THIS summer's focus at York Art Gallery falls on Albert Moore, the York-born artist at the heart of the 19th century Aesthetic Movement with its philosophy of art for art's sake.

The first major Moore retrospective since his memorial exhibition in 1894 is being complemented by an ancillary show that puts the York School of Art – where Moore cut his artistic teeth – in the spotlight.

Curated by collections facilitator Fiona Green in the very rooms that once housed the art school, the exhibition reveals how the school established York as a cultural hub; highlights the school's importance in relation to the Moore show and recalls the artists whose careers were shaped by the school.

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Yorkshire Fine Art Exhibition Building, 1856

Its history dates back to 1842 when York School of Design opened in Little Blake Street as Britain's second provincial design school in 1842 – Manchester was the first – after the formal introduction of British national art education in 1837, designed by Scottish artist William Dyce.

The initial philosophy was very Germanic, not wanting to create artists but designers for manufacture. "At this time, the French were supreme at design and we didn't have our own designers," says Fiona. "The UK government wanted to increase British produce and so it set up the Central School and the provincial schools.

"Most of these schools outside of London were established in big industrial cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. It was strange that York received one; however, artist William Etty championed York as a city of design and art and he supported the school, encouraging the study of life classes, which was not on the original programme, occasionally even teaching his own class until his death."

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York Minster From Aldwark, 2006, by Jake Attree, former York School of Art student

Class size increased over the years, with factories such as Rowntree’s often sending their employees one afternoon a week to learn the art of design drawing. From Little Blake Street, the school moved to Minster Yard, but grew too big for there too, and once the Hospitium in Museum Gardens was ruled out, York Art Gallery became its new home, under the new name of York School of Art and Design. It would remain there until 1976 when it was absorbed into York College.

The exhibition takes the form of following the programme that students would have undertaken, starting in the first room with object drawing, first from the flat and the round. "Here you can see the relationship between the art school and the Yorkshire Museum; students would use the museum's objects, such as archaeology pots, to practise their object drawing," says Fiona. "They would always start with pencil sketches and move on to watercolours and then finally oil."

The second wall looks at applied design, wherein students would work with different materials such as stained glass and marble relief. "They studied classical architecture and religious ornamentation," says Fiona. "Images of Parthenon casts were given out by the Central School of Design to all provincial schools, and after they were moved to York College, they were sold in 2008, but sadly we do not know where."

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Double Stewart, by John Langton

The exhibition's third wall moves on to considering perspective and how students used the historical buildings of York to study. "They were often sent out into the city instead of sitting in a class room," says Fiona. "This wall also shows the big exhibitions held here where students would enter competitions and could win prizes for their talent."

Anatomy and life drawing would be taught, beginning with detailed labelling of skeletal and muscle structure in the human body, then moving on to pencil sketches and work on more detailed accounts of people's profiles, before using oil on canvas.

The back wall is given over to "memory drawing". "This was the last stage in your art education and would be much more advanced painting of landscapes or seascapes, showing how to capture scenery and mood on canvas," says Fiona.

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Dennis Donn, master of York School of Art, 1951-1978, in his wartime days as a Monuments Man

The final section recalls the 1950s and 1960s at the school, when it had a much more relaxed and experimental approach to art education. "During this time the school was run by Master Dennis Donn, who was one of the 345 Monuments Men during the Second World War, when he worked in Athens with a small team to try to protect some of the historic architecture and cultural treasures there from 1943 to 1945, when they were being destroyed by the Nazis," says Fiona.

"Master of the art school from 1951 to 1978, Donn created an experimental, liberal environment, where students watched surrealist films, listened to jazz and took part in the annual fancy-dress ball. He was known to be rather scary but he was fiercely passionate about art; he was an eccentric character but very generous, offering financial support to students who showed true artistic talent.

"He also taught a History of Art class in the evening at the school and spent much of his free time painting in his private studio on the school premises, with one of those works, an untitled watercolour from 1960-1969, on show in the exhibition."

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Painting From Objects: one of the walls at the York School of Art exhibition. Picture: David Harrison

Dennis Donn was not alone in being unconventional or pioneering. Ceramicist and tutor Sally Arnup would bring in live goats as "models" for her students to work from, and she was responsible for setting up one of the first art-school foundries outside a garage in Marygate.

Among the artists featured in the two rooms are Albert Moore's brothers, Edwin Moore and Henry Moore (not the better known Henry Moore); Richard Jack; Bryan Kneale; William Etty; John Windass; Thomas Percival Anderson; George Milburn; course tutors Sally Arnup, Mick Arnup and Geoffrey Windell; Austin Wright; Russell Platt; Chris Brace; Reginald Williams; John Langton; Jake Attree. The list goes on, York's litany of artists so well represented here.

The York School of Art exhibition runs at York Art Gallery until October 1.