The University originated as the Norwich School of Design in 1845, so although it only became an independent University in 2013, as an institution of Higher Education it is over a century older than the University of East Anglia, the other Norwich based university. In the middle of the nineteenth century the great years of the Norwich School of Artists still exercised its influence over art in the city, although by then the Society had folded. The Norwich School of Design was for many years located in the building built for the purpose next to St Andrew’s Hall. It first expanded across the road into the shop which had been run by Gunton’s, a large supplier of machine tools, although it also functioned as a builders’ merchants. This was in the 1970s. These properties both abut the river in St George’s Street; at the time the river was an abandoned and desolate place. The surrounding shoe factories had fallen on bleak times, and the theatre which now graces the opposite bank had not then been instituted. The river was a wilderness with saplings growing out of the quayside.
There are a number of local worthies carved into original Art School building. One of these is the editor of the Norwich Mercury from 1844 until about 1865, Richard Noverre Bacon. He was a prominent supporter of the new enterprise. A distant cousin of the editor, my former schoolteacher Dick Bagnall-Oakeley, was a student at the Art School in the 1930s after gaining a First in Geography at Cambridge. No wonder he drew us such marvellous maps on the blackboard!
There have been many notable artists who attended this institution, but the most eminent must the painter Sir Alfred Munnings. Even in the early twentieth century already he despised modernism, and so he is not popular among the members of the art world, who prefer artists like Tracey Emin and the Turner Prize winning potter who dresses in drag. Nevertheless he has a fantastic reputation among art collectors. Munnings was born in Suffolk at Mendham just across the border from Harleston in Norfolk. His father was a miller who supplied flour to my great-grandfather, the Stradbroke baker. The young Alfred was apprenticed to Page, the Norwich firm of printer; you can see their current premises on the Ring Road. He worked designing illustrations for the firm’s clients during the day, but attended the Norwich School of Art as a part-time student. It was during this period that he designed the barman logo for Bullards’s brewery, and produced the illustration for the adverts for Caley’s chocolate.
He soon outgrew his early employment, but he spent several months living around the Ringland Hills painting horses and his mischievous young model ‘Shrimp’. These paintings form the subject of a film recently given its premier by a local film maker in Costessey. Even before his death in 1959 his pictures of horses had an international reputation, and today they sell for many millions of dollars when they come up for auction.
Other more recent alumni of the Norwich School of Art include Colin Self, the Pop-artist who rose to fame in the 1960s, and Keith Chapman the man behind Bob the Builder. The presence of a major Higher Education centre in the arts has produced a large number of local businesses in the field of digital arts.