The School of Art: In the Beginning

​By Professor Gaynor Kavanagh


On a January evening in1866, in a cramped room on the first floor of a building on St Mary's Street, which already housed a museum and a library, a small group of people, mostly young and working class, began evening classes in Cardiff's new School of Art.  They had already been at work all day and had walked some distance to attend.  They came to learn to draw and design as a means of improving their employment prospects.

We know a little about these first students, their names and where they lived, but can only guess at their ambition. They were certainly good enough to win national prizes for their work and must have loved what they were doing so much that they came back, time and time again, to carry on with it.

Cardiff at this time was neither a city, nor a capital.  It was a rough and ready boomtown, feverishly developing on the back of the export of coal and iron from the Valleys, through the rapidly expanding docks.  It had no manufacturing industry of any measure, with most of its goods being imported via the canal and the burgeoning railway.  It was at least two decades off from having the kind of middle class that would establish a demand for the goods, products and services that would transform Cardiff into something of a retail centre.

That dark evening was a somewhat inauspicious beginning for an art school in Cardiff, but at least it was a start.  In time and with as much luck as judgment, Cardiff's Art School continued to exist.  Today, it is one of Cardiff Metropolitan University's five academic Schools and the one of longest standing.  It has 1208 students, 49 academic staff, 18 technician demonstrators and 11 administrative staff.  It focuses on fine art, ceramics, textiles, product design, architectural technology, graphic communication, illustration and artist designer maker.  It strives to be an art school worthy of Cardiff as a European Capital City.​

In 2015, Cardiff Metropolitan University celebrates this beginning, specifically the decision, taken by Cardiff Council in 1865, to engage with a Government initiative aimed at lifting the quality of design in Britain's manufacturing and export industries through the development of appropriate training in art and design for artisans.  The aim was to stimulate industrial competitiveness, to ensure a buoyant and sustainable economy through having products and services of outstanding design quality.  Cardiff's School of Art was one of over 200 founded in the UK in the period from the 1830s into the 1870s, as a result of this initiative.​

Just over a hundred years later, in the 1970's, the University, as we know it today began to take shape. In 1976, Llandaff Technical College, Cardiff Training College, Cardiff College of Food Technology and Commerce, with the School of Art, formed the South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education.  Here lies the origin of the University's current five Schools:  Health Sciences, Management, Education, Sport, and Art & Design. In 1990, it became the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education.  Then in 1996, it became the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff.  Finally in 2011, it became Cardiff Metropolitan University.