I applied to the Royal College of Art after my first degree at West Hartlepool College of Art – the RCA was top of the list as the most acclaimed art college at that time. I had realised I would never make a painter – there were arguments about whether or not my paintings were paintings or illustrations. The RCA had a particularly strong Graphic Design Department, which would give me a more specific creative target and a broader canvas. I was thrilled to be accepted, starting autumn 1958 and finishing in 1961. ‘Television and film design’ and photography were just beginning to happen, and America was becoming a big influence.
I was struck by the level of professionalism and the highly competitive nature of Graphic Design at the RCA. All students were of a very high standard. Putting us all together was the beginning of my being aware of the competitive nature of my chosen profession. I realised from very early on that I would have to fight hard and do very well if I was going to make it. One was pretty well left to it.
The mood of the College at the time was rebellious and politicised, [as well as] studious and introverted. It could be very competitive, with not much being given away and everything kept close to your chest. You observed all the time, watched what everyone else did and tried to do better and be the most original.
During the Richard Guyatt era of Graphic Design, it wasn’t easy for a student to work with type and photomontage. Nothing was easy. Nothing worth achieving ever is. It was really all part of the design curriculum. This was the school of everything. You just had to be pushy. And go for it. That’s what all students must understand from day one.
“This was the school of everything. You just had to be pushy. And go for it. That’s what all students must understand from day one.”
The European school of typography and graphics failed to take root in the RCA in the 1950s, I think, because the College was still steeped in fine art – painting, engraving, sculpture. And it was only really aware of integrating the industrial side of the arts. It was isolated for so long from European and American visual language.
A lot of the staff had been war artists, so for Bob Gill to come in with button-down shirts, black suits and talking in a slick Madison Avenue way was incredibly attractive. US advertising was way out, and I realised very early the need to learn fast and absorb all that I could and then make my own decisions. I had strong views even then and could sort the wheat from the chaff, and that’s still important today in everything I do.
We always looked at all the graphic journals of the period. The influence of Madison Avenue, which was very much part of the American ‘dream’ and ‘way’, was very attractive to us all. Eventually, I got a travelling scholarship, so after leaving the RCA I went to the States. Getting in [to the RCA] was one of my defining moments, but it was gaining first class honours at Convocation and receiving a travelling scholarship to the US that set me on the path for later life.
I remember one of our tasks was about the Festival of Britain, and another was to think of a scheme for IBM. By the second year, I was spending time in the Photography Department whenever I could. It was difficult to get into – you had to spend time chatting people up so they would allow you in the darkroom. I bought a camera and was out every weekend on a photographic vigil.
From an early age, though, it was film that attracted me. All my free time in Stockton-on-Tees was spent at the local cinemas, watching everything and learning. You never stop learning. Even now. You can learn from so-called ‘bad’ films and television, and there is usually something that you react to, which makes you ponder and try to find your own way. Subsequently, of course, Hollywood became the ‘face’ and the ‘mind’.
I barely had the opportunity to work with film while at the RCA – there was no film department as such. There was only one Bolex wind-up clockwork camera, an instruction book and a light meter inside a steel cabinet. George Haslam, head of Television and Film Design at the RCA, and a talented television designer under Tim O’Brien at Teddington Studios, was our tutor, adviser and supporter, though he provided no real film-dissecting or analysis at all. That wasn’t his forte.
He would give us scripts to flick through, and we would come back with a set design and models. By then, I was already into the Television Department – a one-year course. I presented my script for a short film Boy on a Bicycle to George, who allowed me to borrow the Bolex for a month to shoot the film in North Hartlepool. I was given £65 to finance the film and processing. I am grateful to George for that. It was a big budget.
In the late 1950s, films of different genres, language, locales and those with a certain grittiness had particular impact on me. I should name Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Seven Samurai, Citizen Kane and The Third Man. Kurosawa and Welles were masters, to appreciate with their vastly differing styles. There aren’t very many visual metaphors or devices I employ cinematically that I can trace back to my student days. You try not to repeat yourself. Or I try not to. Perhaps curiosity and determination are the key factors I needed then, and need now, on every film I develop and make.
At the RCA, I was more focused on my own hyper-desire to become a good filmmaker; then a better one; then a very good filmmaker and then go even higher. The process never stops. Of course, I had some acquaintance with David Hockney, who was obviously an artist of supreme inventiveness even then – someone to watch. He was always going to make his mark. I wish I had bought some of his paintings at each stage of his development. He also never stops wanting to learn. Otherwise, I seemed to take off in my own direction. I knew where I wanted to end up.
I think young artists today are probably helped by the expanding awareness of fine art over the past 30 years or so. There are more buyers and more galleries. But, it’s still very tough and always will be. All you can do is keep doing it, having the passion and following your own criticism. You must never stop trying to improve.
“I think young artists today are probably helped by the expanding awareness of fine art over the past 30 years or so. There are more buyers and more galleries. But, it’s still very tough and always will be. All you can do is keep doing it, having the passion and following your own criticism. You must never stop trying to improve.”
This interview was originally commissioned and published in the book The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art.