"Vancouver School of Art"


By Charles H. Scott Dip. (G.S.A.)

     In the early nineteen-twenties a band of art-enthusiasts, citizens of Vancouver and other parts of the province, formed themselves into a sociey named "The B.C. Art League". This League had two objects in view: the organization of an art school, and the founding of an art gallery in Vancouver. The League lived to see both objects realized, although in neither case did they take the form originally envisaged. The establishment of the art school owed much to the purposeful activity of the late John Radford, architect and painter. Mr. Radford may rightly be considered the father of the Vancouver School of Art.

     The League's desire was that the school should be under the control of an autonomous board composed of representatives elected from public bodies, and financed, in part, by a yearly grant from the Provincial Government. The latter, however, refused to aid financially, and referred the League to the Vancouver School Board.

     After several meetings between the School Board and the League, the Board agreed to the opening of "The Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts" as an integral part of the city school system. The purpose of the school, arrived at during the joing meetings of the Board and the League, was briefly stated as the "giving of carefully planned courses of training for workers in the graphic and applied arts". The utilitarian aspect of the training was stressed from the beginning, in the belief that many trades and industries in Vancouver and British Columbia stood in need of trained artist workers.

     The school was to be financed, in part, by monies derived from student fees (then fixed at $50.00 per annum) and the usual Provincial Government grant towards teachers' salaries. The Vancouver School Board was to be responsible for the remainder. The minimum entrance age for students was to be sixteen years.

     The curriculum was planned for a lower and a middle school, with all students taking the subjects offered in the lower school before proceeding to the middle. A higher school was something for the future. Subjects of the lower school course were as follows: Still-Life Drawing; Perspective; Geometrical Drawing; Lettering; Design; Clay Modelling; Figure Drawing; and Lectures on Art Appreciation. These subjects offered the students an experience sufficiently broad to form a basis for specialization in Drawing and Painting, Commercial Art, Design, Modelling, and Costume Design.

     The School Board appointed Mr. G. Thornton Sharp, Architect, as director and, at the same time, called upon Mr. Charles H. Scott, Supervisor of Art in the city schools, at that time on leave of absence in Europe, to return and assume the duties of principal. Premises were found for the school on the top floor of the School Board Office building at 590 Hamiton Street, and here, in September 1925, some forty enthusiastic students bore witness to the fact that the seed planted and nurtured by the B.C. Art League had come into bud.

     In the spring of 1926, Mr. Sharp, who had accepted the position of director only in order to get the school under way, resigned. The Board called upon Mr. Scott to take over the executive duties of director.

     The experiences of that first year, and the expectation of a larger student enrolment, made it patent to Mr. Scott that the future of the school was bound up in the securing of an adequate and permanent staff. By the session 1927-28, the staff included one instructor from Toronto, one from Edinburgh, and one from Glasgow.

     The Day School enrolment grew until, by 1929, it had reached a more or less static point of one hundred. In that year, fees, raised previously to sixty dollars per annum, were increased to one hundred dollars per annum. The school offered a four-year Day Course to students able to take complete art training, and evening courses to students who were working during the day. Afternoon rooms were obtained in the old Vancouver High School, situated immediately behind the School Board Offices.

     In June 1929, the school held its first graduating exercises. Eleven students qualified: Mr. Fred Amess, Miss Ada Currie, Miss Lilias Farley, Miss Frances Gatewood, Miss Irene Hoffar, Miss Phyllis Kirkpatrick, Miss Beatrice Lennie, Miss Marjorie Lyne, Miss Vera Weatherbie, Miss Margaret Williams, and Mr. Yitkon Ho. The diploma granted to these graduates carried the seal of the Provincial Department of Education.

     The school was functioning as a fully-organized and well-equipped art institution, capable of giving a training equal to that of any art school in Canada. The quality of the students' work, when displayed in the East, caused favorable comment, and the many visitors from various parts of the Dominion and from overseas were warm in their praise of the school's accomplishments. All things pointed to a steady growth when, suddenly, in 1933, municipal retrenchment cut deeply into School Board estimates, and many school services were reduced or dispensed with entirely.

     The work of the Art School would have been discontinued had it not been for Mr. Scott, who suggested that the school would be willing to attempt to bridge the period of financial difficulty by operating on the fees received, together with a small grant by the Provincial Department of Education. Such a course meant drastic salary reductions for all members of the staff, including the Director. Those few members of the staff who found the reductions offered by the Board unacceptable, resigned.

     The session 1933-34 became a second beginning for the school. The staff, consisting of Mr. Scott and Miss Melvin, as full-time instructors, was augmented by part-time teachers and a few graduates of outstanding ability. The curriculum was altered somewhat, and the institution's name was changed from the cumbersome "Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts" to the more acceptable "Vancouver School of Art". (Editor's note: the "decorative and applied" was kept as a suffix until 1937)

     The years that immediately followed were anxious ones, but backed by a loyal and capable staff, and enthusiastically supported by Mr. MacCorkindale, Superintendent of Vancouver Schools, the Director carried on the work of the institution with remarkable success.

     By 1935 graduates of the school were many. These, together with the larger number of students who had studied for one, two, or three years, were now at work in various trades or professions; and many were contributing to exhibition in the Art Gallery here, and elsewhere. The staff, by exhibitions of work in the East and abroad, by lecture engagements, and writings, and by participation in Art Gallery activities, did its part in helping to create an art consciousness in the city and province. The institution was beginning to have a pervasive influence on the life of the city.

     The school, by 1936, had outgrown its accommodation. It was therefore arranged that the school should give up its quarters in the School Board Office building in return for the use of all the rooms of the old high school building. There, considerable renovation and decoration was effected, and in September, 1936, the school entered upon a new year in suitable and spacious quarters. Shortly after, the beautification of the school grounds gave to the surrounding area a pleasing view of lawn and garden.

     The Department of Education, in 1937, requested that a Summer School be organized by the School of Art for the training of teachers for Elementary and Junior High School Art Certification. With the addition of the new course the institution consisted of a DaySchool an Evening School, a Saturday Junior School, and a Summer School. Its total annual enrolment was now between four and five hundred students.

     The extra-curricular activities of the school during its sixteen years of existence have included Summer Sketch Camps for students at Savary Island and elsewhere. Beaux-Arts Costume Balls, Christmas Nativity Plays, the production of an artistic School Annual, and particiaption in such special functions as "Cavalcade", presented by the Public Schools of Vancouver on the occasion of the city's Golden Jubilee.

     The Vancouver School of Art, to the present, has brought new vision to thousands of art students. In the belief that its graduates will, more and more, leaven the cultural, industrial and social life of the province, the institution faces the future with enthusiasm.

Editors note: Some partiality is evident in this essay, particularly where Scott describes the pay cuts in the 1930s and the departure of some staff (who complained that Scott cut his own pay much less than he cut the pay of the others).