The Royal College of Art students who fled the Blitz and ended up in Ambleside
PUBLISHED: 11:58 29 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:37 20 February 2013
When hundreds of Royal College of Art students and teachers had to flee war-torn London during the Blitz, they chose Ambleside as their artistic haven. Emma Mayoh reports
They painted their way into Lakeland folklore. The exuberant personalities and brightly-coloured clothes of bohemian students and lecturers from the Royal College of Art injected life into the grey Ambleside streets during the war.
The artists were escaping the horrors of war-ravaged London and the bombs that wreaked havoc across the capital during The Blitz. Windows were repeatedly being blown out at the RCA building and other important national institutions had already ceased operations.
The heads of the prestigious college decided to move everyone somewhere safer. Attracted by the amenities and abundance of accommodation, they chose Ambleside and moved there in December 1940. Ambleside was transformed.
Buildings across the village were occupied by the artists until the RCA moved out five years later. The men set up home in The Queens Hotel and the women in The Salutation where some rooms were also used a studio space. Studies were also created in The Market Hall, which became a Mural School, a converted barn behind The Salutation which became a Sculpture School and lots of individual buildings, including stables behind The Golden Rule pub, were used by the talented groups. The locals were unsure of their new neighbours.
Deborah Walsh, curator of The Armitts new Bohemians in Exile exhibition which catalogues this time, said: The initial reaction from the locals was not too positive. They were suspicious. The students looked very different and were wearing fashions the locals didnt recognise at all.
But reactions changed quite markedly. One reason was that a lot of the students and lecturers joined the Home Guard. It got together these men of all types and backgrounds and they were seen to be contributing to the local community.
By 1943 a lot of the students had been called up, gone out, fought and come back injured. There were an awful lot of them invalided; it would have been in bad taste if a local had shirked someone who had been hurt.
Deborah discovered the story of the RCA students from artist and former RCA lecturer Russell Mills, who has a studio in Ambleside. The pair, along with Blackburn College pupil Ruth Mark, pieced together this fascinating period over four months.
And there were many discoveries. The artists formed their own theatre group and would often put on performances in the village and became well accustomed with the Golden Rule pub. For some of the pupils this Lakeland idyll was a fantastic retreat but for others it was an isolated wilderness. One of the students committed suicide.
He was unstable to start with, said Deborah. He came up here and he had a medical for the army and was rejected for some reason. He was also spurned by his girlfriend.
He was in the Home Guard which meant he had a rifle and he killed himself in The Queens Hotel. It was tragic.
The exhibition, which runs until October 31st, shares many of these stories. Photographs from this period as well as letters, diaries and newspaper articles have been supplied from the RCAs archive and other items have come from the local community. But, importantly, a lot of the paintings by artists including Percy Horton, Frederic Brill, Sheila Donaldson and Donald Pavey, which relate directly to this period in Ambleside, are also displayed.
A handful of them are due to be featured on the BBC1 series Hidden Paintings of England, presented by Dads Army actor Ian Lavender. This includes a Fred Brill painting, Ambleside Home Guard, and John Thistlethwaites witty painting Football match between the Royal Oak and Albert Faulkners XI.
Were incredibly proud to display these items that show a very interesting time in Amblesides history. When I think what it would have been like I just find it amazing. We hope the exhibition will now get lots of support.
Show your support
Deborah has made it her mission to make more people aware of The Armitt. Even though she grew up in Kendal, it was only when her mother, Mary Walsh, one of the museum trust's directors, was working in front of house that she discovered it. She said this is a common problem as many locals are still unaware of this important resource.
There are plans to hold more events at the museum and to encourage more local volunteers to get involved.
Deborah said: 'People who live locally don't know we're here. We are trying to change that. We have strong local connections with all of our exhibitions relating to the area. We want the local community to take ownership of The Armitt to safeguard its future.'
Do you have any memories from the RCA's time in Ambleside? Or do you have family members who lived in the village at the time. Tell us about it at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to us at Lancashire Life Letters, 3 Tustin Court, Port Way, Preston, Lancashire, PR2 2YQ.
The print version of this article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Lancashire Life
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