The college opened in 1971 and was founded by Edward James, poet, patron of the arts and visionary of the 20th century.
James donated his family home and estate to fulfil his desire to nurture music, traditional crafts and the fine arts. In 1939 James wrote of his vision to writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley: “My suggestion would be to make this community a group of people working to preserve and teach certain crafts.”
This legacy lives on today through the college’s extensive programme of courses.
Alexander Barron, chief executive of the college, said: “West Dean College is one of the world’s leading teaching institutions for craft practice. It is unique in the UK being the last remaining example of an experimental rural arts college predicated on a mission to change society through progressive education.
"It is underpinned by its craft philosophy, comprising a powerful combination of Practice, Place and People.”
Since it opened 50 years ago it has awarded more than 2,000 degrees and diplomas and approximately 250,000 people have taken one of its short courses.
Alexander said: “As such the impact of the College in the craft based creative sectors, specifically the visual arts, designer making and conservation, is disproportionately high in comparison with its size, while the work of staff and students, frequently rooted in traditional skills, is both innovative and world leading.”
As part of its anniversary it launched 50 special one-day short courses inspired by the original 1970s list of subject areas including carving a small soapstone sculpture, making a talking puppet, letterpress – poster printing and plastic smithing.
Alexander said: “In October 1971, the first students stepped into the workshops and studios at West Dean College.
"The early programme of courses has since developed into a leading centre for practice-based creative study. Students are able to join courses in subjects across arts, crafts, conservation and - since the merger with KLC School of Design this year – interior design and garden design.”
At least 25 of the new courses were featured in the original documents and course programmes envisioned by Edward James . These include millinery, wirework, carving in wood and stone, and silversmithing. Other courses are craft-based subjects that the college has supported over the past 50 years, while the final part of the series uses materials and approaches which have developed since 1971, as new materials and processes became available, these include using precious metal clay.
The college has always always excelled at offering a range of courses from the traditional to the contemporary.
Alexander explains how the specific subjects under each heading have evolved over time, but he adds the college is often at its most relevant when providing contemporary purpose to traditional skills.
He said: “This can be seen with a new course like ‘plastic-smithing’. It is also exemplified by the college’s tapestry weavers who, in recent years, have applied their traditional skills to work with modern artists such as Tracy Emin, Martin Creed and Eva Rothschild.
"Our college community is a truly global one and it includes artists, makers, designers, conservators, writers and musicians – studying or teaching on courses from 1-day beginners to MA degrees. What they all share is a love of creativity. Whether that’s pushing the boundaries of their existing expertise or learning a new skill.”
The demand for the type of courses the college offers is greater today than ever before.
On what it is like to work at West Dean Alexander says ‘inspirational’.
He added: “It is a melting-pot of global talent from across arts, craft, conservation and design, so there’s creativity around every corner.
"Plus there’s the breathtaking location: a heritage campus, housing an amazing art collection, in the heart of the South Downs that inspired Blake’s “Jerusalem”. No two days are ever the same.”
Courses still available are: Signwriting – paint a house name or number with Terry Smith on Wednesday, June 1, 2022 (beginners/ £163); Puppetry – make a talking puppet with Isobel Smith on Tuesday, June 7, 2022 (beginners/ £138); while Hanny Newton’s Goldwork hand embroidery – golden footprints has been specially designed based on West Dean’s iconic footprint carpet installed by Edward James, and will take place on Thursday, June 16, 2022 (suitable for all/ £158), and an Introduction to plastic smithing with Bronwen Gwillim on Monday, June 6, 2022 comes up with imaginative ways to use waste plastic to create jewellery (beginners/ £138).
Further 50th anniversary celebrations include the launch of new online access to the West Dean College collection and archive, offering the chance to view never seen before correspondence, first editions and sketches by many notable 20th century artists connected with Edward James.