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'Don't Tell Me How To Run My Art School' - Guildford School of Art Sit-In, 1968, by John Walmsley

1 October 2023

At the time, this student protest was the longest ever sit-in at an educational institution in the UK, and it led directly to students and staff being invited onto the Advisory Boards at schools, colleges and universities across the country.

'Don't Tell Me How to Run My Art School', a new publication by John Walmsley and Claire Grey, tells the inside story.

On 5th June 1968, Guildford School of Art experienced an unprecedented student revolution; the start of a sit-in about their narrow education and their desire to change it, that lasted for eight weeks. This event marked several firsts in the UK’s education system, including the involvement of parents in higher education, a local authority taking its own students to the High Court, over forty teachers being suspended at once, and the ATTI lecturers’ union blacklisting a school. Though not the only student occupation that year, the firing of seven full-time tutors sparked a three-year campaign for their reinstatement that reverberated throughout the country’s educational institutions. For those who were present, the experience was both creative and frightening, and those involved have never forgotten. The foresight and dedication of Claire Grey in keeping a detailed diary, as well as collecting a vast array of typewritten notes, posters and press clippings, has resulted in the true inside story of the sit-in being told. She has captured not only the order in which events took place, but also the feelings and reasons that influenced the protest. Her diary entries transport us back to those times, making Claire the custodian of an invaluable historical record. John’s photographs from the time are remarkable, especially considering he was still a student. His early work is a unique and insightful look into protest from an insider’s perspective.

As John recalls; "Three weeks into the occupation of the art school building, Surrey County Council cut off the electricity to try to get the students to give up. We, of course, just carried on, using tilly lamps and candles so we could still type up our reports and documents to send to the press and to use in our meetings. Shooting in such low light and with film was difficult. I had to rest my elbows on anything solid nearby, use slow shutter speeds (think, 1/15 of a second), and hold my breath. The film was pushed (developed for longer) so I ended up with ‘golf ball’ grain. Even with all this care, I still needed a big dollop of luck and, looking back, some have worked very well. Film was expensive so we bought it in 200 feet rolls and loaded it into empty, used cassettes, measuring it in arm widths. One and a bit full stretch arm widths was about right. Doing it this way did save a few pounds but also introduced light leaks, scratches and fingerprints so was not ideal. I do remember washing the processed films for the complete recommended time, no short cuts, to remove as much chemical as possible. It seems to have rewarded me because the vast majority of negs are usable some 55 years later."

Book Cover Image

The book, already in the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is available to buy from John's website at £25 HERE

John Walmsley has been a freelance documentary photographer since 1968, supplying images to publishers worldwide. He is the author or joint author of more than 15 books and his work has been published in 1,000+ books around the world. He was a Fellow of the Digswell Arts Trust, living with a wide range of other artists and running public photography classes whilst also being a part-time lecturer at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London during its most vibrant period. His work is held in numerous collections including the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain Library, the National Art Library at the V&A, the V&A Museum of Childhood, Liverpool Museum, la Bibliothèque nationale de France and the University of California, San Diego, Library.

See more work by John Walmsley

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