Sunday, 24 April 2016

Anne Baxter and the art college life models

Anne Baxter checking the time 

When I arrived at the art college in Leeds in 1974, there were three full-time life models; Anne, Mavis and Rosie. The principle Frank Lisle had decided that because life drawing was so central to the curriculum life models should not be treated as casual labour, but seen as professionals in their own right. This was of course a right and proper thing to do and respected them as people.
This meant that the Jacob Kramer College and Leeds College of Art and Design as it was to become, over a period from about the mid to late 60s through to the Millennium had a stable group of three women who would appear over and over again in ever changing years of students’ portfolios. They themselves would of course gradually get older, Terry Hammill the ex head of Art and Design, who was a student at Batley School of Art, remembers drawing Mavis Kielty when he was 17 in the early 60s and of course still drawing her when as a member of staff on the Foundation course we used to hold staff life drawing sessions.
How times have changed, the idea that the college could employ permanent life models would be unthinkable now, and so would the idea that staff would take a day off teaching to collect together in the life room and draw.
Life drawing was seen for all courses as essential, Laimonis Mierins, was in charge of the drawing for graphic design students when I arrived, and his focus on the body as a linear design element held sway over much of the college, except of course for the Foundation programme where the range of staff ensured that no one approach was accepted as right.
Frank Lisle used to check out new members of staff, but when I started teaching during the academic year of 1974/5 Frank was off on a sabbatical, so I didn’t meet him until the year after. I was asked to take a life drawing class and not long after I had started the class Frank arrived at the back and motioned me to carry on. He stayed for what it seemed to me an interminable time and then just disappeared. In those days there was a bar in the music college that adjoined the art college by an internal walkway, both institutions being under the same Leeds City Council umbrella. The seats were covered in a reddish pink velvety type of fabric, we used to call it the ‘pink plush bar’ and Frank used to preside in there over dinner time. If you wanted to talk to him it was polite to offer him a half pint for his time and he would give you the benefit of his vast experience and knowledge. I found him rather frightening at first and was really worried about what he would have to say to me about my drawing class. So after the class I went to the bar and there was Frank who motioned me over to sit with him. He gave me a detailed breakdown of what I had done wrong and what had seemed to him to be positives about my approach. He was very technical and his advice has stayed with me to this day. As principal he believed in the fundamental importance of drawing in the Art College and took it upon himself to check that his staff could teach it. As a sign of changing times, this was the one and only time a principal has ever sat in any of my sessions.  However I wear his inspection with pride, Frank taught David Hockney when he was at Bradford, and to be given the OK from Frank was for me a sign that I was all right at my job.
Each of the models had a powerful personality, they occupied their space with a certain gravitas that came with being in the same job for years. They had heard it all from young art teachers with new crazy ideas of how to refresh the situation, via the introduction of feminist deconstructions introduced after Griselda Pollock’s influence came through, to grizzled old men who taught in the same way that they had been taught and who were desperate to cling on to this last bastion of academic tradition.  However of the three, the one I had the most to do with was Anne Baxter. Anne was a constant smoker, never without a fag and she operated as a life model provider. If you needed a model you just went to see Anne and she always knew of someone who would be available. This was particularly useful for me because I was teaching adult education classes at the Swarthmore Centre and of course in those days drawing was central to what was taught and life drawing sessions were an integral part of what you did then.
Anne would always be prepared to step into the situation, from advising on poses, to the formal crit at the end of the session.  She would determine lengths of pose, advise on what markings to make before she had to move and generally ensure that the session went smoothly.
Anne never took off her glasses and in some ways their appearance in a drawing became a source of pride for her. She would criticise a student for leaving them off and engaged with the various debates on how to draw them. Terry reminded me of one time when all the staff were having a life drawing day and at the end of the session he was being critiqued by myself and Patrick Oliver, I cant remember the ‘fault’ we found in his drawing, but he clearly remembered the fact that Anne joined in and accused him of making too much of her glasses as a symbol rather than as a way to see the head in space. Terry’s tale is a timely reminder of how critiques can hurt if not done properly, we always remember the harsh things people say about us and not the positives.  Anne knew her opinion counted and was a good teacher, she would make sure you picked out everyone’s drawing, saying “You haven’t said anything about so and so’s drawing yet Garry”, just when you thought you had managed to avoid a tricky encounter with a particularly difficult student’s work.
All these memories have resurfaced because the new college exhibition officer has decided to collect together old drawings of Anne and see if it is possible to host a memorial exhibition. I have lost all of my drawings of her except one, but luckily it contains some important clues to what it was like to draw her. It’s a drawing that tries to capture the way a situation is perceived rather than render the look of something, but even so it reveals a lot about Anne as a person.

This must be from the late 70s early 80s

Perhaps a few details will help, as the photograph of the full drawing is pretty poor. Anne as I have pointed out never took her glasses off and so how you drew them became a particular conundrum to be solved. 

In this case as I was trying to establish that 'flicker of looking' I tried to make her glasses using the same nervous marks as the rest of the drawing, and I think Anne approved of this.
If you look closely you can just spot the rising smoke coming off Anne's cigarette. The marks are slightly darker as I was trying to build in areas of focus so that the drawing reflected my own moments of interest. Anne would prefer a pose where she could smoke, if not she would make sure a cigarette and accompanying ashtray were close enough to lean over and have a quick drag before the ash fell off the fag. Something we would watch for was how long the ash would get before she had to tip it off into the ash tray, it's interesting to remember how cigarette smoking was so engrained into daily life then.  Anne also liked a cup of tea.

You can just about pick out Anne's mug of tea, sitting on top of a stool close at hand and ready for a quick swig. The models' room was in the corner of the life room itself. There is a bridge that links Vernon Street with Rossington Street now, and it cuts straight through the space where their room was.  It was tiny and had three steps up to the life room, but cosy enough for three and the kettle was always on, so if you wanted to you could drop in for a chat and a cuppa. Anne would always be sitting in her dressing gown, as if ready to step into a life session at a moment's notice. Something that she often did, as students as well as staff could ask her to pose for them as individuals  if she was not timetabled for a particular taught session. It may well have been one of those moments that I took the opportunity of to do this drawing. 
The electric two bar fire was another key aspect of the situation. The rooms did not have the type of controlled heating with adjustable thermostat that they now have. Therefore these little electric heaters were vital. However they did have severe drawbacks, the main one being that they were only adjustable by moving them closer or further away. This often meant that Anne's leg closest to the heater would gradually get redder and redder  as a session progressed. At the end of a life class she would scoop up the heater and take it back into the model's room, she knew the value of a good two bar heater. 
One other memory this drawing brings back is that of Anne's footwear.

Anne always wore slip-ons and rarely took them off. This was because of the state of the floor. The life room floor consisted of old wooden floorboards, the ones that are much wider than today's. There were lots of gaps between boards and the floor was quite rough. The main hazard for any walker though was drawing pins. At the end of the day my shoe's soles were speckled with them and for a model with naked feet they were really dangerous. All the students used drawing pins to fix their paper to boards and during a drawing session these pins could easily spin off somewhere and disappear from general view only to be found again when trodden on. 

Anybody reading this post who has an old drawing of Anne and wants to contribute it to the forthcoming memorial exhibition contact me and I'll sort out a link with the curator. I can't guarantee that she will use your drawing as I suspect she will find herself inundated with them, but whatever the result of this initiative it serves as a reminder of how important life models were to the life of an art college and of how so much has changed over the last 40 years.