This page gives a brief history of the period the Fine Arts at the BSR in the 1910s and 1920s. You can find out more about the people, places, themes and objects by clicking on the bold links in the article.
From the outset the BSR has been a place where researchers, artists and practitioners from different fields have come together in the midst of Rome’s Classical, Renaissance and Baroque culture. Having been founded as an institution to consolidate the strength of British classical studies and archaeology in 1901, in parallel with the British School at Athens, the fine arts faculties were established to bolster British art, design and scholarship by building connections to Roman culture and heritage, in a similar way that the academies of other European nations were also doing in Rome.
The BSR grew in part out of the tradition of classical studies and the Beaux-Artes academy approach to fine arts education. The desire for a centre for the Fine Arts in Rome also has its roots in the history the Grand Tours of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the BSR’s predecessor the British Academy of Arts at the Spanish Steps. British artists, writers and aristocratic and wealthy travellers had been joining European visitors in the cultural hub of Rome for some time. This culminated in the creation of the prizes for the Fine Arts at the BSR which began in 1913.
The Fine Arts Faculties and prizes for decorative painting, engraving, sculpture and architecture were established in order to encourage a new generation of artists and architects in Britain, particularly those who could produce monumental work in the classical tradition, as demonstrated by the Roman environment. Another aim was to compete with other European nations and to establish and consolidate the work that British classicists and artists had begun in previous periods.
The Rome Prize winners were able to take up residence at the BSR for up to three years, though they had to re-apply to extend their scholarships after each year. After 1916, the young artists and practitioners lived and worked in the newly erected building, the British pavilion designed by Lutyens and still under construction for a number of years into this period. They were met by Thomas Ashby (1874-1931), the BSR’s director from 1906 to 1925 and assistant director and librarian Eugénie Sellers Strong (1860-1943) from 1909 to 1925, both formidable scholars of the classics, art history and archaeology in their own right. Subsequent directors in this period included Bernard Ashmole (1894-1988) from 1925 to 1928 and Arthur Smith (1860-1941) from 1928 to 1930. The community formed at the BSR then included archaeologists, art historians, architects, sculptors, mural painters, engravers and printmakers and administrators.
The Fine Arts archive contains the traces and stories of a network of talented people who came together in the BSR courtyard, library and around its dinner table. These artists set to work in new studios, visited Rome and its surrounding areas and attended museums, lectures and parties. This was an environment for new relationships to spark up and several scholars went on to form professional collaborations, personal friendships and in several cases, marriages (for example between Winifred Knights (1899-1947) and Tom Monnington (1902-1976)).
The early BSR community included people of different artistic disciplines, divergent ideas, colourful temperaments and ambitious personalities. Together with a traditional and strict bureaucratic structure, this created a complex environment for young artists newly arrived from art school to encounter. The directors could not always please everyone and friction seems to have emerged from competing ideas around who should lead the school. Thomas Ashby, for example, though a respected archaeologist and scholar, had little interest in the social work of running student accommodation. Meanwhile, the School’s overseers attempted to ensure that the students did not get distracted by new ideas. In discussion around the appointment of a new director in 1930, one committee member Sir William Rothenstein, wrote that
“Up to now the head of the British School at Rome has been an archaeologist… One or two of us have felt that archaeologists are not the best people to look after the studies of painters, sculptors and engravers, especially in these days when all sorts of extreme ‘abstract’ ideas are about, which settle like microbes in the students’ brains…”
In the earliest years, this conservative traditionalism was embedded into the structure of the institution: to win a Rome Prize, artists had to adhere to precisely determined criteria that governed size, style and subject of works submitted. Students had to ask for permission from London for trips made out of Rome. Artists themselves were also sticking with tradition: the traumatisation of the World War One lead to a “return to order” in the early 1920s when artists pulled back from aggressive or outlandish styles and ideas.
And yet in the archive and the artistic works produced in these years at the BSR, one can still trace new ideas and approaches beginning to flourish alongside a reaffirmation of love for Classical, Renaissance and Baroque aesthetics. The allure and energy of the modernist movements emerging in France, Russia, USA and Germany, and indeed in Italy, at this time meant that artists could not help but be pulled between different ideas, aesthetics and methodologies. Sculptors John Skeaping (1901-1980) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) for example, studied traditional direct marble carving whilst in Italy but went on to use these techniques in distinctively inventive and modernist ways. There was also a growing influence of Futurism, Vorticism and Surrealism emerging in Britain and Europe.
In architecture a new interest in functionalism was emerging in contrast to the Beaux-Artes approach of beautiful facades and hand-drawn methods favoured by the BSR. The work of architecture award-holder Frederick Lawrence (1893-1971) for example, contrasted with the modernist leanings of Amyas Connell (1901-1980), who went on to design modernist house High and Over of BSR director Bernard Ashmole.
There are several other elements which influenced the environment the artists worked in: Lutyens’ building and the surrounding Villa Borghese gardens, the library, the classical research interests of the directors such as Ashby and Strong, Ashby’s collection of imagery including unique Renaissance engravings and equipment from the school’s longstanding tradition of photographic innovation. Materials and facilities could be quite limited, sculptors such as Alfred Hardiman (1891-1947), for example, often found themselves fundraising for more expensive materials.
Imperialist power relations had an impact on the early years of the school. Several award holders left their studentships to be drafted into military service in World War One. Then, as the 1920s unfolded, the School tried to stay amelioratory or apolitical towards the growing fascist politics which reached a head in the early 1930s. Artists often left the metropolitan centre of Rome, under the growing power of Mussolini, to work in the countryside in villages such as Anticoli Corrado. Here they could focus their attention on what they saw as the primitive romance of the peasantry, following the tradition of the European artists and imperial travellers of previous decades.
As well as volatile political conditions, other trends and tensions can be traced in this pivotal moment. The artists were also often torn between functional commercialism and art for art’s sake and between rebellion, social conformism and patriarchal expectations of gender roles. Artistic and design education and culture was changing; British municipalities required artists to make monumental art for the public and new buildings to demonstrate their wealth and power.
The idea of what an artist should be was also changing in this period. Technical training institutes were beginning to verse artisans in aesthetics and working class arts were developing and changing British culture. Winifred Knights, Lilian Whitehead (1894-1959) and Eugénie Sellers Strong were just three of several women artists and researchers making their mark at the BSR and beginning to carve out their practice on their own terms, despite numerous challenges.
The BSR archive holds correspondence and other materials that attest to these histories. Letters, application forms and works in process hint at the conversations over how new methods and ideas in education and professionalism would develop. New artistic approaches, subjects and relationships are found in these collections and one can find several stories and insights into how British artists and cultural leaders interacted with the rest of the world and made their work.
You can explore this history further through this window onto the archive: explore the people, places, collections and themes in the BSR Fine Arts Network.
Sources and Further Reading
Wiseman, T.P. (1990) A Short History of the British School at Rome. Rome: BSR.
Wallace-Hadrill, A. (Ed). (2001). The British School at Rome: One Hundred Years. Rome: BSR.
Life at the British School Rome: blogs https://britishschoolatrome.wordpress.com/category/library-archive/
For a full bibliography and further reading, see here.