MA/PGDIP NARRATIVE ILLUSTRATION/EDITORIAL DESIGN
The M.A./ Pg.Dip. Narrative Illustration/Editorial Design which was launched in 1989 at the University of Brighton had been validated despite the malodorous associations of the word “Narrative” among practitioners of Fine Art on the Academic Bodies. Now it is a commonplace that we each have our own ‘stories’, and that products require more ‘focussed narratives’ to make profits. Then the idea of story telling was among the Bohemians and pigment pushers at art schools on an aesthetic on a par with Pokerwork or Morris Dancing. It was also, as I once heard on a staircase, “...merely Illustration…”
It had recruited its first cohort well before my arrival. John Vernon Lord was initially course leader with me as his assistant while I found my feet. With George Hardie, artist/designer, who I had met at Norwich, we became what one envious Manager called The Boys Club. Under the usual circumstances this would have implied an excess of alcohol and seedy practice. In our case it signified a unity of fellowship and a joy in mutual support.
As far as my workload was concerned, the course was part-time initially because I also taught on the BA course with Liz Leyland as Course Leader. She deployed me as a provider of project support at briefings, and as studio tutor. During an interregnum between Course Leaders I saw to it the students were present in the afternoons with daily four o’clock group meetings with mandatory attendance. Rick said that he once sneezed and feared I would give him a detention. One term, in thrall to multi-media, I taught sound design, and the visual interpretation of music. The students were indeed very patient because they were enthusiastic and competitive. My own doubts about the primacy of time honoured hand skills much treasured in Graphic Design and my emphasis on research encouraged many BA students to see a future in film and multi-media work.
The MA/PgDip course met on Wednesdays, starting at eleven A.M., with tutorials for the MAs, while I ran the PgDip seminars introducing students from outside the discipline to Design education fundamentals. We got to show films at lunchtime (documentaries and features, which I had been storing since my first video recorder at Norwich). Afternoon tutorials carried us through to the convergence point of the day, the Six O’Clock Lecture - attendance mandatory
Because all members of staff in the Department were committed to the paper free office, I was given the tools for the job and prepared detailed daily timetables on my classic Mac. It was one reason for committing the daily programmes to a website on the University server that students who lived out of Brighton could read ahead or catch up.
There was a budget for external speakers, illustrators, designers, film-makers, and any sparky presence that cheer up the end of the working day. An early visitor was Professor Aaron Scharf, retired from the Open University, who challenged us with the possibility that something might not have a narrative. Over two days he showed us what ingenious fun we could have at this game and showed Zbig Rybczinski’s Steps, American tourists matted into the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Doctors had advised Aaron not to travel, so we counted ourselves particularly fortunate in his inspiration.
I delighted in running a tight ship, and delivering value for fees paid. John devised the strategy of beginning a lecture again if a student arrived late. The chairing of the group discussions was vital in that any peer group contained pretension and terror in equal measure. The Review of Work Day towards the end of each term was an opportunity for each student to give an account of progress so far. John’s lectures included sessions on the Fable visualised, interpretations of Don Quixote, and a memorable lecture on Quotation and Collage in Music. John’s exploration of the delights of Hatching in image making was a huge help in interpreting aspects of students’ work.
George lectured on aspects of Sequence and I remember The Linear Pizza among other accounts of his developing work and practice. Most of my lectures were specially minted for the context of the Sequential, but I did manage a talk on Father Christmas with an analysis of his wet lower lip that caused a pleasing shudder of revulsion in the audience and in Jackie Batey in particular. Three lectures on Marcel Duchamp found a particular resonance with students from more conventional Graphics backgrounds.
In such a supportive atmosphere we could be speculative and creative in what and how we said things. I have attended lectures elewhere in which the deliberate humiliation of the speaker was regarded as a matter of course, explained by the need to bring critical scrutiny to bear. There is a strong argument, I believe, for meeting sneers from 'critics' with a clip to the ear.
Above all students and staff taught and learnt for each other. It was important that the course was either Passed or Failed, with no mindless pursuits and arguing over a Grade too far. Excellence perceived in performance or portfolio was rewarded in references subsequent to the course.
The subdivisions of the daily timetables were set aside each term for a Theme Day where collaboration in small groups was encouraged – Maps, Sequences, Image and Text, the Offensive, does Context matter? I still get emails from ex-students recalling those days with much fondness.
John Vernon Lord's Lecture on The Fox and the Crow
Having failed so many myself in the past, I was sensitive to what we needed to see at interview in a potential student. As George said, “Do we feed them, or do they feed us.” Being for so long a Visiting Tutor I had participated in few interviews. One session at Norwich led by Penny Hudd had been a revelation. The interviews were overseen by her brother Donald, a distinguished management consultant. He reported back. I was too wordy. Too many clauses in my sentences. Quite right. Turning to a colleague from the Graphics staff team, Donald identified as his characteristic ‘tell’ was that he licked his lips when addressing a woman student. Quite right, despite the outrage generated. “You do, you do!”.
Interviewing candidates for the MA Narrative course was done during the week. Working with John on this, completing our questionnaires during the candidates’ presentations was fun, and debate generally funny butscrupulously fair. Some of the applicants were our own students, some from students who didn’t think they’d get into the Royal College, some women coming back to education having raised their children to a point where they could be left. Some were working professionals frustrated that their work was dependant on the whims of an Art Director. Some indeed were members of University’s own staff who could get the course free. One successful candidate was a painter of international repute and with formidable intelligence whose figurative style and research based practice had put her beyond the pale of Grand Parade’s MA Fine Art course who had turned her down. One of the most successful and entertaining of our students had only large canvasses and a wallet of photographs of her children to show but was seen instantly as an asset to the spirit of the course.
We had a working relationship with Portsmouth Polytechnic and quite a number of their tutors came over to Brighton for admission to the course. Brighton had always been regarded as the senior academic presence along the South Coast, not always with justification. Each MA aspirant revealed something of their feelings about Portsmouth. There was a fair amount of bluster and pretension. But one of the very best candidates teaching at Portsmouth was so nervous she sat at interview with her portfolio firmly closed under her seat. It needed a distraction from me while John got to see her life’s work, including early commercial design for Jackie magazine she was tempted to conceal. Another candidate from Portsmouth proposed a project concerning the spacing of type on computer of such mind-numbing tedium, he was relieved when we asked for something more playful.
Not every distinguished and experienced candidate was as biddable and modest. One local designer began his interview with the presumption that he would be a blessing on a course with so many young and untempered spirits. A course leader from another institution, married to a Top Dog elsewhere fell into cheerful and intrusive mode, observing gratuitously that one of our panel was clearly pregnant. Yet another course leader from a college within Brighton appeared with a phallic portfolio dedicated to Gay Rights. This culminated in the flourishing of a large mirror whose frame featured several pendulous rubber penises. With a complicit smirk, he waggled it about. Looking through his sketchbooks, John asked if he dealt with any else but penises. The candidate was dumbfounded. We heard afterwards he had considered the interview a formality, and had not considered the narrative possibilities of the Penis any way. He was particularly miffed as his college technician was accepted onto the course with a moving and insightful photographic portfolio, having demonstrated he was prepared to engage with us on what he wanted to achieve.
A candidate from Wolverhampton came into the interview room. The first thing he said was what a waste of time this was, as we clearly going to refuse him, and he’d got up really early and his Mother had warned him. Before we could remonstrate with him, he was talking over suing the University of Brighton for all he could get. We couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Such levels of emotion were exhausting to the panel which incidentally always tried to include a student representative.
A candidate from Belfast arrived with a giant portfolio, bound securely in plastic security strips. While cutting through to the work, he delivered a long and monotonous patter in his sing-song Ulster accent. I noticed before he did that John was slowly dozing off. Who could blame him? It was a version of the Lorelei at eleven in the morning. I had cleared my throat several times without effect, and was reduced to tipping our files onto the floor. The crash certainly brought John back to consciousness, but he rose several feet in the air and was left gasping for breath. It was a testament to the prepared speech delivered by the candidate during the ritual unveiling of his work, that he noticed none of this.
It saved so much of everybody’s time to be honest with the candidate at interview. Several of them indicated passages of drawing and texture of which they were proud, using them as an example of their industry and concentration. But there was strong evidence of Photoshop filters at work. The narrative of the project was vital for them to articulate. One of my favourite students James Wakelin over from New Zealand with a capable and individual portfolio, proposing an anthology of illustrated poems whose subject was himself. “What makes you think you’re interesting?” seemed an appropriate question. Impressed by my directness, he chose us rather than Middlesex and was an illumination on the course. His portrait of me hangs in my study, alluding to my contempt for hairy pigment pushers (the painter Heurtebis) and my fear of clowns.