Painter and versatile teacher of design at the Royal College of Art
Friday 16 November 2007
When James Dyson arrived on a design course at the Royal College of Art in 1966, at the age of 19, his first-year tutor was Bernard Myers. Dyson remembers him as "a cheerful, irrepressible, rather dapper teacher with a tweed suit and bow-tie, looking like someone from a 1950s television panel, such as The Brains Trust".
But even more than this, he remembers a piece of advice Myers gave him during his first face-to-face tutorial. Dyson had designed a "flashy piece of architecture" and his tutor responded: "When you design something, everything about it has to have a purpose – there has to be a reason." The advice, which deeply impressed the young Dyson, has never been forgotten. Dyson – now Sir James – recently wrote to Myers, from the Dyson factory in Malmesbury, thanking him for it.
Bernard Myers was a very special teacher in an art-school setting: genial, warm, imaginative, down-to-earth, jargon-free, very efficient and always able to infect others with a wide range of his own enthusiasms. He was celebrated for putting over complex material about design in ways that art and design students – who were usually itching to leave the lecture theatre and get back to their studios – could identify with.
At various stages in his long career as a Tutor, Senior Tutor and Professor at the RCA, between 1961 and 1980, Myers taught in most of the schools of the college, especially in Industrial Design Engineering – which he taught simultaneously to civil engineers at Imperial College, next door – Interior Design, Film and Television Design (which he helped to set up) and General Studies. A visiting scholar from Oxford, sitting in on one of Myers's seminars, and after listening to the students' strange questions, observed: "We spend our time in Oxford trying to be eccentric, but today I feel I've been in the presence of the real thing."
Myers's practical and historical knowledge of design – as an activity rather than as a special quality – was extraordinary. Design, he felt, was a subject on which people tended to end up with both feet planted firmly in the air. He had no time for airy philosophical abstractions. Designing, on the other hand, was still a much-misunderstood activity, and an important one. He was particularly interested in engineering and design, science and art, and where the disciplines met. An influential book was Francis Klingender's Art and the Industrial Revolution.
"The common factor," Myers used to say about designing, "is a pattern of decision-making and an intention to communicate ideas; it is present in all fields and in every thinking person." So he was equally at home teaching about design and how to design, and he was a man of encyclopaedic knowledge.
On one occasion, a postgraduate student at the RCA insisted on writing a dissertation about the finer points of crochet, and a supervisor had to be found. No-one felt qualified to take the project on, until Myers surprised everyone by revealing a detailed specialist knowledge of the subject. It transpired that his great-aunt had run the embroidery workshop at Liberty's. Today, under the twin pressures of Research Assessment and the expansion of student numbers in higher education, teachers of the kind and quality of Bernard Myers have become an endangered species.
Bernard Louis Myers was the eldest son of Nathan (a barber) and Letty (a hairdresser) – and he often said they both had industrial craftsmanship in their blood. Forebears on both sides included scientific instrument-makers, practical engineers – and, on Letty's side, the man who made the breathing mechanism for the Sleeping Beauty in Madame Tussauds. After Skinner's School in Tunbridge Wells, Bernard worked in instrument-making (radio location) and took a short course in Physics at London University before volunteering for the RAF at the age of 18 (they didn't believe his age at first), where he trained in Rhodesia and became an air-gunner and instructor.
While waiting to be demobilised in Yorkshire, Bernard Myers went to the local art school, where a tutor recommended he develop his talents in drawing and painting. So, following St Martin's School of Art (1947-49) and Camberwell (1949-51), Myers entered the Royal College of Art in the Festival of Britain year, as a student of painting. Fellow students included John Bratby and Jack Smith (the so-called "kitchen sink" school), Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff – and Bruce Lacey, whose anarchic brand of humour always appealed to Myers.
As Bratby wrote of that generation:
the art schools suddenly became overcrowded with men who had seen death and sometimes caused it. Barrack discipline was replaced by the loosest scholastic freedom . . . instead of the sergeant-major there was the tired, sloppy art-teacher.
One direct result was the innovative student magazine Ark: Myers contributed an illustrated article to issue nine (1953) on Victorian locomotive design – a subject which would fascinate him for the rest of his life. Another result was a sudden renaissance of extra-mural activities. Myers directed John Gay's Beggar's Opera, in the new Common Room at Cromwell Road, with sets by David Gentleman – including prison bars made of rubber for quick scene changes – and took an active part in interval burlesques during college dances. In one of these, he played a ventriloquist's dummy with a monocle, as well as wearing a gorilla-suit in a sketch about the Principal, Robin Darwin, who happened to be Charles's great-grandson. It was after this dance that he met Pamela Fildes, then a journalist covering the event for Time and Tide and granddaughter of the Victorian narrative painter Luke Fildes – who himself had been a student at the college in the 1860s. They were happily married for 50 years.
After graduating ARCA in 1954, Myers taught part-time at Camberwell, Hammersmith and Ealing art schools, and became a senior lecturer in drawing at the Architectural Association School where he was talent-spotted by the art historian Basil Taylor (then teaching at the RCA) who warmly recommended him to Misha Black, the newly arrived Professor of Industrial Design (Engineering). "All the evidence," wrote Taylor, "not only from the Architectural Association, but from other places Myers has taught, suggests he is quite out of the ordinary as a teacher."
He added that Myers was unusually versatile too, combining as he did the fine arts and the practical arts of design. Ever since his student days, he had practised as a painter – every day of his life. He started out with abstract works in oil pastel, before eventually settling into pastel and oil still-lifes and landscapes: his paintings were exhibited at the New Art Centre and the New Grafton Gallery in London, among many other galleries, and collected by the Arts Council, the Contemporary Art Society, the National Maritime Museum and the Tate Gallery. At the same time, he published two books on Goya and others on the history of sculpture and "How to Look at Art" as well as co-editing The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Art (1979). "Some artists," he said, "find that teaching interferes with their work. I find it clarifies my work."
In 1968 and again in 1971, Myers became Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, gave courses on "design and social responsibility" to the engineering students and on "ways of teaching design in a technology institute" to the staff, as well as helping to set up a Design and Instrumentation Centre with recent RCA graduates on attachment. This was a life-changing experience for him, reflected in a series of vibrant pastel paintings exhibited in New Delhi and London in the early 1970s. But he said that he could never get used to people almost springing to attention every time he entered a room.
After becoming the RCA's first-ever Professor of Design Education in 1979, he accepted the new Chair of Design Technology at Brunel University, arising out of a recent merger with Shoreditch College, which had a long tradition in the crafts. The post-merger politics and arguments about "downsizing" did not suit him at all, and he retired early in 1985 to his beloved studio at St Peter's Wharf, Hammersmith, originally set up by the artist Julian Trevelyan, overlooking the Thames. There, he painted the light of the sun reflected in the water at all times of day. "The subject," he wrote, "never repeats itself and is never exhausted."
He also helped to bring together the Inner London Education Authority's art and design colleges into the London Institute – later the University of the Arts, London – and served as a much-respected Governor for many years. The UAL recently named a hall of residence Bernard Myers House, which touched him greatly.
Bernard Myers continued painting, despite a series of debilitating strokes over the last seven years. His last exhibition was at the New Grafton Gallery in 2006. A steadfast Christian, he remained optimistic to the end. I knew him well for 35 years. He introduced me to my wife, Helen, and read the lesson at our wedding. When I visited him in his studio shortly before he died, he showed me his latest paintings derived from early sketchbooks ("the doctors are interested in how the hand co-ordinates with the eye, after a stroke") and made light of his illness ("I thought the rules said three strokes and you're out!"). I told him I was soon to see Wagner's Ring cycle at Covent Garden. "Singing in the Rhine?", he replied, followed by a characteristically boyish giggle and a cartoon-like up-and-down movement of the shoulders. Then, most unlike Bernard, he embraced me and patted me on the back.
Bernard Louis Myers, artist and teacher: born London 22 April 1925; staff, Royal College of Art 1961-80, Professor of Design Education 1979-80; Professor of Design Technology, Brunel University 1980-85; died London 30 September 2007.
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