‘TO be entirely loved, respected and sought after is a gift granted to few men and women,” began the obituary of Mark and Lottie Cheverton.
The married couple, who at the ages of just 39 and 31, died in Northumberland after crashing their car on the way back to Edinburgh from holiday in 1991, were certainly held in high esteem in the Capital’s art world.
He had been head of art at Edinburgh Academy, while she was a painter who exhibited to acclaim across the UK while teaching at Fettes and the St Bride’s Centre. But it was when they combined their love of art and teaching that a legacy was born.
Just three years before that fateful crash, they had launched an exciting new project – the Leith School of Art.
Twenty five years on and as the school prepares to celebrate its silver anniversary with an exhibition of works by former students, hundreds of artists have passed through its doors in North Junction Street, once the Mission for Norwegian Seamen – testament it seems to the success of the Chevertons’ original idea, that art could be taught in a new way.
“It was a completely immersive experience,” recalls Toby Paterson, who studied at the LSA in its second year of operation. “I was 16 at the time, commuting through from Glasgow, and it was the hardest work I think I’ve ever done.”
Toby, who went on to study at Glasgow School of Art and won the prestigious Becks Future Prize in 2002, adds: “I ended up at Leith because my art teacher at school suggested it would be a good idea and to be honest if I’d have stayed on in sixth year I don’t think I’d ever have got into GSA because I wouldn’t have had such a strong portfolio.
“It had a great atmosphere, was a real hive of activity, and Mark and Lottie were great. I spent a year with my nose to the grindstone.”
Current principal Phil Archer laughs when he hears that. “It’s still the same,” he says. “People are here to work. Art is not worth doing if you’re going to be mediocre and to be better than that you have to work really hard.”
The 59-year-old artist, originally from Wales, has been head of the LSA since the tragic deaths of his friends Mark and Lottie. He desperately wanted to save their big idea and convinced the small board in charge of the charitable school that it could be done – and he was the man to do it.
“It was a terrible time,” he recalls. “Mark and Lottie and I had been art students together in London in the 1970s and we had the same vision, same ideas about how art could be taught. Not that there’s anything wrong with big institutions, just that there was a place for small, community led art schools which cared for each individual student and made them achieve what they were capable of.
“When they bought the old Norwegian church with their savings I was here the day they got the keys, it was an old ruin and they had a huge job on their hands – I came back a year later and it was a beautiful building and the school was already establishing itself and thriving.
“So when they died I just didn’t want to see the school close. They wanted it to be something positive, a new tradition. I spoke to the board members who were unsure about what to do and convinced them we should keep going, that what had been started was very special.”
It certainly felt that way to Toby – and no doubt every other artist who has passed through its doors since. “I went there to put together a portfolio and the input and experience I received over that year was just amazing. We were a very close knit group, there were only about 18 of us, and it was incredibly focused without being prescriptive. There was never a point when we weren’t doing something, or thinking about something – I was too young then to know the different ways of teaching art, but they thought that just doing it was the best way to learn. They took a lot of the angst out of it.”
The 40-year-old adds: “Mark and Lottie had their accident the summer after we finished. It was a very upsetting thing. We had all just found out what colleges we were going on to – looking forward and I thought they’d be at Leith in perpetuity and would come to my degree show and we would all be happy – and that of course didn’t happen. It was a real shock.”
The shock almost paralysed the school, but Phil soon got to grips with it. “I was supposed to be caretaker for a year, but here I am 22 years on,” he laughs. “That first year for me was extremely difficult but gradually we were able to move forward and over the years we have grown and developed and now we have 300 people coming through the door each week and we employ 30 staff, 25 part-time but weekly so that gives a lot of artists a chance to teach.
“We’re bursting at the seams but we’re planning to work in partnership with St James Church in Leith, using the building Mondays to Fridays so we can expand even more.”
The LSA now offers foundation and post-graduate courses, part-time classes, day and evening as well as workshops to individuals from all walks of life. There’s also an outreach project which aims to help the unemployed or recovering alcoholics who are interested in being given the opportunity to “do art”.
“For some it’s their first chance of structured education,” says Phil. “It’s part of our LIFE programme – Leith Into Further Education. We go into the community and run classes and for those who are serious, then we help pay for them to come and study with us.”
He adds: “We still work closely with Mark and Lotties’ families who have been very supportive over the years – they even donated the building to us so we have no mortgage. But we can’t exist just on the fees that we charge so we have to fundraise every year around £60,000 to help meet costs but also to help pay the way of those who want to study with us but can’t afford to do so.”
He’s excited about the alumni exhibition next month for the 25th anniversary – and also about his job. “If I lost interest then I’d head back to Wales but this place is always changing, there’s always something new and I can’t see that stopping. It’s an exciting place to be. Celebrating our 25th anniversary is some achievement really.”
Toby admits he’s delighted to have been asked to show some of his work at the alumni exhibition. “I wanted to put in a carefully considered selection of work but it’s not as expansive as I’d hoped because of other work commitments. However there are “a couple of prints, a lithograph and a Perspex relief work.
“I felt it important to put printmaking into the mix as I worked with Mark a lot and he was an amazing printmaker, so putting that in feels right.”
Phil adds: “The exhibition will include some respectful, traditional art but also some cutting edge in fashion, textile and sculpture. It will show off what some of our most successful students have gone on to achieve.
“If Mark and Lottie were here today I hope that they would be pleased that we kept it going and that I was able to develop the things we discussed when we were students and brought them to fruition. I would never compare myself to them, they were so energetic and passionate and so able to instil that into their students, I’d far prefer them to be here now celebrating 25 years but it has been a remarkable journey.
“I’m very grateful to the staff we have, our supporters and of course the students who make it work and give it its special ethos. I do think they’d be pleased.”
• Leith School of Art’s Alumni exhibition will be held at Dovecot Studios, Infirmary Street, running from May 2-31.