Student, parent, Governor and Chair of the Board of Governors, Matthew Rice’s involvement with the school now spans more than 45 years. Here, Matthew reminisces about the effect of a completely unexpected spring snowstorm on his view of the school, the importance of friendships at Bedales and how his life here laid the foundations for his extraordinarily successful and varied artistic career.
The sight of a laden hay wagon driving through the covered way and suddenly exploding with children was enough to convince Matthew Rice’s parents that one day, the school would make an ideal educational home for a child of theirs. “My mother and father were visiting the school because they shared a flat with David Powell, who was the grandson of Oswald, co-founder of Bedales with John Badley,” Matthew explains. “I was at prep school in Richmond before Bedales and the prospect of going to a boarding school was fine by me, as long as it was something like what I had read about in the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge.”
His three-day admissions sojourn at Bedales easily persuaded Matthew that he had found the right school environment. “I must have sat some sort of test during that period but what I most remember is going for lots of walks and having a nice time in the dorm,” he says.
“Then the most magical thing happened on the last morning in April; from nowhere there arrived an incredibly heavy snowfall and I had the time of my life. From that moment, I very much wanted to go to Bedales"
Very early in his first term, Matthew was making himself at home in his new surroundings. “My parents were friends with an Old Bedalian, Julian Trevelyan, who lived just up the road from the school and whom I consulted about what to expect,” he recalls. “On Day One, I was also lucky enough to meet my great friend Edward Impey, with whom I immediately shared so much in common, not least a resolute lack of interest in anything resembling sport. Years later, I can see that it might have been a bit of a weakness in the school that Bedales didn’t absolutely insist on at least some physical activity for its students but back then, I was delighted to avoid it wherever I possibly could.”
As the son of a stage and costume designer father and an artist and textile designer mother, it was scarcely surprising that Matthew should find some of his principal sources of Bedales inspiration within rooms devoted to the visual arts. “Strangely, David Butcher and Martin Box’s workshop wasn’t one of those places – I was always pretty hopeless at woodwork,” Matthew relates. “My main mentor was Christopher Cash, a superb art teacher for me although I recognise that he couldn’t have been less interested in students without either talent for, or interest in, his subject. Mr Cash (no first names for him) could also do your history or Latin prep; he was a polymath.”
There were plenty of other teachers within the formidable cast of characters assembled during Matthew’s Bedales days who also had their effect on his progress: “Ruth Whiting was a great influence on everyone, although I wasn’t allowed to do a History A-Level. David Sykes, George Smith, John Batstone and so on…..there was some extraordinary talent at Bedales in the 1970s. Patrick Nobes was the Head throughout my time at the school. I don’t remember him ever doing any teaching, unlike Keith Budge or Magnus Bashaarat, and I do remember the bafflement caused by one or two of his early rule changes, such as the rather silly ‘one yard’ supposed to limit smooching and so on but I don’t actually think he did any harm. I was less enamoured with some of the stuff that followed him some time after I had left, such as the complete secularisation of Bedales, which although it was certainly according to the spirit of the day, seemed to me at times to be conducted in a somewhat high-handed manner.”
Mention of various teachers prompts Matthew to muse about the non-deferential streak that can often be found among Bedales students. “That’s a genuine trope at the school and it’s one that I regard as terribly important,” he says. “The school teaches respect – rudeness was and is always wrong – but not deference, which sometimes astonishes new members of staff.”
That Bedalian culture had an effect on Matthew of which he was well aware even as he was enjoying its benefits: “Well, the ethos is in the hands of the students and the staff and as an only child, co-education itself had an enormous impact on me. I developed a confidence that was different from the type that was projected by my parents and their contemporaries, which tended to derive from excellence in their work. For me, Bedales was the place where I learned to feel confident and to enjoy talking.”
As he neared the end of his Bedales days, Matthew took part in as many of the cornucopia of opportunities on offer as he possibly could. “So many treats and I managed to get onto a lot of the committees that were an integral part of them but I was far too naughty ever to be in the running for a position of genuine responsibility such as Librarian or Head Boy,” he comments. “I took my A-levels in Art, Latin and English and didn’t work that hard at them; art was a bit of a disaster, really and I didn’t behave all that well in it, I don’t think, partly because my great mentor Mr Cash had been replaced by George Hatton, with whom I always had something of an adversarial relationship. Anyhow, Bedales still allowed me to do the design for the school’s various plays and I always knew that I was going to be heading for art school and a career as a designer of sorts.”
Much as he had enjoyed his school days, Matthew was eager to embark on his new adventures at Chelsea (and subsequently Central) School of Art. “I was very ready to move on when the time came and when I arrived at Chelsea I was absolutely shocked by the variety of background among the people I found there,” he says. “Bedales hadn’t been quite the temple of diversity that we’d all imagined after all! I missed the boarding side of things, oddly enough, but the teaching was absolutely wonderful at Chelsea. Art school teaching has clearly deteriorated since those halcyon days, with huge numbers of under-taught students in many courses.”
Out in the big wide world, Matthew began his working life by collaborating with one of his old Bedalian friends in establishing the soon to be renowned furniture design company David Linley Furniture. “David was and is one of a lifetime’s worth of great friendships that I made at Bedales,” Matthew observes. “In some ways one of the things that surprised me after school was the comparative lack of social engagement that I sometimes found. Still, we were playing the same tune that we always had at Bedales and that’s the attitude that I’ve always taken with me through my commercial life.”
Whether as a designer, a painter or an architectural writer, Matthew’s career has now been flourishing for the best part of 35 years; the companies he has founded on his own or working in partnership with wife Emma Bridgewater have featured some of the UK’s most recognisable artistic leitmotivs. Meanwhile, in lending his considerable assistance to the project to build Bedales’ new theatre in the 1990s, Matthew was re-establishing his connections with the school for the first time in almost 15 years.
That connection for Matthew was reinforced when his daughter Kitty became a Bedalian in her turn in 2006. Two years later, Matthew accepted the opportunity to join the Board of Governors and in 2011 he graduated to the role of ‘chief weasel’, in his own words, more commonly known as Chair of Governors, a position from which he only stepped down earlier in 2021. “It’s been quite an eye-opener to see the sheer calibre of the individuals that have comprised the Board,” says Matthew. “This is no group of fuddy-duddy OBs. We’ve had a number of different aims; years ago, when I first arrived at Bedales, I had felt that a few of the buildings here were quite scrappy by comparison with some of the other schools we had been shown around. That scrappiness had got a bit too close to dilapidation for our liking in a few cases and we wanted to improve on the look of the place.”
“Then we wanted to ensure that we raised our academic game a little in one or two areas that needed it,” Matthew continues. “The odd assumption had been made of educational excellence where just occasionally it might not have been warranted; perhaps we had coasted a little too much for a little too long. When my daughter arrived at Bedales, it was remarkable to me how many of her teachers had also been in situ in my day. That sort of longevity can be a tremendous asset but it is often the case that one’s greatest strength can also be a simultaneous weakness. In saying all this, we have always been keen to preserve the culture of the school, even in an era of so much extra regulatory toughness. Parental visits to school used to happen about once a year, rather than on a consistent basis, as is the case in the 2020s. A different world, then, but the Bedales ethos remains utterly recognisable despite everything.”
He’s absolutely not an uncritical admirer but Matthew is still happy to admit that what he feels for Bedales today falls little short of love. “It’s a safe bet, in lots of ways, because the object of it will still be here long after you have disappeared from the planet,” he says. “Bedales is where I grew up and I feel an enormous attachment to it. It doesn’t work for everyone, I think– you have to be a self-starter, for example – but the school has always been good at working out who will thrive here. I feel universally well-disposed towards Bedalians of this or any other generation!”
Matthew Rice was interviewed by James Fairweather in Autumn 2021.