First Day Back at School

20 Jan

by Louisa Elderton

As the new Writer in Residence for Jerwood Visual Arts (JVA), my first day was appropriately similar to embarking on the first day at a new school, full of nervous excitement, and proved to deliver a treasure trove of fresh experiences and surprises. I say appropriately, because part of my induction included a guided tour of Jerwood Space, (which hosts the programme in its gallery spaces[1]) during which time the history of the building was progressively unravelled for me, revealing how we were in fact occupying the cavity of an old Victorian school building. As a contemporary art writer and curator, I have admired and engaged with the exhibitions and events programme organised by JVA for many years, and yet, having never ventured beyond the galleries and café, I found myself fascinated by a vital aspect of Jerwood Space that had never previously entered my consciousness, namely, its pivotal role as a purpose-designed rehearsal studio space for the performing arts.

Accordingly, I wanted to dedicate a few words of my first ever post to the history of Jerwood Space site itself, in turn highlighting for readers the raison d’être of this art space, and the place that Jerwood Visual Arts occupies as part of this initiative – perhaps this story is already known to many of you, in which case, I am merely openly laying the foundations for my expanding conceptual engagement with the activities that take place within Union Street’s arts hub. As Imogen Lee so eloquently puts it in her essay examining the social and cultural history of the Jerwood Space site: ‘The space we stand in cannot be the space we stood in. It has shifted; it is shifting; and it will continue to shift’. [2] Built in the early 1870s as the Orange Street School, this red-bricked Victorian building was originally designed to house over 800 students, and the existence of these children is still felt in the space’s architectural nuances. As I wander around the building’ exterior I see sharp-brick corners that have been rounded off just up to the height of the tallest child — these seem to carry memories (or imaginations?) of how these children may have once measured themselves against these bevelled bricks; in the winding tile-lined stairwells, speckled-grey chips adorn the walls where the children would have push themselves off to gain momentum for the next flight of stairs to be descended. These surfaces act as a palimpsest that tells the tale of a century’s own mark making, and render the hidden history of the building once more visible.

Damaged in the Blitz and subsequently all but forgotten, the Jerwood Foundation acquired the building in the 1990s — attracted to the area by the snowballing renewal taking place in Southwark, with both the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Tate’s new home in the former Bankside Power Station — and opened Jerwood Space in 1998. [3] It has since become regarded as one of the most significant rehearsal spaces in London for theatre and dance companies, and it is within this context that Jerwood Visual Arts exists. The galleries occupy the former Orange Street School wash house (photographs of the gallery as a ‘work in progress’ show the arrow symbol formed by the building’s structure that remains today, and the artist Patrick Coyle utilised this element of the building in his exhibition in the Jerwood Project Space), [4] and it is these former sanitised spaces that today enable a creative platform for a vibrant community of artists, writers, curators and thinkers to play, experiment and realise ideas.

I am writing to you now in my role as JVA’s first resident writer and thus the walls of this building will envelope me and allow me to play out my own story within them; the physical walls of Jerwood Space and the cyber walls of the JVA blog will be my home for the next three months. I aim to open up the wider contextual debate around the issues raised in the JVA exhibitions and events programme, and create dialogues with the activities of related arts organisations, highlighting national and international trends. Surface Noise is the next exhibition in the Jerwood Encounters series, a programme that explores themes or forms of practice that exist in the pockets between the main disciplinary fields of JVA’s programme. Curated by Gill Saunders (Senior Curator (Prints), Victoria & Albert Museum) and John Mackechnie (artist and Director, Glasgow print studio) this thoughtful exhibition presents works by a diverse mix of both established and emerging artists to explore the potential of printmaking in contemporary art today.

Quietly interrupting the installation process to see some of the works being delicately removed from their plastic bubble wrap shells, I observed how the ontology of printmaking — and the spectrum of artistic practice encompassed by this one word, ‘printmaking’ — has been subtly captured by the curators. Each artist represented in the exhibition embraces printmaking and utilises it according it to their own needs; the techniques are far ranging and vary from digital and photographic means to layering hand-mixed pigments to produce unique screen-prints.

Preconceptions of printmaking seem still to be tainted with the idea of reproduction, or repetition, translating a unique image into a water-down version that can be mass circulated. Surface Noise offers the notion that print is in fact a medium that has its own characteristics and capacities, which artists are absorbing as part of their practice — as another valuable medium for play, exploration and realisation. I am chomping at the bit to see the finished installation at the exhibition’s private view on this evening (Thursday 20th January) – hopefully see you there!


[1] Jerwood Visual Arts is a major initiative of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.

[2] Imogen Lee, The Space Beneath The Space, http://www.jerwoodspace.co.uk/documents/JSHistory-TheSpaceBeneathTheSpace.pdf, October 2007, p. 1.

[3] For further information about the development of Jerwood Space, see Matthew Sturgis’ Jerwood: The Foundation and the Founders (Norwich: Unicorn Press, 2009), pp. 83 – 105.

[4] For further information see the press release for Patrick Coyle: Up,

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