When Saturday Comes - Lucinda Bredin meets Sir John and Frances, Lady Sorrell, to find out how their lives were changed by a tap on the shoulder

When the British designer Sir John Sorrell was accepted at art school and faced with a set of options (painting, sculpture...), he didn't know which box to tick. His father suggested 'Commercial Art' because it sounded as if money might be involved. Neither of them had ever been to a museum or a gallery. Indeed, the only reason 15-year- old John had been offered a place was because a master at his school had tapped him on the shoulder and told him to go to art classes on a Saturday morning at Hornsey School of Art. As John remembers, "In the first class, the tutor – it happened to be John Hoyland – rolled out long sheets of brown wrapping paper and gave us loads of paint. Within 20 minutes, I knew what I was going to do with my life."

It was because of this life-changing moment that John and Frances, Lady Sorrell, have set up the National Saturday Club. Frances, now the Chancellor of the University of Westminster, found her way to Hornsey from a convent through a similar initiative at Epsom School of Art. After the pair met, married and set up their celebrated design business – and had three children – they realised that more could be done to promote creativity in young people, especially those from 'hard-to-reach' backgrounds. For the Sorrells, it isn't only about the children, but also about how it can change the country.

Above: Sketching Antony Gormley's 'Untitled'(for Francis)

They freely acknowledge that the National Saturday Club was not wholly their idea: it was tested from the late 1940s to 1970s, in the model that they themselves experienced. As John said, "Towards the end of 1944, the government was talking about concerns for the future. One of the things that worried them was the quality of British design products competing in world markets. They were concerned about trade – well, what's new?" The children who were nudged into art school in this way came from 'respectable' working- and middle-class backgrounds where art and design were something other people did. One of the effects of the scheme was to help create a boom of applicants to art college, thereby contributing to British design's golden age.

But fast-forward to the present. With endless budget cuts, many schools struggle to provide basic art education now that it has been removed from the core curriculum. On top of that, there is a natural pressure for children to aim for the so-called 'professions', such as law, medicine and accounting – although many of these roles, as Frances points out, will be superseded by artificial intelligence. "The one area of work that can't be carried out by a robot is creativity, which needs emotional intelligence."

Above: Sir John and Frances, Lady Sorrell

The aim of the National Saturday Club network is to encourage any child between 13-16 to come to a local higher education institution on Saturday mornings to find out about art and design – or fashion and business, engineering, or public speaking. Over the past decade, more than 8,000 teenagers have taken part in the year- long courses which take place throughout the UK. According to John, there are three guiding principles. "It is free to attend – we don't care if children are from incredibly wealthy families or from those that are struggling to make ends meet, although 60 per cent of those who attend do fall into this category. The important thing is that everyone is welcome. The second thing we make very clear is that you don't have to go – you
only go because you have chosen to go. Third, there are no exams. They love being there, so there's no need to test them." The courses are conducted by professional artists throughout the year, with masterclasses held by renowned practitioners such as Antony Gormley, Barnaby Barford, Ella Doran, and organisations such as Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Arup, both of which are always on the lookout for fresh talent.

The students gain knowledge and confidence, learn new skills, develop their talents – and are introduced to higher education institutions by attending classes there. Having broken the barrier of walking into a university or college, a high proportion apply to continue their studies there – just as John did at Hornsey, and Frances via Epsom.

Above: Masterclass with Barnaby Barford at Goldsmiths University Art&Design Club

During the course, the students are brought together for a day in London. As Frances points out, "Many have never been to London – and we want them to feel that one of the world's greatest capitals of culture is owned by them. It also gives them a wonderful feeling of belonging, because they are part of this club."

It obviously costs money. The Saturday Club Trust is an independent charity. Funding is provided from a variety of sources, including the institutions themselves. To raise funds, Bonhams is holding an auction on 3 October as part of the Post-War & Contemporary Art sale, with works donated by, among others, Gormley and Edmund de Waal. And there's no time like the present to invest in the future: as Frances says, "We have to think about our reputation and how we will be seen by other nations around the world. We could be seen as a country for creatives... that's something within our grasp."

National Saturday Club Charity Auction, Thursday 3 October at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street. Catalogue available and online at saturdayclub


Related auctions