History of Fine Arts

From the Early Days to the Present

The arts at Hampden-Sydney have always enjoyed popular support, growing from informal cultural ventures to become a vital part of our curriculum. For example, theatrical events date back to the early days of the College:

  • 1780s - student members of the literary and debating society put on plays, in part for the oratorical skills they enhanced, and in part out of sheer enjoyment
  • 1784 - two College trustees made a request for aid to the Governor and Members of the Council to help erect a Common Hall for public exhibitions by students, arguing that even the ornamental practice of speaking with ease in public is an asset in business
  • 1798 - the earliest known particular play?s performance occurred on campus, being  Charles Maclin?s Love 'a la Mode
  • 1821 - the first known performance of a play authored by a Hampden-Sydney Student (The Broken Merchant, by Daniel A. Penick, '21), debuted.

The long history of musical performances at Hampden-Sydney began well before the Civil War (there is currently a  bagpipe club, a guitar club, two small a cappella vocal groups, and numerous 'garage' bands on campus):    

  • 1822 - the first account of a public performance of the men's chorus
  • the Hampden-Sydney Band, the Hampden-Sydney Quartet, the Mandolin Club,  the Guitar Club, the Conservative Music Club, the Hampden-Sydney Musical Association, and the Hampden-Sydney Orchestra were also a part of the musical life of a century ago
  • 1946 - Professor T. Edward Crawley became Director of Music (in addition to his position in the English Department)
  • 1953 - 'Music Appreciation' first appeared as a part of the curriculum.

The visual arts have a historical association with the College as well:

  • 1836-39 - Dr. John W. Draper, a professor of chemistry at Hampden-Sydney  built the first camera to photograph a living person; over a hundred and sixty years later, students on campus are following Dr. Draper's example by shooting portrait photographs as a part of class work
  • 1946 - "The History of Fine Arts," offered by Professor Graves Thompson, first appears in the academic catalog; this course was expanded into its current two-semester format in the 1956-57 catalog
  • 1973 - the faculty added "Western Art of the 19th & 20th Century" to the curriculum.

The role of the Fine Arts Department, much as that of every other department on campus, began as that of a service discipline.  Just as before the arrival of majors a department like English or Economics was intended simply to contribute to the overall liberal arts education of the well-rounded student, so the establishment of the Fine Arts Department was seen as providing a necessary part of that liberal arts experience, and one which, on this campus, had previously been left to instructors with dedication and ingenuity, but without sufficient professional training in the arts.

  • 1981-82 - Professors James Kidd in music and Stephen Coy in theatre began teaching in the new Department of Fine Arts
  • 1987-88 - Professor David Lewis arrived to complete the Department's triumvirate with the visual arts.

As the Fine Arts Department grew in its offerings, it became possible to consider the benefit to the College of offering a major.  Taking the College's liberal arts tradition and the interdisciplinary nature of the Department to heart, a major was developed which took full advantage of the particular situation at Hampden-Sydney College.

  • 1995 - the Fine Arts Major is first offered, one of only a handful of interdisciplinary majors in the country.

The Fine Arts Major currently has an interdisciplinary core of 27 hours among history and studio courses in each of the three disciplines, together with a capstone course (FA 320, "Critical Issues in the Arts") and a thesis (FA 499, Thesis).  In addition, there are six more hours usually taken in a concentration in theatre, music, or the visual arts, though it is possible to major without a concentration.  As of 2010, the department also offers minors in Theatre and Visual Arts.


Dates and events for this brief history come from Bradshaw [the College's first published historian], Professor Hassell Simpson's recent "History of Theatre at Hampden-Sydney College," and Professor John Brinkley's history of Hampden-Sydney College,  On This Hill: A Narrative History of Hampden-Sydney College.