Key stage 4 and AS level
Art and design
Brimming with centuries of history, Dover Castle stands high above the town’s famous white cliffs. Every year its stone walls and labyrinth of tunnels draw in a multitude of curious visitors. But how many people take the time to soak up its history using all their senses?
At Dover Grammar School for Girls, a group of year 11 and 12 students did just that. Immersing themselves in a multi-sensory investigation of the castle, the students generated bold and accomplished artwork, which culminated in a public exhibition.
A sensory adventure
The challenge for the eight students – many of whom lacked confidence or tended to be quite shy – was to create daring and individual interpretations of the castle. ‘We wanted the pupils to interrogate the building through sight, sound, taste, touch and smell,’ explains teacher Gail Swainston. ‘And use this to move from basic drawing and standard views of the castle into personal, abstract visions.’
Painting of Dover Castle © Dover Grammar School for Girls
With the support of English Heritage, the project allowed for a rounded, 360-degree experience of Dover Castle. English Heritage gave the students flexible access to the site so they could make visits in their own time and even explore areas not open to the public.
A Heritage guide pointed out hidden features – an ancient gateway and graffiti made by French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars – and relayed significant moments in the castle’s history.
Armed with cameras, the students photographed the castle from a variety of angles, picking out whatever caught their imagination – a chain and drawbridge, a winding corridor, a glimpse of the sea... Undeterred by the wintry weather, they returned several times to examine the grounds and capture their impressions.
They were encouraged to draw on all their senses – noting different sounds and smells, observing changes in light and shadow, feeling the stonework’s texture and tasting the salty air.
Back in class, a Photoshop expert showed the group how to manipulate their photos to create more abstract images. The students then developed ideas from these in their sketchbooks before moving on to oil painting on canvas. ‘When they first saw the large canvases the students were quite intimidated’, says Gail. ‘But in no time they were throwing themselves into the work and we were running out of canvases!’
Experimentation was the key. As well as painting in oils, students crafted their interpretations using spray painting, collage and calligraphy. Some chose to work fabric into paintings and made cushions, quilts, hats and costumes. One student fully embraced the sensory experience by sealing mint, parsley and rosemary into the stiffened fabric of a dress.
The castle’s walls and the stories resonating from within them helped release the students’ creativity. Their responses were varied and very individual. Some paintings spotlighted features such as stonework, windows, stairs and corridors, often seen through a riot of colour and always conveying a strong sense of mood.
One student journeyed to an abstract interpretation in which she imagined tasting pearls from the sea. Another painted the castle viewed at a distance from a boat at sea on a stormy night.
Sketch of one of the tunnels in Dover Castle © Dover Grammar School for Girls
Gail describes the impact of taking the students out of the classroom as ‘transformational’. Their confidence and motivation soared, along with the quality of their work. They became much more independent in their learning – unprompted they researched artists and ideas and reviewed and refined their work on their own. Gail notes: ‘We tried not to teach them. We tried to open doors for them.’
A public exhibition at Dover Town Council – opened by the mayor – sparked interest throughout the community. Visitors were amazed by the standard of the work, with one remarking, ‘I thought I was coming to look at students’ paintings, not an art exhibition.’ The culmination of the project will be an exhibition at Dover Castle bringing the artwork back to its birthplace – a real 360-degree journey.
Want to do something similar with your class?We have collated a list of activities, organisations and resources for you to use with your students in developing art inspired by buildings and places.
The Engaging Places network
This case study comes from Dover Grammar School for Girls in Kent, who worked with Dover Castle, English Heritage, through the Engaging Places network for 2008/9.
The Engaging Places programme is run by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and English Heritage. It supports teaching and learning through buildings and places.
Engaging Places realises that young people identify deeply with where they go to school and live but they are not always able to adequately communicate their sense of place to others. The physical face of many neighbourhoods is changing fast and schools are being transformed at an incredible pace, despite the recession. These dramatic changes will either involve or exclude a whole generation of young people.
This is why we have developed the Engaging Places network. The network is made up of schools and learning providers across England working together on projects which seek to equip students with the tools to articulate and critically analyse the places where they live and learn.
The schools involved in 2008/09 followed a process of disciplined innovation using the QCA co-development framework – a rigorous approach to curriculum change.
Read more about the and view the Engaging Places videos.
All Engaging Places 2008/09 network case studies