Category Archives: Research

The Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Annual Colloquium: Curating Art History

UoB crest

Tickets are now on sale for this year’s Annual Art History Colloquium, organised in conjunction with the Journal of Art HistoriographyTickets, priced at £10 for students and £20 full price, can be purchased from the Online Shop here.

“Curating Art History: Dialogues between museum professionals and academics” will take place on the 7th and 8th May 2014 at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.


Catherine De Lorenzo

(University of New South Wales, Australia)


Helen Shaw (University of York); Andy Ellis (Public Catalogue Foundation); Karen Raney (Engage Journal); Ming Turner (National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan; Vera Carmo (University of Coimbra, Portugal); Elin Morgan (The University of Birmingham; The New Art Gallery, Walsall); Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds (The Warburg Institute; The University of Birmingham); Richard Clay, Henry Chapman, Leslie Brubaker (The University of Birmingham); Stacy Boldrick (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh); Simon Cane (Birmingham Museums Trust)


Ethnography and curating native art:
Australian art history and Aboriginal art; curating Native American art

Knowledge exchange and development:
Providing specialist knowledge to public art collections; gallery education and curatorial strategies

Exhibitions that challenge curatorial practice and art history: 
Post-humanist desire: Innovative research and methods of display; Crash Music: re-exhibiting impermanent art; Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill: a creative curatorial opportunity

Case study at the Barber Institute:
Exhibiting coins as economic artefacts: Faith and Fortune: visualizing the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage

Round table - International Iconoclasms network:
Cross-disciplinary debate and Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain

The poster is available here: Curating Art History Colloquium 7th and 8th May 2014

When in Rome . . . Ella Kilford on this year’s Art History in the Field trip

Some of the group by the Colosseum

Some of the group in the Colosseum

The long-anticipated second year field trip finally came in reading week this February, and what a trip we had! On our return everyone, from the entire department to our friends and family, enviously asked us how the trip had gone – a question to which we all replied positively. In fact we wished we were still there, not only for the fabulous weather in the high 20s but also for the little routine we had got into. Early starts with a quick breakfast at the hotel and then on to visit amazing museums, galleries and beautiful churches. This would be followed by a delicious lunch of antipasti, fresh pizza or pasta, more art, and then an equally sumptuous dinner with a final leisurely stroll back through Rome by night – heaven! Closer to our time of departure and on our return, the trip became collectively known simply as ‘Rome’, and is still referred to now fondly by all of us. The trip is such a great opportunity to study works of art in situ and a really exciting element for any second year Art History student at Birmingham University.

At Gatwick!

At Gatwick…perhaps before we knew the flight was cancelled!!

Arriving at Gatwick to find our flight cancelled was not a fantastic start. Yet witnessing everyone’s – including our lecturer David’s – faces looking up, baffled, at the departure boards, for me, was one of my fondest memories of the trip: you have to laugh! On a positive note, the cancellation resulted in a complimentary night in London’s “best” Travel Lodge and a flight the next day to Pisa, and then a coach through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to our final destination – Rome. The scenic views and buildings we passed were spectacular and allowed the group to bond.

Rome - walking the cobbles

Rome – Walking the Cobbles

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

Rome - pasta and pizza

Pizza and past in Rome

So, why is a Rome a good location for a study trip, then? Well, where to begin…as second year Art Historian Maysie said, there are simply ‘too many reasons’. All of us agreed that the variety of art available in Italy’s capital city was a massive advantage. From antique ruins, statues and sarcophagi to contemporary installations in the Modern Art Museum, there really is something for everyone’s taste and research interest. There’s even a few Monet’s in the Modern Art Museum.

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri's broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri’s broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

As part of our studies in the second year, we take a Research Techniques module which is designed, though a literature review, to complement the Study Trip, by encouraging us to choose and research an object that we will study in situ in advance of the trip. This exercise is also great preparation for our final year dissertation which is also on a single art object. This early preparation for our final year is, for me and my colleagues, one of the many attractions of studying art history at Birmingham University.

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Students in the statue gallery in the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna

Seeing the actual objects or art works that we had selected to research for our summer term presentation – the assessment for this module – was a real highlight and pleasure. People in the group have chosen a range of items, ranging from a contemporary photograph by Gabriele Basilico to Bernini’s famous David sculpture, and the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano. The rich diversity of our research interests and objects rendered the trip really interesting, as on multiple occasions we would go and see each other’s object, just out of the desire to learn more from our peers.

Another selfie...this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing. Vatican Museums

Another selfie…this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing in the famous sculpture in the Vatican Museums


Group shot in St Peter’s

One of my highlights of Rome was the day that we spent with one of the PhD students, Jamie, who accompanied us on the trip (read what else Jamie got up to here). We spent the day walking through Rome and visited the object of Sophie’s research, the Villa Farnesina. This villa built by Agostino Chigi, a rich banker and treasurer of Pope Julius II, contains some spectacular frescos by Raphael and his workshop. All of us enjoyed learning about the Chigi’s exciting and extravagant parties which were hosted in the villa in the summer months. There would have been music, dancing, food, and plenty of wine.

Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Raphael’s Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Although we had an itinerary drawn up by our lecturers, Liz and David, including some of Rome’s main attractions, we also had some free time to explore the city. Thus on some mornings and afternoons we visited other areas of interest and soaked up our cultural surroundings. As the hotel we stayed in was central to all areas of Rome, we could walk to pretty much everything on foot. The metro offered a quick and cheap alternative if we were feeling tired, but walking is so much more rewarding as treasures can be uncovered around every corner. The Trevi Fountain takes you by surprise, appearing amongst shops and cafes when turning around a corner, and it is astonishing when illuminated by night.

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

Although the aim of the study trip was obviously for academic purposes, and we all learnt so much, we still had plenty of fun. Rome will definitely be a highlight of my time here at Birmingham University studying Art History.

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

On the trail of Pieter Bruegel. . . (again)

Doria Pamphilj

Gallery inside the Doria Pamphilj

Researching Pieter Bruegel for my PhD has taken me all over Europe – I know, lucky me (as a colleague and friend of mine joked, it’s a tough old life being an art historian). My most recent jaunt in the name of research took me to Italy. Rome and Naples, to be specific.

We know that Bruegel spent a significant period of time in Italy from at least 1552 to ’55. His southern “wanderjahr” is shrouded in mystery, and we don’t know a great deal about what he got up to whilst in Italy. We can be fairly sure that he had arrived in Southern Italy by 1552, that he was in Rome in 1555 working with Giulio Clovio, and that he headed back to Antwerp, going via the Alps, shortly thereafter. My trip, though, wasn’t motivated by a gratuitous wish to walk in Bruegel’s footsteps. Instead, I wanted to study a couple of Bruegels that are in Italian collections and I’ve never got round to seeing.

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

The first was Bruegel’s Bay of Naples, which hangs in the delightful, if not slightly mad, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Whenever I’ve been in Rome before, I’ve never managed to squeeze this in, so it was right at the top of my list of priorities. (I was also in Rome to lend a pair of hands with the 2nd year Undergraduates’ study trip, and since they’d got waylaid at Heathrow because of a flight cancellation–post about the trip to follow soon, but here’s last year’s!–I took the opportunity to go straight to the Pamphilj.)

The Doria Pamphilj has a pretty old fashioned way of doing things. The walls are stacked high with pictures (it reminded me of those old engravings that show how how less-good artwork was “skied” at exhibitions put on by the European Academies), and the gold leaf frames usually feature just a handwritten artist’s name, done with a Sharpie, I expect. Anyway, after much squinting to make sure I didn’t miss the Bruegel 7 feet above my head, I saw it, down low, at eye level, inscribed in an elegant hand “Bruegel”. (If you’re interested, the Bruegel is the ninth picture along on the bottom row from the left in the heading photo.)

It’s really a rather staggering picture. It’s fairly small but absolutely crammed full with detail. We know it’s Naples, despite the jetty being circular, which is wrong because it is square, because we can make out certain topographical features on the bay such as the Castel Nuovo. The picture must have been painted from memory by Bruegel, usually, it is said, about 1560, but with the aid of drawings Bruegel made in situ during his Italian sojourn. Scholars have in the past been reluctant to accept this picture’s authenticity, mostly, I think, because it isn’t signed. However seeing it has allayed any suspicions I might have had. So much of the picture is characteristically Bruegel and for me it has a particular significance in relation to Bruegel’s activities as a miniaturist. We know Bruegel did miniatures, and the Bay of Naples is clearly the work of an artist who was comfortable working in miniature; the rigging of the ships is especially remarkable and diligently executed, as are the ships’ crews, clambering about on deck, which, although tiny, are really quite impressively rendered. Exactly why Bruegel should have produced a pretty much accurate, topographical, view of the bay of Naples in the first place is something I’m now curious to explore a bit more: did other people do topographical sea/landscapes in the mid-16th century? And who would want one on their walls?

Museo di Capodimonte

Museo di Capodimonte

Bruegel's Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Having looked at Bruegel’s depiction of the Bay of Naples, which is now in Rome, the next day I jumped onto a train from Rome for Naples to see two other Bruegels that are housed in that city’s Capodimonte Museum. Now, I can’t say that Naples is somewhere I’d rush back to for a week’s holiday, but the Capodimonte is a real gem. Perched high up on a hill away from the hustle and bustle, not to mention dangers(!), of the frantic city centre, the Capodimonte is a real haven and full of stellar works of art. It was also practically deserted, probably because of Naples’s bad rep. Masaccio’s really wonderful Crucifixion from the dismantled Pisa Polyptych is there, as is Titian’s Danaë and Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ. Particularly wonderful also are some cartoons by Michelangelo (some figures for the Pauline Chapel frescoes and the cartoon for Venus and Cupid composition, which is positioned alongside a roughly contemporary painting after that design). But the real treat was Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope, both from 1568. I’ve written about the Blind Leading the Blind at length before in my MPhil thesis, and seeing it was just great. I learned loads from looking at the picture in real life that you just can’t get from pouring over reproductions in books – there are all kinds of details in the picture that just don’t come across in a book. Meanwhile, I was surprised by the Misanthrope‘s size, which, I’d imagined, would’ve been much smaller than it is. Standing in front of it, you can just picture that painting up on some well-to-do bloke’s or woman’s wall, where it was doubtless gathered around as an object of discussion. All this just goes to show, as I’ve said before on this blog, that you really do stand to gain so much more from seeing all this stuff in real life…


Making music from asses in Hell

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Just a short post this time. I’ve just noticed a rather fascinating little article in today’s Guardian. A keen American blogger (and apparently self-confessed nerd), has discovered some hitherto unknown sheet music on the ass of one the damned in the right wing of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych (detail pic. below). I say hitherto unknown, what I really mean is sheet music nobody else has ever bothered to transcribe. What’s more, not only has she transcribed it, she’s also converted it into modern notation and made a recording of the sound, which, if you’re interested, there’s a clip of here.

Bosch Earthly delights detail

This triptych, which has long been a fascination of mine, was probably painted in the 1480s (most books say post-1500… but that’s another story) and was probably commissioned from Bosch by a member of the Nassau family (… again, another story, not for here). The triptych was copied numerously in the 16th century, in paint, in print and in tapestry. Although the picture is mired in controversy, I do think that it was in all likelihood supposed to represent, and warn against,  moral and sinful transgressions such as lust and gluttony; there is, after all, and in keeping with convention for triptychs at the time, a depiction of Hell on the right wing, which we must presume illustrates the fate of the protagonists who are leaping around and fornicating on the middle panel. But this isn’t to say that Bosch wasn’t willing to have fun with it. Musical instruments feature to a great deal in the Hell wing, probably as a playful, but still meaningful, indictment of mankind that continues to succumb to pleasure even though they have been cast headlong into fiery Hell, for punishment of their mortal sins. Links between music and depraved behavior, specifically lust, were not rare in Bosch’s world. And the representation of a disorganized and motley crew–an orchestra of sorts, conducted by a demonic creature in pink –, who are shown gleefully reading the ass music, fits in perfectly with this theme of folly and is testament to Bosch’s sardonic nature.


Sometimes research can be a matter of chance…one of our lecturers shares a moment of serendipity

As I often find myself explaining to students, quite a lot of the time research consists of a great deal of trawling through library catalogues, books, articles and archives looking for that small clue that will help you to craft a focused argument. I admit, it can be a painful process and sometimes your carefully-collected list of sources to consult turns up a disappointing dearth of information: that book with the exciting-sounding title is in fact on a period two hundred years later than your own, or the article you thought would be key is disappointingly bad. It can, sometimes, be easy to lose heart as the piles of photocopies grow but the Holy Grail that will clinch your argument apparently lies on the other side of an abyss worthy of an Indiana Jones movie…

VGA capture

…and this is where you need to take a leaf out of Indie’s book and believe, because, apart from hard slog, one of the other features of research is serendipity. And this can occur in all sorts of ways and places. Never, for instance, underestimate the importance of the parents who brought you into the world, tenderly nurtured you, sent you off to university with boxes of tea bags and became slowly bemused by what it is you actually do while you’re there…Yet your attempt to engage your parents in the finer details of your dissertation might just pay off. Two weeks ago, for instance, I got an email from my father with a link to Christie’s auction house. ‘I spotted this in the Guardian and wondered if you’d seen it?’ The link was to a tiny manuscript, measuring just 95 x 60mm and illuminated by the Master of Claude of France, so-called for his other jewel-like prayer books created for Claude, Queen of France, in the early sixteenth century. My dad has clearly learnt something from his daughter’s obsession with medieval women and their manuscripts.

Lot 56, Christie's Rare Books and Manuscripts Sale, 20 November 2013

Lot 56, Christie’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Sale, 20 November 2013

Queen Claude (1499-1524) and her younger sister Renée (1510-1575) were themselves the daughters of the French king and queen, Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. Anne seemingly had a penchant for miniscule books, one of which is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (BnF, NAL, 3120). The Très Petites Heures (65 x 40 mm) is a book of hours, that most popular of medieval books which consists of a series of daily prayers and accompanying illustrations. The Très Petites Heures includes Anne’s emblems at what might be considered strategic places in a manuscript made for a queen and mother of the heirs to the French kingdom: the Visitation, for instance, and the Virgin’s Coronation.

Visitation, Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany (BnF, nal 3120)

Visitation, Très Petites Heures of Anne of Brittany (BnF, nal 3120)

This penchant for small books she passed on to her daughter Claude, whose own prayer book, now in the Pierpont Morgan library in New York is similarly petit (69 x 49 mm), as is its companion book of hours, now in a private collection (84 x 55mm). Claude’s books are lavishly illuminated and chock-full of her symbols, like the cordelière, the knotted cord motif that she inherited from her mother. The prayer book’s miniatures of the Annunciation and the Virgin and Child include Claude’s coat of arms in the bas-de-page which, as with the Visitation and Coronation scenes in her mother’s Très Petites Heures, surely drew attention to Claude’s role as queen and mother.

Annunciation, Prayer book of Claude of France (Pierpont Morgan Library, MS. 1166)

Annunciation, Prayer book of Claude of France (Pierpont Morgan Library, MS. 1166)

Claude’s short life was spent fulfilling her maternal duty. She gave birth to seven children, only two of whom survived beyond their teens, before dying at just 24 years of age. Her sister Renée, who lived until she was 65, fared somewhat better, although her marriage to Ercolo d’Este, son of the duke of Ferrara, was a political arrangement by Francis I to aid his cause against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Renée’s books, however, were less long-lived: victims of her sympathy for religious reform, many of them were destroyed or burnt during the Inquisition before which she herself had to appear.

One of her books did survive, her Petites Prières (though not quite as small as her mother’s and sister’s volumes at relatively large 122 x 88 mm), and in one of the miniatures it shows Renée in direct communion with Christ, an important theme of the Reformation.

Renée of France in prayer before Christ, Petites Prières (formerly Bibliotheca Estensa, Modena)

Renée of France in prayer before Christ, Petites Prières (formerly Bibliotheca Estensa, Modena)

Yet this manuscript was stolen from the Bibliotheca Estensa in Modena in the mid-nineties, though not before a facsimile was made, thankfully. So, when my father’s email popped into my inbox and I began perusing the catalogue description, I was particularly excited to see that the manuscript up for sale was not only by Claude’s favourite illuminator but that it was also being associated with Renée. Furthermore, it was completely unknown to manuscript aficionados: it was put on the market by a noble Scottish family, in whose possession it had been since it had been given to them as a gift by Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, daughter of the Prince Regent, later George IV, in early nineteenth century. This information was enough reason to do some last-minute rearranging so that I could squeeze in a day-return to Christie’s before it went under the hammer with an estimate of £500,000-£800,000.

At Christie’s in King Street, in the rare books and manuscripts viewing room, the manuscript was removed from its glass case and simply handed over to me and my colleague (whose day-return from Paris was slightly more expensive than, though just as quick as, my ticket from Birmingham) to peruse, photograph, and marvel over. Apart from the royal associations of the artist and the manuscript’s size, the evidence for a connection with Renée was perhaps compelling rather than definitive. A prayer in the female voice and the inclusion of the Hours of the Conception of the Virgin would imply a secular woman owner and the facing-page prayers to St Louis and St Anne, patron saints of Renée’s parents in the suffrages, as well as the inclusion of St Renatus (aka René) certainly bring Renée to mind.

Lot 56 (25)

St Anne

Lot 56 (21)

St Louis of France

There are also cordelière line fillers scattered throughout the manuscript. These are less evident than in Claude’s prayer book where they frame every page but are perhaps another indication of an association with Renée. Either way, this manuscript is clearly an important new find which will no doubt prove an important factor in the research that my colleague and I are currently conducting into manuscripts and books owned by Claude and the women in her entourage.

On Wednesday 20 November, this tiny book went under the auctioneer’s hammer and met its estimate, selling for £500,000. Often such gems emerge from one private collection to be bought by another private collector, meaning that their appearance in public and thus opportunities for study are relatively brief. Thus it can often feel like serendipity when a manuscript surfaces and you find yourself in the right place at the right time…okay, so I had to engineer being in the right place by drawing on the good will of a colleague who took my first year class while I raced off to London and on the good will of those first year students who, I hope, will indulge me when I show them the pictures…but still…

Sometimes things just come together and as my colleague and I walked from Christie’s down towards Trafalgar Square, a statue of George III wrapped up in hat and scarf for the cold weather gave us an additional reason to smile…as did the enormous blue chicken currently gracing the fourth plinth.

George III by Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1836), Cockspur Street

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch, 2013

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch, 2013

And then, as we looped back and mooched through Horse Guards Parade and under the Arch onto Whitehall, we came across a group of tourists literally getting under the feet of members of the Household Cavalry as the mounted sentries changed over. Not quite the Trooping of the Colour but despite growing up in London I’m not sure I’d ever seen the red-caped and shiny-helmeted soldiers on anything other than postcards.

The Household Cavalry

The Household Cavalry

I wouldn’t call myself a royalist but then I had spent the day pouring over a manuscript with British, and supposedly French, royal connections so happening upon such a typically royal custom in action seemed like a fittingly serendipitous end to the day.

So if you are struggling with a research topic my advice is to hang in there, as you never know what will turn up. And, like us, you may find that your Holy Grail is a lot more interesting to look at than the one Indiana Jones chose so wisely!

Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange is the author of Holy Motherhood: Gender, Dynasty and Visual Culture in the Later Middle Ages and is currently working on a study of one of Queen Claude’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne de Graville. You can find out more about her obsession with medieval manuscripts here.

One to see over Christmas vacation: Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain. By Lauren Dudley

Art Under Attack!

For the last couple of years I’ve been part of an AHRC-funded Iconoclasms network, led by Leslie Brubaker and Richard Clay (University of Birmingham). Regular Golovine readers might remember my post about our last network meeting at the University of Notre Dame. At the beginning of October 2013 the network met in London to attend the opening of the exhibition Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain.

In the exhibition it was amazing to finally see the objects that the co-curators Tabitha Barber and Stacy Boldrick had shown us on power-point slides in previous workshops and to walk through considering them in relation to the wider histories and cultures of iconoclasm that we have explored as part of the network.

The exhibition is the first to deal with the subject of British iconoclasm and it has attracted a fair amount of intrigue and discussion. Art Under Attack shows that iconoclasm can take varied forms, that objects and images do not provoke attacks, but that political, social and religious change or periods of unrest have been the catalysts for many acts of destruction, and, importantly, it highlights the strong bond between iconoclasm and creativity in Britain.

Penelope Curtis, the director of Tate Britain, has noted in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue that the earliest work at Tate dates from 1545, defining the collection as post-Reformation. Iconoclasm existed in Britain long before the Reformation, but in terms of Tate’s collection it is a significant moment from which to historicise the subject in Art Under Attack. Naturally, the exhibition begins with the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII. At this time, Protestant Reformers feared that people adored religious statues and paintings instead of God, committing the sin of idolatry. Thus, during the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I images in churches were removed or damaged. In the exhibition, surviving headless statues from churches, as well as saints scratched out from altar paintings might signify to modern British viewers our ‘lost’ medieval cultural heritage, but which, for post-Reformation England, were reminders of the sinful idolatry of the past.

The Reformation had a radical impact on visual culture in Britain and subsequent image production was informed by this period of destruction. Art Under Attack includes examples of seventeenth-century reformers replacing the visual images that had formerly decorated churches with words from the Bible, while campaigns of destruction escalated. The earlier examples of iconoclasm in the exhibition are presented in terms of religious reform and they were sanctioned by the state, while exhibits relating to attacks from the late seventeenth to twentieth centuries are typified by political upheaval. Representations of political figures have been attacked throughout history, often in response to, or as a precursor of actual political change. The struggle for independence in Ireland led to many equestrian statues of British monarchs being melted down or destroyed. Interestingly, the eighteenth-century statue of George I standing outside the Barber Institute escaped a similar fate when the Dublin-born director Thomas Bodkin bought it in 1937, transforming it from a political symbol in its original setting in Dublin to a work of art in its new home in Birmingham.

The art gallery is a place in which the visitor can revere images. In this way, it seems less surprising that in the early twentieth century Suffragettes attacked paintings in public galleries. Mary Richardson slashed Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, angered by the idolising of this painting while Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffering was ignored. Responses to the attack in the press further outraged the Suffragettes because the damage done to an inanimate object was mourned, yet women continued to be ostracised. Therefore, further attacks on paintings were carried out. The exhibition shows a photographic reproduction of the slashed Rokeby Venus, while the original painting hangs in the National Gallery as an iconic, intact image with a crowd of visitors in front of it. Other paintings, such as Pre-Raphaelite works that were attacked by Suffragettes and subsequently restored, are included in the exhibition and their presence as unbroken objects is a visual surprise after seeing so many fragments and clearly transformed images. As a result, we can understand the outrage that the attacks would have caused – after all, they are inoffensive, typically beautiful paintings. This is a thought-provoking stage in the exhibition that resonates with recent attacks on works of art, it does not justify such attacks but it allows us to consider the act of iconoclasm as a form of expression, rather than only focusing on the work targeted. In the case of the Suffragettes, this was a desperate time in which their freedom of expression was restricted. Perhaps the difficult question raised is whether works of art are targeted solely to attract publicity. In any case, historically, the media has played a significant role in how we perceive such attacks.

Following on from the section dedicated to the Suffragettes, the focus remains on the public art gallery as a site of iconoclasm by exploring works that have been attacked by individuals who were seemingly offended by what those works represented, or whose outrage was caused by the fact that public money was used to purchase those works. Ironically, in their reviews for Art Under Attack, some art critics show sympathy for the acid attack on Allen Jones’s Chair because they do not like the sculpture, and yet, those same critics disparage Mary Richardson’s attack on Velazquez’s painting. The exhibition questions responses to iconoclasm in public galleries, which, regardless of the motive, judge the attack in relation to the supposed value of the object, be it aesthetic, cultural, financial, or otherwise. There is a clear divide in responses to attacks on historical works and those on works by living artists. Therefore, it is not surprising that some critics have responded negatively to the contemporary works in Art Under Attack.

The latter sections of the exhibition are focused on aesthetics, beginning with post-war artistic responses and theories. In the case of the ‘Destruction in Art Symposium’, artists created socially and politically engaged auto-destructive art. These artists were influenced by iconoclasts and they explored the creative force of destruction, which, in turn, has inspired the next generation of artists whose works are shown in the last room of the exhibition. The visitor’s journey through 500 years of British iconoclasm started with destruction in religious sites and ends in the space of the art gallery, which is a contested sphere for image-makers and -breakers. The exhibition draws to a close with Jake and Dinos Chapman’s series One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved – nineteenth-century portraits whose depicted sitters have been altered by the Chapman brothers to appear as decaying, like their actual bodies. The original paintings had been sold off and due to the age of the paintings we can deduce that the sitters have been dead for quite some time, and therefore, were no longer loved as people or paintings. The Chapmans’ iconoclastic approach unsettles many viewers and, I think, within the parameters of the exhibition, their series points to the quasi-sacred value of works of art, therefore, revealing why acts of iconoclasm are so disturbing. Art lovers, particularly art critics and even some art institutions have been troubled by the idea of an exhibition about iconoclasm; perhaps that fear can be compared to the Protestant Reformers who destroyed images to protect religious worship. Contemporary artists and subversive curators are a threat to the established order of idolised aesthetic beauty, so their critics attack them with words.

In my view, the exhibition is brilliant because it challenges the viewer by scrutinising key moments in British history and questioning traditional representations of them, as well as positioning the art gallery within the history of British iconoclasm. Art Under Attack shows that people have always destroyed images and objects, and always will, but it encourages us to think about the discussions that take place afterwards, the myths created and the rationalising of the motives. My opinion is of course biased so I encourage readers to see the exhibition and make up your own mind.

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, Tate Britain, London is on until 5th January 2014. And what’s more, if tickets are ordered online between now and the 23rd December, then you can get them at the discounted price of £10 (use promo code christmas2013 on the bookings page).

Undergraduates Emily Martin and Callum Davidson chat to David Hemsoll about his new book. . .and a few other things.

Talking to David Hemsoll about his new book, The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo, Renaissance and Later Architecture and Ornament, it is impossible not to be caught up by his enthusiasm. His love of Renaissance architecture is infectious and his book, co-authored by Paul Davies, which contains so many fascinating discoveries, is one that has obviously brought him much enjoyment over the twelve years that it has taken to compile.


Made up of moments of fortuitousness the book, written in two volumes and commissioned by the Royal Collection, for which David has previously written, is a research project from the Warburg Institute in London and funded by, among other foundations, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Its contents are based on the huge collection of drawings that Cassiano dal Pozzo, a patron of the arts during the 17th century, accumulated. Having been acquired by George III in 1762 and therefore left in the Royal Collection, many of them remained uncatalogued, unidentified and largely unknown despite containing works by some of the greatest 16th and 17th century artists, including Raphael, Michelangelo and Bernini. The drawings capture moments of architectural design that allowed David and Paul to understand how the process of configuration was practised. However it is a research project unlike any other, as David put it, “a stumbling process”. One thing led to another and before they knew it David and Paul had discovered another amazing document, such as a preparatory scheme for the Palazzo del Te in Mantua, for which no design was previously known about. Or realizing that Michelangelo’s preparatory plan for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, previously thought to be made in 1580 was in fact designed in the 1550s, meaning that it was the first scheme for the project that the artist, sculptor and architect ever made!

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As David showed us the pages in the volumes his enthusiasm grew and it became clear that art history isn’t merely his job, it’s a vocation, and to think, he might not have become an art historian but an architect instead! Luckily though, as he admitted he wasn’t a very good student in architecture and he took another degree in history of art. We asked David if he preferred art history to architecture and thankfully he replied, “Yes, I’m good at that!”

Discoveries for the book seemed to appear right until the last minute, and they never got less exciting either. It’s such a remarkable thought that so many of these works have just been waiting to be identified, and that’s just what The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo, Renaissance and Later Architecture and Ornament is all about.

We had a few questions for David that didn’t concern his book.

What are your tips for students?

Research is in the writing and only as you engage with what you’re doing can you understand the real questions that need to be asked.

(So if you’re struggling with that essay, just start writing and it will all become clear, apparently!)

What is your favourite painting?

Birth of Venus by Botticelli, partly for all the wrong reasons, it’s about women with no clothes on and that sort of thing. I find it a very, very beautiful picture both conceptually and physically and I like to think of why that is the case. I’m kind of an escapist, so if I have pictures in my house I like them to be beautiful rather than instructive. This is really beautiful and I’ve written about it in the past and I find it very interesting to consider why it is so beautiful and why so many people think it’s beautiful. If you visit the Uffizi it’s the picture that everybody’s looking at and I wonder why it is the case that it has that hold over people.

Botticelli's Birth of Venus, c. 1485, Uffizi, Florence

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, c. 1485, Uffizi, Florence

What person dead or alive would you most like to meet?

Probably the jazz musician John Coltrane because I’m such a huge admirer and because he was a practitioner in something I like, but was just so completely in a different world from anyone else.  Also because he was such a strange and paradoxical person; a man of God who’s also a heroin addict, I find that quite interesting, because I’m neither of those.

John Coltrane in 1963

John Coltrane in 1963

How do you find lecturing?

I do get very anxious about teaching sometimes. A long time ago and I hadn’t been here so long, we had a new intake of students and there was one of them there that looked really bolshie and she was called Camilla Smith! She denies she looked bolshie but she does sort of look challenging and when you have a lot of undergraduates in there that look challenging you think, ‘Am I saying something wrong? What am I doing now? I haven’t done this properly have I?’ You do feel slightly nervous, but I don’t feel as worried as I used to do.

(So, if you think the lecturer looks scary, they are probably just scared of you!)

David is going to be giving a couple of lunchtime lectures on his book, the first one is on Wednesday 27th November at 1pm and the second is on Wednesday 4th December again at 1pm, both will be held in the Barber Lecture Theatre. Come along and hear about his and Paul’s ground breaking findings and how they discovered them.  

Reconstructing the Hammer beams of Westminster Hall, or Carpentry as Art?!?! Whadaya… Crazy? PhD Student Robert Beech on the practical aspects of his research

Westminster Hall probably goes unnoticed to the hordes of tourists on their camera-clicking itinerary between the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.   Dwarfed between Pugin’s spikey neo-Gothicism and the ancient splendour of the real thing in the Abbey, the great hall broods, anonymous and unenticing.  And yet this hall, the only structure still standing of a once glorious medieval palace which has seen a host of coronation celebrations, monarchs lying in state, and trials for treason, contains one of the world’s great architectural treasures: its medieval hammer-beam roof.

Trial of Charles I in Westminster Hall from The Comprehensive History of England (1902)

Trial of Charles I in Westminster Hall from The Comprehensive History of England (1902)

Without the ingenuity of the carpenter, the architectural and engineering feats of the Middle Ages could never have been achieved.  The hammer-beam roof is the pinnacle of that ingenuity.  But the hammer-beam roof is not only a great technical achievement.  At its best, it is a form that displays an aesthetic sensibility of both subtle refinement and jaw-dropping grandeur.  My PhD investigates such structures: who built them and why; how they were built; and how ostensibly prosaic carpentry became art.   Any consideration of the hammer beam roof must turn on the fulcrum of Westminster Hall – the roof of which, both aesthetically and technically, is the finest work of carpentry ever realised – bar none.  It was completed for Richard II in around 1398 by the ‘disposer of the King’s works touching the art or mystery of carpentry’ (the ‘King’s Carpenter’), the genius, Hugh Herland (d. 1411).

Hammer-beam roof of Westminster Hall

Hammer-beam roof of Westminster Hall

Span was the major headache for Hugh.  Richard demanded that his 68ft wide hall be of clear span – no internal supports were to clutter the floor space.  Yet such a span was unprecedented, exceeding by nearly a third the then record held by a lordly hall, John O’ Gaunt’s Kenilworth Castle.  The technical challenge was enormous, and in an age when regally ordained public disembowellings were public entertainment, Hugh needed to get it right.  His enormous hammer-beam roof, an audacious technical tour de force, solved the problem.  And Herland did get it right.  It was not the deficiencies of the carpentry that demanded the insertion of a steel framework over 500 years later in 1914, but the ravages of the death-watch beetle.

The roof was not only a technical but also an aesthetic masterwork.  The great ‘arch rib’ which runs transversely through the roof-frames was state-of-the-art; the angel hammer-beams, entirely apt for a king obsessed with his own divinity, were unique.  Such features, especially the angels, were copied in a subsequent explosion of English hammer-beam roof building.

The roof has been investigated from academic perspectives both art-historical and technical.  Spats have ensued, with academics arguing about how the carpentry performs structurally, with no consensus arrived at.  As part of my PhD research I wanted to investigate the roof from a unique perspective: that of the carpenter.  How did Hugh Herland design the roof to perform?  Are there any clues in the carpentry which may indicate his thought processes?  In other words, I wanted to investigate not how the roof is working now from the perspective of modern engineers, but how Herland in 1393 intended it to work.

Obviously, how better to solve this conundrum than by building the roof!

I am a life-long woodworker and worked for a brief period in the field of traditional carpentry.  I would not, though, presume to call myself a carpenter.  So, with the crucial assistance of traditional carpenter Chris Dalton, we set about building the most remarkable, and demanding, part of Herland’s roof: the lower hammer-beam framing.  We carpentered it in green (unseasoned) oak, at a scale of 1:4, using identical jointing techniques to Herland’s.

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Preparing the braces, showing the type of oak slab from which they are cut

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Cutting the shoulder of a tenon

Having recently completed this section, sans all the moulding and tracery, we have come to our first earth-shattering (if un-academic) conclusion: it is very, very hard to do.  Much time has been spent rubbing our chins, scratching our heads and other body parts in both confusion and wonder at how Herland came up with this crazy framing.  The three-dimensional spatial imagination alone necessary to design the thing is staggering.  Nonetheless, already we have uncovered some valuable nuggets: regarding probable erection procedure, economic and adaptable use of timber resources, and how Herland (rather than C20 structural engineers) thought the roof would perform.

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Trimming the shoulder of a tenon

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A confused moment!

Postscript: We had intended to build a complete bay of the roof: two cross-frames and purlins, one frame with all the bells and whistles of moulding and tracery, the other left bare to show construction, but funding is currently a brick wall.  (I have constructed the above section at my own expense.)  So if anyone out there has any ideas how to further this exciting and unique project…

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Robert with finished beam

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AAH Annual Conference 2014: Student Call for Papers

Association of Art Historians 40th Anniversary Conference & Bookfair
Royal College of Art (London) 10 – 12 April 2014

Student Session Call for Papers:
Nostalgia: Representations and Reconstructions 
of the Past

Session Convenors:
Anna Beketov, University of Leeds
Nicola McCartney, Birkbeck, University of London
Imogen Wiltshire, University of Birmingham

2014 marks the 40th anniversary of the AAH and the 175th 
anniversary of the RCA. In light of this focus on commemoration
 and duration, this year’s Student Session seeks to interrogate the
 ways in which concepts of time, temporality and nostalgia permeate
artworks, their production and the writings of art history. To what 
extent is there an inherent sentimentality to the way in which we
 view and interact with works of the past and how has this shaped 
the production, reception, collection and display of artworks?

Artworks enact and subvert historical narratives and events, while
 periodization and chronology are inextricable components of the
 discipline of art history. This session considers how art historians 
and practitioners construct the past from the perspective of the 
present and explores the relativity of perception. Traditions and
 legacies are created through celebration and appropriation over
time, but why are some art historians deemed sacred or artworks 
untouchable yet others are referenced and critiqued again and 

We invite presentations from student artists and historians
 exploring historiography or specific case studies.
Topics might
 include but are not limited to:

- The role of nostalgia in its differing forms (e.g. geo-political,
Romantic, personal) in representations of the past, events or 
projected futures
- Strategies adopted by artists and historians to archive, record, 
represent or distort time
- Anachronism in art practice and theory
- Relationships between the ephemeral artwork and its 
- Pervading legacies and traditions revived across art periods
- Critiques of Michael Baxendall’s ‘period eye’ or retrospective 
- Appropriations of art and theory
- The nature and role of art history in the future

To submit a paper proposal, follow the guidelines and download a form from:
Proposals should be emailed directly to the conveners  via  by 11 November 2013.  

Thoughts from Vienna….


Bruegel Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I’ve heard it said before that doing art history from the books is easy. It was Prof. Mary Beard, Cambridge Classicist of A Don’s Life fame, that said it, who is married to Robin Cormack, the art historian. Now inasmuch as I’d say that doing art history from the books is only as easy as doing any humanities subject from the books, and that researching and putting together a coherent argument about art history is only as easy as doing the same in, say, History, English and, indeed, Classics(!) etc., I have a new-found empathy for Beard’s statement after this weekend.

I’ve been in Vienna. My PhD’s on Pieter Bruegel’s paintings and the lion’s share of the surviving ones are displayed in Vienna at the Kunsthistoriches Museum. The  Bruegels assembled here are the ones that were in the Habsburg Imperial collection, having been collected by Emperor Rudolf II and his brother the Archduke Ernst of Austria, who were both apparently dead keen on Bruegel’s art. It’s these (less the ones that the Habsburgs lost and are now elsewhere) that I came to see this weekend. 

I wanted to put some of my thoughts–gleaned from hours pouring over the books and trawling JSTOR, etc., as well as looking at other Bruegels in Europe–to practice in front of the pictures themselves. And let’s just say that things quickly get tricky when you’re face-to-face with the things.

Bruegel, Peasant Feast

Take the Peasant Wedding Feast. Painted around 1568, the literature about this picture (and all of Bruegel’s peasants for that matter) usually says 1 of 2 things. 1 school of thought says that the peasants are emblems of sin, intended to represent drunken gluttony and supposedly put up on the wall to be seen by posh people who would renounce the peasantry and deplore their lack of table manners, keenness for booze etc. School of thought number 2, however, says that the peasants are emblems of fun, and that posh Antwerpers would have had a laugh at the peasants and their rustic, bumbling ways. According to this reading the pictures were looked at in lieu of actually going out into the countryside to mingle with the farmers, which wealthy Antwerp citizens were fond of doing in the mid-1500s. 

The premise underlying both is that Bruegel’s peasants were looked at by people who were in no way themselves peasants. Panel paintings in general would indeed have been prohibitively expensive and well out of the reach of the poor in the sixteenth century. A fair amount of evidence also exists to permit the conclusion that Bruegel’s panels were especially pricey. Moreover, we’ve learned recently that the Peasant Wedding was probably owned by Jan Noirot, Master of the Antwerp Mint who was a member of Antwerp’s upwardly mobile, mercantile class and who had 5 Bruegels in total. And so it seems that the premise is correct: that peasants in (Bruegel’s) art weren’t looked at by the peasants.

But trying to figure out which of the moral or non-moral readings is closest to the mark when you’re looking at the Peasant Wedding proves impossible.

Are the wedding celebrants really gluttonous drunks? Sure, a couple swig from their big beer jugs in a way that makes them look like the sixteenth-century’s equivalent to the modern-day binge drinker, but where’s all the vomiting, falling over and fistycuffs that we see in older art showing the drunken fallout of a peasant wedding or kermis? Meanwhile, the food itself is pretty simple and I don’t reckon these peasants would ever have been accused, as was sometimes said of peasants at this time, of squandering their meagre earnings on lavish food that was above their station. Meanwhile, the bride herself looks positively demure, happy (well she is newly-wed after all!) but demure all the same. And what about the cute kid at the front eating with his fingers? Although some might think this is intended to say “the apple never falls far from the tree” and that the child has acquired the same bad habits and ill-manners as his elders, is it not simply the case that kids from all kinds of backgrounds eat with their fingers and that it never raises an eyebrow?

So you could say that the picture is fairly innocent. It hardly seems to be the case that Bruegel wanted to make a bad example out of the peasantry.

But at the same time, and turning to the other side of the debate, what’s actually funny about this picture? Although we might like to think that in the 1500s sensibilities were different and that they might have laughed at stuff we now don’t, there really is nothing outrageous happening in the Peasant Wedding that might have raised a smile, and there’s no pun being illustrated or funny gesture being performed that may have roused laughter. Looking at it today, I think it’s pretty naïve to think that Bruegel’s original audience found peasants implicitly funny irrespective of what they’re actually shown to be doing, which in this case is simply celebrating a wedding over beer and porridge. Proof again comes from older art. For example, look up Sebald Beham’s peasants and his images of them shitting and drunkenly canoodling. These may well have been funny (the scatological has always tended to induce laughter) but they’re funny in exaggerated ways that emphasise debauchery in ways that Bruegel’s are not.

And so the comic reading is as tough to swallow as the moral one.

In other words, the essential binary that has become the norm in investigations about Bruegel’s peasants falls apart when you scrutinise the pictures in reality. Standing in front of the Peasant Wedding today, I realised that while the picture may well have been owned by a well-to-do man (although Noirot did ultimately become bankrupt AND was implicated in a murder!) the ways we’ve approached understanding the pictures in this context hitherto is simply flawed. This is of course great, because it means there’s much left to say. But it is still a realisation that comes from confronting the picture in real life, devoid of an accompanying essay telling you this or that.

Bruegel, Nester

Bruegel, Suicide of Saul, 1562, oil on panel, Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Equally perplexing are some of the other Bruegels. Is the nest robber in the Peasant and a Nest Robber really stealing from the bird’s nest? And what’s the peasant doing for that matter? Is he pointing? What at? And why? And why’s he stumbling headlong into a brook? The Suicide of Saul is simply weird because you can barely see the suicidal Saul and the picture’s dizzying amount of detail is even more staggering given the picture’s tiny dimensions – something you can only appreciate properly when you see it, because dimensions given in books fail to provide the same realisation. And what about the Children’s Games? Who was supposed to look at that? Why? What purpose does a picture showing kids playing serve? (Although you can read a good article about the last of these questions in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, which is available online here.)

Bruegel, Children's Games, 1560, oil on panel, Kunsthistoriches

So Beard’s words apparently have a ring of truth in them – the abundant literature tells us this and that about Bruegel’s moral or not pictures, which we might at the time believe, but it seems difficult to give credence to either view when you’re actually in the Bruegel gallery in Vienna. This is of course an example of why seeing art in real life is so important: it forces you to think outside of what you’ve read and question some of the presumptions that sway your way of thinking about things. I’d already done this, of course (you don’t get a PhD by re-hashing all the old stuff), but seeing the pictures really brings it home.

Akademie der bildenden künste, Vienna

Bosch, Last Judgment

Meanwhile, a whole other can of worms was opened up when I popped to the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden künste, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Kunsthistoriches. It’s basically the same set-up as the Barber (that is, it’s a picture gallery that’s part of an educational establishment, this time the fine art academy) and I went there to see Bosch’s Last Judgment, which he did probably at some time around 1500. Staring at the Last Judgment I found myself wondering: why didn’t Bosch paint any genitals? Christian propriety of course dictated that genitals shouldn’t be shown too much (Michelangelo got into enough trouble because of that, whose Last Judgment (1530s) in the Sistine was called ‘disgraceful’ by Biagio da Cesena, who deemed it worthy of a bathhouse on account of all the bits that were on display), and so usually artists avoided the problem by showing their nudes with artfully placed and folded legs or bits of cloth. Others though had no problem with it and showed genitals, and, if you think about it, in last judgments it was probably rather meaningful to show the corporeal, fleshy, body in all its nakedness since the subject is after all about the Judgment of sins, among them lust. In his picture, sometimes Bosch adopted the strategy of having artfully posed people who aren’t exposing their genitals, thus alleviating the problem. But he does also have naked people with splayed legs, and when he does he has just put a rather odd smudge of flesh-coloured paint where the genitals should be. Perhaps, then, Bosch was more of a prude than the rhetoric surrounding this “outlandish” artist would have us believe? Infamously, for example, Wilhelm Fraenger argued that Bosch was actually a heretic who worked for the “Adamites”, an underground sect that celebrated the pre-Fall sinlessness of sex and had orgies and stuff. And although I never really believed it anyway, the Vienna picture makes me think that this really is quite wrong and that Bosch’s pictures really were made for the conventionally religious. Who knows. It just struck me as being odd… No doubt I’ll have a think about it and look it up in the books.


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