The distinguished landscape and animal painter Sidney Cooper founded the Sidney Cooper School of Art in 1868. It was based in St Peter's Street, Canterbury, in his mother's old house and his former home. Several small houses at the back of the original building were also acquired and converted into a gallery.
He presented the college to the City of Canterbury in 1882 with the objective of giving the youth of Canterbury and its neighbourhood the opportunity to study. In the same year it was affiliated to the Science and Art Department at South Kensington. The school then became known as Canterbury College of Art and offered both day and evening classes on various subjects including embroidery, woodwork, sketching and life drawing.
In 1911 the Corporation of the City of Canterbury bought some land adjacent to the college and added four studios at ground level.
By the 1930s the School was offering courses on a wide range of arts and crafts including dress design, millinery, embroidery, shop display, painting and decorating, cabinet work, woodcarving, upholstery, stone carving and letter cutting. Architectural instruction was offered by means of a link with the Department of Architecture at the Thanet Art School, Margate. The college was regarded as a regional centre for instruction in arts and crafts and as well as offering courses for study also held series of lectures for the public who had an interest in the area. By 1935 the school had 137 pupils (12 full-time). In 1936 a reorganisation took place whereby the college became the joint responsibility of the City of Canterbury and County of Kent education authorities (an arrangement which remained in force until 1974). The 1937 inspection of the school reports that the college had undergone a period of rapid expansion and had 224 students (47 full time) and that the premises had been fully reconditioned in 1935 to cope with the growth in numbers. However, concern was expressed that further accommodation would soon be needed if the college was to fulfil its aim to be the major institution for arts and crafts in East Kent; a library being suggested as a useful addition.
In 1939 plans were approved by the City Council for an annexe to be built on the St Peter's Lane site, estimated at 18,985. However, there was protest from the Canterbury Ratepayers Association, saying that there was no justification for this expense at a time of serious national anxiety and it would appear that this was not built until after the war.
The College continued to offer classes throughout World War II, the emphasis on dressmaking and make-do-and-mend skills for women. There were also courses offered in general drawing and painting, architecture and building trades, carving, modelling and letter cutting. All members of H.M. Forces were admitted to any classes without fee. Shelter protection was provided for students in a splinter and blast proof refuge room.
Student numbers increased rapidly in the post-war period, with Foundation Studies and the School of Fine Art emerging in the early 1960s. The School of Architecture was formally inaugurated in 1952 and received full recognition by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1958; for successful students this meant automatic exemption from Parts I and II of the Institute's examinations.
Considerable expansion over the years meant that the college was continually in need of extra accommodation and by 1970 the college occupied 12 separate buildings around the city. The main location was St Peter's Street where the schools of industrial design, painting, drawing and sculpture were housed, and studios in St Peter's Lane occupied by the School of Architecture. Other locations included a wartime decontamination centre, a converted stable, public houses, some temporary wooden huts built in 1947, and a redundant primary school. The college library was even housed in the 13th century guest house of the Black Friars.
By 1961 Canterbury and District Joint Education Committee was asking the Minister of Education for a new purpose built college. Plans for this new college were approved in 1964; the college to be built on park-like land, originally part of the Barton Court Estate. These buildings were designed under the direction of Mr. J. L. Berbiers, the City Architect and Planning Officer, with the original estimated cost at 414,042. This cost was revised in 1967 when amended plans pushed the estimated price to 493,059.
In 1971, over 30 years since the need for a purpose built college had been identified Canterbury College of Art moved to this new site in its present location. This provided much greater working space and allowed the college to operate as a single, self contained organisation rather than a series of individual units.
In 1974, as the result of local government reorganisation, the college came wholly under the jurisdiction of the Kent Education Authority. The continued growth of the college meant that by the late 1970s phase 2 of the building programme was being proposed, to include extra accommodation for the schools of fine art, architecture, and graphic design, as well as increased workshop space, an autographic processes unit and a finance office.
Canterbury College of Art eventually merged with Maidstone and Medway College to form the Kent Institute of Art and Design in 1987. Each college however continued to run with their original courses.
The Kent Institute of Art and Design and the Surrey Institute of Art and Design merged in 2005 to become the University College for Creative Arts. After gaining accreditation in 2008 it became the University for Creative Arts