From First Principles: A Prehistory of the Slade Film Department

By Henry K. Miller

thorold-dickinson.jpgThorold Dickinson in 1935

In 1960 Britain’s first university film department was opened at the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London. This first article in a four-part history of the department looks at the adventures in film of Slade Professor (Sir) William Coldstream and senior lecturer Thorold Dickinson during their apprenticeship years in the 1930s.

"Long talk on Communism with Bill, Rodrigo, and Igor Anrep over a drink in Cambridge Circus – Bill gets more and more entangled in the web of circumstances and his conscience – brought us up to dinner time – " – William Townsend, journal entry, 20 March 1934

"For a long time there has been a steadily widening gulf between the artist and the public. The artist, it is true, is not quite alone. He has kept with him upon his island a small community, an intelligentsia, many of them friends and relations. Busying themselves as much as possible by taking in each other’s washing, the members of this brotherhood nevertheless feel lonely. Spirits are kept up by fantasies" – William Coldstream, ‘The Position In Painting Today’, New Britain, 11 April 1934

In March and April 1934 the Zwemmer Gallery off Charing Cross Road hosted an exhibition of Objective Abstractions. William Coldstream, one of a gaggle of young painters knocking around Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia at the time would recall to a later generation of Slade students his crowd’s ‘form of abstract painting in which the theory of non-representation was pushed to a conclusion.’ Extrapolating from the theories of Clive Bell and Roger Fry, they held that ‘a painting should be no more than paint on canvas and that it should not represent anything at all, even light or space.’ Coldstream, who had shared a garret with one of the organisers, was signed up. But in the run-up to the show he destroyed his works in progress, and by the time it ended Coldstream had quit painting for the cinema.

Having penned his tirade against the state of painting he made contact with Paul Rotha, briefly his contemporary at the Slade in the mid-Twenties and now an independent documentary filmmaker. In between fleeting bouts of employment, first at Elstree, and then at John Grierson’s Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, Rotha had published The Film Till Now, one of the bare shelf’s worth of major books on the cinema available in the Thirties. Though he’d lasted just seven months at the EMB, Rotha remained loyal to the documentary aesthetic that was being advanced by Grierson and his ‘tyros’ –  as much, if not more, in print as in their films  –  and sufficiently attractive to detach Coldstream from his vocation.

Behind his aesthetic impasse lay a political one: the slump had convinced him that ‘art ought to be directed to a wider public; whereas all ideas which I had learned to regard as artistically revolutionary ran in the opposite direction.’ Grierson’s outlook provided almost the negative image of the formalism fashionable among Coldstream’s painter friends.

While they, ‘badly camera-shocked, gave up all problems of visual representation’, film was, according to Grierson, of necessity ‘an art based on photographs, in which one factor is always, or nearly always, a thing observed.’ If the economic depression had all but destroyed the modern art market, it had done nothing to diminish the cinema’s mass appeal. In a manifesto which Coldstream likely read with sympathy, Grierson held that ‘The best of the tyros […] conceive of art as the by-product (the over-tone) of a job of work done. The opposite attempt to capture the by-product first (the self-conscious pursuit of beauty, the pursuit of art for art’s sake to the exclusion of jobs of work and other pedestrian beginnings), was always a reflection of selfish wealth, selfish leisure and aesthetic decadence.’ Rotha set up an interview with Grierson, now at the GPO, and before long Coldstream was sharing a cutting room with another penniless young painter, Humphrey Jennings.

wh-auden-william-coldstream-benjamin-britten.jpgW. H. Auden, William Coldstream, and Benjamin Britten, Downs School, Colwall, June 1937. Photo courtesy of the Britten–Pears Library, Aldeburgh

"The choice of the documentary medium is as gravely distinct a choice as the choice of poetry instead of fiction." – John Grierson, ‘Documentary [1]’, Cinema Quarterly, Winter 1932

Grierson’s main source of tyros had been the Film Society, which had been screening otherwise unavailable foreign work to London’s literary and artistic elite since 1925, remaining the focal point of highbrow film culture well into the next decade. After the programming in November 1929 of Grierson’s Drifters with Battleship Potemkin, Thorold Dickinson, a Film Society regular since the early days, recalled, ‘Grierson was inundated with offers of services from young men and women uninterested in entertainment, even if the pay was considerably lower than in the commercial studios.’ Basil Wright, who like Dickinson had attended Eisenstein’s lectures – held in a room on Great Newport Street – that autumn, was the first to join; Rotha, who had attended the Film Society’s inaugural programme while at the Slade, followed soon after. Grierson would claim that his unit had all the ‘first-class minds’ going. Dickinson was an exception to his rule, working as a studio editor while moonlighting as the Film Society’s technical director, and sitting alongside Grierson on its selection committee.

These kinds of social connections were typical of the Film Society milieu, but in propagandising for the GPO Film Unit and its famously ‘non-theatrical’ audience, Grierson developed a divisive rhetoric of rivalry between the commercial cinema in Wardour Street, and the documentary units in their Soho Square fastness. Dickinson would much later recollect the ‘lofty attitude of the documentary boys toward their colleagues in commercial entertainment’. Crowing over his successful promotion of the documentary idea through commercially distributed hits like Night Mail (1936), Grierson wrote that ‘I have only known that if we sold it hard enough, created enough snobbery around it, Wardour Street, with its usual sense of inferiority, would ask no questions and swallow it whole. Nothing less has happened.’[2]

‘Non-theatrical’ audiences notwithstanding, it had indeed been essential for Grierson to get the Wardour Street vulgarians on board in order to keep his government backers happy; so much so that he had produced BBC – The Voice of Britain at feature length in a bid for full theatrical distribution. When his regular distributor turned it down, Grierson turned to Dickinson, by then chief editor at Ealing, who not only cut the film into saleable shape but persuaded his boss to take it on, ‘thereby putting him back in commercial business.’[3] Dickinson did not claim credit until the documentary movement’s main histories appeared in the Seventies. What was at stake was not just Grierson’s hypocrisy, but the mystification of one of the pillars of the documentary movement – that which had attracted William Coldstream, as well as its newest recruits Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden: its ability to reach a wider public.

Britten (music) and Auden (verse) had been brought on board to work on a project Coldstream was editing, Coal Face. With an image-track mostly comprising discarded footage from earlier EMB–GPO projects, the film on its debut at the Film Society in October 1935 was, according to the programme notes, ‘presented as a new experiment in sound.’** When Auden moved to London in September, lodging with Basil Wright – also his producer on the Night Mail project, then gathering pace – in his Highgate flat, the painter, the poet, and the composer fell in together, ‘and’, recalled Wright, ‘a roaring time was had by all’.

[** Probably written by Dickinson. The bill was topped by Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin; Auden was brought in to advise on the rendering of the songs into English.]

"I am thinking of going in for film work and Wystan Auden suggested (from Iceland) that I should come and to talk to you about it." – Letter from Lawrence Gowing to William Coldstream, 1936

"Coldstream appointed a pub in Charing Cross Road for the meeting, and there I went on a summer evening. […] Auden had written to me, “You want to get into film because you think it is the art of the future; it isn’t. Art is the art of the future.” Coldstream looked with mock caution back over his shoulder toward Soho Square. “My life has put whole districts of London out of bounds.”" – Lawrence Gowing, ‘Remembering Coldstream’, 1990

In February 1936, Auden announced his break with the Unit in a review of Rotha’s book Documentary Film [4], just two weeks after the debut of the project that had occupied him for most of his time as a filmmaker, Night Mail. On 25 March he wrote from Portugal, instructing Coldstream, to whose Hampstead home he’d decamped after a bust-up with Wright during the film’s fraught final edit in January, ‘Will you please get all my papers from the Unit, go through them, and burn the obviously unwanted.’ Coldstream quit a year later. In Letters from Iceland, the book he wrote with Louis MacNeice later that year, Auden wove a further critique into –

A reminder of Soho Square and that winter in horrible London
When we sat in the back passage pretending to work
While the camera boys told dirty stories
Till we sneaked out for coffee and discussed our colleagues
And were suspected, quite rightly, of being disloyal

lyons-corner-house-tottenham-court-road.jpgLyons Corner House, Tottenham Court Road, c. 1934, by Wolfgang Suschitzky

The internal division of the GPO Film Unit into aesthetes and Griersonian true believers is well documented. Auden would be sent into the provinces that autumn, rather unhappily it seems, on location for Night Mail, whose director Harry Watt neither rated him as a crew-member nor appreciated his poetic contribution. Meanwhile the Auden–Britten–Coldstream triumvirate had seen their pet project on the slave trade classed as ‘subjective’ by the boss –

But after we’d torn them to pieces, we turned our attention to Art
Upstairs in the Corner House, in the hall with the phalli cpillars
And before the band had finished a pot pourri from Wagner
We’d scrapped Significant Form, and voted for Subject, Hence really this letter.

Coldstream had scrapped ‘Significant Form’ – one of Clive Bell’s critical slogans current in the Twenties –well before Auden joined the Unit, and Grierson himself would have been comfortable with their preference; but Auden’s poem, titled ‘Letter to William Coldstream, Esq.’, following the drift of their conversations, goes on to probe the dimensions of the ‘Subject’ that might be explored–

An artist, you said, is both perceiver and teller, the spy and the gossip

The poem goes on to list ‘perceptions’: exterior, Griersonian images, from the trip — but crucially followed by the non-GPO ‘telling’: personal impressions, a shift from landscape to figures. Auden’s ‘Letter’ hints at a perceiving-and-telling cinema; but such a thing was impossible at the GPO. Coldstream, remembering Grierson, wrote that ‘I sometimes wondered whether his over-riding enthusiasm for themes centred on work or corporate effort was not only due to his social and political beliefs, but was also the result of an extreme fastidiousness in discussing the personal.’

It was in the summer of 1936, with Auden’s encouragement, that Coldstream took up his brush again. It was also during that summer that civil war broke out in Spain  –

The news from Europe interwoven with our behaving
The pleasant voice of the wireless announcer, like a consultant surgeon
‘Your case is hopeless. I give you six months.'

fisherman.jpg‘And here’s a shot for the Chief – epic, the Drifters tradition’

On the occasion of the Film Society’s centenary performance Thorold Dickinson was in Barcelona gathering actuality footage for the Republican fundraising effort, writing mock-enviously that during the celebratory bash at the Café Royal he’d be ‘gnawing a cut off the best end of a mule.’[5] According to his biographer Dickinson ‘took special pleasure in reminding people that it was commercial filmmakers like himself […] that went to Spain during the Civil War and not the members of the much lauded British Documentary movement.’ And yet he as good as disowned Spanish ABC (1938), the result of his visit, as cinema. Dickinson’s primary contribution to the political film culture of the late Thirties was a more enigmatic affair, pushing away from the documentary aesthetic back toward ‘the subjective dramatisation of ideas’ he found in Eisenstein’s October.

In December 1937, the month before he left for Spain, Dickinson had presented the Film Society with ‘Record of War’, an experiment that alternated reels from The Path of the Heroes, a spectacular Italian propaganda film of the invasion of Abyssinia, with Russian newsreel footage taken under rather less comfortable conditions. For the documentary crowd this innovation had a safe message to impart, proving to Basil Wright that the Russians’ work, ‘however inefficiently shot […] had a bite which all the panchromatic posturing of Mussolini’s propaganda could not rival.’ Meanwhile Dickinson recalled the show as ‘a pulverising demonstration, and our fashionable Sunday audience with their broad brims and capes and a capacity for chatter drifted out into Regent Street in dead, awed silence.’ And yet, discussing the films’ ‘ideological contrast’, his programme notes commented only that while the Russian reels were concerned ‘with people, and their social relations’ the Italian portion ‘concentrates with a high degree of effectiveness upon impersonal processes’.

One clue as to the nature of his ‘demonstration’ comes in Dickinson’s characterisation of Eisenstein’s montage theory in the 1948 book Soviet Cinema: ‘one plus one might be said certainly to make two and at the same time to make something greater and quite different from its component parts.’ The power of the ‘Record’ lay in the juxtaposition of different visual rhetorics to convey the full dimensions of Mussolini’s onslaught, suggesting a model for political cinema that did not simply reject photographic reportage, but incorporated it as a possible mode of presentation among many.

Auden, perhaps condensing his Corner House chats with Coldstream, had intuited photography’s essential mutability two years before: ‘The only genuine meaning of the word “documentary” is true-to-life. Any gesture, any expression, any dialogue or sound effect, any scenery that strikes the audience as true-to-life is documentary, whether obtained in the studio or on location. […] The first, second and third thing in cinema, as in any art, is subject.’ The implications of this line of thinking were never followed up by Auden or Coldstream; and yet it was, according to Rotha, ‘the toughest criticism of British documentary’ at the time. Nor were Dickinson’s differences from the documentary school then obvious.

In a 1965 interview, Coldstream reflected the turn of mind that enabled him to return to figurative painting after his break with filmmaking in 1937. ‘What struck me very early on was that there is no idea of representation which can be agreed on. It occurred to me that you can’t say a painter has represented this or that. You are in any case using an extremely complex and artificial coding in relation to what is called “subject.” Therefore what is wrong with bad representational painting is that it is stuck in a certain convention.’

The closure of the Film Society in 1939 coincided with Dickinson’s move into full-time studio directing, and, quite self-consciously, marked the end of a chapter in metropolitan film culture. Over the next fifteen years Dickinson would have a chance to test some of what he’d learnt in practice, his own relation to conventions – including those of the documentary movement, its status and authority considerably enlarged by the War. The same interval would eventually fulfil a prophecy Auden had made in 1936 –

[…] And the Slade School
I choose
For William Coldstream to leave his mark upon.


[1] ‘Documentary (2): Symphonics’, Cinema Quarterly, Spring 1933
[2].‘The Future of Documentary’, Cine-Technician, December 1937–January 1938
[3].Film Comment, January–February 1977
[4].The Listener, 19 February 1936
[5].Cine-Technician, May–June 1938

Henry K. Miller is a contributor to Sight & Sound and Film Comment.