things that they should understand each other; in fact, they were hopelessly at war, and the college was getting more and more out of gear in consequence.
What they could do, however, they were doing; and under their fostering care were growing up a small set, including most of the sculptors, who were likely, as far as they were concerned, to retrieve the college’s character. But they were too much like their tutors, men who did little else but work feverishly in their studios. They neither wished for, nor were likely to gain, the slightest influence on the fast set. The best men amongst them, too, were diligent readers of Eric Gill, and followers of Henry Moore; and this led them also to form such friendships as they made amongst out-college men of their own way of thinking - viz with high modernists, rather than the RCA fast set. So they lived very much to themselves, and scarcely interfered with the dominant party.
Our hero, on leaving school, having bound himself solemnly to write all his doings and thoughts to the friend whom he had left behind him: distance and separation were to make no difference whatever in their friendship. This compact had been made on one of their last evenings in Bradford. They were sitting together on a park bench, Ferrill Amacker splicing the handle of a favourite cricket bat, and Mark Berger reading a volume of Lautréamont's works. One of their tutors at Bradford School of Art had lately been alluding to ‘the decadents’ and the mysteries of man-to-man love and had excited the curiosity of the active-minded amongst his pupils about gay sex and beastiality. So Lautréamont's works were seized on by various voracious young readers, and carried out of the master’s private library; and Mark was now deep in ‘Les Chants de Maldoror" and the vagaries of shark sex, curled up on one end of the bench. Presently, Hockney heard something between a groan and a protest, and, looking up, demanded explanations; in answer to which, Mark, in a voice half furious and half fearful, read out:--
"There are some who write seeking the commendation of their fellows by means of noble sentiments which their imaginations invent or they possibly may possess. But I set my genius to portray the pleasures of cruelty! . . Cannot genius be cruelty's ally in the secret resolutions of Providence? Or, if cruel, can't one possess genius? My words will provide the proof; all you need do is listen to them, if you like..."
"You don't mean that's Lautréamont's view of humanity?"
"What a cold-blooded old Philistine," said Hockney.
"But it can't be true, do you think?" said Mark.
And in short, after some personal reflections on Lautréamont, they then and there resolved that, so far as they were concerned, it was not, could not, and should not be true, that they would remain faithful, the same to each other; and the greatest friends in the world, through I know not what separations, trials, and catastrophes. And for the better insuring this result, a correspondence, regular as the recurring months, was to be maintained. It had already lasted through the long vacation and up to Christmas without sensibly dragging, though Hockney's letters had been something of the shortest in November, when he had lots of cottaging in Manchester, and two days a week at a steam bath that attracted the best looking men from the north west of England. Now, however, having fairly got to London, he determined to make up for all short-comings. His first letter from college, taken in connexion with the previous sketch of the place, will probably accomplish the work of introduction better than any detailed account by a third party; and it is therefore given here verbatim:-
The RCA, Kensington Gore, London.
MY DEAR GEORDIE,
According to promise, I write to tell you how I get on up here, and what sort of a place London is. Of course, I don't know much about it yet, having only been up some weeks, but you shall have my first impressions.
Well, first and foremost it's an awfully idle place; at any rate for us newbies. Fancy now. I am in the studio twelve hours a week! Two hours a day; all over by twelve, or one at latest, and no extra work at all in the shape of still life, engraving, or other exercises.
I think sometimes I'm back in the lower fifth; for we don't get through more than we used to do there; and if you were to see the men draw nudes, it would make your hair stand on end. Where on earth can they have come from? Unless they blunder on purpose, as I often think. Of course, I never look at a model before I go in since unfortunately they are mostly female. I hope I shall take to making portraits of the men I pick up outside the local tube station; but you know I never was much of a hand at sapping, and, for the present, the light work suits me well enough, for there's plenty to see and learn about in this place.
We keep very gentlemanly hours. Wine every morning at eight, and beer every evening at seven. You must drink at least twice a day, that's the rule of our college - and be in gates by twelve o'clock at night. Besides which, if you're a decently steady fellow, you ought to dance at the union perhaps two days a week. Union is open all day and closes at eleven o'clock at night. And now you have the sum total. All the rest of your time you may just do what you like with.
I dare say after what I’ve written you'll say it tells you nothing, and you'd rather have twenty lines about the men, and what they're thinking about and the meaning, and the inner life of the place, and all that. Patience, patience! I don't know anything about it myself yet; you shall have the kernel, if I ever get at it, in due time.
Ever your affectionately,