Basic Design in the Leeds Arts University archive

18 January 2021

Leeds Arts University Subject Library Assistant, Laura Wood, presents some of her recent finds from the University Archive.

From humble beginnings in 1846 right up to our current students in this most unusual of years, Leeds Arts University has a remarkable history. It’s a history that reflects not just the development of the institution over time, but the city of Leeds itself, and the wider backdrop of art education. It’s also a history that’s there to be explored in the University archives, where the Library team keep and collect all sorts of documents, photographs and ephemera.

Image: Leeds College of Art Prospectuses from the Leeds Arts University archive. 

I’m lucky enough to be a part of that time, and recently I’ve been having a really good root around in our collections!

We have such a huge range of archival material, dating back through the last century and shining a light on the staff, students and events that made University life in years gone by…

Basic Design (Basic Research, or Basic Training) grew in Leeds following the appointment of Edward Pullée as Principal of the then College in 1945. He wanted to facilitate a new and innovative approach to art education, and in 1956 brought in the pioneering Harry Thubron as Head of Art. Harry Thubron brought the experimental nature of the Scarborough summer schools to Leeds, and the Basic Design course began to take shape.

A document in our archive (LAU/6/11/1/2) describing Pullée’s history and relationship to Basic Design says how “it was never a structured, self-contained course but a form of research and enquiry.” It was also a philosophy of art teaching that affected all courses; it suggested that the various disciplines of art and design should not be separate, that they share a common language, and Leeds College of Art was given “a free hand” to develop these ideas.

Image: Leeds Arts University Subject Library Assistant, Laura Wood. 

It states in the prospectuses (LAU/4/1/1), from the mid-1940s onwards, that all students must take the Basic design course, and as the years progress, you can see the emphasis on this Basic Training. You can also see the cost of a full year’s study in 1946 (£15 5s for all schools except Architecture!), read about the fees for the student’s union, and where you can find the refectory (serving “mid-day meals, light refreshment and tea”). The prospectuses are a joy to look at and give a real sense of the institution through time.

We also have an exhibition catalogue in the archive from the 1950s (entitled ‘Basic Research’, LAU/6/11/1/1) which shows students’ work and the progression from first to final year, as well as a number of photographs of the work from students at this time, and it is fascinating to see the influence of the teaching philosophy, across Drawing, Painting and Sculpture courses.

The exhibition catalogue also contains writing by Harry Thubron, Art Historian and staff member Norbert Lynton, and Eric Taylor (who succeeded Pullée as Principal in 1956 - the 5 copies of this pamphlet that we have in the archive were donated by Taylor, and one copy has his signature on the cover). In this pamphlet Taylor writes, on the exhibition and the wider influence of Basic Design, that “this exhibition is merely a small contribution to the general ideas that have been gradually emerging throughout the world from the early part of the century.”

These ideas are the people-focused, interdisciplinary and organic basis for Basic Design. Taylor writes: “I believe that only by this collective effort of the various specialists within a College can profound teaching be achieved, whether the subject be painting, sculpture or industrial design [...] so above all things a student must be given clear direction and encouragement with the opportunities of as much purposeful exploration as possible.” 

“It is perhaps not the number of subjects taught that makes for broad education at a college of art but the breadth and all-embracing nature of the one subject, for when designers, technicians, and artists can understand the same language then we shall have reached another great age of art” (Eric Taylor, ‘Basic Research’ c.1950s).

Taylor might have written that the exhibition here was only a “small contribution” to a much wider movement across art education, but the city of Leeds and the staff and students at the College of Art were an integral part of this. 

I’ve loved using the archive to learn more about the history of the University, and this is just one example of some of the amazing resources we have. Our archive, general library collection, and our Special Collections of artists’ books, illustrative books and photobooks are all there to be used. These are all listed on the library catalogue, or ask one of the library team if you think we might have something you want to get a closer look at! 

If you are interested in knowing more about the Leeds Arts University Archive please contact