Ipswich Art School occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of the East Anglian arts community. The majority of professional artists, born or working in Suffolk during the last 100 years, have passed through its doors – either as a tutor or a student and in several cases both.

The school quickly gained a reputation for excellence, a reputation which grew substantially in the 1960s when you had people like Colin Moss, Lawrence Self, Bernard Reynolds, Maggi Hambling, Brian Eno, Tom Phillips, Glynn Thomas and Eduardo Paolozzi wandering the corridors and squirrelling themselves away in the various studios to be found leading off the school’s highly distinctive octagon.

Ipswich Art School originally opened on 10th January 1859 at the Assembly Rooms in Northgate Street but it soon moved premises as its buregoning reputation attracted more students than it could handle.

The school operated at the Ipswich High Street site, next door to Ipswich Museum, from 1881.

The current building, with its distinctive glass-roof ceiling, wasn’t constructed until 1934 when the school outgrew its original Victorian accommodation.

It continued to be a centre of artistic learning until 1997 when the art school was absorbed into the Suffolk College buildings.

Happily the spirit of the Ipswich Art School has refused to die. It was an instution conceived as a place to inspire, transform and educate and continues to do just that.

The Ipswich Art School building has been transformed into a new gallery space.

The building has been offered to the town by the owners Suffolk New College and the Borough, along with Ipswich and Colchester Museum’s Service are looking to raise �600,000 by March 2012 and then �10million by March 2015.

Gallery curator Emma Roodhouse said the object was to allow the art school to stay as a public gallery space – a space which celebrated not only the school’s past achievements but acted as a magnet for today’s local talent and provide a home for national exhibitions which could inspire the next generation of creative artists.

She said: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new centre of excellence.

“The Ipswich Art School Gallery will show exhibitions of international importance and will provide a unique stage for local artists to show their work.”

The gallery will act as a public bridge between the town’s artistic heritage and its artistic future which is being forged at the UCS on the Ipswich Waterfront.

To help bring past and present together Emma Roodhouse has curated a new exhibition The Class Of... which is an artistic school reunion of those who spent many creative years toiling away, making great use of the revealing light from the octagon’s pitched glass-ceiling.

Work by both staff and students has been put on display including works by the Victorian founders, such inspiring mainstays as Colin Moss, Bernard Reynolds and Malcolm Moseley, visiting lecturers such as Eduardo Paolozzi, Laurence Self, Geoffrey Clarke and Tom Phillips, as well as famous students like Maggi Hambling, Margaret Tempest, Judith Foster and student-turned-tutor Leonard Squirell.

The exhibition is brought bang up-to-date by the inclusion of work from the current crop of art students working away at University Campus Suffolk.

There is a companion exhibition by current tutors and students at the university’s Waterfront Gallery.

The Gallery’s patron is former student Maggi Hambling who is very keen to see the building preserved for the town, so it can continue to make a strong contribution to the development of local artistic aspiration.

She said: ““My time at Ipswich Art School was crucial, the various disciplines of painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking were strongly instilled in me.

“Each one continues to play its part in my work.”

The idea of themed rooms is how Emma has organised the displays. Apart from Maggi’s exhibition which greets visitors as they step through the door into the octagon, the rest of the exhibits are displayed in media-defined rooms rather than by age or artist.

So instead of the Colin Moss room or the Bernard Reynolds room there’s the drawing room, the print room, the sculpture room, the mixed-media room.

In this way you get a full picture of the extremely diverse work that has been produced by Ipswich Art School artists over the past 100-plus years.

Among the highlights of the exhibition is Colin Moss’ drawing of a student’s sculpture. Emma said: “Colin was so inspired by Ray Exworth’s sculpture that he wanted to do a life drawing of the piece.”

In the same room are some rare life drawings by Bernard Reynolds who is usually known for his sculptures. “One of the great things about this exhibition is that it shows the cross discipline talents of the tutors.”

Colin Moss was appointed senior lecturer at Ipswich Art School in 1947 and was considered a controversial choice at the time.

But, the former Royal College of Art graduate soon became to embody the essence of the Ipswidch Art School.

His strength came from the fact he was a practicising artist rather than a teacher telling students what they should be doing. He was a tough task master but he led by example.

He retired from full-time lecturing in 1979 but continued to paint well into the 1990s.

Much of Moss’ work can be seen as a valuable social document of working Ipswich spanning a 50 year period.

His contemporary Bernard Reynolds was born in Norwich and after graduating from the Sheffield College of Art in 1948 moved to Ipswich Art School where he remained sculpture lecturer until 1980.

Bernard’s sculptures remain important pieces of East Anglian art including the Ship Fountain in Civic Drive, Ipswich and Pylons outside the UCS.

Tom Phillips, a visiting tutor in the 1960s, has submitted a portrait of art student, turned rock star/record producer Brian Eno while Laurence Self is represented by a free-flowing charcoal drawing of a Suffolk landscape dominated by electricity pylons.

It is a more impressionistic work than you would expect having seen his usual carefully constructed paintings.

Upstairs Brian Whelan is exhibiting his huge oil painting Transmetropolitan in which London – both above and below ground – is turned into a vast portrait of the capital, while at the same time, the application of gold paint or maybe even gold leaf at various points, gives the finished work the feel of a Russian icon painting.

Art lovers will also have the opportunity to own some of the works produced by artists connected with the Ipswich Art School by bidding in a fund-raising charity auction on April 15 at 6.30pm.

Emma Roodhouse said: “We are staging a unique auction of art works by artists associated with Ipswich Art School to raise money for a permanent centre of excellence for the arts.

“We have two works by Maggi Hambling as well as two typed poems by Brian Eno along with works from Lawrence Self, Bernard Reynolds, Colin Moss, Brian Whelan, Stuart Somerville and Peggy Somerville.

“At this auction when the hammer comes down that will be the final price so with no buyer’s premium you could be looking at a real bargain!

“We need to raise �600K to buy the building as a permanent gallery for Ipswich by March 2012.”

The charity auction is being staged at the Ipswich Art School Gallery in High Street on April 15 at 6.30pm.

n The Class Of... exhibition runs until June 12. Admission free and the companion The Class Of exhibition featuring modern work at the UCS Waterfront gallery runs until April 2.