Royal College of ArtA Degree of Uncertainty

Friday, 1st July 2005

degree day, July 1975
Me on degree day. Was my beard ever that colour?!

I realised this week that I've been working 30 years. Can you imagine it? I hardly seem to have got my act together since leaving the Royal College of Art in July 1975.

I was the first student - the only student, to start with - in the natural history illustration department, set up by John Norris Wood in 1972, and, during my three years, I worked, on and off, on this large painting of birds in the college greenhouse (below), which formed the centrepiece of my degree show.

Once John was asking a couple of students if they'd seen me about. They looked blank; 'He's the one who looks like Rasputin,' said John. They realised who he meant immediately (I'd better explain that I wore the fur-lined hooded cloak only on degree day).

Copyright Royal College of Art 1974
John Norris Wood in his natural habitat, the greenhouse, 1974

Pekin Robin
Student sketchbook:
Pekin Robin, London Zoo

greenhouse mural
Greenhouse Mural, 8ft x 4ft acrylic on chipboard, collection of the Royal College of Art

Work in Progress

glossy starlingsThe painting absorbed so much work. I'd ask John what he thought of my progress since the previous week and he'd look around the painting, trying to spot the area I'd been working on; I'd plug away at it a leaf, or a bird, at a time. Each life-sized bird is labelled with its common and Latin name.

There's a Tolkien story which I kept thinking of as I worked called Leaf by Niggle, about a painter who could paint a leaf better than he could paint a tree. I tried to give each leaf individual attention and aimed to give the whole scene a theatrical Victorian effect.

The greenhouse was on the top floor of the Kensington Gore building so the roof of the Royal Albert Hall appears in the background (right). Art historian Conal Shields thought the Java doves were the most pre-Raphaelite corner of my painting. He described the mural was an entire painting course in itself. I fought battles over each section of it and learnt so much in the process.

After the first year, one of John's former tutors Edward Bawden (1903 - 1989), took a look at the painting and declared that it was finished already but it went on and on, absorbing seemingly limitless amounts of work. Even when I'd got it screwed to the wall in my degree show I found that I wanted to add one last detail: a frog.

Liz Butterworth, who had been in the school of fine art, the year above me, said that the geranium (below, left) was the best bit of painting in the mural. It was the first thing I'd done, three years earlier.

Java doves

greenhouse mural

Coming down to Earth

My long-suffering dad, Douglas

My mum and dad came to the degree ceremony; I'd won prizes and been approached about various commissions and book projects and there were bits of teaching in the offing but my dad wasn't terribly impressed:

'I don't know how you're going to make a living,' he said when we got back to Yorkshire, ' and I don't know if you know how you're going to make a living, but I'm bloody well not going to support you - on Monday you'll get down to the Labour Exchange in Wakefield and sign on.'

When I think back to my degree day I still remember that feeling of inadequacy, and it's difficult to shake it off, even today. Unless you're an industrial designer with sponsorship or a golden boy like the young David Hockney, who graduated a decade before me, it's unlikely that you will have worked out how to make a living by the time you leave college: you've been so immersed in your work that it's hardly occurred to you. I might have had great ideas but they were all still in the pipeline.

It was a wrench to leave the enthusiasm and the 'change the world' idealism of South Kensington behind me and return to the crushing constraints of hometown life. Without a phone - without e-mail in those days - my college friends seemed a long way away, part of a bright interval in my life.

I feel that if my dad was still with us and he could see how I'm doing now, 30 years after leaving college, he'd still want me to go out and get a proper job!

My friend Gina in California e-mailed me today; she says she read this quote and thought of me (and of herself):

'If you want to identify me ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the things I want to live for. Between those two answers you can determine the identity of any person.'

Thomas Merton, from The Man in the Sycamore Tree Next Page

Richard Bell,