By Gerard Hastings
Teaching was a vital part of Vaughan’s creative life and he held various posts. After the war, in 1946, he taught illustration and composition in the Junior School at Camberwell School of art. Two years later he transferred to the Central School of Art. From 1954 he started work at the Slade as a visiting artist and joined the staff on a permanent two-day contract in 1958; he maintained this position until the end of his career. In 1959 he spent a term as a visiting teacher at Iowa University and the following year he gave classes at Lumley Castle for a summer programme. Part of Vaughan’s duties entailed sitting on committees and travelling extensively around the country in his capacity as external examiner at various art colleges. His friend, the painter Prunella Clough, led a comparable professional life and whenever they were together they shared their woes about the latest departmental changes, student troubles and the tiresome nature of committee meetings. Typically Vaughan mistrusted his own ability as an art educator and wondered what a self-taught painter could teach others.
Clough and Vaughan were both accomplished teachers. She taught chiefly at Chelsea and Wimbledon Schools of Art and remembered that they discussed regularly problems concerning colleagues and students. “Neither of us liked school affairs or administration but we sat together on various committees and boards over the years. Keith was always on the students’ side,” she recalled. “He tried to support them in practical ways and would point out directly what their responsibilities were, such as meeting deadlines and turning up for tutorials. On the other hand, he would also extend a sympathetic ear to their problems.” Vaughan was always conscious that he came from a different generation to his students and often held different opinions. Their mutual dislike of institutional politics meant they shied away from positions of responsibility and hierarchy, preferring instead to do a few days teaching each week and then return to their studios to paint in solitude. Both had to act as external examiners at other art colleges, travelling around the country to assess and grade the work of students. “Keith hated doing it, but it comes with the job. He used to roll his eyes at having to travel all the way up to Scotland, since it took up so much of his time.” (Prunella Clough, from an interview with Gerard Hastings, June 1982. )
By all accounts Vaughan was a much-admired teacher by both staff and students alike and was always encouraging, though in a modest and reserved manner. His approach centred on trying to understand the problems that his students faced rather than guiding or steering them in a particular direction or imperiously dealing out sagacious advice. He left behind various teaching notes and reflections concerning his students. Though he clung fast to the idea that the Western canon and traditional values could still offer inspiration, consolation and stimulation, he did not expect his students to concur. Nor did he believe their work to be incomprehensible or disagreeable, but he was not always sympathetic regarding their uncongenial methods and modes of working. During the 1960s he realised that the routine rejection of traditional forms of expression (drawing, canvas, paint and brushes), was anathema to his sensibility. Nevertheless he believed that the teaching process was highly beneficial:
I get a lot out of teaching simply by being in contact with a young generation of painters and having my own ideas challenged and trying to understand what they are about. (Interview with Tony Carter, 1963)
Being an untrained painter himself, Vaughan was a considerate tutor, quietly supportive and sympathetic to the requirements of his tutees. He wanted to understand their difficulties in trying to achieve their individual identities and was acutely aware that in the pursuit of artistic expression, young painters were often and easily swayed by the enticement of ‘originality’, something about which he felt strongly:
I think that there is a lot of pressure at the moment being put on young painters to be original, which is partly the fault of the promotional and commercial aspects of contemporary painting. Since painting is a luxury product, it tends to come into the same category as fashion and clothes – the couturier and so on. Therefore, there is a great temptation for a young painter to feel he must have something absolutely brand new to say, otherwise nobody will take notice of him. I think this is bad from every point of view because painters naturally take a long time to mature. This persistent emphasis on personal originality, and its opposite – an insistence on complete anonymity, is also a devitalising element because it means that the painter is too concerned with seeing his work in its social context rather than in relation to his own individual experience. And you end up with a sort of standardised international product called ‘modern art’ which is not disagreeable but is quite dispensable.(Unpublished notes on teaching, January 1972)
Vaughan believed that Fine Art students required practical advice concerning the daily realities associated with being a creative artist. It was all very well to be ‘inspired’ and to have ‘something to say’, but a student also had to be taught how to acquire a healthy work ethic and precisely how to evolve a professional routine and productive studio set-up. He even wrote a set of mandatory notes outlining what he believed art students really needed by way of practical advice:
What Should be Taught to the Fine Art Student:
1) The foundations of a working routine.
2) Working to set hours.
3) Equipping & laying out studio as methodically & rationally as any laboratory.
4) Creative moments arise in the process of working at something.
5) Good habits of work.
6) Danger of the romantic reliance on inspiration.
7) English painting shows many examples of creative talents fading in middle age because of the lack of a proper working routine.
The fundamental differences between the student of fine art & of industrial design should be broached as far as possible by:
1) For the Fine Arts student, making his career as romantically unattractive as possible & as near as possible to the conditions of a scientific laboratory.
2) For all the Industrial Arts student, making his aesthetic training as romantic & liberating as possible so that he finds the opportunities for self-expression, experiment which will be denied him under the conditions of industrial employment.
No one should be encouraged to full-time exclusive study of the Fine Arts except under doctor’s orders.
The student who wishes to study painting & sculpture should be required to also take a secondary course in some socially appliable design. (Unpublished notes on teaching, January 1972)
Vaughan enjoyed the life-drawing class at the Slade. He started by asking his students to commence drawing the model, who had been arranged in a designated pose, and then he would sit to draw from the model himself. Occasionally he made line drawings of the class and the model at work. After a little while he would get up and go round the students, assessing their individual progress and perhaps, suggest solutions to their problems concerning scale, outline or tone. He made pencil marks directly on top of their drawings and also showed them his own pencil studies, by way of suggesting alternative approaches.
In Vaughan’s day students still occasionally drew from the plaster casts in the Antique Room, though this had become an increasingly disliked exercise. He could be found in his spare moments sitting among the casts filling up his little sketchbooks. He usually favoured the classical male statues such as The Spinario and The Apollo. In the early 1960s there were large potted plants in the Antique Room and these are sometimes included in his drawings. One of Vaughan’s students, the painter Anthony Slinn, recalls:
He would show me drawings in his sketchbook, and often, after leaving me, he would draw amongst the plants and antique casts, then the next week he would show me how he related the shapes of the leaves with the curves of the casts, always talking composition, the whole area and the relationship of shapes within it. (Anthony Slinn, Vortex Gallery: Tribute Paintings to Keith Vaughan, 1985)
Towards the end of his career at the Slade a significant reorganisation took place while outside, in the art market, contradictory standards and new commercial pressures prevailed. William Coldstream was approaching retirement and the reorganisation of the departments started under the auspices of Lawrence Gowing. Vaughan tried to remove himself from the staff/student tensions that were building up over this period, although he usually found himself siding with his students. In January 1972, for example, he took time to systematically, and in detail, address three grievances presented by them:
a) The ‘Art market’ is rigged & manipulated by dealers for their own profits:
The dealer is the retail distributor between the artist & his public. The dealer can only show what the artist produces. The dealer will only show what he thinks he can sell (with a few exceptions), [in other words] the dealer can not ‘rig’ the art market.
b) No young painter has a chance of getting an exhibition without influential backing:
Any young painter producing art objects likely to appeal to the art buying public will find a dealer to show them. Dealers need new artists to keep in business. (But publically sponsored art, Arts Council etc. is subject to fashionable influence).
c) Making ‘art work’ for a privileged minority is immoral & nourishes forces of reaction:
Production of anything for the purpose of giving pleasure to others (provided it is not harmful in the long term – drugs for instance) cannot be immoral but is, on the contrary, a highly commendable activity. It is morally the same whether only one or one million people derive pleasure. For one person to derive pleasure proves that the art object is potentially pleasurable. Others will follow. At no point in history has good art failed to give pleasure to anyone or if it did it, would not have survived & we should have no evidence of its existence. (Unpublished notes on teaching, January 1972)
A further series of detailed handwritten notes, dating from the early 1970s, exist. These may have been intended for some sort of tutorial or lecture and they outline certain philosophical standpoints to which Vaughan adhered. Several of his points remain remarkably relevant today:
Extracts from Vaughan’s Teaching Notes, January 1972:
All art at all times has only given conscious pleasure to a minority, though the majority, exposed to art, may well have benefitted subconsciously. – (general uplifting effect of living in a well designed environment – Italian cities etc). The ‘pleasure’ people derive from an art object is not necessarily the pleasure the artist intended to give. Only a few great artists, and in special periods have consciously set out to give pleasure to their patrons. The majority has set out to express or realize in art forms some truth of experience of living. The experience need not be pleasurable in itself for the art object to be pleasurable. The purpose of art has never been to shock, outrage or disturb the viewer, though this has often been the immediate result. All radical departures from convention are initially disturbing since they challenge the innate conservative element in all people. Once the disturbing or outrageous aspect becomes familiar, the art object becomes conventional and acceptable within an enlarged area of visual experience (e.g. Cubism, Fauvism etc.)
A basic mistake in young radical artists is to imagine that if they succeed in disturbing & outraging conventional taste they have succeeded as artists. They have not even begun to operate as artists unless beneath the unconventional & outrageous aspect lies a profound and truthful experience.
But artists have always tried to operate within the conventional idioms of their time since these are part of his stock in trades inherited like his pigments etc. It is a waste of time to try to be unconventional for its own sake (seeking novelty, notoriety, publicity etc.). An artist is forced to break with conventional idioms only when these are no longer adequate for the expression of his true experience.
The necessarily outrageous aspect of the best art of the early part of this century has lead painters today to believe that new work must also and always be outrageous in order to be important. A fallacy. The idea that art in the expression of man’s true experience is now rejected by many young painters as too narrow an area in which to operate. The necessary limitations inherent in any art form are likewise rejected as denying their ‘freedom’ of expression. They do not see that these two beliefs are self-canceling. If the expression of personal experience is rejected then it is not necessary to have more ‘freedom for expression’.
Many artists talk of wanting ‘more freedom’. But freedom is only meaningful in a limited context of freedom from some particular inhibiting restriction. Absolutely freedom is an impossible situation for an artist or anyone else. Freedom can only be experienced in the context of existing limitations. As soon as certain limitations are overcome others must necessarily take their place. It is in the process of striving against and overcoming existing limitations, internal and external, that both art and freedom are created. The idea that art can only begin to be made in a state of complete freedom is also a fallacy.
Personal experience is the source of art today as it has been in the past. The means chosen to express this experience will vary with circumstances. No one set of means, or materials, are necessarily better than another, though an artist will naturally conceive, and recollect his experience in forms of the material he proposes to use.
The idea that the products of modern technology, used as artistic material, will produce a more contemporary type of art is another fallacy.
All art, good and bad, is contemporary if it is made now. The best art made now will naturally be different in many respects from the best art of previous epochs. But not wholly different, since the range of experience man can undergo is limited and does not change in essentials. It changes in externals.
Real experience must be confined to one’s tactile environment. What you see, hear, feel, and know about. Also dream about. The idea that space travel has opened up a new field of experience for mankind is another fallacy. This is proved by the fact that all the physical vicissitude an astronaut has to learn to undergo are simulated in special machinery on the earth. Even the admittedly new experience of weightlessness does not need actual space travel.
Although in general he possessed very liberal and broad-minded views, Vaughan was conservative when it came to artistic heritage, art history and artistic traditions. Many of his students were keen to break free of prevailing conventions and Vaughan tried to address their anxieties:
Keith Vaughan: Notes Concerning Radicals and the System:
The whole economic system of capitalist society in which production is for short term gain rather than applying real need is wrong, bad, and self-destructive. Therefore all operation within a system – the buying and selling artworks – is also bad, or at least very imperfect. But none of the viable alternatives, such as state controlled art, is better. The young radical seeing the situation is bad, wishes to destroy it. He does not which to improve or reform it, and has nothing viable to put in its place. He assumes that the energies released in destructive revolution will somehow bring about, of their own accord, a better society. There is nothing in history to suggest this is likely. But there is ample evidence to show that slow reform permanently improves social conditions.
A completely fair society has never existed. Some members have always been privileged, some exploited. Revolution swaps the categories but does not effect an overall increase in justice. Social reform tends towards reducing the numbers of both privileged and exploited. It has not yet succeeded in abolishing them and is unlikely to, given the facts of human nature. But it’s the best weapon we have. Unfortunately social reform is slow and dull and so has no appeal to the young who in fact see it as an evil greater than the entrenched exploitation which is under attack. Something so alien to them (liberalism) and which shares their ideals and beliefs, is like a fifth column operating within their midst. They prefer the more romantic image of an enemy in full armour. Hence the ultimate silliness of all radical and revolutionary literature. It is quixotic, juvenile and self-indulgent. Any cause sponsored by the ‘establishment’ is automatically shot down without examination.
The ‘establishment’ is a convenient blanket term of disapproval for everything unlike themselves. All young radical movements are potentially fascist. They want quick forceful change not slow improvement.
Vaughan was very clear about art education and what the function of art was. He also had strong ideas concerning what role an artist had to play in society:
The Purpose of Art:
1) To reveal the possibility of order in areas hitherto seen as chaotic.
2) To create order by novel methods.
3) To reveal new aspects of human experience and force a rethinking of accepted beliefs.
The Purpose of the Artist:
1) To produce work which is a true expression of his individual experience.
2) To produce work of the highest quality and standard possible. Quality and standard being understood as purely subjective valuations. That is to say he is under an obligation to ensure that work confirms to his own standards of quality, even though the standards may not be widely accepted. Bad art results when standards are invented afterwards to justify something which has already been done (and not always intentionally).
Art produced in conformity with some theory or system is valid only if the theory or system is genuinely experienced by the artist, as part of his world or life style. It is invalid if the theory or system is followed simply because it is novel and trendy and fashionable for the moment.
It is impossible to say that a theory or system is generally good or bad as a means of producing art. All theories and systems are possible means to an end, depending on who believes them and how they use them. The work of good artists is sometimes marred by the close adherence to unsuitable theories (Millais). (Unpublished notes on teaching, January 1972)
Once Gowing had reorganized the Slade and teaching got underway, Vaughan felt isolated in the pristine environment; he considered the new post-graduate school to be a disaster. For him the atmosphere was akin to a slick drawing office or a clinical advertising agency, and believed it impossible for a real painter to work in conditions resembling a laboritory. Illness and depression had worn down his resources and he felt unable to communicate with the new breed of radical students who were emerging. It was time to retire after thirty years in art education.