An art school in Trades Hall

An art school in Trades Hall
Jeff Atkinson

When it was first established in the 1850s, the Trades Hall in Lygon St, Carlton, was regarded as an institution that would not only help advance the material conditions of the working class, but also its educational and artistic needs

As well as providing a base for the trade union movement in Victoria, it also ran an “Artisans School of Design”.

The important role that the Trades Hall played in the development of the labour movement in Victoria in the 19th and 20th centuries is undisputed. It was the venue for a number of milestone events and important campaigns. 

Activities leading to the birth of the Australian Labor Party took place there, as did the first meeting of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in May 1927. 

A number of major campaigns and struggles that had important ramifications for Australian society were run from Trades Hall, including the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917.

But it also played a role in advancing the educational and artistic needs of the labour movement. The full name of the institution that established the building was the “Trades Hall and Literary Institute” and the “literary” or worker education aspect of its function has been somewhat forgotten. 

Among other things, the building housed a library for working men. At a time when literacy levels were low and books were scarce, this served as an important resource for budding working-class thinkers and aspiring politicians.

As early as 1859, an “Artisans School of Design” was established at Trades Hall, which sought to give working class men the opportunity to learn aspects of the fine arts. Among other things, it ran classes in “ornamental drawing” for painters and plasterers. 

It was a fully-fledged school of art with courses run by famous artists such as Louis Buvolet. Its approach was radical for its time in that it encouraged artisans to use Australian motifs. 

Well-known Australian artists Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts both attended the Artisans School of Design. McCubbin recalled his experience there very positively …

“The following Friday evening saw me off to the Trades Hall School of Design, Lygon St, Carlton, sitting on the stairs of the old wooden building waiting for eight o’clock when the school opened … well I was in seventh heaven, I had really got into the palace of art.”

In 1887, after 30 years as part of the program of Trades Hall, the Artisans School of Design was amalgamated into the Working Men’s College, which later became the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. •

Today Trades Hall is still a venue used by artists. From the 1980s visual artists have used the South Tower of the building as a studio. More recently Trades Hall has become the venue for community arts programs such as the Melbourne Fringe Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. 

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