While new generations discover Richard Hamilton at Tate Modern, one of his former Newcastle University students reflects on how his teacher changed his course - and the nature of British art schooling
It’s difficult now to emphasise the difference between the traditional teaching that used to go in most art schools, and what happened when Richard Hamilton arrived as a teacher in the early 1960s.
It was a time when, if you can imagine it, Picasso and Matisse were the dominant figures. The first exhibition of New American Painting had been held in 1959 at the Tate, and for an art student at the time such wider influences were few, or kept at a distance. I remember trying to interest my tutors in Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, and they were having none of it. I don’t think they really knew what it was.
Art schools were stuck in a mould that been set in the 1940s, and they taught technique, not ideas. We had life drawing four days a week, sometimes from nine in the morning until nine at night - and were trained to make representational paintings which were at best informed by Impressionism and Euston Road styles. They were then packed off to an examination board in London for a preposterously arbitrary and really quite biased marking process. There were no art degrees, only diplomas, and academically, art colleges lagged behind universities.
Reform had been bubbling, and when I finished my diploma at Birmingham College of Art at age 20, everything was in flux. A tutor had told me about a new course at Newcastle University studying ‘Modern Art’, and the man behind it was Richard Hamilton.
At that point, Hamilton was not yet famous, but was an established artist; alongside Eduardo Paolozzi, he’d been part of the Independent Group, which had really laid out the bare bones of pop art, and helped put on the iconic exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956.
When Hamilton arrived at Newcastle, the head of painting, Victor Pasmore, had given him scope to do pretty much what he liked - and what he liked was bringing all kinds of different things together.
I remember Hamilton delivering a lengthy introduction on my first day of the course in 1963. Speaking so articulately and with great humour, Richard (as we were invited to call him) outlined the course’s significance, its relationship to art practise, and relevance to current developments. Photography was to be regarded as a serious tool and art form, and movements likes Dada and Surrealism were centre stage. He introduced a project called ‘Sign and Situation’, exploring semiotics. Semiotics! This, in 1963, was truly revelatory to me. Ideas were to come from anywhere and everywhere, and they washed over me like a tidal wave.
Richard was also very interested in how the perception and understanding of art could be enriched with writing - a radical change from the previous ethos which had often branded artists’ writings ‘pretentious’. He introduced us to Duchamp in this way, well before he was a widely known artist; Richard had understood his importance, wrote typographical notes on his work the Large Glass, and gave lectures on it.
Richard also attracted contemporary names up to Newcastle in person; his art dealer, Robert Fraser would visit, and I remember Paolozzi exhibiting at the university’s Hatton Gallery, with signed screen prints selling for £5 - which I foolishly decided I couldn’t afford.
We were given lectures on the likes of David Hockney, Joe Tilson and R.B. Kitaj, all emerging at the time, and Richard would use a torch that projected a small red arrow onto the screen to pick out different aspects - a pointer also to his attention to detail and his love of technology.
One day, I was in Richard’s immaculately clean studio at the Fine Art Department when he was working on the Guggenheim relief panel prototype that was to become the series (one of which is now in the Tate collection). That short visit was the equivalent of an afternoon’s tutorial in what I learned from just looking. I was amazed by the range of electrical tools he was using - it was the first time I’d seen an orbital sander - and by the high resin finish that he’d created on the carved wooden blocks that made up the building.
Organised and on an easel on the other side of the room was Interior II, still in progress, based on a still from the 1940s film, Shockproof. Each facet of the work was different; the photograph of the film star Patricia Knight; the Eames chair in aluminium and wood; painted light and shadow on the walls; collaged surfaces representing floors - all brought together as a coherent whole.
Within a year I began to develop a body of work that was more assured and ambitious, and over the next two decades I moved from painting to sculpture, photography and filmmaking with a fluency that I recognised as a vestige of Richard Hamilton’s influence.
Of course, Newcastle later became famous for some of its other students of the era - I remember meeting Bryan Ferry when he joined as a new student (and of course later became famous less for his art than Roxy Music). Roger Westwood, in the year above me, assisted Hamilton in the reconstruction of Duchamp’s Large Glass, which is now in the Tate collection. But Hamilton’s significance was more than just that generation. His teaching model, so radically different to what had gone before, went on to become the norm in many institutions.
When he taught me at Newcastle, Richard Hamilton was in his mid-40s, commuting on the night train from London to Newcastle each week; I once bumped into him on the way to his sleeper carriage, before the next morning’s classes. I recall around that time that he said that, as an artist, he thought he’d ‘missed the boat’, that he would probably never ‘break through’ now, and was surprised by the success of a show of his work at London’s Hanover Gallery at the time. Deservedly for an artist as innovative and enquiring as Richard Hamilton, that success never abated over the next 50 years.
David Parsons was a subject leader in Film and Video at Central Saint Martins College of Art for 13 years, and has had his films exhibited internationally at galleries including Tate, Paris’ Centre Pompidou and New York’s MoMA. His next display of paintings will be at the John Russell Gallery in Ipswich.