Robert Catterson-Smith, Drawing from Memory, Isaac Pitman and Sons: London, Bath, Melbourne, Toronto and New York 1921.

Robert Catterson-Smith, Drawing from Memory, Isaac Pitman and Sons: London, Bath, Melbourne, Toronto and New York 1921.

The Birmingham School of Art archives has been holding records of the School's work since it was established in 1842: they have kept the memory of our predecessors alive for generations by preserving works ranging from botanical studies to memory drawings. Many of these drawings stored in the archives were made by students taught by Robert Catterson-Smith, who was head of the School from 1903 to 1920. Whilst exploring the exhaustive array of works among the archives, these drawings and his book Drawing from Memory stood out for me. I was interested in the ways in which the mind can be harnessed to learn and remember an image. I found it fascinating that students could recall such complicated images in such a short period and the ways in which this improved.

The drawings from a lantern slide were particularly interesting as each student's attempt was displayed alongside one another so that the slight variations in the ways the student remembered the image could be seen. I felt that this was a chain reaction resulting from the act of remembering an image that also deserved analysing. Not only could a student recall images more clearly over a longer period, but each student used a different method, whether they recalled the image in their head and tried to visualise it, or perhaps remembered only particular aspects of the image in order to create the basic outline, and then worked from here. In order to acquire a more accurate evaluation, I intend to carry out a similar memory drawing class to observe the techniques and outcomes used by the students themselves.

Memory drawings of a triangular design with leaves, stems and berries by School of Art students, 1921.

Memory drawings of a triangular design with leaves, stems and berries by School of Art students, 1921.

Exercises in mind picturing: designs created from three units of a given shape, 1921

Exercises in mind picturing: designs created from three units of a given shape, 1921

The use of such memory techniques could also produce new images. In some instances, students would have been provided with a shape. They were then told to memorise this shape and create a pattern from it. This gave students the ability to develop a variety of techniques, using both their memory and their imaginations to create something new from what they already knew. Catterson-Smith’s writings and teaching thus put into practice a different approach to the accustomed ways of teaching craftsmanship at the time. Incorporating human feeling and thought, both the work and those creating it went through a process that enhanced their way of working to create a traditional hand-crafted item as opposed to a mass-produced piece devoid of both emotion and individuality.

It can be argued that this way of working has become somewhat lost today due to the technology available that bypasses the need to work in such ways. I feel it is important to revive these techniques, even if only to observe and analyse their effectiveness on students attending the School today. I have put into practice several of the techniques that Catterson-Smith taught and have found them incredibly beneficial in building one's abilities to create work in a new way, through using what we know and further developing this. By using them, I've been able to create original works that test the memory of the human mind to its absolute limit.