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Academy of decor to revive lost skills

VISITORS to Leeds College of Building's Millwright Street centre might be forgiven for thinking that they had been transported to a foreign clime.

On the first floor, they confront a wall-high depiction of an elegant villa with an arched window overlooking an olive grove and a pretty Tuscan hill town baking in the Italian sun. You can virtually walk into the villa, such is the realism of the image.

Crafted by two painting and decorating students, Paul Egan and Chris Manders, the vision is a huge trompe l'oeil, a trick of the eye. As the image is copied from the label of a bottle of Olivio olive oil, visitors may also get a sense of dej... vu.

The work is an example of one of the traditional decorating skills that the college is seeking to preserve in its new Academy of Decorative Arts. In the 1960s and 1970s, when decorative wallpapers were fashionable, traditional skills such as Sienna marbling, wood graining, gilding, stencilling and broken colour work were neglected.

But the new academy, which embraces painting and decorating and interior design, wants to challenge the public's perception of decorating as being a low-skill trade and to show that such work is not exclusively male and that women can paint and decorate just as well.

The academy will also help meet changes in consumer tastes, which are driven by the popularity of television programmes such as Changing Rooms.

"We want to change the image that painting and decorating is a male preserve and appeal to a wider audience," says Chris Ferguson, head of the college's fabric and finishes division.

"We wanted to maintain the range of traditional craft skills and encourage more women to train as painters and decorators. There are business opportunities out there. A lot of single mums do not want male decorators to come into their homes. I know of a number of decorating companies where the employees are all women."

The department itself has three female lecturers - in brickwork, carpentry, and painting and decorating - who act as role models to the students. The academy has also launched an evening class in interior design attracting 13 women.

Master classes are to be offered in decorative paint techniques such as graining. There will also be interior design workshops and mothers and their daughters will be invited to take part in taster workshops in the school holidays.

Eight women have enrolled alongside more than 100 men on painting and decorating courses at NVQ levels 1, 2 and 3. Students come from Leeds, Wakefield and all over West Yorkshire.

"A lot of people see painting and decorating as just putting up wallpaper and painting but there is a lot more to it than that," says Bill Byers, who manages the academy. If you look back to the 1800s, a good decorator would match the work of a fine artist."

Samantha Scott, 20, who has seven GCSEs, is an apprentice with a local decorating firm. She is in her first year of her three-year NVQ. Her ambition is to be an interior designer. Her grandfather in Newcastle was a decorator and she used to help him in the school holidays.

"It's good to see a woman doing the job," she says. "There's no such thing as a man's job."

Sarah Kneen, 16, has nine GCSEs. She is from Bristfield and is also in her first year of a three-year NVQ. She found she enjoyed painting and decorating during two weeks' work experience in Year 10 at school. She is also apprenticed to a local firm and wants to be an interior designer.

Judging by the number of trompe-l'oeil paintings in the Millwright Street building, and the steady increase in marbling and other traditional decorating skills, Leeds could be in for an Italianate renaissance in the near future.

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