Lilian Sear illustrated portrait by Sunjie Ni

In the 1920s, a brilliant young textile design student named Lilian Sear was enrolled at Central Saint Martins, then the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Her work showed great promise and exceptional talent, but Sear’s career as an artist came to an end when she married and started a family — like so many women before her.

It was Sear’s story that piqued our interest — what was it like to have been an art student in the 1920s at what is now one of the world’s top art schools? Research into the lives of her peers — female creative art students who were also at Central Saint Martins at the same time — revealed that Lilian Sear’s story as an ordinary woman in the arts is actually quite common, yet it is not one often touched upon in popular discourse. The Central Schools’ student magazine, Darts and Shafts, provided a charming slice of the 1920s art student life: a humorous student magazine that celebrated the everyday and poked fun at the process of practicing (and learning) art.

The centennial anniversary of Darts and Shafts (The Lilian Sear Edition) explores “the personal is political” through the artworks of twelve female-identifying students from Central Saint Martins, as they navigate the challenges of establishing their creative identities. The artworks form a nexus between the Central Schools’ magazine from the 1920s and its contributors’ experiences with contemporary lived realities. Artist contributions explore a range of themes — including identity, pandemic life, the cost of living, heartache, domestic violence, and the objectification of women. Whilst much has changed since the 1920s, numerous obstacles remain in place for female creatives. Lilian Sear’s experience as an art student in the 1920s and the barriers to her practice as a female creative lay the foundation for this group exhibition, curated by seven female students under the MA Culture, Criticism and Curation.

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