Central Saint Martins: The art and soul of Britain

It's where hundreds of the nation's most creative people cut their teeth. Now Central Saint Martins is leaving its historic home

It was 6 November 1975, and an audience was gathering on the fifth floor of St Martins College on London's Charing Cross Road. Like any major art school the place was abuzz with creativity: packed to the rafters with a young crowd of designers, musicians and assorted hangers-on. Most had come to see a band called Bazooka Joe. But it was the support act which would end up trashing the musical landscape for ever.

Some say it was Terence Conran's son, Sebastian, who first secured the Sex Pistols a platform. Others, like the Pistols' bassist Glen Matlock, later took the credit. But from the moment Johnny Rotten and his band-mates slung out their first chord, to the ensuing punch-up which silenced their roaring guitars, those present knew they were witnessing a moment in musical history.

So began one of many famous chapters in the 100-year saga of Central St Martins College of Art and Design, a London institution that has seen more cultural landmarks than perhaps any other. If the walls could speak, they would be able to rattle through a history of modern artistic endeavour – from when Gilbert met George, to Stella McCartney and Matthew Williamson's first turns at the sewing machine.

But every edifice's foundations must crumble. And St Martins is to vacate its premises for a swanky new home in King's Cross. This week, it was announced that planning permission had been granted for the project, paving the way for the alma mater of some of Britain's biggest names in art, fashion, television and media and design to finally close.

"You can't stay in out-of-date accommodation," says Sir John Tusa, chairman of the University of the Arts London, under whose auspices St Martins sits. "The advantages of being able to have a purpose-built art college are extraordinary, never mind one of that size and that is centred round the [new] building. It will give us more profile and will make us more visible. Central Saint Martins will be a really major art college development and one for the 21st century."

Today's college in fact comprises several buildings scattered over central London, all of which will close when the move to King's Cross takes place. They form an extensive property portfolio built up over more than a century.

The first buildings, at Holborn, were built at the end of the 19th century, as the Central School of Arts and Crafts. They were designed by the architect WR Lethaby, who wanted a structure that was "plain, reasonable and well-built". Over time, the institution grew in stature and success, adding buildings, before in 1989 becoming the organisation we now know, through the merger of Central School of Art and Design (founded 1896) and St Martins School of Art (founded 1854).

The college now occupies premises in Clerkenwell, Holborn and Charing Cross Road, which is made up of two buildings. One was created in the 1920s, the other in 1938.

Over the years, an extraordinary collection of future stars have sloped through its corridors. In fashion, there has been John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane. In art and sculpture, Lucian Freud and Antony Gormley. And then there are the musicians. As well as the punks and the New Romantics (Adam Ant was in Bazooka Joe), St Martins was where Jarvis Cocker had a crush on a fellow student, before writing about it in "Common People". His words branded the St Martins name into the minds of a generation.

And for every person who studied at the college's historic home there is an anecdote. Perhaps one of its best moments was when two east London flaneurs first walked into each others' arms. Gilbert and George met in 1967, on the top floor of the advanced sculpture building, then on Charing Cross Road. Gilbert (surname: Prousch), who had started out as a wood carver, arrived in London aged 24 via a trio of art schools in Italy and Germany. Of the moment they locked horns, George (Passmore) later said: "It was love at first sight. At the end-of-year show every student set up their work individually, but we set up ours together and we mixed up our objects so that you couldn't tell whose was whose." They had concocted their artistic brand: "they" would be the focus of their art.

The college's fertility, therefore, is bound up in its history; its sense of identity infused into where inspiration first struck. The pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who taught at Charing Cross Road until 1962, remembers: "We had a very slim grant each week, and because of our incredible location so close to Soho we would go there, pick vegetables and draw them. The teachers would take them home afterwards and cook them for supper. It was a great time: wandering into Soho to have breakfast along Old Compton Street, teaching all day and then going to go to the French pub on Dean Street afterwards and then probably on to the Colony Room."

It was half a generation later that the Sex Pistols and other founders of punk spilled out of their lectures into the clubs and shops of the city. They observed, and squirreled away their ideas. Their generation of students included the GQ editor Dylan Jones, who studied graphic design at the college from 1977.

"We were 400 yards from the 100 Club, 200 yards from the Marquee, and a mere spit from the Cambridge, which is the pub everyone used to congregate in before they went on stage – the Pistols, the Clash, Adam and the Ants," he recalls. "St Martins at the time felt like the most exciting place on earth – not just because of all the wonderful painters, designers and boulevardiers who had studied there, but also because it was central to the whole punk explosion."

Professor Louise Wilson, who directs the fashion MA at Charing Cross Road says the location will be missed. "I think the specialness of the buildings is obviously their location, and also the history. In central London you've got the book shops, the sex shops, the paint shops, people walking up and down the street. The students go out into the city and into cliques because we don't have a big enough canteen."

Thousands have trod the same social and academic path through St Martins buildings. If they are lucky, they rise from paint-splattered jeans to global super-stardom. The college hopes its shiny new home, due to open in 2011, will be as inspirational as the place they will leave.

The St Martins mafia

Film & Media

Having done a variety of courses at St Martins, several former students are big players in the media industry.

Dylan Jones studied graphic design from 1977 to 1980. He went on to become one of the country's best known journalists, editing GQ and becoming a columnist for this newspaper.

The actor who won fame as the Elephant Man, John Hurt, studied painting until 1960.

Mike Leigh, one of Britain's top film directors, cut his teeth on the theatre design course between 1964 and 1965.

Former James Bond Pierce Brosnan first perfected his "devil-may-care" swagger at the college's Drama Centre.

Fashion

Former students showcase their designs on catwalks across the globe.

Graduating in 1984, John Galliano designed Carla Bruni's ensemble during her visit to Britain through his work at Christian Dior.

Stella McCartney emerged from her father's shadow to finish her fashion BA in 1995.

Matthew Williamson recently enjoyed a retrospective at London's Design Museum. He graduated in 1994.

Completing his course in 1992, Alexander McQueen, known for combining radical statements with accomplished tailoring, now has boutiques around the world.

Art

From the bad boys of BritArt to the grand-daddies of modern painting, many daubed their first canvas as a student while studying at St Martins, most notably Lucian Freud, who completed his course in 1939.

Gilbert & George, the scatologically-obsessed artists and residents of London's East End who wear matching suits, both studied fine art until 1970.

Finishing his fine art course in 1974, Antony Gormley wowed London with bronze casts of himself and is England's best-known sculptor.

Juan Muñoz, who picked up his MA in 1977, is a Spanish artist who came to international prominence in the mid-1980s.

Music

Studying everything from film to fine art, St Martins musicians have gone on to make era-defining records.

After studying for a BA in film and video, Jarvis Cocker became the lead singer of Pulp.

Leaving the college in 1974, Glen Matlock found fame as the original bass player with the Sex Pistols before being fired in favour of Sid Vicious.

M.I.A. is a contemporary singer-songwriter who has dipped her fingers into hip-hop, ragga and electro music. She read fine art.

Faris Badwan, lead singer of The Horrors studied a foundation course in art and design, entering the college in 2004.

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