THE BYAM SHAW SCHOOL OF ART was situated in a small road off Kensington Church Street at the Notting Hill end. The building was the classic Victorian Studio, plaster casts and still life on the ground floor, and the life painting and drawing studio upstairs. The life room was heated by the classic anthracite stove original to the building, using photo projection it could have well served for the set of La Boheme, or for that matter Trilby.
The school was founded in the late 19th Century to teach rather classical drawing and painting. Evening classes were twice a week from 7.00pm to 9.30pm. From my first timid entrance I understood that I knew absolutely nothing but was intoxicated by the surroundings and above all wanted to learn.
The model was posed on a low platform, the students seated on donkeys which were low stools around four feet long with a prop for a drawing board at one end. The idea was to be able to slide back so you could see what you were doing and also have free movement of your arms – so lesson one, use the whole arm not the wrist – try and draw a circle using your wrist and then with the whole arm from the shoulder, the first impossible and the second easy. Use your pencil with arm outstretched and one eye shut to measure the proportions – Draw – the ultimate aim was to achieve fluency and accuracy.
I was still living at 7 Neville Terrace and could comfortably fit evening classes into the workings of the household.
After two terms the school suggested that I apply for a scholarship to study full time. There were four scholarships which covered fees and a Leverhulme Bursary for a hundred pounds. As the Byam Shaw was a private school with a world class reputation there were around two hundred other candidates. I submitted my home made cardboard portfolio filled with whatever I could muster and to my intense joy and surprise was awarded an open scholarship for four years and the Leverhulme Bursary.
I went back to ireland to tell my parents – the reaction was ‘OUT’ – I spent twelve hours in Ireland. Their reaction was not in any way understandable. I was just twenty-one.
I stayed on with the Savernake household for most of my first year as a full time student. Classes were from 10.00am to 5.30pm with compulsory evening classes for scholars. I did my best to cope, getting up at 5.30am to perform my domestic duties and finishing late at night, but inevitably my health gave out so I became homeless relying on fellow students’ kindness and sofas. One drama was fainting, cutting open my forehead and being rushed to St. George’s Hospital in an ambulance with sirens and blue lights.
To explain what happened next I have to go back to my great-grandmother Belinda Coates. She lived in Halkin Street in Mayfair and had supported my favourite aunt Bettina Gratten-Bellew during the time Bettina was a pupil-teacher at Madame Vacani’s School of Ballet. I don’t suppose that could have been much more approved of than studying art.
My aunt was a gentle rather intellectual woman, a keen gardener and member of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society and partook in whatever was available by way of intellectual stimulus in Kilkenny. Her husband Hal was very tall, hated parties and gallivantings, but was fond enough of me to introduce me to the eighteenth century philosophers and thinkers in leather bound volumes in the library at Mount Loftus. I was also fond of my cousins Patrick and Idrone who were a bit older than I was.
Among my aunt’s friends were Peggy and Hubert Butler – Hubert the great Irish scholar and writer, Peggy the sister of Tyrone Guthrie. Peggy and Hubert spent every winter in London staying at the house belonging to Trixie Craig, 7b Carlton Hill, NW8.
At the end of my first year the Byam Shaw principal, Peter Greenham, suggested I apply to the then L.C.C. for a major county award, so another home made portfolio, thin and hungry I went before the Board at the then County Hall with no expectations as the Byam Shaw was private, I was Irish, and no one from the Byam Shaw had ever been given that award. They gave it to me so I now had £9 a week, enough to live on.
Peggy and my aunt Bettina introduced me to Trixie who agreed to take me as a lodger. I moved into the attic room of the Victorian gothic semi an to among the happiest years of my life.