museum review - The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art
Written by Karen Martin
The Royal College of Art in London, in its 175th year, celebrates its anniversary by hosting a free exhibition open to the public from November 16, 2012 to January 3, 2013.
A major exhibition exploring key facets of the Royal College of Art (RCA) over three centuries, The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art provides a fascinating insight into the world’s oldest art and design school, exploring the evolution of the renowned institution, from its founding to the present day.
Established in 1837 under British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne as the Government School of Design, the school was created in order to train young craftsmen and artisans for work in the ceramics, textiles, and ornamental crafts of Britain’s manufacturing industries.
The exhibition includes both student work and later professional achievements by RCA faculty and alumni including: Sir Edwin Lutyens, Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes, Sir James Dyson, Tord Boontje, Ron Arad, Henry Moore OM, David Hockney OM, and Tracey Emin, whose 2001 work The Perfect Place to Grow, is both exhibited and referenced in the exhibition title.
Work is exhibited according to four principal themes: ‘Art for Industry’, ‘Public Purpose’, ‘Personal Expression’, and ‘Political Expression’.
The Art for Industry section of the exhibition presents the enrolment of painters such as Richard Redgrave into the service of industry, and how a preoccupation with the need for design to contribute to British industry has been debated across three centuries, from Henry Cole in the 19th century to James Dyson in the 21st century.
Public Purposefocuses on the RCA’s role in transforming Britain’s health, transport, and built environment, from the hospital beds and ward equipment of the NHS to the post-war new towns, and the designs of parliament buildings and museums in Berlin and New Delhi. The section includes work by Thomas Heatherwick, who designed the acclaimed British pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, and the London 2012 Olympic cauldron.
The Political Expression section presents artists and designers whose work is related to a political cause. This section includes work by the female suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst, who was gaoled in Holloway Prison whilst a student at the RCA.
Personal Expressioncontrasts the Victorian notion of art in service to industry, morality, or religion with a 20th-century concept of fine art as an act of personal creative expression. And as the notion of what constitutes ‘art’ has changed over the centuries, so has the late-20th-century view of design, with the advent of ‘critical design’ challenging the concept of function, use, form, and value.
When the Royal College of Art began in 1837 as the Government School of Design, it was located in Somerset House in the Strand. Following the Great Exhibition of 1851, accommodating art as well as design, it became the National Art Training School at its new home in South Kensington. In 1896, it became the Royal College of Art. The Kensington campus is located in London on Kensington Gore, facing Hyde Park and next to the Royal Albert Hall. It houses the Schools of Architecture, Communication, Design, Humanities, and Material, and the new, purpose-built campus in Battersea houses the School of Fine Art.