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Bedsit Art in the Leeds Experiment

In the 1970s the city of Leeds was noted as home of “the most influential art school in Europe since the Bauhaus,” and a thriving punk and post-punk music scene. Gavin Butt explores a small art school milieu in which avant-garde experiments in photography, performance, film and sound art gave shape to non-conformist presentations of the body and of sexual and gendered identity.

Progressive Decline

Fig. 1: “Progressive Art or Subsidised Freak Out?” The Daily Telegraph Magazine, 14 April 1972.

In April 1972, Byron Rogers treated readers of the Daily Telegraph to a wide-eyed survey of work emanating from the Fine Art Department at Leeds Polytechnic.1 In an article entitled “Progressive Art or Subsidised Freak Out?” he provided a lurid inventory of artistic outputs that included: a comedy act touring colleges and working men’s clubs; a room in a student flat converted into a large scale chess-board; a Ford Popular car transformed into a working oven for baking bread; a man attired in y-front underwear and dinner jacket taking photographs of the sky on the streets of the city; eyes removed from a pig’s head and sewn to the ears of an artist; a maze of black polythene in the concourse of Leeds City train station; a mannequin in a coffin-type construction with flashing light-bulbs; and a row of telephones painted in British and German military insignia (Fig. 1). “There is,” Rogers writes, “something quite distinctive about art students in Leeds”—an understatement, perhaps, in the wake of this inventory of artistic oddities.2 At a time when the majority of art colleges in the country were still offering specialized study in traditional fine art media such as painting, sculpture and print-making, Leeds, on the contrary, appeared to have sold its soul to the avant-garde devil. Its students were not bound to any single tradition or media. Instead they were engaged in open, permissive exploration of creative possibility across a wide range of activities supported by the Polytechnic, which in addition to painting and sculpture also included “ceramics, theatre, print-making, film, sound, events or happenings, creative writing, various types of constructional work, conceptual work, plastics, kinetics, and so on.”3 But, as the article’s questioning title announces, was this broad variety of artistic media and activity to be understood simply as the state of “progressive” art-making circa 1972 or was it a dubious hangover of 1960s permissiveness, a “subsidised freak out” Britain could ill afford as the boom years of the 1960s segued into the economic downturn of the 1970s?

At the start of the 1970s the so-called “Leeds experiment” in art education found itself in a challenging new environment, pitched between the fading advocates of 1960s progressivism, and the gathering forces of the New Right—exemplified here by Rogers’ skeptical newspaper reporting. The experiment had begun in the 1950s, when the pioneering art teacher and painter Harry Thubron, along with his associates at Leeds College of Art, developed an approach to art education known as “basic research.”4 Fundamentally exploratory, this approach bore similarities to and was to some extent connected with how Basic Design was taught elsewhere in the UK, including schools in Newcastle, Ipswich, Ealing, Leicester, Cardiff and Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.5 It broadly perpetuated the Bauhaus models of education that predated it, treating art-making as a heuristic process through which students learnt by creating forms and ideas out of relatively unrestricted experiment with materials, rather than being “trained” in the production of finished, and ultimately familiar, craft products done in identifiable artistic styles. Although it was difficult to get information about the Bauhaus in Northern England in the 1950s and early 1960s, scholars have noted that particular elements of Bauhaus teaching—such as Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook—were adapted by Thubron and his associates as models for formulating arts pedagogy at Leeds.6 The attention that Klee gave to a quasi-scientific (although in reality quite playfully poetic) exploration of the abstract qualities of line and form helped shape Thubron’s view of the modern artist as a formal and technical innovator, analogous to engineers and scientists. The visual artist’s role was to the explore the expressive possibilities of various media—including traditional painting and sculptural materials such as paint, clay, wood and metal, as well as newer materials and tools such as plastics, photography and modern printing methods. This didn’t mean that art education in Leeds was interested in establishing or following “objective” rules of visual design, as a scientist might abide by or seek to discover the laws of nature. Instead, it emphasized and gave credence to the idiosyncratic developmental logic of each artist’s individual pursuit. Basic Research was therefore not a systematic, “top-down” or predetermined form of artistic instruction: as Thubron put it, the point of Basic Research was to help artists to “learn how to learn” for themselves.7

As a result of the persistence of this liberal individualist model of art experimentation at Leeds, the city’s art school had become, as the British abstract painter Patrick Heron wrote in 1970, “the most influential in Europe since the Bauhaus”—even after Thubron’s departure in 1964.8 By the turn of the decade, the city’s College of Art had been incorporated into the newly founded multidisciplinary technical institution, Leeds Polytechnic. Created by the British government as a specialized institute for higher-level vocational training, the British Polytechnic model was devised to complement traditional academic study already offered within universities, a means of preparing students for the requirements of work in the modern post-industrial society, where professional skill and the knowledge economy would replace the widespread use of industrial labor. At their inception, many Polytechnics subsumed formerly independent art colleges, causing consternation for self-appointed defenders of art and design education in the United Kingdom though as it turned out, Thubron did not share this alarm.9 Heron spoke for many in declaiming the destruction of the art schools’ autonomy, even asserting that they were being “murdered” at the hands of the technocrats and engineers who ran the Polytechnics.10

The broad experimental ethos of Basic Research nevertheless persisted within Leeds Fine Art pedagogy into the 1970s, although with the appointment of Jeff Nuttall to Leeds’ teaching staff it evolved a decidedly countercultural cast. A poet, jazz trumpeter, painter, performance artist and author of Bomb Culture, Nuttall embodied the polymathic reach of the Leeds fine art program. Often irreverent and anarchic, he possessed a faith in the power of aesthetic outrage at a time when progressive politics, as far as he saw it, had become impotent—principally because “the sixties” had failed to overthrow capitalism or stop the Vietnam War. He maintained a soixante-huitard opposition to the war into the 1970s, but by then believed avant-garde art rather than politic activism would provide an effective counter to imperial warfare. For Nuttall, art’s radicalism resided in its ready ability to besmirch the logic of both capitalist rationality and mainstream moral judgement. When a journalist on BBC TV charged that the art of Leeds students was devoid of “sanity,” Nuttall, shot back: “It has been claimed that the Vietnam War, which was much more expensive than the fine art department at Leeds, is a sane project. I think that is truly insane. Whereas I think the things we are doing here are sane.”11

While no longer a new school by the early 1970s, Leeds was, most certainly, an institution freighted with carrying the future-oriented promise of the “new” in art, a project the Bauhaus, Kala Bhavana and other progressive educational institutions had previously championed a half-century earlier. Conservative commentators like Rogers queried the value for money of such an approach to art and art education as a means of casting doubt on the social democratic wisdom which, beginning in 1962, had brought about the full state-funding in England and Wales of university-level study in general and college art education in particular. But even defenders of the modern art school were beginning to have their doubts about the direction in which the UK’s art education was heading by the middle of the 1970s. Few commentators could marshal a cogent raison d’être for the art school sector that students, teachers or administrators could endorse. By 1973, the need for such a vision appeared pressing, with art education looking increasingly like “an economic frill to be trimmed in hard times,” as Peter Lloyd Jones put it in The Listener.12 For Ken Rowat, a painter and senior lecturer in Fine Art at Leeds Polytechnic, the problem was one of art school advocates being “too emasculated and inept” to defend themselves from “the sinister forces of economics and philistine administration.”13 Writing in The Guardian in February 1976, Rowat asserted that the “chance to establish and justify within the public education framework a climate which would cater for that sprinkling of oddballs without which any society will lose it collective soul” had been squandered by those running British art colleges.14

Simon Gartside, a Fine Art student at Leeds in the mid-1970s—soon-to-be Green Gartside, lead-singer of post-punk band Scritti Politti—had come to a different, though no less negative, assessment of the state of UK art education. His experience being an art student at Leeds had left him sullen, disillusioned and bereft of anything he could term “learning.” In a left-wing excoriation of the “anything-goes” pedagogy of Nuttall and his colleagues published in 1979, two years after his graduation, Gartside remonstrated Leeds’ progressive pedagogical ethos for shielding “ignorance and idleness” in its blind institutional pursuit of the holy grail of creativity and discovery.15 Rather than a sign of benign permissiveness, Gartside saw the “pathetic helplessness of art students” as a result of their being left to their own devices, uninformed, abandoned even, on account of their tutor’s abdication of pedagogic responsibility.16 His personal solution to this woeful state of affairs was to become an autodidact: to read Marxist and post-structural theory independent of the Leeds course— sometimes alone, sometimes with others—in a bid to think his way out of the morass.

Bedsit Art

Others similarly turned to fellow students, friends and lovers rather than to their tutors in an effort, in the absence of clear pedagogical direction at the institutional level, to forge a path forward. Instead of hanging their heads between the pages of a book, a small group of Leeds students turned to informal experiments with their bodies to see how they might become malleable, plastic, newly reshaped in the field of culture. Performance art was already an option for students at the Polytechnic and, exceptional for a 1970s English art school, it even featured a black box performance space and sound studio for producing performance works and soundscapes. Much of the performance art made at Leeds, some of which had garnered the Polytechnic adverse national press attention in 1976, took place as public spectacle in the urban or rural outdoors.17 The work of the limited artistic milieu this essay addresses required the relative safety of private space—student bedsits and rooms in shared rented houses—as opposed to the street, countryside or Polytechnic art studios.

Fig. 2: Barbara Frost, Photograph of Frank Tovey, 1978. Reproduced by Permission: Estate of Frank Tovey.

Consider this scene: sometime in 1978, Barbara Frost, formerly an art student at Central Saint Martins in London, along with her then boyfriend Frank Tovey, a final year art student at Leeds Polytechnic, undertook a makeshift photo shoot in the home they shared on Autumn Place, in Leeds’ Hyde Park district. Frost was behind the camera, Tovey in front of it. Some netting, as one can see, forms a minimal backdrop, otherwise the lighting, courtesy of household lamps, is arranged to create a sense of foreboding: an expansive, dramatic gloom, out of which looms Tovey’s garishly-lit form (Fig. 2). Frost remembers: “It came out of conversations (we) had about ‘What are the limits of what you can do with your own body?’ alongside considerations of the aesthetics of the human body and the idea that we’ve been landed with classical statues, like the Venus de Milo, as a beautiful thing; when that was not its original form. We were experimenting with what could be done in terms of stretching, hiding, distorting his (Tovey’s) body. I think if you were doing it now you would end up with some conversations about the issues of images of disability, and the politics of that. But that wasn’t really part of it at the time.”18 The outcome of another photo shoot, likely undertaken in the same place or in another similar student room—this time with the camera in Tovey’s hand—the body before the camera is that of Marc Almond, another Leeds Polytechnic student—later, lead singer in the pop-synth duo Soft Cell. In the photographs taken during this shoot there is a similar use of raking light, dramatizing the contours of the transformations wrought by, in this case, a few items of cross-dressing accoutrement: an open chemise, plastic breasts and a shimmering neck scarf. Adorned in these items, Almond holds up a large mirror to capture a reflection that, in turn, has been caught by Tovey’s camera. These images seem an innocent if vaguely illicit explorations of what sartorial gender non-conformity might look like, with Almond engrossed in and taking pleasure from his own mirror-image; studies not only of someone playing dress-up but also of the dresser learning how to look, even love, his queer image.

Fig. 3 and 4: Frank Tovey, Photographs of John Lester, 1978. Reproduced by Permission: Estate of Frank Tovey.

The final set of photographs I wish to discuss were taken at a photo session in a third domestic interior—in this case the bedsitting-room of painter and Polytechnic art student John Lester. Lester is remembered by one of his peers Sue Swift as hailing from a working-class background in Stoke-on-Trent and was “about 6' 4''”; someone who “nearly always” wore a kaftan. Swift describes Lester as “both male and female: I think he had a lot of confusion about how he identified.”19 That much is evident from this suite of remarkable images, where Lester, in some shots, effects the appearance of femininity by manipulating his womanly chest in Vito Acconci-like fashion (Fig. 3). Other images are more mysterious, the result of the camera’s focus on Lester’s reflection in a mirror—like those Tovey took of Almond—but here they are distorted by the mirror’s uneven surface (Fig. 4). It is as if we are witnessing an act of will exerted to create a novel image of gender non-conformity out of limited representational means—an ill-fitting carpet, coffee cup, box of matches, some bedding and a potted plant. In this series, the setting for Lester’s self-fashioning is caught within the frame of the image—as if these quotidian objects have become accidental bystanders to his transformation.

Frost remembers these images were the outcome of conversations between Tovey, Almond, Lester and herself “about how people feel about their bodies from the inside, and what people see from the outside.”20 It is clear that at least some of the bodies captured by Frost and Tovey’s camera were hyper-visible on the streets of 1970s Leeds and highly vulnerable to violence, while at the same time possessing the unusual capacity to disturb and upset. Sue Swift recalls: “… you would go into a pub with John Lester, and get ex-boxers and those sort of guys feeling really threatened by him. There were always people having a go. He got quite a lot of stick in Leeds because he wasn’t masculine enough. There was a lot of prejudice at that time. Marc got quite a lot of stick just walking down the street.”21 Indeed, in one incident that occurred in 1976, Lester was arrested by police, allegedly because an elderly lady felt intimidated by him and had leapt over a wall onto the motorway below in her effort to avoid crossing his path. Leeds was a tough place to be if one’s public persona was visibly different from the norm: racism was rampant and members of the National Front would attack pubs where left-leaning students and members of the Gay Liberation Front met, as they did one evening in May 1978.

But such fear, even hatred, of difference also found expression in the heart of progressivism’s flagship establishment: the modern, liberal art school. Another former Leeds Polytechnic student recalls Jeff Nuttall bullying John Lester by drawing “willies” on his paintings.22 Such apparent homo and/or transphobia existed alongside rampant, unchecked sexism. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s sexual harassment was a daily occurrence in the studios of female students. Ritual groping and cases of male tutors urinating in female students’ studio spaces after drinking sessions were only decisively called out by feminist activists in the early 1980s, when the so-called “sex for degrees” scandal helped curtail longstanding sexist behavior at Leeds Polytechnic.23 All of this was a dark stain on the image of “wide-open liberty” supposedly enjoyed by Leeds students and championed by Nuttall and other members of the Polytechnic fine art staff.24 This is not to suggest that, as non-heteronormative male students, Marc Almond and Frank Tovey were also recipients of harassment. Both have enthusiastically acknowledged that despite their sexual identities (Almond was “quite nelly in some ways” and Tovey was actively bisexual at the time) Nuttall was a key influence on their artistic development.25

But the privacy of such photographic experiments suggests that the practices of self-fashioning they explored existed in tension with the creative license of 1970s art school progressivism—and not only due to the machismo of its studio culture. Such experiments may have derived their raison d'être from inspirations lying outside the discourse of the art studio and the roll-call of violent and absurdist twentieth century avant-garde art that Nuttall celebrated in the pages of Bomb Culture. Both Almond and Tovey had been teenage David Bowie fans, through him discovering Lindsay Kemp, Jacques Brel and Marcel Marceau. As with many others of their generation, it was the “alien” Bowie of the Ziggy Stardust period that was the primary template for self-invention, and Bowie’s influences—gleaned from reading interviews in the music press—provided additional sources for the project of queer self-fashioning, easily investigated by curious fans. Thus, the points of reference used by Leeds students’ in creating spectacularly androgynous and mutant forms of appearance came from the world of pop music more than the visual arts, even though from the late 1960s onwards rock and pop were ritually castigated by Nuttall as complicit with the forces of Mammon.26 It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine that such disapproval from within the art world might have contributed to the “closeting” of these instances of photographic self-staging undertaken in student bed-sits, which, after all, were also the scenes of record-playing and private rock and pop consumption.

Fig. 5: Fad Gadget, Back to Nature, (cover art), Mute Records, 1979. Reproduced by Permission: Estate of Frank Tovey.

Fortunately they didn’t dwell there for long. The Anarchy in the UK tour had brought punk to Leeds in December 1976, and in its wake public culture began to shift. Just as male and female art students in Leeds found new possibilities for defiant forms of self-creation in punk—from members of Scritti Politti and Delta 5 to Sheeny and the Goys—so, too, punk also opened up the public potential of performance for Frank Tovey and Marc Almond. Both went on to secure differing degrees of public recognition as, respectively, the electro-pop acts Fad Gadget and Soft Cell. The cover of Tovey’s first single release as Fad Gadget, Back to Nature (1979), featured two of Frost’s photographs from the Autumn Place shoot, boldly outlining his inaugural form of appearance to a record-buying public (Fig. 5). The kind of mutant visibility achieved by this early bedroom photo shoot after its transformation into cover art became an influential model for later iterations of Tovey’s and other post-punk performer’s self-staging. It showed the reach and impact of art school experiments conducted at some remove from the visual arts studio and yet in inchoate dialogue with the stalling of progressive thinking that had occurred there. The permission given by the modern art school, which in the Bauhaus years had been a precondition for radical and utopian re-imaginings of art and society, had by the 1970s become anathema to a generation fired up by punk: who needed permission from authority after the Sex Pistols? Not that conservatism was the way to go, either. Despite the song’s title, Tovey’s cover image didn’t condone a conservative turn “back to nature” as an answer to this problem. It suggested a pop way forward by turning one’s back on it, leaving instead the exploratory work of self-fashioning as locus of art’s radical promise.

●Footnotes
  • 1 Byron Rogers: “Progressive Art or Subsidised Freak Out?,” The Daily Telegraph Magazine, 14 April 1972, pp. 9–12.
  • 2 Ibid., p. 9. James Charnley has questioned the accuracy of Rogers’ reporting and accused him of extracting the most odd-ball and outrageous art works, even inventing some elements for effect, or exaggerating others, in order to portray Leeds as home to a wacky and ultimately questionable seam of creativity, see James Charnley: Creative License: From Leeds College of Art to Leeds Polytechnic 1963-1973, Lutterworth Press, Cambridge 2015, pp. 194–195.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 10.
  • 4 In 1956 Thubron made a presentation under the title of ‘An Experiment in Basic Art Education’ at the Easter Conference of the Society for Education through Art in Bretton Hall near Wakefield and was known to refer to his nine years in Leeds as the “Leeds Experiment.” See Norbert Lynton: “Harry Thubron: Teacher and Artist,” in: David Thistlewood (ed.), Histories of Art and Design Education: Cole to Coldstream, Longman, Harlow 1992, p. 170–172; and David Manson: Willy Tirr: Figure in a Landscape 1915-1991, Author House, Milton Keynes 2010, p. 34.
  • 5 For more on Basic Design in the UK see: David Thistlewood: A Continuing Process: The New Creativity in British Art Education 1955-65, ICA, London 1981; Hester R. Westley and Beth Williamson: “William Johnstone: International and Interdisciplinary Art Education,” in: Nigel Llewellyn (ed.): The London Art Schools: Reforming the Art World, 1960 to Now, Tate, London 2015, pp. 25–36; Elena Crippa and Beth Williamson (eds.), Basic Design, (ex. cat.), London, Tate, 2013; and Michael Bracewell, Re-make/Re-model: Art, Pop, Fashion and the Making of Roxy Music, 1953-1972, Faber & Faber, London 2007.
  • 6 See Erik H. Forrest: “Harry Thubron: His Contribution to Foundation Studies in Art Education,” Ohio State University, PhD dissertation, 1983, pp. 190–194.
  • 7 This is how Thubron puts it in Elma Askham and Harry Thubron: “The Case for Polytechnics,” Studio International, Vol. 174, No. 892, September 1967, p. 83.
  • 8 Patrick Heron: “Murder of the Art Schools,” The Guardian, 12 October 1971, p. 8.
  • 9 See Askham and Thubron: “The Case for Polytechnics,” op. cit.
  • 10 Heron: “Murder of the Art Schools,” op. cit.
  • 11 Clip from a BBC Leeds TV program, circa 1970, excerpted within The City Talking Music in Leeds Vol. 3, (dir. Lee and Stacey Hicken), Hebe Works Production, 2017.
  • 12 Peter Lloyd Jones: “Art Students and Their Troubles,” Leonardo, Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter 1975, p. 65 (originally published in The Listener, 1973).
  • 13 Ken Rowat, untitled article, The Guardian, 10 February 1976, p. 15.
  • 14 Ibid.
  • 15 Alan Robinson, Green Strohmeyer-Gartside & Tom Soviet: “Show Us Your Uniqueness,” in: Dave Rushton and Paul Wood (eds.): Politics of Art Education, The Studio Trust, London 1979, p. 46.
  • 16 Ibid.
  • 17 A piece by performance art group Ddart, Circular Walk, comprised of a three-man walk in the countryside around Norwich with a pole strapped to the artists’ heads, became tabloid fodder in March 1976. See John A. Walker: Left Shift: Radical Art in 1970s Britain, I.B. Tauris, London 2002, pp. 172–173.
  • 18 Barbara Frost, interview with author, 15 February 2013.
  • 19 Sue Swift, interview with author, 21 July 2018.
  • 20 Frost, op. cit.
  • 21 Swift, op. cit.
  • 22 Gilly Johns, interview with author, 11 September 2018.
  • 23 “‘Sex-favour’ row over degrees,” Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 October 1984, p. 1.
  • 24 The phrase is Nuttall’s, in Jeff Nuttall: Art and the Degradation of Awareness, London Calder, 2001, p. 64.
  • 25 This recollection of Almond’s self-presentation is George Hinchcliffe’s. Interview with author, 22 September 2017.
  • 26 See Nuttall: Art and the Degradation of Awareness, pp. 47–77, for perhaps Nuttall’s most forthright and extended critique of rock and pop culture.
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