Art at Rydal Penrhos has been a place of quiet industry for decades. It was built and added to the swimming pool in the early 70’s after a gift from an Old Rydalian who was shocked that the Art department was being housed in the old wooden gym that used to occupy the Quad.
We have Ken “Muff” Cooper, the then Head of Art to thank for overseeing the excellent design. As a potter, he created workshop rooms and areas for the potter’s wheels under the window downstairs.
Upstairs is still the purpose built north facing large painting studio that is the envy of most Art departments in the country. Geoff Burke took over from the great Ken and was joined by Ceri Leader. Together they made a great team and were followed more recently by Karen Teal, David Mortimer Jones and Suzy Morris.
I took over the role of Head of Art in 2012 having left Rydal Penrhos as a pupil when Geoff and Ceri were in full flow in the late 80’S. After nearly 25 years studying and teaching Art in schools and colleges in and around London and Brighton it seemed strange to be returning to North Wales to pick up the baton.
At first I was asked the same questions by Old Rydalians, “what’s it like coming back?” or “that must be weird?” or “I bet you never thought you’d never do that job?” All of those were of course true but what I wasn’t ready for was how much had stayed the same.
The Art room was still a fantastic space, Rydalians were just as good humoured and non-pretentious as when I had left and I still knew all the words to “Guide me oh thy Great Jehovah”!
We still insist that the whole of Year 9 spend a term on clay but the potter’s wheel have been replaced with computers for photography and research work. We have an Apple Mac (kindly donated by FORPS) where the pupils can make films.
I have reinstated an old-fashioned darkroom that I enjoyed when Geoff was in charge. The children still enjoy seeing images appear almost like magic under the red light. Mortimer Jones left to the school a 200-year-old Albion printing press that we still use every year for lino printing and a few years ago, I managed to secure funding for a large etching press, which is in daily use.
Mrs Morris has recently converted an old office into a Textiles specialist area with sewing machines and supplies and in what was an old printing area we have created a small photo studio with lights and tripods.
Times have changed and you can now study Fine Art, Photography or Textiles at A Level (or even do all three if you wish) at Rydal Penrhos.
The ethos of working from direct observation is still at the corner stone of an Art education here and we try to make the students believe they can do anything in any medium, at any scale.
Every year since I arrived we have sent pupils off to all corners of Britain to study Art, Photography or Textiles. Recently pupils have left to study Art History in Manchester, Fine Art in Loughborough and Fashion retail and Fashion Photography at Leeds and sculpture in Brighton.
One of our recent pupils won first prize in the Museum of Modern Art for Wales competition for a fabulous portrait. It’s increasingly become a popular and successful department in the school and a few years ago we had nearly 20 per cent of the Upper Sixth Form take an art subject and of them 85% gained an A-A* grade, something we are very proud of.
It has been a growing department too – recently there were more pupils taking an Art related subject at A Level than Modern Languages, Design Technology, Drama, Religious Studies and Music put together.
At the moment we are trying to set up a more permanent gallery area in school to show off pupils’ work to the rest of the Rydal Penrhos community, rather than relying on just the end of year summer exhibition so many of you may remember.
“What’s it (really) like coming back?” well in all honesty it feels like an honour and a privilege in many ways. It is a job you feel you want to do as well as possible because, like so many Rydalians it is where my journey in Art began (and if I don’t do a decent job my old school friends would be quick to let me know!). I feel lucky to get the chance to go back and hopefully repay the place where it all began.
Occasionally Old Rydalians pop in and it is great to be able to show off the work by our current pupils and to talk about the old times and demonstrate what is new and exciting and our plans for the future. I hope you feel you too can come and visit and see the talent that continues to be nurtured and supported in this special place.
The best bit of the job is that I am still learning from the pupils and Rydalians remind me every day of the one line the legendary Ken (Muff) Cooper put on my report one year: “He doesn’t know it all yet”!
It is still a great place to be and I am happy my own children have enjoyed a Rydal Penrhos education too (even if they haven’t always enjoyed the Art teacher).
Mr M Sherrington
Head of Art