The Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London, acted as a ‘wake-up’ call to many of our industries. The standard of the foreign exhibits, in particular the French and German products was much higher than our own, featuring better design, and superior workmanship, from a higher skilled workforce. People quickly realised that something had to be done to re-address the balance, in order for the UK to successfully compete with our neighbours.

The more progressive industrial towns and cities in the UK set about correcting the situation by establishing schools of art and design, to train, and improve the skills of craftsmen and women.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery, as seen from across Lichfield Street. The side entrance facing St. Peter's Gardens was the main entrance to the School of Art and Crafts, which was in the back part of the building to the left of the entrance.

Wolverhampton was at the forefront of the movement to establish schools of art and design, and opened a small school of art and design in Castle Street, towards the end of 1851.

The art master was Mr. H. Chittenden, and the honorary secretary was Mr. Charles Benjamin Mander. The classes were in drawing and designing. They became extremely popular, and led to the raising of subscriptions for a much larger, purpose-built building.

Wolverhampton’s New School of Art

Land was acquired in Darlington Street, on the corner of Art Street, for the new Government School of Practical Art, a handsome Greek-style, stone-fronted building, the first purpose-built school of art in the country. The foundation stone was laid by Lord Hatherton on Tuesday the 21st June, 1853. The building, designed by Edward Banks, and built by John Elliot, was completed at a cost of about £2,300. After the stone laying, a luncheon was provided for around 300 guests in the Exchange, under the chairmanship of the mayor, Jeremiah Wynn.

The opening ceremony took place on the 1st August, 1854, not long after the start of the Crimean War. Earl Granville who presided, was supported by Lord Dartmouth, Lord Lyttelton, Lord Hatherton, Thomas Thorley, M.P., John Neve (mayor), Rev. J. B. Owen, Rev. William Bevan, George Briscoe, William Tarratt, John Shaw, George Wallis, H. Chittenden, and Charles Benjamin Mander. Lord Hatherton was elected, first president of the school.

The new art school was called the School of Practical Art for Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire. Courtesy of David Parsons.

Shortly after the official opening, Henry Loveridge became chairman, and Charles Benjamin Mander became honorary secretary. Mr. H. Chittenden soon retired as headmaster, and was replaced by Mr. J. W. Muckley, who was later replaced by Mr. Archibald Gunn.

The School of Art in Darlington Street. Courtesy of Steve Martin.

The north façade faced Darlington Street, and the entrance was in Art Street on the eastern side of the building. The entrance led into the foyer and the staircase. On one side was an 18 feet by 14 feet committee room, with an identical room on the other side for the headmaster. Beyond the foyer was the elementary room, 43 feet by 26 feet, followed by the modelling room, 39 feet by 18 feet. There were also toilets and cloak rooms. The library, the painting room, and the antique room were on the first floor, all lit by skylights. The porter’s flat was in the basement.

 The principal staff are listed in Harrison, Harrod, & Company’s 1861 Directory and Gazetteer as follows:

President, Lord Lyttleton; Vice Presidents, George Briscoe, and Charles Corser; Treasurer and Honorary Secretary, Charles Benjamin Mander; Headmaster, J. W. Muckley; Second Master, Edward R. Taylor; School Warden and Collector, Augustus Ovey.

The classes were well attended, and the original subscribers continued to support the school, but within a few years the school began to struggle financially. The management committee felt that such an undertaking, which was open to all who chose to use it, should no longer be a burden on the small number of subscribers. It should be under the control of the Corporation, and supported by the local ratepayers. They felt that if the Free Libraries Act of 1850 was adopted, a rate might be levied for a free library, and school of art. In 1860, Councillor Charles Benjamin Mander moved a resolution at a meeting of the town council, to this effect, which was accepted. Unfortunately at a subsequent meeting of ratepayers under the chairmanship of the mayor, the resolution was violently opposed and rejected, after a noisy demonstration.

The side and back of the school, as seen from Art Street. The main entrance is behind the telephone box. Courtesy of Steve Martin.

Undaunted, the school managed to keep going. In 1873 there were 178 students receiving instruction in art and science. Seven of them gained Queen’s prizes, eleven gained second class certificates, and a large number obtained certificates of merit. By this time Mr. T. Vincent Jackson had been appointed as honorary secretary of the school.

In 1883 when building work on the new art gallery in Lichfield Street was underway, the school’s management committee decided to sell the school building, and to use the proceeds to move the school into new premises that would adjoin the art gallery. The building was then offered for sale.

The Municipal School of Art and Crafts

For some time it had been considered that a new school of art, complete with up-to-date resources, should be built on a site adjoining the art gallery, and placed under the control of the Corporation. Such a municipal institution would greatly benefit the town, but it could not happen unless the building was paid-for by private individuals. Luckily, the Art Gallery’s benefactor, Philip Horsman, bought the Darlington Street premises for £2,000, and the money was put aside towards the cost of the new building.

Other benefactors included John and Joseph Jones, who gave £1,000, Samuel Theodore Mander, who gave £250, Arthur Briscoe, who gave £300, Henry Loveridge, who gave £200, and Edward Shaw who also gave £200. Donations of £100 were received from Captain Perry, Miss White, and Mr. C. Wells. The project also received a Government grant of £1,000, which with other donations made the total up to £5,575.

The land was given by the town council, and building work rapidly got underway. It was built as part of the art gallery building by Philip Horsman & Company, using identical materials. The ground floor rooms consisted of two rooms for teaching machine and building construction, one 24 feet by 70 feet, and another 20 feet square. There were large and small elementary drawing rooms, around the same size as those already mentioned, an antique and life room, 24 feet by 47 feet, a painting room with access to the art gallery, 24 feet by 32 feet, a light and shade room, the master’s room, men and women’s cloak rooms and toilets. In the basement was a modelling and design room, 61 feet by 26 feet. The building could accommodate between 500 and 600 pupils.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery and School of Art and Crafts. The school entrance faces St. Peter's Gardens.

The Municipal School of Art and Crafts officially opened on 21st June, 1885. A public reception was held by the mayor, John Annan, with guests including A. J. Mundella, M.P., President of the Board of Trade, and William Woodall, Financial Secretary to the War Office.

Fees were as follows:

Students attending evening classes for craftsmen and craftswomen - 5 shillings per quarter.

Students attending higher level evening classes - 7 shillings and six pence per quarter.

Students attending day classes - £1.1s.0d.  per quarter.

Mr. Archibald Gunn continued as Headmaster.

Parts of the Darlington Street building continued to be used by the school, the remainder being occupied by the Y.M.C.A.

Student numbers gradually increased. There were 253 students in 1890, 110 of whom took examinations. 70 of them passed. In the following year there were 311 students. 87 out of 174 of them passed their exams.

The 1891 accounts. From the Wolverhampton Red Book.

In 1894 Mr. C. F. Schmidt left £641 in his will to be invested. The interest was to be used to provide scholarships or prizes in his name. In 1896 a total of 304 students passed their exams, and a further 23 passed the science exam. At the time there were 383 students. Two silver and three bronze medals were won, and seven Queen’s prizes were awarded for works sent to London.

In late 1908 or early 1909 the school acquired the fine brick-built building at the back, in Wulfruna Street, now known as the art gallery annexe. It had previously been occupied by the Wolverhampton Board of Guardians. The building is listed in the 1908 Wolverhampton Red Book as being used by the Guardians, but not in the 1909 edition.

From the 1908 Wolverhampton Red Book.

Students included the internationally known sculptor, Sir Charles Thomas Wheeler, who studied here from 1907 until 1912.

One of the school’s best known teachers was Second Master - Robert Jackson Emerson who taught drawing and sculpture from 1910 until his retirement in 1942. In 1913 he was elected to the Royal Society of British Sculptors, and soon became a fellow.

He was also a member of the Birmingham Society of Artists, and in 1934 was appointed Professor of Sculpture for the society.

He inspired and taught many students who later achieved great things. Between 1927 and 1938, four of his students won the Prix de Rome Scholarship in sculpture. His reputation as a teacher became almost legendary within the profession, which led to his election to the Faculty of Sculpture of the Prix de Rome in 1937.

His most famous student was Sir Charles Wheeler.

Emerson continued to work after his retirement despite severe illness. He died in 1944.

The Annexe in Wulfruna Street which was acquired by the school in late 1908 or early 1909.

It had been built in 1887 and was used as offices for the Wolverhampton Board of Guardians.

Modelling classes were offered to students of the school from the beginning. In 1885 there were 29 modelling students, 15 of whom sat modelling examinations. The 1912 syllabus states that the objects of the School are to effect a complete union between Arts and Crafts and give a sound practical training in drawing, painting, modelling, designing, and the crafts, with a view to the requirements of  manufacturers, designers and craftsmen, and to instruct those who wish to pursue art as part of their general education, and also to give facilities for the training of persons who wish to adopt art as a profession, or to include it in their qualification as teachers in other Schools.

Elementary subjects included modelling in clay or cardboard, wood carving, modelling from the cast and from objects of natural history, modelling from the antique and from drapery, modelling the human figure in the round and in relief, modelling the head from life, modelling hands and feet from nature, modelling from memory, modelling figure compositions for sculpture, and lectures on history and methods of sculpture. Architecture also formed part of the advanced course.

From the 1913 Wolverhampton Red Book.

From the 1925 Wolverhampton Red Book.

From the 1930 Wolverhampton Red Book.

From the 1936 Wolverhampton Red Book.

From the 1942 Wolverhampton Red Book.

Assistant teachers of metalwork included W. Blackwell who specialised in ornamental wrought ironwork and ornamental leadwork. Mr. Archibald Gunn was the school's Headmaster until 1900 when he retired and was replaced by J. J. Brownsword, who in turn was replaced by A. A. Cooper.

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