museum review - The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art

Winter Work, George Clausen, 1983–4, Oil on canvas
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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.


In a Leicestershire Boot Factory, Sylvia Pankhurst, 1907, Watercolour

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.

The Perfect Place to Grow, Tracey Emin, 2001, Mixed media

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.



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