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Hidden Places at Pembroke: A History of Art

Art is a popular and creative extracurricular activity. From early childhood onwards, it allows people to discover their creative talents and express themselves visually. However, the Art Society at Pembroke (previously also known as the Pembroke Art and Photographic Society) has had a curiously turbulent history.

Art Studio 1

Deep below Red Buildings, hidden behind an intimidating card-operated door and a set of distinctly cellar-like steps, the College’s Art Studio is frozen in time. Half-finished clay pots and figurines litter a table also strewn with tools and maintenance equipment. The workbench in the centre is covered with building plans and hard hats, revealing that alternative, non-art-based uses have been found for the Studio in recent years. The room feels sad and neglected, and smells like the bottom of a riverbed. Meanwhile, over in S Staircase, the Dark Room has been retired from its former purpose and now functions as a storage space for leftover May Ball items.

Dark Room 2

Pembroke does in fact offer many outlets for the artistic talents of students: the Lander Life Drawing class is run every Monday evening in the New Common Room, and the Collage Society was only founded in 2015 but is already hugely popular. Art is alive and well at Pembroke, but what has happened to the Art Society? We spoke to the former President of the Art Society, Alex Watson (2010), to find out more.

How did you become President?

“I became the self-proclaimed President of the Art Society in October 2013, having just started my fourth and final year, because I saw a power vacuum and I’m an opportunist. There wasn’t really an Art Society in College at that point; I think there used to be one, which was founded back in the 80s, but it had just sort of disappeared, so I decided to set up a new one. I also saw that the Art Studio was in dire need of renovation, and decided it might be a fun project.

Dark Room 5

The Dark Room is now used for May Ball storage

“The first job was assembling a committee. I managed to get card access put on the door to the Studio – previously you had to borrow a key from Porters – and I cleared out the Art Studio. I found a lot of exposed wires, damp and mould in there. It was full of old supplies when I first went in, as if someone had been planning to have a party: there were bottles of wine and lemonade, Jelly Babies, that sort of thing. They were all way past their sell-by date, so I fed them to my College kids.

“The College fixed all the health and safety issues, and we got the Society going. We had something like forty or fifty members at one point, although nobody did any art or photography. I was succeeded as President when I graduated, and I’ve never looked back since.”

What is your favourite type of art?

“There’s a Rococo artist called Watteau who is one of my favourites. I’m also a big fan of graffiti art walls.”

Dark Room 6

What was your greatest achievement as President?

“My greatest artistic achievement was the acquisition of a piece called The Tempest, which I obtained on behalf of the Art Society. It was made by a graffiti artist during the 2013 June Event and it was a good 7 foot tall. It has a dark and troubled past – it was stolen at the end of the June Event by a rogue student, who was hounded by the Committee until it was returned. It was then thrown into a skip, from where I rescued it and installed it in the Art Studio, where it remains today. I went back to College recently and was very disappointed to find lying it on the floor of the Art Studio – I felt all my hard work had gone to waste. There’s been water damage to it and it’s been scuffed. A lot of people signed it at the June Event, and it’s just been forgotten.”

Art Studio 2

Dark and troubled: a panel from the 2013 art installation The Tempest

For more Hidden Places at Pembroke, have a look at our previous blog post about the Yamada Room.

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