4 May 2018
by Stephen Hunt

50 years ago: May 1968 and the British art school uprising

1968 witnessed a brief period of intense global student insurrection: Prague, Japan, West Germany, Mexico, Paris, and in London at the LSE and Hornsey, the location of Britain’s art school uprising.

Unlike other contemporary outbursts in May 1968, particularly those in Paris – characterised not just by student occupations of university premises but widespread rioting – the Hornsey protest was decidedly non-violent: a six-week long occupation of the college’s central building in Crouch Hill, and its concerns remained highly specific – the nature of art education.

Despite the events in both Paris and Hornsey playing out in radically different ways, the participants both shared the same well-spring of discontent: the lack of satisfactory or even adequate educational provision, a consequence of the rapid post-war expansion of higher education. The numbers of students in France doubled from 300,000 in the early 1960s to 600,000 by 1968, but provision had not kept pace, neither in terms of teachers, nor buildings, and by 1968 the deficiencies were becoming apparent (Carroll, 1968):

“The trouble began originally in the Sorbonne’s overflow-annexe at Nanterre, a new campus which was ironically meant as a model for the future. But it turned out to have the academic atmosphere of a railway station. In a dreary suburb, with few cultural amenities and poor libraries, students found they had to live on the campus – miles from Boulevard St Michel, confined in dormitories with medieval rules about visiting, forbidden to hold political meetings, and attending overcrowded classes.” (Carroll, 1968)

Hornsey, a significant art college with a reputation for innovation, had expanded, along with the rest of the public higher education sector, to around 900 students in 1967/68; but to accommodate them the college was composed of hastily assembled and incongruous premises.

“Over a relatively short period Hornsey had expanded into a series of temporary annexes spread across ten square mile of North London…There were three Victorian primary schools in Tottenham and Wood Green, the old “Badminton Suite” at Alexandra Palace, offices, stables, and an air raid shelter at Bowes Road in Palmers Green, and at various points a church hall and an abandoned fire-station…there was no bar, or staff or student common room; library facilities were cramped and inadequate; there were long queues in the canteen; and tutorials and even interviews might take place in the corridor.” (Tickner, 2008, p.28.)

Much of the make-shift accommodation housing Hornsey’s outer lying departments was under-heated in winter, and permanently under-resourced. Wendy Smith, a student at Hornsey form 1964–68, recalled “Hornsey was, I confess, a disappointment…Unprepossessing does not adequately express this old fire-station’s lack of aesthetic charms. The studios are dark and poky…There are no printmaking facilities, except silkscreen” (Smith quoted in James, 2016, location 2206).

Staff and students not only had to endure the privations of the physical environment but a regime, if not as oppressive as that operating in Paris, certainly officious. A member of staff remarked “The factory-like timetables…specified mechanically in advance where one was and what one was doing each minute of the day” (Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, 1969, p. 20).

The practice of industrial-style regulation extended to the students, who were required to clock on and off, as Wendy Smith again recalled:

“Mr Straw (thin, white haired) and ‘Hank’ (red-faced, portly) stand sentinel each evening to herd us out of the building. I can’t remember which of them held the clip board or the stop-watch, but the litany on Wednesday was the same. ‘And where do you think you are going?’ ‘To the main building’. ‘You can’t, it’s only ten to six!’” (Smith quoted in James, 2016, location 2206)

The diffuse college structure and management style contributed to the college’s lack of social cohesion and sense of alienation felt by staff and students “If there had been a true corporate life it wouldn’t have mattered so much…As it was we were deprived of social life, not so much in the cocktail-party sense, but because there was no normal contact and communion of the daily sort needed for the complex cultural tasks we were engaged in upon” (Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, 1969). The students at Chelsea College of Art, by contrast, did not share these disadvantages, nor did they initiate any protest, although they did consider it (Tony Colley, quoted in James 2016, location 1818).

Neither the discontent in Paris – specifically at Nanterre – nor at Hornsey began in May ’68. Nanterre may not have had appealing or even adequate facilities, what it did have was one of the few sociology departments in France, and a concentration of radical students. There had been demonstrations and protests at Nanterre during the tail end of 1967 and earlier in 1968: the object being to remove the prohibition on male/female fraternisation in halls of residence and the ban imposed on political meetings on university property. Despite a lull during early 1968, from 3 May a series of riots spread from outside the Sorbonne to the surrounding streets in the Latin Quarter, and to other French university towns. By 12 May “The Night of the Barricades” Paris had become world news; on 13 May students occupied the Sorbonne and declared it an autonomous “people’s university”. The protest was transformed into something at least perceived as an existential threat to the state with the initiation of a general strike throughout France involving 11 million workers. On 30 May De Gaulle promised substantial wage rises to the workers and, along with a show of force both popular and military, began to restore order, or at least control (Wykes, 1970).

The first recognised student insurrection in the UK occurred at the LSE in 1967: a protest against the suspension of two student union activists on 13 March became an eight day sit-in (Blackstone, Gales, Hadley, & Lewis, 1970). The same year the Hornsey College of Art (HCA) became radicalised, but the conflict was not between students and the college authorities, but with Haringey Borough Council. Both students and staff were opposed to the Council’s plans to incorporate HCA into the proposed North London Polytechnic and the college’s prospective loss of autonomy: “There had been marches to the Wood Green Civic Centre to protest against the forcing of Hornsey into the Polytechnic which had aroused an enthusiasm and feeling of the community no one had ever before seen” (Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, 1969, p.30). Nick Wright, who became President of the HCA Student Union in 1967, wrote “it created a new atmosphere in the college. Cross departmental links were made, the experience of mass action generated new interest in the student union and strengthened membership of the teachers association” (Wright, 2012).

Early the following year radical sentiment was further sharpened by the mass-protests against the Vietnam War. A rally in London on 17 March at Trafalgar Square became a march when Vanessa Redgrave set off to deliver a letter of protest to the US Embassy followed by about 15,000 protesters; the protesters clashed with police outside the Embassy in in Grosvenor Square and large scale disorder ensued, resulting numerous injuries and 246 arrests (Macintyre, 2018).

The uprising in Hornsey was sparked by a relatively innocuous dispute over student union funds, and the denial of a sabbatical year for the student union president. On 28 May what was to have been a one-day teach-in, a protest that the college principle Harold Shelton had persuaded the Borough Council to give permission for, became a six-week occupation. Angered by the principle’s absence, and the mocking laughter of the bursar lurking outside, the teach-in saw the sudden unleashing of pent-up frustration and the discussion, initially on student autonomy, gained its own momentum, further propelled by a surge of enthusiasm and sense of engagement, even liberation.

“These discussions often went on to the small hours of the morning. If only such a situation were possible under ‘normal’ conditions. Never had people en masse participated so fully before. People’s faces were alight with excitement, as they talked more than they had ever talked before. At last we had found something which was real to all of us. We were not, after all, the complacent receivers of an inadequate educational system.” (Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, 1969, p.38)

“A feeble attempt by the Vice Principal to re-establish his personal authority by threatening the assembled students resulted only in his eviction from the building” (Wright, 2012) and the teach-in became an occupation, involving some 500 students.

Over the next six weeks, with the college authorities exiled to Parkwood primary school in Tottenham, the college continued to function, now run by students and sympathetic staff. The canteen was open 24 hours a day; numerous students from other colleges arrive to show their solidarity; and a number of guest speakers appeared, including Buckminster Fuller, Joan Littlewood and, perhaps inevitably, R.D. Laing (see Buckminster addressing the students at Flouch, 2014; Tickner, 2008). The occupation also received a great deal of national press coverage, despite the lack of dramatic indictment: clippings from these months are preserved in both the Middlesex University (Syratt-Barnes, 2017), and Tate Britain (Page, 2010) archives.

The debates led to the production of over 70 documents during the six weeks the occupation lasted, principally concerned with a critique of art education.

Art and design education had undergone a major transformation in the early 1960s. The Coldstream report (1960/ 1962) had restructured art education: the existing National Diploma in Design (NDD) had been replaced with a three year Diploma in Art and Design (Dip. AD) in 1963. The Dip.AD was conceived as providing ‘a liberal education in art’, and had four areas of specialisation: textiles/fashion, three dimensional design, graphic design, and fine art. Other subjects, such as electronic media, photography and film, were incorporated into fine art or graphic design courses (see NACAE, 1975). Not all art colleges were entitled to teach Dip. AD courses: those that were not were compelled to teach vocational courses, or vanish. Hornsey became one of the few art colleges entitled to teach all four Dip.AD courses.

The Dip.AD was intended to be the equivalent of a university degree. To achieve this academic entry requirements, at least five O’ levels, were introduced; although exceptions could be granted for “students with outstanding artistic promise”, very few were: only 36 were made in 1967 (MacDonald, 1970). The Dip. AD itself contained a compulsory academic element and enhanced art history component: taken together these accounted for 15 per cent of course time and 20 per cent of the final pass mark (James, 2016). One year Pre-diploma (latterly Foundation) courses termed Basic Design, were also introduced, these a product of the Bauhaus approach to art education, pioneered in the UK by and Richard Hamilton, Tom Hudson, Harr Thubron, Maurice de Sausmarez,, and Victor Pasmore. Basic Design was a form of ‘creative education’ involving basic analytic experiment and a “clearing of the slate” (Ashwin, 1972; Frith & Horne, 1990; Tickner, 2008).

The introduction of the Dip.AD didn’t just change how art was taught, it resulted in a change in the composition of the student body.

Art schools had, during the 1960s particularly in Dip.AD colleges, concentrated on the recruitment of full-time students, drawn nationally, rather than local part-time students, who were often employed and acquiring or refining vocational skills: this had both eroded relations with the local community, and resulted in a more engaged and politically aware student body; older, having completed two years in the six form, and armed with A’ levels, and often a greater sense of autonomy.

They were likely to find the didactic teaching methods employed by older staff objectionable, and the younger members of staff were often sympathetic, even encouraging the students’ complaints.

The protests of the occupying students directly targeted certain aspects of the Dip.AD system, and although a general critique of the way art education was taught developed, leading to the foundation of the Movement for Rethinking Art and Design Education (MORADE), it did not expand into a broader indictment of society. Although the disruption did, spreading to other art colleges: Brighton – where the students were pre-emptively locked out of the college, Birmingham, Croydon, and Guildford, which experienced a parallel occupation, and whose participants would face a similar fate (Woodham & Lyon, 2009).

Document 11 included a list of the protesters’ grievances and demands. The (modest) academic entrance requirements for the Dip.AD, and the Dip.AD/ vocational distinction between colleges were both targeted for abolition. Objections were raised against compulsory status of the academic elements of the curriculum – art history and complementary studies. (Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, 1969, p. 129-132; Tickner, 2008). There was also a more nebulous demand, to democratise art education, dissolving its hierarchical structure to the point where students and lecturers form a partnership engaged in the same task.

The problem that protesters had was that these demands were effectively directed at the college authorities and the Borough Council, but neither had even the remotest powers required to deliver them. The Hornsey protest did, however, result in the apparent offer of greater student representation in the running of the college. There was also a swiftly organised exhibition at Institute of Contemporary Arts – Hornsey Strikes Again –opened on 5 July: “The exhibition was intended to as a didactic demonstration of the superiority of the network system over the conventions of the Dip.AD” (Tickner, 2008, p. 56). The network system, as described in Document 46 was conceived as:

“a more open arrangement of courses which permits easier movement from one activity to another, and allows either a broader educational development or a more intensive specialization, according to individual needs at any given time…the logical unit of the network system is not the class, but the creative group, embracing both the student and staff in a common project” (Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, 1969, p. 120).

Challenges to established forms of higher education were not unique to Hornsey in 1968, not even in London: to the east the Anti-University had been opened in February (The AntiUniversity Now, 2012). Inspired by the Free University New York, founded 1965 (revived in 2012, The Free University of NYC, 2017) – it was intended to provide “revolutionary courses…and do away with the unsatisfactory student/ teacher relationships” (Anonymous, 1970, p.5). High on ideals, but low on practical resources, anyone was free to attend the courses: anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing was among the lecturers, but the courses were not themselves free. Despite charging tuition fees such income quickly proved inadequate. The Anti-University lasted only lasted six months before losing its premises, 26 Rivington Street, and effectively vanishing.

After a failed attempt to resolve the conflict the college was officially closed on 4 July. A private security force with dogs attempted to seal off the college, although if they were being used to provoke or intimidate the students it failed: they ended up in the canteen, the Alsatians being fed corn beef sandwiches. After more negotiations the college was re-opened, the principle and college staff returned, but only briefly: on 12 July the college was closed again. It did not re-open until November; in re-asserting their authority the college authorities took the opportunity to destroy much of the students’ protest related art work.

MORADE had organised a three day conference on art education at the roundhouse in Camden in from the 8–10 July. Attendance at the conference that left the college largely unoccupied: after the 12th those that remained re-located to a staff member’s nearby house.

The run up to the new academic year involved a purge of the college: staff on short term contracts identified as sympathetic to the students did not have their contracts renewed, which became an ongoing process. As a condition of re-entry to the college all students were subject to an assessment, more than fifty failed – and were expelled (Tickner, 2008).

The demands made by the Hornsey students and staff may only have amounted to a record of their disquiet about the trajectory of art education: they did nothing to impede or deflect it. Enrolment on a Dip.AD course became conditional on achieving suitable A level grades in 1973, and the Dip.AD replaced with a BA degree in 1974. Art schools disappeared as they were combined with other institutions to create polytechnics, Hornsey dissapeared into Middlesex Polytechnic in 1973, polytechnics themselves becoming universities in 1992.

The events at Hornsey were recorded in The Hornsey Affair, published in 1969, and written by the students and staff involved in the occupation. A documentary for Granada TV, Our Live Experiment is Worth More Than 3,000 Textbooks, was broadcast in 1969. The Hornsey Film, directed by Pat Holland, appeared in 1970, and can be watched courtesy of the BFI. More recently in 2008 Lisa Tickner published a detailed account in Hornsey 1968: The art school revolution. There are also several blogs concerning Hornsey 1968 written by those involved available online.


  • Anonymous. (1970, March 7). Whatever happened to anti u. Light, p. 5.
  • Ashwin, C. (1972). Dip.A.D. Students and Their Foundation Courses. Educational Research, 15(1), 43–47.
  • Carroll, J. (1968, May 7). Paris students in savage battles – 1968. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/from-the-archive-blog/2018/apr/06/paris-students-demonstrations-may-1968
  • Flouch, H. (2014, December 4). The Hornsey Revolution, 1968. Retrieved 6 April 2018, from http://www.harringayonline.com/forum/topics/the-hornsey-revolution-1968
  • Frith, S., & Horne, H. (1990). Art into Pop (New edition). London; New York: Routledge.
  • James, H. (2016). Art Schools in England 1945 to 1970: An anecdotal history (1 edition). Hywel James.
  • MacDonald, S. (1970). The History and Philosophy of Art Education. London: University of London Press.
  • Macintyre, D. (2018, March 11). My part in the anti-war demo that changed protest for ever. Retrieved 12 April 2018, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/11/battle-of-grosvenor-square-50-years-vietnam-protest-donald-macintyre
  • NACAE. (1975). First report of the National Advisory Council on Art Education: The first Coldstream report (1960). In C. Ashwin (Ed.), Art education : documents and policies, 1768-1975 (pp. 93–101). London: Society for Research into Higher Education.
  • Page, D. (2010, January 1). Hornsey College of Art uprising. Retrieved 9 April 2018, from http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/journeys-past
  • Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art. (1969). The Hornsey Affair. (First Edition). Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.
  • Syratt-Barnes, M. (2017). Special Collections: Hornsey. Retrieved 16 April 2018, from http://libguides.mdx.ac.uk/c.php?g=322128&p=2155283
  • The AntiUniversity Now. (2012). Antihistory: Antiuniversity of London. Retrieved 24 October 2017, from http://antihistory.org/tagged/Free+University+of+New+York?og=1
  • The Free University of NYC. (2017). What is the Free University? Retrieved 24 October 2017, from http://freeuniversitynyc.org/about-the-free-u/history-statement-intentions/
  • Tickner, L. (2008). Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution (illustrated edition edition). London: Frances Lincoln.
  • Wright, N. (2012, May 28). What happened at Hornsey on 28 May 1968. Retrieved 9 January 2017, from https://21centurymanifesto.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/what-happened-at-hornsey-on-28-may-1968/
  • Wykes, O. (1970). Student revolution in France 1968. Critical Studies in Education, 12(1), 1–16.