PERHAPS he was just having a bad day. But the first meeting in1906 between Silsden-born Augustus Spencer, Principal of the Royal College of Art, and student and Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst was a big mistake in judgment on his part.

In 1900 Augustus was a man on a mission. Born in 1860, he rose from a humble background in Silsden to become an art teacher. In 1900 he was appointed Principal of the RCA, with a view to implementing the reorganisation of the College started by his predecessor. Between 1881- 84, Augustus had been a student at the RCA describing the teaching as ‘slow, vicious, feeble and antiquated’.

The RCA had recently been given its ‘Royal’ prefix, and the Board of Education wanted to harness Augustus’ energy to drive the college forward as a centre of excellence in art education. It reorganised the curriculum into four divisions: mural and decorative painting; sculpture and life modelling; commercial design; and architecture.

Augustus threw himself into the post, appointing new staff, negotiating pay-rises for instructors and successfully canvassing the Board of Education for more teaching space in the South Kensington base. He was also responsible for teaching theory and practice of education and appointed his brother, Beckwith Spencer, to teach history of art and literature - a decision that would rebound on him.

Although the RCA saw its role as primarily a teacher training institution, it also trained designers for industry or other vocational art routes. Students followed a common curriculum in their first term, before choosing a specialism in, eg, teaching, design, painting. Whilst this was in principle a sound idea, the way it was implemented upset some students - Sylvia Pankhurst, for example.

In 1904 Sylvia gained a two year National Scholarship to study at the RCA. She’d applied there from Manchester School of Art, where she was awarded Best Woman Student Prize and a Travelling Scholarship to Venice for her mural designs. She subsequently gained a commission to paint murals for the newly-built hall of the Independent Labour Party in Manchester. She came to the RCA with high hopes, and the desire to paint murals and make banners supporting social reforms.

But she found her first few months at the RCA a shock. The London teachers were ‘far less sympathetic’ and she ‘was sad that she received none of the genial encouragement which had been a feature at the Manchester school, but [instead] rather scathing criticism’.

Sylvia hadn’t noticed that she was required to take a preliminary architecture course in daytime, leaving only the evenings for life drawing. She asked Augustus if she and others could do figure drawing in daytime, leaving evenings for architectural history. Instead of explaining that limited resources could not accommodate her wishes, Augustus, according to Sylvia, ‘brusquely ordered her from his room’. A lapse of manners at any time, but given Sylvia’s involvement with the Suffrage movement, it was a mistake on his part. Sylvia later recalled that she ‘resented his manners, and thereafter when she and he met they glared at each savage dogs’.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Sylvia Pankhurst, who clashed with Augustus Spencer Sylvia Pankhurst, who clashed with Augustus Spencer (Image: Colin Neville)

More problems for Augustus were to follow, with Sylvia’s allegation of discrimination against women students in college allocation of scholarships and prizes. At other British art colleges, the identity of students submitting work for prizes was concealed to judges. But at the Royal College it was Augustus Spencer who made the final decision. The result, it seemed, was that although many women students entered college on two-year scholarships, few received additional RCA scholarships to fund advanced level work. Sylvia learned it was ‘normal practice’ in the college painting school to award only one internal scholarship to a woman. Enraged, she persuaded Labour MP Kier Hardie to raise the matter in the House of Commons. Augustus was subsequently forced to admit that under his administration only three of 16 scholarships in 1905 went to women. This gave Sylvia and friends grounds to argue that the ‘ratio had no relation to the actual proportion of merit between the sexes in the college’. This sounded alarm bells at the Board of Education and led to an enquiry a few years later.

Augustus had little experience of communication on equal terms with women. He was a bachelor, one of eight sons. Almost all his RCA colleagues were men. Although a quarter of students were women, only two women teachers were appointed by Augustus. Sylvia, with her strong feminist views, must have been completely alien to his experience. The years 1904-06 saw the start of militant Suffragette action, with Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia’s mother, disrupting a Liberal Party meeting in Manchester and the first arrests in London and elsewhere.

In 1906 Sylvia’s scholarship expired and she left the college to pursue Suffragette activities. But she returned in 1911 to the RCA in a way that paved the way for Augustus’ demise as Principal. There was concern about the direction the RCA was going under his leadership. Although the college had trained many students for roles in education and commercial design, the Board of Education were concerned with high drop-out rates. During 1910 -11, a third of fee-paying students quit in the first term and a further 25per cent stayed only one year. Only around a quarter of all students completed their courses.

The drop-out was linked to concerns about poor levels of literacy among students, particularly those that left school at 13 for art training in regional art colleges. RCA students were undoubtedly a mixed bag of talent and educational ability, and the issue now for the Board of Education was the future direction of the college.

By 1909, there was concern about Augustus’ leadership at the RCA. The Board of Education were concerned with high drop-out rates from the college and in 1910 launched an enquiry. The investigating committee spoke to students about their experiences.

When Sylvia heard about the enquiry she immediately joined a deputation of seven recent graduates, all of whom had been on the course at the same time as her. Sylvia and her peers complained about the compulsory aspects of the curriculum, the distribution of internal scholarships, and the way in which Augustus Spencer made biased recommendations for and against the employment of students on graduation, based allegedly on favouritism.

They also complained about alleged nepotism shown by Augustus for employing his brother, Beckwith Spencer, at the college, and the need for compulsory attendance at Beckwith’s history of art and literature classes - which they complained were poorly taught.

Most devastating though, was the students’ verdict on Augustus himself: ‘That seeing it is generally felt that the organisation of the Royal College is unsatisfactory and that we, the students, found the Principal to be neither an artist nor a sympathetic organiser, we respectfully wish to ask, since we have suffered the system, in what way does he merit the position he now holds as Head of the Nation’s School of Design.’

The comments that Augustus was ‘neither an artist...’ must have been particularly hurtful to him, as he had always been a practising artist with a slant toward painting traditional landscape scenes.

It was the beginning of the end for Augustus and accelerated the move in the longer term toward making the college a centre of art generally, rather than for the teaching art in particular. Toward the end of Augustus’ tenure, a visitor to the college noted: ‘...the place had the look - and even the smell - not of an art school, but of an inferior elementary school: the members of staff whom I happened to see resembled clerks, the retiring Principal wore a morning coat, and the students seemed to have sunk into apathy.’

The comments were not completely unbiased, as they were made by John Rothenstein, son of William Rothenstein - also from the Bradford area - who took over from Augustus, but they were, nevertheless, telling.

In 1920 Augustus decided to retire; it was time to go.

He died four years later in his home town, Silsden, and is buried in the graveyard of the parish church.

* Colin Neville runs the website, profiling artists from the Bradford district, past and present.