The college opened in 1971 and was founded by Edward James, a 20th-century poet, patron and visionary.
James donated his family home and belongings to fulfill his desire to promote music, traditional crafts and the fine arts. In 1939, James wrote of his vision to the writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley: “My suggestion would be to make this community a group of people working to preserve and teach specific crafts.”
That legacy lives on today through the college’s extensive course program.
Alexander Barron, Executive Director of the College, said: “West Dean College is one of the world’s leading educational institutions for the practice of crafts. It is unique in the UK as the last remaining example of an experimental rural arts college based on a mission to transform society through progressive education.
“It is underpinned by its philosophy of craftsmanship, which encompasses a powerful combination of practice, place and people.”
Since it opened 50 years ago, it has awarded more than 2,000 degrees and diplomas and approximately 250,000 people have taken one of its short courses.
Alexander said: “As such, the college’s influence in the craft creative sectors, particularly fine arts, designer making and conservation, is disproportionate to its size, while staff and student work is often rooted in traditional skills, is both.” innovative as well as global leader.”
As part of its anniversary, it launched 50 special one-day short courses inspired by the original list of subject areas from the 1970s, including carving a small soapstone sculpture, making a talking puppet, letterpress – poster printing and plastic smithing.
Alexander said: “In October 1971 the first students entered the workshops and studios at West Dean College.
“The early course program has since evolved into a leading center for practice-oriented creative study. Students can take courses in subjects related to arts, crafts, conservation and — since merging with the KLC School of Design earlier this year — interior design and garden design.”
At least 25 of the new courses were featured in Edward James’ original documents and course programs. These include millinery, wire work, wood and stone carving and silversmithing. Other courses are craft subjects that the college has supported over the past 50 years, while the final part of the series uses materials and approaches developed since 1971 when new materials and processes became available, including the use of precious metal clay.
The college has always excelled at offering a range of courses from traditional to contemporary.
Alexander explains how the specific subjects under each heading have evolved over time, but he adds that college is often most relevant when it brings contemporary purpose to traditional skills.
He said: “It shows in a new course like ‘Plastic Forging’. This is also exemplified by the college’s tapestry weavers, who in recent years have applied their traditional skills to work with modern artists such as Tracy Emin, Martin Creed and Eva Rothschild.
“Our college community is truly global and includes artists, makers, designers, restorers, writers and musicians – studying or teaching in courses ranging from 1-day undergraduate to MA courses. What they all share is a love of creativity. Whether that’s pushing the boundaries of their existing expertise or learning a new skill.”
Demand for the type of degree the college offers is now greater than ever.
Alexander says what it’s like to work at West Dean is “inspirational”.
He added: “It’s a melting pot of global talent across arts, crafts, conservation and design, so there’s creativity around every corner.
“Plus there’s the stunning location: a historic campus housing an amazing collection of art, in the heart of the South Downs that inspired Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’. No day is like the other.”
Courses still available are: Signwriting – draw a house name or number with Terry Smith on Wednesday 1st June 2022 (Beginner/£163); Puppetry – build a talking puppet with Isobel Smith on Tuesday 7th June 2022 (Beginner/ £138); while Hanny Newton’s Goldwork hand embroidery – golden footprints was specially designed based on West Dean’s iconic footprint rug laid by Edward James and on Thursday 16 at Forging with Bronwen Gwillim on Monday 6th June 2022 imaginative ways to use Plastic waste for making jewelery introduced (beginners/ £138).
Other celebrations of the 50th anniversary include the launch of new online access to West Dean College’s collection and archives, offering the opportunity to find never-before-seen correspondence, first editions and sketches by many notable artists of the 20th century, associated with Edward James.
Culture spark: Novium Museum prepares for celebration in the anniversary year