Helen Clapcott, The Life Room

The Life Room, ca. 1979

Helen Clapcott (b. 1952)

RA Collection: Art

This painting shows the historic ‘Life Room’ at the Royal Academy, where students study ‘from life’ – making drawings from nude models to master depicting the human form. Life drawing has been a cornerstone of the traditional artistic education offered to students at the Royal Academy Schools since their foundation in 1769. When this work was made in the 1970s, the nature of teaching at the Royal Academy Schools no longer followed the academic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries, and instead allowed students freedom to experiment and develop their own artistic style. Life drawing was still encouraged however – as it is to this day – as an exercise in close-looking, concentration and instant artistic creation.

The artist Helen Clapcott was a student at the RA Schools in 1978-9 and here she captures the informal atmosphere of the Life Room during her student years. Some students appear deep in concentration while drawing, others are studying the model and her proportions, while another looks at notices on the wall – perhaps announcements for the week or the Life Room timetable. Students were free to come and go during the life drawing session; it was not necessary to stay for the entire duration, to give flexibility to their working schedules.

The pose of the model is suggestive of the contrasting dynamics playing out at the RA Schools at this time. While the Schools themselves were steeped in history and tradition (as implied by the classical sculpture cast between the model’s legs), the art students were often provocative and progressive in their creative practices (demonstrated by the model’s bodily interaction with the cast). The isolated casts on the wall may allude to the move away from tradition methods of teaching, of which drawing from casts of classical sculpture was an important part. These casts, physical embodiments of an outdated world, appear dwarfed by the contemporary scene, emphasising informality and individualism.

Helen Clapcott is a painter based in Macclesfield, whose practice today centres on atmospheric depictions of the industrial North. Her expansive landscapes convey the scale and power of the imposing buildings that characterise the city of Stockport and the surrounding areas. They echo the works of L.S. Lowry (1887-1976), infused with a dreamlike aura. She works in egg tempera, an uncommon choice for a contemporary artist. Tempera was a paint medium widely used until the fifteenth century, and produces a more subtle, unostentatious effect that oil paint. It is also a medium that favours careful planning and application in tiny flecks, and has the added quality of being erasable, allowing the artist to rework their painting and make alterations. These are all characteristics that Clapcott finds attractive, and give a unique delicacy to her works.

Object details

The Life Room
Helen Clapcott (b. 1952)
ca. 1979
Object type
Copyright owner

202 mm x 296 mm x 5 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Purchased from Helen Clapcott in 1979
return to start

Start exploring the RA Collection

read more
  • Explore art works, paint-smeared palettes, scribbled letters and more...
  • Artists and architects have run the RA for 250 years.
    Our Collection is a record of them.
Start exploring