No other classroom was a constant feature of my time at Gresham’s School; the art room and the gym were the only Senior School places we ventured to from the Prep School for our lessons. PE stopped being compulsory for sixth formers and I was glad stop using it, but I continued my time in the art room until December 1967 when I was nearly nineteen. I had first been introduced to the art room as a ten year old in September 1959. It was an immutable feature of my life; so too was the art master, Beaver. He was more formally known as Stuart Webster or simply as JSW, which was how he signed many of his watercolours.
The art room was in the Library Building, a 1930s building in muted neo-Classical style. The library itself was on the ground floor, and had a gallery around it at first floor level. It seemed impressively stocked to me as schoolboy – it certainly had all the books I wanted – but it is not the library I am interested in at present. Besides the library there were eight or ten classrooms devoted to History, English, Modern Languages, Geography – and Art. The art room was on the first floor, and to approach it you had to go along a corridor with windows on one side and stuffed birds in glass cases along the other. These were stacked two or three deep. Such ornithological specimens had been popular back in Edwardian times, but by the post-war period they had been relegated to this backwater.
My first term was the Christmas term (official the Michaelmas term) and as the festival approached Beaver got out the equipment needed for producing ‘spatterwork’ posters. Spatterwork was just what it said it was, spattering paint. You would arrange wooden letters on a piece of cartridge paper to read MERRY CHRISTMAS or some similar greeting. To be more accurate Beaver would arrange the letters because most of us lacked any artistic flair, even for such a simple task. Then with a nail brush dipped in poster paint we would gaily cover the paper by dragging our fingers through the bristles; this was the spattering, and it was so simple that we were allowed to do it unaided. Nobody produced too few spatters, but several of us produced far too many, so that the paper became a soggy mass of grey paint as the colours all merged together. Then, once the paint was dry, the wooden letters would be removed to reveal the message in the original colour of the cartridge paper. The last action was to paint white along the tops of the letters to represent snow. This was a tricky thing to do in a suitable manner; it had to look like snow, and this too was normally done by Beaver. The result always delighted his young charges, and so it should, with all the difficult bits being done by a competent artist – Beaver.
Art was always a double period, so it lasted almost an hour and a half. With the paints to be got out first and put away at the end it needed the extra time. Handicraft lessons were a double period too; otherwise a single forty minute session was deemed adequate for everything else. Everything except maths. This also took up a double period, first thing on Monday morning, when we were thought to be bright and fresh. When I first began to do art it was the last two periods on Friday evening – the reverse of Monday morning. By then we were tired and jaded and only fit to mess about with paint.
Art only got a look in once a week until I was sixth former doing Art A level, when I was in the art room most days. It was formally set out with desks facing the front where Beaver, who was a short man, would sit perched on a high stool behind a massive desk which ran virtually across the whole room. He appeared to be a very pompous character as he sat there giving us the advantage of his wisdom, but when you got to know him well you became aware that this was all an act. This formal instruction did not last long; for most of the lesson he would walk round the desks inspecting our work and deftly improving it was paint brush in his hand.
As a sixth former I was privileged to be given a section of wall in the art room to paint a mural on. The subject was one of my main interests at the time – playing the double bass. In fact it was a cartoon of an old man standing to pluck a cello. I never finished it. I was surprise that it stayed there for a year or two after I had left, before it was painted over.
Over the nine years that I spent in the art room I got very friendly with Beaver, and I even continued to visit when I had left university and he had retired. After a lifetime as a flat dwelling bachelor he had married and was living in a country cottage in Hunworth. Not long after I visited him in the mid 70s I heard that he had died. I made one last visit to his widow and bought some of his watercolours .