Lives Remembered: Aneurin M.Thomas

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Meic Stephens' interesting obituary of Aneurin M. Thomas (28 April) covered many of his special qualities and lovable characteristics but contained an error over dates, writes Professor Peter Green, Emeritus Professor, Applied and Visual Arts, Middlesex University.

The obituary states that "his time at Hornsey College of Art coincided with the student occupation of the College". This in fact is incorrect. Thomas (affectionately known at Hornsey as "Tommy") left Hornsey in 1966, when he was appointed as Director of the Welsh Arts Council. The famous sit-in at Hornsey started in May 1968.

Why this is important is that many staff and students believed that if Tommy had still been the vice-principal at Hornsey then the sit-in may not have occurred, and certainly his egalitarian instincts (referred to by Meic Stephens) and deep understanding of the nature of education would have been invaluable in negotiations and the troubles would have been without doubt contained and curtailed.

I was a member of staff at Hornsey College of Art with Aneurin Thomas and he was an outstanding administrator and art educationalist. At a time when formal theoretical studies and Art History were being introduced to art schools, usually with some considerable resentment from the practice-based staff, Thomas was invaluable in bridging the gap between theory and practice – he spoke with sensitive knowledge and understanding to both camps.

The government and organisation of art schools was dramatically changing in the 1960s and he was a rare example of an administrator who genuinely understood the nature of education and the learning process. He was therefore able to communicate very effectively with students, who generally held him in high regard. They would listen to him and enjoyed particularly his kindly humour and his disregard for status and authority, irrespective of his "imperious manner", acquired, as Stephens rightly states, from his time as a Major during the war. It was this ability to relate so effectively with students that made him such an invaluable member of the senior staff and I am sure he did not leave Hornsey to get away from "bully boy student tactics" as the obituary implies – and anyhow, such evidence of student aggression did not occur until the sit-in, nearly two years after he had left.

Aneurin Thomas was a gentle and perceptive educationalist, and staff and students at Hornsey were so sorry to see him leave, as he represented a new style of senior administrator in art schools: one who listened to students and staff and who understood what the developing aims and changing requirements of art and design education were in the mid-20th century.

Incidentally, one of his main legacies at Hornsey was the development of an in-house publishing enterprise. This was something virtually unique in English art schools (except at the Royal College of Art). Three titles were published under the series title of "Studies in Design" but sadly the venture was a victim of the sit-in and art school publishing was not reinstated and developed until the late 1970s – but Tommy had pioneered much of this work.