Sass’s Drawing Academy: A Pre-Raphaelite Prep School (Another London Venue In Which Rossetti Misbehaved)
If ever there was a London building crying out for a blue plaque, it is number 10 Bloomsbury Street, former headquarters of Sass’s Drawing Academy, a feeder school for the Royal Academy. It was here that aspiring painters John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Walter Howell Deverell took their early training. Rossetti and Deverell met at Sass’s, but child prodigy Millais had already entered the Royal Academy Schools by the time they began their studies. Other distinguished graduates include Augustus Egg, Edward Lear, Charles West Cope, Henry Hugh Armstead and William Powell Frith, most famous for his work Derby Day (1858).
Sass is also notable as for admitting female pupils from 1832. Graduate Henrietta Ward (1832 – 1924) went on to found her own art school for women and was proposed for election to the Royal Academy in the 1870s, despite the fact that the RA did not accept women members. Three of her children became artists. Eliza Fox went on to become a successful painter of history and genre subjects and was a close friend of feminist Barbara Bodichon (a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal). Anna Mary Howitt, also a friend of Rossetti and Bodichon, was so talented that she was allowed to remain at the Academy even after a financial disaster meant her family could no longer afford the fees.
Henry Sass himself was better at producing artists than producing art. He kept exhibiting, despite receiving little encouragement. One critic noted witheringly that he had produced ‘a study of something which he persists in calling a head.’ In My Autobiography and Reminincences (1888) Frith recalls his two years as a student boarder at Sass’s, where he learned the rudiments of drawing by laborious exercises. It took him six weeks to copy a plaster sphere to Sass’s satisfaction. This particulary task was so resented by the boys that one student was expelled for sketching a hanged man in the middle of his effort. After mastering the sphere, Frith was permitted to learn about light and shadow by drawing a bunch of grapes, and after that was permitted to draw a hand from a plaster cast. It was a long time before he was allowed to attempt a whole human figure ‘from the Antique’ (meaning from plaster casts of famous statues).
Sass clearly had a sense for drama that often makes a good teacher, and this was reflected in the set-up of his classroom. A door to the left of the building’s entrance led to a passage lined with drawings done by successful former pupils. At the bottom of the passage were curtains which could be could be thrown back to reveal a circular hall lit from the top ‘in an angle of light copied from the Pantheon at Rome’. Copies of famous statues such as Laocoön and His Sons, Apollo, and the Venus de Medici were posed dramatically around this space. A staircase led to a circular upper gallery.
Mottoes decorated the gallery spaces: ‘Those models which have passed through the approbation of ages are intended for your imitation, and not your criticism’; ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed’; ‘Laborare est orare,’ [‘To work is to pray’]. Frith confesses that the young and boisterous students largely ignored these: ‘I don’t think the motto system did us any good’.
Though the details are foggy, it seems Sass’s dramatic eccentricities shaded tragically into madness, and minor oil painter Francis Stephen Cary took over the Academy.
Cary’s father Henry was a famous English translator of Dante Alighieri’s Commedia and consequently a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s father. William Rossetti tells us that at Sass’s, young Dante Gabriel Rossetti ‘acquired the bare rudiments of his art and … made a small reputation for eccentricity.’ One fellow-pupil recalls Cary asking Rossetti why he had not attended school the day before. ‘I had a fit of idleness’, Rossetti replied, and proceeded to distribute freshly-written sonnets among his classmates.
For this anecdote alone the building deserves a blue plaque. Yet, as the UCL Bloomsbury Project notes, ‘its listed building information makes no reference to its interesting history, and historians of Sass and his art school do not seem to realise that the building still exists.’