Ernest Gimson, the great Arts and Crafts’ maker and architect, described architecture as “building touched with emotion”. Gimson’s final and greatest work was the Bedales Library, which opened in 1921 as a memorial to the dead of the Great War. This Grade 1 listed building, constructed by former students and extraordinary craftsmen-builders Geoffrey Lupton and Edward Barnsley out of local oak, bricks and tiles, remains our crowning architectural glory. John Badley, Bedales’ founder, chose to build a great library rather than a chapel, which I think gives pause for thought. As well as fulfilling some of the functions of a school chapel, our library has a unique place in the hearts of former students, and also set the tone for the best of the future building at Bedales.
It is difficult to imagine what these great makers, who even constructed their own crane (solid walnut wheels, a foot in diameter; nearby conifer sawn from end to end), would make of the new Art & Design building – named as one of the 49 finalists in the national round of the RIBA awards. We are one of four independent schools in this category, accompanied by Chetham’s School of Music (auditorium), King’s School, Wimbledon (teaching accommodation) and Wells Cathedral School (music facilities).
Schools like ours are lucky to be able to create such places, and we might reflect upon the importance of inspiring teaching and learning spaces in shaping creative young minds. At a time when the squeeze on spending in the secondary maintained sector is marginalising the Arts yet further, it is salutary that three of the four school buildings named in RIBA’s top tier are investments in the Arts.
Central to the excitement that has accompanied the first year of our new Art & Design building being completed is the desire that it should influence the lives of young people across both the maintained and independent sectors. The potential impact is elevated further when considered alongside that of Outdoor Work – that unique strand in the colourful brocade of Bedales life. Indeed, this new facility can be made to count as part of a national drive to help government recognise that importance of Art, Design, making and the inter-disciplinary thinking that is the foundation for the UK’s fast growing creative industries. Watch this space. By the way, Outdoor Work encompasses everything from animal husbandry (pigs, hens, sheep mainly) to cooking via gardening, conservation, country crafts and building. Fancy making a poker? There’s the forge (replete with suitable protective gear, of course…). It was a cunning thing to place our new Art & Design flagship alongside Outdoor Work – the scope for collaboration is massive.
Environment is everything, thought John Badley:
“…but more important still is environment, if under this head we include not only material surroundings and the opportunities they offer but personal contacts and intellectual and cultural influences also, with all the nourishment and encouragement that these give to mental and spiritual as well as to bodily health and growth.”
JH Badley, Memories and Reflections, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1955
Reading his words now, about the importance of places, culture and conversation, I feel both a sense of the courage of his early vision and the responsibility - the importance of his successors doing our bit to live up to that aspiration. It is heartening, then, to read the RIBA comments on the Bedales Art & Design building: “The client purposely restricted the budget (to avoid the buildings-arms-race), acknowledging that an economy of means is a lesson in itself.” Important elements of Bedales life, such as student involvement, are recognised, as is the school’s unusual Arts and Crafts’ tradition, continued in student building in Outdoor Work: “The honesty of the building’s material expression allows users to see how it was put together, which really chimes with the client’s idea of creating an educational instrument, especially given the school’s interest in ‘hands on’ building construction.”
Do have a further read of RIBA’s appetising prose – both about the Bedales building, and our co-finalists.
What would Gimson, Lupton, Barnsley and their fellows with their homespun clothes and briar pipes have made of it all? I hope that they would have found plenty that they could recognise and admire.
Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools