Isle of Art: The History of the Douglas School of Art Search of iMuseum

Isle of Art: The History of the Douglas School of Art

Posted on 07.01.2020

A Place to Nurture Manx Art

Chisholm & students in Art School (PG/1000/1)

From 1880, a common thread has linked the work of many of the Island’s artists – their connection with the Douglas School of Art, either as tutors or students and in some cases both.

So why was an art school so important?

During the 19th century, Britain was seen as a world leader in terms of industrial innovation. The Great Exhibition (1851) showcased Britain’s manufacturing expertise but it also highlighted how poor British design was in comparison with other countries. A growing recognition of the importance of art and the need for good design led to the establishment of the South Kensington museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the ‘South Kensington System’ of art education.

New art schools started to spring up around the British Isles and the Isle of Man was no exception. Debate about the importance of art education can be found in the Manx newspapers from the 1850s. It took until June 1880 before a private meeting of local dignitaries, chaired by the Island’s Lieutenant Governor, Sir Henry Loch, came together to discuss potentially opening a School of Art in Douglas.

John Miller Nicholson, one of the Island’s leading artists, also supported the idea of a new Art School. He was entirely self-taught, laboriously following exercises from art training manuals, but he appreciated the benefit of a systematic art education.

John Miller Nicholson was an exceptional artist but his lack of formal training meant that it was only after years of continuous practice that his true artistic talent and expertise began to emerge. This pair of self-portraits (1870 & 1879) shows the transition from accomplished amateur to professional artist.

How to create an Art School from scratch – the early years of the Douglas School of Art

The new School of Art opened on 22nd November 1880 in a building in Castle Street, Douglas. Fundraising efforts included an art exhibition staged in Marsden’s Aquarium on Douglas seafront with important works loaned from around Britain, but…

The exhibition had been a success in every way, except financially, and he [the High Bailiff] hoped the Island would now come forward and subscribe liberally to the funds for the establishment of the school.’

Isle of Man Times, 25th September, 1880

Fees were charged for Elementary and Advanced classes in subjects including drawing, painting in oils and watercolours, modelling and designing. The intention was to attract students who might become future art teachers as well as trade apprentices wanting to learn useful draughting skills.

Funding continued to be an issue, but the new institution was also plagued by the eternal question of defining what art actually was and who should an artistic education be for.

The first Head of Art School, William J.Merritt, appears to have struggled with these issues and left in 1884, but not before a new purpose-built art school was nearing completion. Heated debates raged in the Manx newspapers over what the art school should be teaching. The ‘mechanics’ were not felt to be getting the necessary tuition in geometrical and  architectural drawing and it was said that there was too much emphasis on sketching and painting for the artists.

Archibald Knox, Liberty designer, was amongst the first student intake in 1880 . After studying at the School of Art, Knox became one of the teaching assistants and started training as an Art Master – a career he followed for the rest of his life.

Pencil Sketches by Archibald Knox (1884) possibly produced during trips out by the School’s Sketching Club

Establishing an Art School – Art for Art’s Sake? A Luxury or a Necessity?

The new purpose-built School of Art opened in Kensington Road in April 1884 but by September the resignation of William J. Merritt as Art Master, falling student numbers and reduced fees heralded the bleak prospect of bankruptcy or closure.

.. the impression abroad respecting it is that the Douglas School of Art is little better than a mere drawing school for the upper classes of the town and district..

Isle of Man Times, 27th September, 1884

The new master David M. Robertson of Edinburgh arrived in January 1885. He was forcibly reminded that this was not Edinburgh and we are destitute. During Robertson’s time, student numbers steadily grew and the art school was extended.

Following Robertson’s premature death at 49 in 1909, and what the newspapers called a long and chequered existence, a new era started for the School of Art with the appointment of Peter Chisholm from London. The school was placed on firmer footings with its management being transferred from a board of Trustees to the Higher Education Board and so ended its reliance on private subscriptions for funding.

Despite drastically reduced numbers the school stayed open through the First World War. Archibald Knox had joined the teaching staff. As part of the Isle of Man Education Authority, the School of Art offered more evening classes for painters and decorators and craft work rather than just art instruction.

After 32 years, Peter Chisholm resigned as Principal of the Douglas School of Art in 1941 and as the war progressed, a new chapter began.

Art School Exhibition – Life Drawings

Art School Exhibition – Art Masters

Punching above its Weight – the Douglas School of Art in the 1940s and 1950s

Hargreaves Whitehead of Oldham was appointed the new Principal of the School of Art in 1943 and when term began in September 1943, it had gained a new name – The School of Arts & Crafts – with an expanded list of classes. Student numbers rose dramatically.

The re-launch of the ‘School of Arts & Crafts’, was a great success. There were rave reviews for the exhibition staged in April 1944. The students’ social life was enhanced by a new Students Union and a Drama group brought together their skills in costume-making, set design and production.

Changes continued after the war with evening classes being targeted at both people who wanted to gain qualifications but also those who wanted to learn new skills for their own enjoyment – informal education as a leisure pursuit was now part of the syllabus.

The post-war cohort of students included many illustrious names:

Professor Bryan Kneale RA (b.1930) attended for 1 year in 1947, before going to London to study at the Royal Academy Schools from 1948 to 1953.

Norman Sayle (1926-2007) attended from 1948 to 1952 and went onto study graphic design at Goldsmith’s College, London University. Sayle returned to the Island in 1954 as an assistant lecturer at the School of Technology, Arts and Crafts in Douglas, where he stayed for the next 35 years. He became Head of the art school.

Ashton Cannell (1927-1994) attended in the 1940s and returned as a member of staff from 1951 to 1954 when he was an Assistant Master, after which he taught in London.

Toni Onley OC (1928-2004) attended part-time as young teenager for Saturday outdoor painting trips with John H. Nicholson and the older full-time students.

Professor Michael Sandle RA (b.1936) attended from 1951 to 1954. Afterwards he studied printmaking in London at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1956 to 1959.

Cover for the Tanrogan (Students’ Union) magazine, 1947

New Art for a New Generation – the Douglas School of Art in the 1960s

 By the 1960s, everything was changing; society and the world in general, art, youth culture and expectations – the young people entering the School of Art were approaching and engaging with art in a very different way to their predecessors.

The Art School was now led by one of its ex-pupils, Norman Sayle, and together with staff such as Maurice Day and Eric Houlgrave, he encouraged the students to experiment and to look at the world around them with new eyes. As a result, increasingly abstract works of art were being produced; some even constructed and photographed outside the Douglas School of Art.

The art school was beginning to show its age by the late 1960s and was becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. So in 1970, the School of Art and various other training establishments were moved to a new purpose-built College of Further Education on the outskirts of Douglas, now UCM – University College Isle of Man.

Since 1970, the old School of Art building has been used as the Douglas Youth Centre and is now the Island’s Youth Arts Centre.

Throughout their lives, both the building and the institution have provided generations with the opportunity to explore their own creativity and engage and develop their own artistic visions. Some students have become household names and made a career from their art, whilst others have enjoyed art as a lifelong leisure pursuit.

The legacy of the Douglas School of Art lives on in the national art collection and in the works that you can see here today.

Outside ‘The Dainty Dive’, Douglas, Isle of Man, 1970. Left to right: Kevin Atherton, Ian Coulson, and Martin Bronte Hearne.


Yvonne Cresswell (MNH Curator: Social History)

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