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Art Courses - West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

I'd like to introduce you to one of my favourite places: West Dean College of Arts and Conservation. I mention it a lot so thought it was high time for a proper introduction. I'm not going to go into all the specific courses I've attended but rather give you a feel for what West Dean is and what you can expect from a visit.

I've mentioned in a previous blog (How to become an artist ... am I there yet?) that West Dean was the home of Edward James, the youngest child and only son of an immensely rich father and aristocratic mother. There are numerous pictures of his godfather, Edward VII, attending shooting parties etc. at West Dean. Long-story-short: Edward James inherited the estate when he came of age in 1932 and was a great patron of arts, especially surrealist art. He was concerned that arts and crafts skills would be lost during WW2 and set up a charitable foundation which eventually led to his family home becoming the college it is today. That's it in a nutshell but you can read the full, fascinating version of the history here.

My current preoccupation with West Dean began three years ago when I decided to treat myself to a little weekend excursion. I'd been on a silversmithing course many years ago and always wanted to return. Whilst investigating a visit I discovered the Foundation Diploma in Art and Design which involves 10 short courses over 2 years... perfect! I applied, was accepted and started my artistic adventure in September 2018. I should have completed my FDAD in November 2020 but, you know, global pandemic and all that... I'll be submitting my final portfolio, sketchbooks and essay by November 2021, but I will definitely be returning, repeatedly, for years to come.

The wonderful thing about West Dean is that you can go and do anything from a one day to a week long course and not only do you get to immerse yourself in all the creativity, but you get to stay in a stately home if you want to. When I arrived for a course in December there were stockings hung over the fireplace and some sort of ancient magic seemed to hang in the air.

A superior room with a view over the front lawn

The bedrooms are a rather eclectic mixture of the ancient and the outrageously modern (the majority are traditional but there is the odd modern corridor). Sometimes you have to skip across a corridor to get to your (private but adjacent rather than en suite) bathroom, sometimes you get a marble topped bath that I'm fairly certain aristocracy has bathed in. If you're picky about having an en suite or a shower rather than just a bath make sure you say so when you book. I'm fairly certain that all rooms come with interesting views and a wonderful journey to find them, I've found six staircases so far, there may be more!

The house is fascinating and full of treasures at every turn. You can hunt for the famous Dali Lobster Phone and Mae West Lips Sofa, search the staircases to find the wet footprints and happen upon a roman centurion mural. The grounds are pretty spectacular too; you can walk to the arboretum, meander along the pergola and visit the wonderful walled kitchen gardens, complete with restored Victorian hothouses.

The gardens are open to visitors (and there's a lovely café and a plant and gift shop) but the house is only accessible to students. If you consider the entry price of a stately home suddenly the value for money increases; you get an access-all-areas pass to wander the house and gardens as well as your course; they even feed you! The food is always eagerly anticipated by everyone I've ever met there (loose fitting trousers essential!). Prior to the pandemic there was a smorgasbord of delight awaiting you at every meal from a full English, to fruit, granola and yoghurt for breakfast, hot and cold options for lunch and dinner with a full salad bar, at least two desert options, fruit salad, and a mound of cheese to dive into. At present COVID has meant changes and the self service options are currently unavailable making it slightly less gluttonous (and easier on my waistbands) but fingers crossed the full selection will return.

So that's all the bonuses, what about the art?! There is such a huge range of courses available that I cannot possibly mention them all. Subjects range from painting, drawing, printmaking and ceramics to gardening, writing and music with photography, textiles, silver- and blacksmithing in the middle. Multi disciplinary courses are offered and I'm sure there's more than I've mentioned. You can build a garden sculpture, weave a basket, paint a Christmas card or write a book. The list of subjects is endless and seems to be ever growing. I have sampled a small selection of courses in printmaking, drawing and painting. I'm not going to give an overview of each one, that would require a book, but I do have one tip for extra insight when choosing a course: read up about the tutor. The tutors at West Dean are working artists who come and deliver courses as part of their work. Some visit a couple of times a year, some more frequently. Some teach several different courses, for example I've attended three drawing courses taught by artists who work primarily in oil painting (and also teach in oils). In my experience tutors at West Dean are friendly, professional, wonderfully well prepared and very willing go the extra mile to ensure students are getting everything they want to out of the course. One thing I particularly enjoy is the opportunity to sit with the tutor during coffee (yes, there's a morning and an afternoon coffee break, it's all very civilised) and mealtimes and learn about their life as a working artist.

Working in the Orangery

The length of the course can make a real difference. I particularly enjoy the three day courses. I started my FDAD taking weekend courses - you arrive on a Friday evening and leave on a Sunday afternoon. West Dean courses always start in the evening with dinner and an hour's teaching, then end at 3pm on the last day (except the one day courses). I find I'm really getting into the swing of things by day two and then it ends. With a three day course you have a little more time to really harness that momentum.

The ultimate in West Dean short courses is summer school. For three weeks every summer the only courses offered are 6 days long and include all sorts of wonderful immersive extra activities. I attended a 'Comprehensive Drawing' summer school course in 2019. The days were spent both in the studio for still life and life drawing then all over the house and grounds. Once we had downed tools for the day there was a host of evening activities. The first couple of evenings were filled by the tutors delivering a talk about their work. These were fascinating, some tutors talked about how their careers had developed over time, some focussed in on a particular body or piece of work and talked through their creative process. Later in the week they offered work for sale which was a wonderful opportunity to purchase something special. There was also the chance to do yoga, have a massage and for those who had booked in advance there was a trip to the theatre. West Dean has a comfortable bar where several evenings were spent getting to know course-mates. Towards the end of the week there is a session set aside for everyone to crossover to another course and have a go at something different. I spent two hours playing with inks and presses on the linocutting course and decided that I would be booking that one for the following summer (which I'm now eagerly anticipating for this summer). The week is rounded off with a formal dinner on the last night which is great fun, especially as instead of being in the usual dining room it is held in the state rooms which makes it all feel very decadent and special. Summer school feels like you're one class in a bigger school, there's time to talk to people and get to know more than just those on your course. I highly recommend it.

The Orangery

The final thing I must warn you about is the shop. Open until 2pm daily, this is a little treasure cave that I struggle to leave empty handed. There is a little bit of everything from printing inks to oil paints, sketchbooks to postcards with brushes and papers and pens and everything else in the middle squirrelled away just waiting to be found. FDAD students get a 10% discount - any excuse!

For me (and I'm sure I'm not alone) West Dean is something like an artistic retreat where I go to fully immerse myself in something creative. As I've progressed through my FDAD I have begun to look for courses that are going to inform my work and help build my skills, rather than just courses that look like good fun. I'm sure there are courses that do require a certain skill level in technique (say ceramics for example), but there are so many which are equally enchanting to the complete novice as to the working artist. Art courses are strange like that, you naturally work at your own pace and level, producing your own take on what the tutor has taught you. West Dean offers me the chance to stay focussed on what I'm learning without the distractions of 'life' to get in the way. I hope that this then translates into better work when I go home.

So there you have it, my overview of West Dean College and what keeps tempting me back. You can browse the short courses and learn more about the FDAD and other diplomas on offer. I did an Instagram stories take over for a day and you can find all the video's about my experience of the FDAD course so far in the West Dean stories section of my Instagram page.

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