The Royal Academy archive is a treasure trove of fascinating stories about the artists, teachers and students who have been part of our history since the RA's foundation in 1768. Last week the Academy's archivist, Mark Pomeroy, met with RA Schools alumnus and WWII veteran Norman Attwell to discuss the time he spent here as a student.
Former RA Schools student Norman Attwell. On Monday millions paused to remember those who have fallen in the line of duty. During both world wars Royal Academy Schools
students entered the military in a variety of roles and served their country with distinction. A monument at the entrance of Burlington House bears witness to the sacrifice of those who never made it back.
Many more did return, transformed by their experiences, but ready to pick up the threads of a creative life that had been so rudely curtailed. One such was Norman Attwell, a painter and draughtsman, who was admitted to the Schools on the 14th March 1939 only for war to be declared on the 3rd of September. Last week, Norman again visited the Schools and was kind enough to share some of his experiences in an interview.
Norman served as a signalman in the Royal Navy. He sailed all over the world, participating directly in the invasion of Sicily. In 1946 he returned to the Academy and was almost the first student to walk through the doors.
Norman shared studio space with artists such as Richard Hamilton, Bryan Kneale RA, Sir Anthony Caro RA, and others who have remained a part of the Royal Academy family ever since. It was a time in which pre-war certainties were breaking down. Although the Academic curriculum was still structured around life drawing and other traditional techniques students were not discouraged from pursuing their own paths, with what Norman refers to as “a bit of abstraction going on “. In 1948 Norman won the Turner gold medal for landscape painting, receiving £50 and a handsome medal originally designed by Daniel Maclise.
After leaving the Schools Norman turned to technical drawing of the sort that he briefly trained in before joining up. He went on to have a highly successful career working in the aviation industry, particularly the Directorate of Flight Safety, producing hundreds of posters, designs, the magazine Air Clues and comic strips before retiring in the early 1980s.
It was very generous of Norman and his family to lend some of their time to revisit the Schools and leave us with a unique record of student life at a time of grave national peril. The complete interview now forms part of the Royal Academy’s archive.
Mark Pomeroy is the archivist at the Royal Academy. Find out more about the Library and Archive.