Liverpool College of Art alumni reminisce at Bicentenary year documentary screening

Four photos showing group of people chatting in the art school building

A film charting the history of Liverpool College of Art, today’s Liverpool School of Art and Design, was screened at a special event attended by more than 50 alumni of the college, and university, last week.

Timelines features interviews with a group of former staff and students, recalling their time at the college between the 1940s and 1970s, and has been produced by Liverpool documentary film maker Michael Swerdlow and local artist Janet Webb.

Together they have worked with LJMU’s Alumni Relations Manager to bring the film to an audience during the university's Bicentenary year.   

Michael, whose brother Alan is a graduate of the College of Art, and Janet, herself a former college student, conducted the interviews in 2010 with the participants describing the college in its heyday and comparing the methods of teaching art then with now.

Michael says: “The result is a brief look at its history together with an affectionate, light-hearted yet informative insight into college life and the work of some of its illustrious lecturers and students. Thanks to the college staff we were able to film students at work in the old building before it closed as well as working with the university archives team where many of the images in the film were taken from.”

Although the footage in the film was captured in 2010, other projects distracted Michael from completing the film edit, but the lockdown associated with the Covid-19 pandemic presented a perfect opportunity to get the film finished.

LJMU’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mark Power, had the honour of introducing the film during the event. He said: “This film is not only a testament to this institution’s history, but to this city’s cultural history. It is also a tribute to our future, borne out of our talented students and graduates.

“This film has been a project of Michael’s lasting many years; a labour of love interviewing friends and family. It was extremely fortunate that Michael was able to access the Art School on Hope Street, having spoken with the then Director Martin Downie, who is sadly no longer with us. Martin urged Michael to complete the filming as soon as possible, as the School of Art was in the process of moving from Hope Street to its new home at the John Lennon Art and Design Building.  

“Had Martin and Michael not acted so quickly, we would not have the opportunity to enjoy this wonderful snapshot of the institution’s rich history in the words of staff, students and alumni who passed through its doors.”

More about the film and how to purchase a copy is outlined on the Michael Swerdlow website

Liverpool College of Art to Liverpool School of Art and Design

The original building opened on Mount Street in 1832 as the Mechanics’ Institution instructing draughtsmen skills in ship building. By 1850 it introduced art and design into its curriculum followed in 1936 by women's craft classes in dress and textiles. By the end of World War II, it was much in demand as the Regional College of Art with many famous lecturers and students. Soon it was one of the finest art colleges in the UK.

By the turn of the millennium, with its polytechnic status and subsequent amalgamation into the Liverpool John Moores University, the old Victorian building was reaching the end of its usefulness and new premises next to the Metropolitan Cathedral were proposed and eventually opened in 2008, now the John Lennon Art and Design Building, home to LJMU’s School of Art and Design.

About the producers

Janet Webb (nee Schofield) studied in textile design and fashion at the college from 1960 to 1964. After graduation Janet went on to be a freelance designer in London and a tutor at West Cheshire College. Janet has exhibited her artwork in her own gallery with many of her paintings in private collections.

Michael Swerdlow is a Liverpool businessman who in his retirement turned to producing corporate and documentary films. These included "Chicken Soup and Scouse" charting the history of the Liverpool Jewish community from the 1700s to the present day relating how members of the community contributed over the years to the city's prosperity in commerce, science, education and entertainment. Another film "The Story of Harold House" focuses on one of the numerous institutions founded in the 1800s within the Liverpool Jewish community as one of the most successful youth and community centres in the UK but which, in the early 2000s, had to close down due to the community shrinking in size. Both films are informative as well as nostalgic.

Janet and Michael have previously made two films together. “Objects of Desire” which won an award in Liverpool, takes a fantasy trip through the eyes of a man gazing at a painting in an art gallery. "They see me as a bowl of fruit”, through candid interviews, examines the life and work of men and women who pose in the nude in art life classes, through their anecdotes and reactions to a room full of gazing eyes.

About the interviewees

Sadly since filming the interviews some of those who took part have passed away, so the film is dedicated to them.

Robin Riley studied at the college in the late 1950s and graduated in ceramics and mosaics and had an illustrious career as sculptor and mosaicist in Liverpool working alongside some of the city's famous artists. His work included the moving of the huge Mosaic of Pentecost by George Mayer-Marton from the Church of the Holy Ghost in Bootle in Liverpool and reinstalling it in the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

Charles Metcalfe was a student at the college in the 1940s and was appointed lecturer and Head of Fashion at the Regional College of Art in 1959 and retired as Deputy Director of the School of Art and design, Liverpool Polytechnic in 1989. He was Chairman of the Bluecoat and Chairman of the Design and Product Marketing Group of the International Textile Institute.

June Furlong was a student at the college from 1947 but later became its full-time life class model and was in demand by painters and sculptors around the country.

Fred O'Brien studied at the college in the mid-1950s and graduated in graphic design and went on to create his own successful design practice, Northern Design Unit, in Liverpool specialising in total conceptual design interpretation of commercial and retail premises. This included the Northern Approaches Battle of the Atlantic Museum in Liverpool.

Alan Swerdlow studied at the college from 1956 to 60 and graduated in typographic design. After a short period as a freelance designer with clients including Brian Epstein doing work for his NEMS record shops and early Beatles publicity, he joined his own family business. Alan was also a teacher of typography at the college.

Reg Cox studied at the college in 1943 and graduated in photography eventually becoming a full-time teacher of photography. He joined Fred O'Brien and became one of the partners in the Northern Design Unit studio.

Helen Anderson studied Fine Art at the college from 1957 to 1961 and later in Rome, specializing in portraits. In 1962, she established a hip couture leather and suede boutique on Liverpool's Bold Street, creating John Lennon's iconic leather cap. Helen diversified into high-end fashion, dressing many celebrities until 1999, when she returned to portrait painting.


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