In response to the relatively poor British designs on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, the 'Science and Art Department' was established by the Board of Education in 1856, in South Kensington.

The Science and Art Department allocated grants for Schools of Art and set the curriculum for schools to follow. National graded examinations and annual national competitions were also organised. By 1879 there were 675 art schools in England, instructing some 5000 pupils.

One of these schools was the Coalbrookdale School of Art.  Founded in 1856, it was established within the Coalbrookdale Scientific and Literary Institute, which had been created in 1853 for the purpose of giving ‘the inhabitants of Coalbrookdale and the Neighbourhood, the means of acquiring useful knowledge on literary and scientific subjects’.



Study of a 16th century Iznik bottle, John Windsor Bradburn (1861-1947), watercolour, c. 1884


Like other schools set up by the Science and Art Department, the Coalbrookdale School of Art was closely linked with the South Kensington Museum (renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899), which continues to house objects illustrating the history, design and skill of manufacture.

Students could ask for items to be removed from cases to study fully, such as this 16th century Iznik bottle which was painted by John Bradburn while he was a student at the National Art Training School in Kensington. The vase is still on display at the V&A today.

Many prominent painters, sculptors and designers were trained through this ‘South Kensington System’ including designer Christopher Dresser, illustrator Kate Greenaway, and artist and sculptor Barbara Hepworth.



The purpose of the Schools of Art established across the country was to offer a well-rounded and thorough education in art to students including art practitioners and prospective art teachers. Until 1889, all the schools followed the Course of Instruction for Government Schools of Art established in 1852.

 The syllabus for teaching included:

 ‘Drawing – freehand, geometrical, model and perspective drawing. Outline of Ornament and Figure from Cast and Life. Architectural drawing and sciography [a branch of science of the perspective dealing with the projection of shadows, or delineation of an object in perspective with its gradations of light and shade]. Machine construction and drawing.

 Shading – Shading from flat, from models, from cast and the life.

 Design – Elementary and advanced. Applied to all materials.

 Painting – From the cast, still life, flowers and life, in oil, water-colour and tempera.

 Modelling and Casting – From the cast (figure and ornament) and life.’

A qualified art teacher was appointed and evening and day classes were held. Evening classes cost between 3s and 4s per quarter while daytime classes cost one guinea per quarter. Fees for students were often paid for, or subsidised by, their employer.

Close Ties

The Coalbrookdale Scientific and Literary Institute, which housed the School of Art, had close ties to the Coalbrookdale Company; representatives from the Company were present when the Institute was founded, and the purpose-built building which housed the Institute and School of Art and opened in 1859, was funded by the Coalbrookdale Company. The architect for the project was Charles Crookes, an ironworks manager employed by the company.

The Company also paid for some of their employees to attend art classes which produced skilled designers for their art castings department. This Design for a Rain-Water Receiver was drawn by Coalbrookdale Company designer Harold Fowler. 

Design for a Rain-Water Receiver, Frederick Harold Fowler (1885 – 1977), pencil and ink wash, 1913

Daffodil tile design, Frederick James Harris (1908-1902), watercolour, 1934

The ceramics industries of the Gorge, which included Craven Dunnill & Co., Maw & Co., and Coalport China Works, often paid for employees to attend art classes and hone their craft. Tiles with this floral design were produced by student Frederick Harris when he was working at Craven Dunnill, and are still on display in Jackfield Tile Museum.


Teachers at the School were highly qualified and often went on to become Headmasters of other Schools of Art. Augustus Spencer, Art Master of the School from 1885 to 1888, was later the Principle of the Royal College of Art, London. A gifted part-time teacher, Benjamin Fletcher, went on to become Headmaster of the Leicester School of Art from 1888, at the age of 20. Some teachers at the School were also local designers employed in the iron, ceramic and tile industries and attended the School to gain further art teaching qualifications.

 Talented students would be nominated to become art-pupil teachers. They would be paid to teach elementary drawing in the local national and poor schools and, in return, would receive free instruction  in their School of Art. This was all part of the Government’s scheme to ensure that as wide an art-education as possible took place.

Exams, Awards and Prizes

Yearly exams took place at the Schools of Art, for which prizes were awarded. There were different levels to the exams. A drawing or model had to first compete for a local medal, and receive the first prize in that category, before it could be forwarded to South Kensington to compete for a national medal. Examiners of the artwork included several famous artists and designers such as Walter Crane and William De Morgan.

The Coalbrookdale School of Art had an outstanding record of success. The School’s Roll of Honour shows that from 1870 to 1909, students taking the South Kensington exams gained five gold, 11 silver and 12 bronze medals, six Queen’s and two King’s prizes, 32 book prizes, 13 Art Teacher’s Certificates, and five National Scholarships. National Scholarships were particularly lucrative as they provided free tuition and annual grants of £50 for two-year courses at South Kensington.

This design was entered for National Competition in 1887 by John Windsor Bradburn, a talented student, who was born in Coalbrookdale.

Learn more about students like John Windsor Bradburn here.

Design for Portion of a Cabinet Inlaid Wood, John Windsor Bradburn (1861-1947), watercolour, 1887