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. Continue reading

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Aldeburgh

We spent the weekend in the woods near Aldeburgh, looking out across the mudflats towards Iken church in the distance.

Lethal toadstools:-

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Orford

I have only been to Orford once before and half remembered the drive south east from Snape past the piggeries and Sudbourne where Kenneth Clark was brought up.   I like its sense of remoteness, with a surprisingly large medieval church:-

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Art History A Level (2)

I have been trying to remember more about what it was like doing Art History A Level.   We did a General Paper, of which I only recollect one question in the mock exam, which was what art should be hung in hospitals, a question which I have puzzled over ever sense.   The meat of the exam was a special subject paper on Art in Italy 140o-150o.   We were introduced week by week to all the major fifteenth-century artists beginning with Masaccio and ending with Leonardo, encouraged to read Freud.   The subject was treated as an aspect of cultural history without a great deal of analysis of the art, but this was a symptom of the interests of our teacher, who I’m not absolutely convinced had been to Italy (he was passionate about medieval Spain).   At the time, art history was a new and adventurous subject, expanding in the universities, and we were able to attend extramural classes in the local library by a lecturer from Bristol.   It definitely expanded my intellectual and cultural horizons and I remain grateful to have been able to do it at that stage, rather than having to wait to do it as an undergraduate.

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Southwold

It was brilliantly sunny this morning in Southwold, so we walked from the Museum down to the sea front, past a run of cottages with painted heads in the eaves, past the Adnam’s brewery with its overpowering smell of yeast, past the Sole Bay Inn, built by a bricklayer called William Tink, and the adjacent lighthouse, to the long run of multi-coloured beach huts:-

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Southwold Museum

We went off to see the Southwold Museum, opposite the parish church, which holds a wealth of stuffed birds, information about local history, two Viking rudders, a fifteenth-century carved angel, fossils, pots, a Victorian doll’s house and garments from the dress collection:  a classic small town museum, displayed with love, knowledge and antiquarian flair:-

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Art History A Level (1)

I have been catching up on the discussion surrounding the decision to axe A level art history from 2018.   I am a product of A level art history and really appreciated the opportunity to learn in depth the canon of quattrocento art and sculpture, which made a deep impression on me at the time (it was very well taught) and led me to study the subject at university.   People were sniffy about it as a subject even then, part of the British belief that people could perfectly well know about the subject without having to study it.   But this wasn’t true.   Most people didn’t know much about art and didn’t have the language, critical apparatus or familiarity to be able to study it effectively.   So, it has been a huge public benefit that there has been a much wider knowledge and appreciation, particularly of contemporary art, of which A level art history is certainly not the sole cause, but a symptom of a more widely diffused understanding of, and interest in, the study of visual histories.  

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Melvyn Tan

We went to Melvyn Tan’s 60th. birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall in which he played Beethoven, Czerny and Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, all examples of what the programme described as pianism (ie requiring playing of great technical virtuosity).   He performed with appropriate and sometimes theatrical vim, enjoying his birthday with style.

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Anita Brookner

I was asked to a memorial event at the Courtauld Institute to commemorate Anita Brookner.   It may have been assumed that I knew her, but I didn’t, although I read her art historical books as a student, including her study of Greuze: the rise and fall of an 18th. century phenomenonwhich had been the subject of her PhD. published in 1972.   Her grandfather was a Pole who established a cigarette factory which supplied cigarettes to Edward VII.   She studied at the Ecole du Louvre, at the Courtauld under Blunt, who she admired for his integrity, and where she lived on marmite, cigarettes and slimming biscuits.   Her life fell so clearly into two parts:  the first half as an art historian, teaching at the Courtauld, writing reviews for Benedict Nicolson at the Burlington, the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge, an inspiring, if psychologically reserved teacher;  then the moment when she wrote her first novel over the summer holidays and created an alternative, and fictional, identity.

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West End

I’ve just been to the launch of a volume of essays called London’s global neighbourhood – the future of the west end by the Centre for London.  The key issue discussed was how to retain the character and prosperity of the West End.   As I walked back down Newburgh Street, Broadwick Street and across Golden Square, I thought that the answers are fairly obvious:  pay close attention to the character of the original eighteenth-century streetscape and the fact that the majority of houses in Soho and offices are still small scale;  encourage an environment in which small and independent shops continue to flourish (ie don’t just wack up the rates);  acknowledge the generally benign effect of the big estates like Grosvenor, Pollen and Howard de Walden;  reduce the traffic flow;  prevent homogenisation.   This may seem obvious, but it is exactly the opposite to what has happened in the City where ever bigger corporate blocks have killed off the character of a localised environment, except in Faringdon:-

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