Kingston is home to the world-renowned Kingston School of Art, an institution that has had a profound effect on the volume of creative people residing in the borough over the decades. Nestled along the banks of the Hogsmill River, it in some ways seemed an usual spot for the frenzy of artistic activity that would emerge. Yet this romantic setting – featured in John Everett Millais’ famous painting Ophelia – has been central to the development of the School’s unique character, “combining cutting edge thinking in art and design with a sense of local community”.
The teaching of art and design began in Kingston in the 1870s, to meet a growing national concern to improve British design, following the Great Exhibition in 1851. Kingston Technical Institute was later founded in 1899 offering courses across both art and science, directed towards providing graduates with skills for industry. The two disciplines were divided in 1930, with Kingston School of Art establishing its own building on the current Knights Park site in 1939.
During the war years, a Fashion course was established by Constance Howard and rapidly expanded by Daphne Booker in the 1960s and 1970s. Courses in Architecture launched in 1942, followed by Interior and Furniture Design in 1962 and Illustration and Animation in the 1970s.
The post-war years saw a surge of counter-cultural trends in Western society, as the younger generation soughts to critique societal norms and demand the space to create new ways of being, and seeing the world. In the ‘Swinging Sixties’, Art School was the place to be, and Kingston – with swathes of musicians and bands drifting in to play gigs and casually mixing with the students in the Union bars, offered a uniquely special, creative environment. Local luminary, Eric Clapton said of his time at Kingston: “it was a remarkable school, I loved it. It moved me onto another level of appreciation in terms of art, music, art and literature. I met a bunch of people who were much more avant-garde”.
Art and music have long been closely interlinked as forms of creative expression; shaping cultural trends, creating communities, and driving social change. From the 1960s onwards, as the expansion of youth culture coincided with increased modes of consumption and forms of mass communication, art increasingly became a way of promoting music, and creating visual ‘branding’ in new and more prolific ways.
The music poster and album cover took on new lives of their own, as illustrated by our Music Poster Timeline on display at Rose Theatre. The early 60s were dominated by ‘Pop Art’, a quintessential modern art movement, spearheaded by New York native, Andy Warhol. Pop Art responded to the atmosphere of new consumer goods, advertising and forms of mass communication; a reverence of surface level representation, stark graphics and bright colours. There was a surge of UK Pop Artists including Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and David Hockney. The instantly recognisable style became ubiquitous across album covers, music posters, fashion styles, interiors and film.
Art Nouvau, with its swirling, floral motifs and mythological symbolism found a revival during the psychedelic movement of the later part of the decade, when – along with ‘Op Art’ perceptual effects – it became a popular way to mimic the hallucinatory experience. This style would give way to a much more raw and brutalist aesthetic, during the more industrial years in the 1970s and 1980s, and increasingly used as a vehicle for political expression and protest.
In the late 1970’s and ‘80s, Punk became the dominant new stylistic trend – preaching a ‘do it yourself’ attitude. Graphic arts, particularly within the music scene, became an unprecedented new medium for self expression and promotion. Drawing inspiration from Jamie Reid’s groundbreaking Sex Pistol’s posters, with their crude, ‘ransom-note’ assemblages and anti-establishment swagger, any burgeoning, local band on a budget could produce reams of flyers to post around town, advertising their latest album, or gig.
The ‘tools of the trade’ – Lettroset, marker pens, cellotape and the Xerox Machine (photocopier), combined to create an iconic Punk aesthetic, with an enduring, expressive integrity still revered today, as digital apps attempt to recapture the analogue look using filters that weather, texturise and distress. On display at Rose Theatre, you can see a range of original promotional artworks, handmade by Sue Smallwood, graphic designer and the original bassist for local, post-punk band The Trudy, who played across venues such as The Dolphin, Three Fishes and The Grey Horse in the 1980.
In 1997, The Stanley Picker Gallery was established to provide Kingston University with its first purpose-built space for the creation and public presentation of contemporary arts practice. The Gallery has been formative in providing opportunities and exposure for artists and students, with former Fellows Nicole Wermers and Elizabeth Price going on to Turner Prize nominations and wins.
In 2017, the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture was renamed once again as Kingston School of Art, reclaiming its long-established heritage and identity as one of the centres of creative, cultural expression of post-war Britain. It continues to flourish as one of the best art schools in the country, fostering a luminous art scene, with alumni including June Duprez, Glenda Bailey, Hamish Mackie and Gavin Turk going on to great acclaim in the worlds of art, design, media and film.
Check out our Kingston Hall of Fame to see other inspirational figures that have lived or worked in Kingston. From Eadward Muybridge, who brought moving pictures to the world, to folk singer John Martyn, rapper Stormzy, Eric Clapton or ‘Nipper’ the famous HMV dog, who is buried on ‘Nipper Alley’ near the King’s Tun, Kingston’s unique creative spirit serves to inspire us all for years to come.
Kingston Museum’s current exhibition, Creative Flow: Kingston, Art and The River, explores the role of the river Thames as a major source of creative inspiration in Kingston from the 17th century to the present. Open until 13th April 2024.
Hear more about the relationship between music and art in episode 3 of the AMPlify podcast: