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Review: Julia Midgley: Bicentenary Sketchbook – A Window on LJMU’s 200th Anniversary Year, at John Lennon Art & Design Building

Liverpool John Moores University (JMU to most of us), the university that started life as the Liverpool Mechanics’ School of Arts, in 1823, celebrated its 200th birthday last year by building a cultural and creative archive.

The mechanics’ institutes, for the sake of a brief history lesson, were the original art schools. Designed for the purposes of adult education in creative studies. They later became known as schools of arts. Some have since become museums and galleries, others remain as art schools and universities.

LJMU is the latter, curating a wide range of higher education courses for students in further education, higher education and post-graduate studies. But its foundation in the arts remains its key draw, using cultural heritage and cultural connections to create dynamic and lasting relationships between its students and the city they live in.

Their arts graduates have founded many of the region’s galleries, studios, and participatory projects, and lead some of our most important organisations.

So it’s only right that in 2023, Julia Midgley, previously a Reader in Documentary Drawing at LJMU’s School of Art and Design and a staff member for 26 years, until 2013, was invited to document the year of celebratory actives by preserving the occasions in documentary drawing.

I grew up with a drawing by Julia above the TV. Two monkeys nestled tightly together. They were drawn from life, probably from a residency at Chester Zoo – though I’m unsure of their actual history. But that sketch has been a core memory that’s influenced my preconceptions of art for a very long time.

It is documentary, representative drawing, made for a very specific purpose (one I’m not even sure of), but it resonates and has meaning to me. And art can do that. It doesn’t have to be personally significant to its viewer to be important to them.

Here, at LJMU, these sketches are significant, to hundreds of thousands of current and past students. None of them are static illustrations. They all have life, and a timescale.

Some, with human figures moving past signage, blend into the space. They show that these drawings are not simply illustrations, they are an energetic document of the movement at that very specific time.

Julia Midgley has always drawn like that, but here, because the setting is quite institutional, the signage and lettering, which could feel dry and cold, become a signifier for movement. People standing in front of it are temporary.

In the 200 year history of LJMU, everybody has been temporary. Lecturers, students, heads of school, chancellors. They are all part of a moving story that started as an art school.

Even the school itself has moved (the building remains, now the Paul McCartney Auditorium as part of LIPA). Nothing is permanent other than, maybe, the spirit of the school – founded for the pursuit of creative ideas.

Julia Midgley: Bicentenary Sketchbook – A Window on LJMU’s 200th Anniversary Year, is open at John Lennon Art & Design Building until 5th April 2024
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith