David Hockney RA, 'I’m in the Mood for Love', 1961. Oil on canvas, © Royal College of Art Collection [Painting student 1959-62] The Royal College of Art’s expansive survey of artworks from past staff and alumni touches upon so many of the key artists, architects and designers this country has produced over the last 175 years that, rather than a focused show on teaching methods and the experiences of students, it presents a potted but pretty comprehensive history of modern British art.
Viewing the exhibition quickly becomes an exercise in artist spotting, as more and more emerge as either students or faculty members. Here one can rattle off some lists. For fine art: Moore, Hepworth, Piper, Auerbach, Paolozzi, Hockney, Blake, Kitaj, Riley, Bellany, Cragg, the Chapman Brothers, and Emin. For design: Jekyll, Lutyens, Ravilious, Bawden, Dyson, Adjaye and Arad. Works from across different eras are grouped thematically under headings such as ‘Art for Industry’ and ‘Political Expression’.
Dexter Dalwood, 'Untitled', 1989. Oil on canvas, © Royal College of Art Collection. Highlights include the opportunity to see student works, which range from Patrick Caulfield RA’s Three Roses – painted in the year of his graduation in 1963, during a period he was pioneering his highly stylised take on the still life – to a messy but lyrical painting (Untitled, 1989) completed mid-MA by Dexter Dalwood, who was nominated for the Turner Prize 21 years later.
But many artists are represented by works produced later in their careers. One example is Bridget Riley, who graduated in 1955 but whose work in the exhibition is Aria (2012). However lovely it is for any art lover to see a stripe painting by Riley, the work is so far removed from her time at the RCA that its inclusion in the show just says ‘Bridget Riley studied here’ and little else. Perhaps her student work is unavailable, but in that case the presentation of some of the artist’s Pointillist work from the late 1950s would at least show what direction Riley moved in straight after art school.
Leonard Rosoman RA, 'Portrait of Lord Esher in a Studio at the RCA', 1978. Acrylic on canvas, © Royal College of Art Collection. Many younger artists suffer the same fate, from sculptor Alison Wilding RA (graduated 1973) to photographer Idris Kahn (graduated 2004). They are represented by work of a high standard, but it just seems a missed opportunity in the context of the exhibition – I would have rather seen less accomplished pieces but works that reflected their experience of the RCA. But this disappointment was offset for me by some excellent works by teachers of the time, many of whose stars have now been eclipsed by that of their students, such as Rodrigo Moynihan RA, Leonard Rosoman RA and John Minton; the latter is represented by the his wonderful Death of Nelson (1952) – a reinterpretation of Benjamin West PRA’s original (1806) – as well as his likeness by a young Lucian Freud.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine