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Posted 10.11.17

“This college is a giant-killer” – an interview with Lady Frances Sorrell

By Phillip Buchan
Lady Frances Sorrell with Foundation Diploma Course Leader Maddy Blyth
Lady Frances Sorrell, Co-Founder of the Sorrell Foundation and Saturday Club Trust, formally opened Palace Studios, our new dedicated building for UAL Foundation Diploma in Art & Design students.

Lady Frances Sorrell OBE was conferred with an Honorary Fellowship of the College in 2016 and is Chancellor of the University of Westminster, an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA, as well as holding Honorary Doctorates from the Open University, Coventry University and University for the Creative Arts. Plymouth College of Art was one of four specialist art colleges to pilot the Sorrell Foundation’s transformational National Art & Design Saturday Club, now the National Saturday Club Trust.

At the building opening, we sat down with Lady Sorrell to find out more about her history with the college, why her Foundation Diploma in Art & Design year was the happiest time in her education, and asked Lady Sorrell whether young people still need Saturday arts.

Do you remember when you first became aware of Plymouth College of Art?

Our relationship must have begun around ten years ago. Plymouth College of Art was one of the first four Saturday Clubs that we set up, and everyone at the college was always brilliant to work with. Always completely ready to join in and try new things.

My impression of the college has always been that this is a deeply creative place. It is absolutely student focused. You’d think that every university or college would be, but Plymouth College of Art has always been particularly so. It comes from whoever’s leading the college at the time, but there’s also something in the spirit of the place. The tutors that we’ve encountered here have always been absolutely willing to do anything that helps young people. Which is the same place that John (Sorrell) and I are coming from. We’re very like-minded with Plymouth College of Art in that respect.

From the time when the college was founded in 1856, so many other things have sprung up around it in the region, but it has hung on tenaciously and always fought its corner. And today, Plymouth College of Art is breaking new ground. The college is an absolute giant-killer. It’s so inventive, and that’s what I love about it.

You piloted the National Art & Design Saturday Club in 2009 - do you think there’s still a need for Saturday art classes for young people?

I think actually that the Saturday Club is more needed now than ever before, because of two things. One is what’s happened with school education becoming narrower since 2010. Things have become more restricted in terms of subjects available for young people, so there’s less experiential work happening in school. Education is more dictated.

As a consequence, the arts have suffered enormously, because there simply isn’t time in the curriculum. So I think the Saturday Club has become more important, not less. And also, some universities are no longer reaching out to the younger generation in the way that we would like them to. In some cases they’re taking away the Foundation-level creative courses, which means, how can students make informed choices? In that context, creating more opportunities for young people, like the Saturday Club, becomes more relevant than ever.

"Plymouth College of Art is breaking new ground. The college is an absolute giant-killer. It’s so inventive, and that’s what I love about it."

– Lady Frances Sorrell

What do you think is the main benefit of the Foundation Diploma in Art & Design?

Foundation-level study helps you to understand lots of different disciplines, so that you can make a more informed career move. Everybody works in a cross-disciplinary way now, crossing boundaries, and I think that this is the future of the creative industries – to be flexible and understand different disciplines.

I completed a Foundation, many years ago, and it was the best educational experience I had in my entire learning part of my life. I absolutely loved it. It gave me an understanding of hands-on making, different crafts and different disciplines. I’ve used that knowledge as we grew our design and identity business, Newell and Sorrell. We had 300 designers in the business at one point and I could always tell, when we hired them, who had completed Foundation study and who hadn’t. People who’d completed a Foundation were able to think spatially and outside the box, envisioning different types or solutions rather than sticking rigidly to a set discipline

Also, the Foundation has given me a lifelong passion for handmade things. Expensive handmade things!

What advice would you give to any parents who have reservations about their children studying creative subjects?

For many parents it can be hard to understand what we mean by the creative industries, but they’re more valuable to the UK than the whole financial sector, for example. The creative industries are worth £87.4 billion each year to the UK economy. It’s just incredible, and growing all the time. And the skills are very portable, so you can move from one segment to another.

We actually created the Creative Journeys website to help students and parents understand the different routes that led people into creative careers. It’s full of videos of people who are making a living in the creative industries and happy in their work. I feel like it’s important for parents to appreciate how much happier their children can be if they’re following their talent rather than being pressed into doing something that they don’t enjoy. But it has to be driven by the young person.

And that brings us full circle, back to the Foundation Diploma in Art & Design. If you’re a parent and know instinctively that your child is creative, maybe at the age of 14 they’re saying that they want to be a fashion designer, I think you should embrace that but also take the first step in seeing what else they might enjoy. Through the National Art & Design Saturday Club a young person could experience lots of different types of creativity. Then, if they progressed onto a Foundation Diploma in Art & Design after school, they’ll be able to make a really informed choice about their future. If they still want to be a fashion designer then you know that they’ve made an informed choice, but even if they decided to move into marketing instead, they’ll have a much better understanding of how things are made and the impacts that design decisions can have.

How would you describe Plymouth College of Art to somebody who hasn’t heard of us?

Plymouth College of Art is passionate, committed, and brave. It’s got a big heart, this place.