University History

Over the last 170 years, Leeds Arts University has made a significant contribution to arts education in the UK. As we celebrate our new university title we look back at the pioneering teaching and creative innovations that remain integral to the University to this day.

Though figurative and landscape drawing had been taught at the Leeds Mechanics Institute since its formation in 1824, it was in 1846 that more organised art education began with the formation of the Government School of Design. The school was established with help from the Council of the School of Design in London, who contributed £80 towards the salary of the first master, Mr L Nursey.

Less than 15 years after its formation, Leeds School of Art, as it was then known, had affiliated branches in Wakefield, Halifax, Ackworth and Keighley. Bradford and Huddersfield joined this large scheme and by 1864 the Schools were collectively responsible for 7,430 students. This regional scheme for the co-ordination of art education was one of the first in the country, an early example of Leeds College of Art being at the forefront for the development of art education.

As the School continued to grow, the building on South Parade was no longer fit for purpose, so the school moved into the new City Institute building, now Leeds City Museum, in 1868. It was designed by Sir Cuthbert Broderick - the architect of Leeds Town Hall - and was one of the finest, most up-to-date educational centres in the country.

Even this new building would eventually prove too small for an ever growing, increasingly influential art school, so in 1903 the Leeds School of Art moved to its present site on Vernon Street. This purpose built arts and crafts style building was designed by Bedford & Kitson Architects, with the cartoon mosaic panel designed by Professor Gerald Moira (RCA) and made by Rusts’ Vitreous Mosaic Company.

Although student numbers dropped during the First World War, post-war training grants soon saw an influx of ex-servicemen, including Henry Moore and Raymond Coxon. Barbara Hepworth, Edna Ginesi also studied in the early 20th century, and in 1927 Leeds School of Art gained ‘College’ status.

Music also played an important role in College life, with the Vernon Street Ramblers entertaining students with jazz during lunchtime sessions, and at charity events in the City, including student rag week.  Ed O’Donnell joined as their trombonist in 1948, and became instrumental in moulding the Leeds jazz scene, playing for many years at venues across the city.

In 1955, under pioneering Head of Art, Harry Thubron, the College really became a centre of innovation in art teaching in the UK. Thubron was appointed by Principal Edward E Pullee to instigate change. His Basic Design Course, largely founded in Leeds, became a new model for art education and one that is still used within Foundation Diplomas to this day.  The 1960s were a particularly creative period for the College. Eric Atkinson who succeeded Harry Thubron as Head of Art, continued to bring in exciting and inspiring teachers including Robin Page, Stass Paraskos and Patrick Hughes. Artist Patrick Heron, writing in the Guardian, described Leeds College of Art as “…the most influential art school in Europe since the Bauhaus.”

Although art education was being brought into the Polytechnic colleges across the country, a move that impacted directly on Leeds College of Art, pre-BA study continued in the Vernon Street building at the newly established Jacob Kramer College (1968). Alumni Eric Bainbridge, Marcus Harvey Clio Barnard, Georgina Starr and Damien Hirst all studied the Foundation Diploma here.

By the 1980s the original Vernon Street buildings were in such a dilapidated state that a new college was planned, the first stage being completed in 1985 with the opening of the Blenheim Walk Building. However, the original buildings did not fall out of use completely and since the College left the control of Leeds Education Authority in 1993 the Vernon Street site has been completely refurbished and extensive alterations have taken place in Rossington Street.

Following several decades as a Further Education College, undergraduate degree courses were introduced in 1992, and in 2011 Leeds College of Art became a Higher Education Institution (HEI). 

In 2016 Leeds College of Art was awarded Taught Degree Awarding Powers, and in August 2017 following a rigorous appraisal process, Leeds Arts University was granted full university status, becoming the only specialist arts university in the North of England.