Art History A Level (3)

In writing about the decision to axe Art History A Level, I remembered that I had either asked, or volunteered, to write about the experience for the school magazine.   I have, to my slight surprise, been able to dig it up quite easily and am posting an abbreviated version of it because I was able to recollect rather more of what it was like then than I can now:-

Somewhere up in the attic are the notes I took for my history of art A level: reams and reams of dutiful notes, which were taken in semi-dictation from the formal lectures given by Peter Carter in his upstairs classroom, preserved — self-consciously as I now realise — as a Victorian school room.   His was not a style of teaching which would nowadays be regarded as remotely fashionable as I don’t remember ever being asked questions or, indeed, being encouraged to participate in any way.   He would arrive a touch late with an air of slight disdain, directed not towards his pupils, but, I suspect, towards his fellow teachers from whom he kept himself aloof.   He took his last drag on a cigarette as he came up the stairs and would then prop his notes in a ring binder on the lectern.

I remember the passionate interest which he inspired in the lives of artists and how they might relate to the culture of the past.   In the year that I studied history of art, beginning in September 1969 [or was it 1970 ?], Peter had decided to concentrate his teaching for the first time on the Italian Quattrocento.   He had previously taught a course on the northern Renaissance, in whose sometimes finicky medievalism he may have felt more natural interest, being more in the tradition of Huizinga than Burkhardt and having been taught as an undergraduate by K.B. Macfarlane, who had written about Memling.

He must have decided conscientiously that he would extend his repertoire that year in order to cover the history of the Italian Renaissance and so, week after week, we tackled the work of Masaccio, Masolino, Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Uccello, Piero di Cosimo and Leonardo, supplemented by evening classes which were taught in the local library.   I remember a small number of things about his teaching, mostly irrelevant, with great vividness.   Early on, we were given a picture test and I added in the numbers of the rooms in which the pictures could be found in the National Gallery:  I was castigated by Peter for showing off.   I remember the extraordinary clarity and pellucid prose of Kenneth Clark’s book about Piero della Francesca, which had been first published in 1951 and remains for me a model of how to write about the life and work of an artist.   I also bought the library edition of Michael Levey’s Pelican on the Early Renaissance, which had been published in 1967 and won the Hawthornden Prize.   And I remember, in particular, being asked to write about Uccello’s St. George and the Dragon, as to whether or not it was faux-naif or a genuine example of medievalism.

I realise in retrospect that Peter’s approach to the history of art was strongly influenced by the method of teaching of the Oxford history school.   His attitude to the subject was essentially cultural.   He was not especially interested in what pictures looked like, in their surface qualities, their composition or their aesthetic characteristics.   These were subjects which he was quite happy to leave to Simon Brett, the wood engraver, who came to teach art that year, had spent his time as a student at St. Martin’s School of Art copying Poussin, and was able to talk intelligently about issues of composition.   Instead, Peter viewed pictures as cultural artefacts, as a medievalist would view a manuscript, with a strongly developed interest in the historiographical problems surrounding their origin and an equal, and more unusual, interest in their subsequent interpretation.   His influence was not in how to look at works of art, but more in inspiring a recognition that the pursuit of scholarship was worth while, in fact, that the life of the mind was the highest possible calling, worth devoting one’s life to, as he had, surrounded by books in the house he lived in half way up the playing fields.


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