Obituary: Tom Hudson
Thursday 08 January 1998
It is difficult now, with the whole world supposedly looking to British art for a lead, to imagine the complacent parochialism of art education, and, by extension, the whole of the British art world, 50 years ago. Abstract Expressionism was bubbling up in New York, but drawing from classical casts was still one of the primary modes of instruction in British art schools. Heraldry was still on the curriculum.
Tom Hudson was one of a handful of individuals who smashed that cosily academic world for ever, letting in a flood of international influences, breaking down the barriers between art and design and creating a climate in which British art schools were acclaimed as the best in the world. A stocky, black-bearded son of the Durham coalfield, an improvisatory socialist visionary with a touch of the streetfighter, he had a remarkable gift for inspiring and energising others.
Raised in a working-class environment with practically no exposure to art of any kind, he nonetheless acquired artistic ambitions at an early age. After active service in the Far East, he was exposed to the European avant-garde during periods of leave in Paris, and returned to disrupted studies at Sunderland School of Art with a feeling that he must Do Something. During a teaching year at King's College, Newcastle, and a period at the Courtauld Institute, London's grand bastion of academic art history, he began to evolve his own educational ideas, influenced by Herbert Read's 1943 book Education through Art and the assemblage-based strategies of the Constructivist and de Stijl movements. In 1951, through Anthony Blunt's recommendation, he gained his first teaching post, at Lowestoft, a tiny provincial backwater.
His research into child art brought him into contact with Victor Pasmore, who had created a Bauhaus-inspired basic course at Newcastle. From 1954 he, Pasmore and Harry Thubron led a series of summer schools for teachers at Scarborough, where the principles of what became known as Basic Design - the stripping back of the students' preconveived ideas through exercises in form, space and colour - were evolved. What had previously been isolated developments cohered with Herbert Read's encouragement into a movement whereby a nucleus of trained teachers would convert the mass to modernist teaching methods.
In 1957 Hudson joined Thubron at Leeds, where their far-reaching experiments involving everything from heavy industrial techniques to a philosophy of the irrational introduced by the painter Alan Davie became the inspiration for young teachers all over the country. Soon the London-based educational establishment was beating a path to their door.
Many of their ideas and recommendations were absorbed by the Coldstream Committee of 1961, which introduced diplomas, radically modernising and academicising the art schools, and the Summerson Council which brought in full-blown degrees in 1968.
Impatient with Leeds's exclusively fine-art orientation, Hudson became Head of Foundation Studies at Leicester, and with the aid of dynamic young artists like Michael Sandle and Terry Setch, set about creating a totally integrated system of art and design education. A revelatory exhibition of students' work, "The Visual Adventure", toured to the Royal Festival Hall and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1963. Hudson was invited to lecture all over the world, becoming a consultant to Unesco and adviser on art education to the Brazilian government.
Had he bided his time, one of the great London colleges might have fallen into his hands. But Hudson was more interested in his own utopias than other people's career structures. In 1964, he moved his entire staff and the pick of his students to Cardiff, where he was appointed Director of Studies with almost unlimited powers and budget. In its day, Cardiff had probably the most radical programmes anywhere, attracting the attention of teachers from all over the world.
By the mid-Seventies, the perceived didacticism of Basic Design (a term Hudson himself never used) had become unfashionable. In most colleges, a structureless system of do-your-own-thing prevailed. When his academic freedoms were curtailed in a bureaucratic shake-up at Cardiff, Hudson fled to Vancouver with the aim of creating another ground-breaking institution. The position of Dean of Instruction, however, proved to be largely administrative, and his gritty rigour did not blend well with laid-back West Coast hedonism.
Although he exhibited his own sculpture to some acclaim, Hudson's natural medium was teaching. He genuinely believed that, if only ordinary people could be made to understand the great artistic, scientific and intellectual achievements of the 20th century, the world's problems would be solved. To this end, while in his seventies, he made a number of television series designed to make the excitement of a creative education and his own highly personal interpretations of the modern art movements available to the man in the street. These won many of the highest awards available to such programmes in North America.
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