Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Review of ‘Turner, Monet, Twombly: The Later Paintings’ at Tate Liverpool by Lauren McInerney, Joint Honours Student (3rd Year)

Most summers at Tate Liverpool there is the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition that brings some incredible artworks by notable artists to the North West. A few years ago it was Marc Quinn and Gustav Klimt, this year it was ‘Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings.’ I will admit that I was sceptical about seeing the exhibition at first as I have an extreme dislike of Monet. I know! It’s perhaps an odd position for an art historian and practising painter to take on such a popular artist. But it’s probably the emphasis placed on the “Impressionists” as part of my education in fine art for 8 years prior to university that has made me a little tired of Monet and his peers. Or perhaps it’s my mother’s huge love of everything Monet; tea towels, postcards, fridge magnets, you name it, she’s got it. This said, I do love Cy Twombly’s work and was intrigued to find out the link that these seemingly unrelated artists shared.

Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro

The link that the show’s curator, Jeremy Lewison, attempted to forge between Turner, Monet and Twombly was that, although they belong to entirely different historical epochs and worked in different styles, they all became incredibly creative and expressive in their later lives. As the director of Tate states, later in their lives Turner, Monet and Twombly apparently had ‘no one else to please but themselves’, which spurred them on to become extremely experimental. This link, however, was poorly communicated and only became clear when visitors were shown a video, towards the end of the exhibition, of recorded interviews with the contemporary expressive artist Fiona Rae, naturalist film director Mike Leigh and the curator himself, who each added to our understanding of the artworks and the justification for displaying them together.

A further criticism I would make is that the layout of the exhibition was confusing and disjointed, since it was split over two floors: bottom and top with the unrelated Liverpool Biannual taking up the two floors in-between.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1919

Turner, Peace, Burial at Sea, 1842

The first floor called ‘Beauty, Power and Space’ explored the depictions of the sublime, featuring a personal favourite of mine ‘Hero and Leander’ (1981-84) by Twombly. It was inspired by a John Keats’ sonnet where the sea swallows Leandro as he tries to swim to the Hellespont to visit his lover Hero. The extremes of nature are also expressed in Monet’s work on this floor; his Normandy and Brittany coastlines capture a rough and unforgiving landscape; likewise in Turner’s chaotic shipwrecks, whose expressive brush strokes evoke the fearful power and awesomeness of Nature.

The other themes explored in the exhibition were ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Fire and Water’, ‘The Vital Force’, ‘Naught So Sweet As Melancholy’ and ‘The Seasons.’ Each of these explores different subject matters, and the meaningful effects that the paintwork on the canvas itself has. ‘Atmosphere’, for instance, showcased some of Monet’s cityscapes of foggy London where the only details appear to be within the texture of the fog coating the buildings instead of the buildings themselves. Also shown were  Turner’s light wash paintings of dawn breaking on the city that show just colourless silhouettes against engulfing yellow skies.

This then leads onto the dominance of Nature in all three of the artists’ work which cumulates in the section titled ‘The Seasons.’ This section featured Twombly’s colossal ‘Quattro Stagioni’ (1993-95), a love letter in paint to the seasons, which were shown opposite Monet’s expressive and loose water lily studies that I’d personally never seen before. These changed my opinion of Monet, whose interesting ways of applying paint are fascinating when seen up close, but from a distant his paintings take on an altogether different quality, seeming more abstract and expressionistic than impressionistic. This also could be said of the Turners featured in the room, which could be described as having an early impressionistic style, which was a contrast to his earlier displayed works that have a hint of realism to them.

I left feeling a little unsure about what I had gained from seeing the exhibition. I came out not loving or hating what I had seen and so I went back for a second visit. Sometimes we can become over-familiar with famous paintings that have been shown over and over again and celebrated as great works of art, and this show really draws attention to the change in technique that can be seen in artists’ works and the creative impulses behind them. It also explored the biographical drives of the artist in old age, a subject I feel has not been looked at before, and the impact this has on their work; the impact of freeing up inner boundaries towards style, medium or even subject matter, resulting in what could be argued is some of the most experimental works by these artists. All the paintings shown express, in my opinion, the vitality of nature with the artists’ own new found vitality in their later lives.

The main goal of the exhibition was to make you think differently about some familiar works by Monet and Turner and to see the expressionist and sometimes abstract qualities that can only only be experienced when seen up close: changes in brush strokes, colour, texture and so on. How these intrinsic qualities in a work of art capture the essence of nature, not just realistically or figuratively, but also affectively, and how this affects the viewer has been made clearer by the Tate Liverpool’s exhibition. The show also demonstrated how a lesser-known artist such as Twombly is nevertheless relevant to the ‘greats’; a more challenging style of working,, such as Twombly’s, can be seen as part of a tradition that is trying to express nature as more than a landscape or a still life. This exhibition’s concept was interesting in its search for finding something unexplored within the well known works and viewers’ ideas of Monet, Turner and Twombly, yet without further reading and exploration this concept fell somewhat flat in aspects of the exhibition’s execution.

‘Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings’ at Liverpool Tate ended on the 28th of October and if you were unable to make it in time the catalogue is available from Tate Publications and is worth a flick through if you see a copy!


‘Glisten’ at the RBSA. Lauren McInerney (History of Art and English) on the hanging of the new festive show at the RBSA

A couple of weekends back, I was lucky enough to be able to help out with the craft gallery changeover at the RBSA Gallery, Birmingham. The Craft gallery at the RBSA, which is just by the main entrance, houses a series of changing exhibitions all year round and I was helping to take down ‘Automatic People’ (which featured craft works that incorporated movement into the works or were influenced by movement) to make way for the exhibition ‘Glisten’. Billed as “A glittering exhibition of contemporary fine craft”, this exhibition, which features an variety of crafts from gold and silver to ceramics, captures not only the frostiness of autumn turning into winter, but also the Christmas spirit–if you’re stuck for present buying ideas this year, then I can highly recommend a look around!

The changeover began on the Saturday morning with the removal of ‘Automatic People’ from the cabinets, and packaging the objects in protective bags ready to be sent back to the artists who made them. I also spent a fair amount of time making over 40 paper snowflakes; resulting in a very sore hand, but it was worth it to see the finished product!

Sunday was then spent unpacking the new exhibits and arranging them in their stands and cases – trickier than it sounds! With such tiny, intricate, pieces, finding the best way to display them so that they wouldn’t end up getting lost among the larger objects featured required a fair bit of trial and error. It took hours, in the end! Arranging the exhibits was also made slightly more difficult because of the sheer amount of different objects, made in various media and materials, that are represented including jewellery, ceramics and textiles. These all needed to be shown together, somehow, in a way that “flowed”, would make for a visually appealing exhibition, but with the added pressure of having to be accessible to a buying audience.

The size of the Craft Gallery didn’t help, either, and manoeuvering about this small space and its four large display cabinets proved to be a wee bit of a squeeze –  especially when you were trying your hardest not to knock a cabinet that has a neatly laid out collection of objects in it! Nevertheless, these problems and difficulties aside, and after endless manipulating and tweaking, the arrangements were finally finished and it looked fantastic!

RBSA is located on Brook Street, across the square from ‘The Jam House’. ‘Glisten’ is on until the 18th of January 2013… and if you happen to be going to the German Christmas Market, it’s well worth popping in to get in the festive spirit, maybe pick up a gift or two (& maybe see alumni Hannah Carroll, who is Gallery co-ordinator at the RBSA!).

Lights. Camera. Action! The University’s very own Culture Show in the Jewellery Quarter. By Marie Giraud

Filming in the Jewellery Quarter.. in that Salmon coloured jacket!

Okay, so I wasn’t interviewing big names in the art world, and I wasn’t indulging in a bit of access all areas at an exhibition opening on a VIP pass…but! I did manage to meet an acclaimed film maker and gain a bit of kudos on the department’s Facebook page,when I recently did some filming for the University’s Media Centre.

Over the summer I was approached by the Media Centre to co-produce, write and present a short feature about Birmingham’s ‘hidden’ cultural gems. My creative juices were flowing and the bright lights of the red carpet premiere began to glitter before my eyes! I was promptly brought back down to earth when I was told that the feature had to adhere to a running length of 90 seconds (yes! A FULL 90 seconds!) and could only feasibly include three locations with easy access for a film crew and all its equipment in tow. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with pre-production procedures, it can be a tricky process to obtain filming permissions from the City Council, independent organisations and so on. And as for Health and Safety, well, that offers-up a whole host of other potential obstacles to get over…!)

In the end though I was paired up with a PhD student, Pete McMenamin, in Human Geography whose research exposes the overlooked yet detrimental effects of class division during a city’s tenure as the ‘City of Culture’. I had to be in good hands, surely! Our big-hearted film maker Mark Pressdee (with filming permissions in hand!), knowing the Jewellery Quarter inside out, suggested that we encourage students to step out of their Vale/Campus comfort zone and explore some of Birmingham’s more historic parts. After some basic production training, the producer and I got to work, storyboarding the scenes, shot by shot, to communicate the maximum using the minimum amount of exposure time. We had a huge amount of flexibility here, so, whilst of course keeping it realistic budget-wise, anything went. Graphics were a yes but no stunts, I’m sad to say.

With temperatures dropping into the single figures that week, I turned up sporting my puffy hoodlum-style orange jacket on shooting day and was quickly nicknamed ‘Salmon Girl’. So much for low key, that jacket is part of my winter survival kit. I really hope campus-goers won’t ask me to reel off cultural facts about Birmingham next term. Anyway, jokes aside, the freedom and leeway we were given to conceive and record this short film from start to finish entirely by ourselves as a team made for a really exciting experience, offering us all real insights into media production that has produced in the end something that we are all proud of. Managing to secure access to a backstreet jewellery studio was a personal highlight and it gave me a glimpse of the creative independents hard at work behind the commercial high streets, a side of Birmingham which, in 4 years of living here, I’d never seen before!

All the MyBham filming projects aim to give students a taste of production work that will ultimately encourage undergraduates to make the most of their university experience. All videos will be released before Christmas so check back soon for a preview!

Art History Research Seminar – this Thursday 22 November

On 22 November – this coming Thursday – the department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies welcomes Professor Mark Hallett, who will present his paper at our third research seminar of the Autumn Term.  Mark is the Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, and his paper is entitled, Joshua Reynolds: Portraiture in Action.

Come and enjoy a glass of wine while listening to our esteemed speaker.  The seminar will take place from 5pm in the Barber Photograph Room, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

A mysterious manuscript in Liège: Dr. Elizabeth L’Estrange and 3rd year student Holly Wain on their recent research collaboration

Each year, the University’s College of Arts and Law offers a number of Undergraduate Research Scholarships, which give successful UGs the opportunity to collaborate with academics on bona fide research projects for five weeks during the summer vacation. This year, Holly Wain, a 3rd year art historian, successfully obtained one of these scholarships to work with our very own Liz L’Estrange on a project about a little-studied sixteenth-century Book of Hours, kept at the University of Liège. Here, Liz tells us more about “Wittert MS 29” and her project, before Holly shares her experiences of doing “real art history”! 

I was really pleased to be granted the Undergraduate Scholarship and to be able to ‘employ’ Holly for the summer. We worked on a Book of Hours – a popular late medieval book of prayers and liturgical offices – that I had discovered in the University of Liège Library in Belgium (Wittert MS 29). As the manuscript hasn’t been studied by anyone before, I was basically starting from scratch. The ten miniatures it contains are very similar to others produced in France in the 1520s, yet the frames around them look like they date from a later period; moreover, the manuscript is a hotchpotch of different hands with some rather dodgy Latin! Part of my aim in studying the manuscript is to find out how its miniatures relate to other already-known manuscripts, where it might fit into mid-sixteenth century workshop production, and how it came to exist in the form it does today.

Some details from the illuminations in Wittert MS 29

All this has made for a really exciting project – rather like a detective story – but it also has also meant doing quite a lot of ground work to understand the complex nature of the manuscript. Therefore, it was a real bonus to have Holly working with me for five weeks as it meant we could share out the tasks and follow up various lines of enquiry. One of the aspects I asked Holly to work on in particular was the links between the manuscript’s elaborate borders and the art produced by Italian artists like Rosso and Primaticcio at Francis I’s chateau of Fontainebleau in the 1530s and 1540s. Holly proved a very diligent researcher and came up with all sorts of possible links between manuscripts as well as finding printed and painted examples that all helped to build up a field in which to situate this Book of Hours.

I felt it was really important for Holly to come to Liège to see the Book of Hours for herself, as undergraduate students rarely get the opportunity to see, let alone handle, rare books and manuscripts. Getting up close and personal to a medieval manuscript is always a privilege because you are handling something that has passed through so many hands. It is also often a revelation because it is only by handling a manuscript that it becomes possible to appreciate the work that has gone into its production – not simply the extremely finely painted images but also the handwritten text and the binding.

The mystery of this manuscript is not yet solved but my research has advanced considerably thanks to Holly’s input. Enthusing about such a precise area of my own research to an undergraduate researcher was also an interesting experience for me, because it involved some self-reflection including thinking about how to convey quite specific information about medieval manuscripts and taking a step back from the minutiae to consider about the broader importance of the research topic itself. However, I now realise that I should also have explained that interesting Belgian town names do not necessarily make for the best tourist attractions (see below)!

Elizabeth’s research on Liège, Bibliothèque Universitaire, Wittert MS 29 will appear in Reinventing Traditions – On the Transmission of Artistic Patterns in Late Medieval Manuscript Illumination, ed. by Christine Seidel and Joris Heyder (Quarternio Verlag Luzern, forthcoming 2013)

Holly’s involvement with Liz’s project involved a trip to Belgium to study the manuscript in the real, and several days spent pouring over books and manuscripts in various libraries in Belgium and France. Art history in the field, though, isn’t all about just hard work, as Holly tells us below…

Traditional Belgian fare

Last summer I applied to and, to my surprise and delight, was awarded an Undergraduate Research Scholarship to work with Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange on a project titled ‘Manuscript Illumination and Sixteenth-Century Franco-Flemish Art’, which focuses on a little-known Book of Hours dating that is housed at the University of Liège. I was so happy to get the scholarship, and everyone else in my year who had applied for it was so pleased for me. I had studied Liz’s module on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art in my second year so I had a growing interest in this area and with my year abroad in Poitiers looming I thought it would be great for both my art history and my French. Despite all the advantages, however, I was still quite nervous to begin the research! The project was my first taste of professional research and I didn’t know if I would be up to the task.  As I look back now I realise how much I have learned about professional research in comparison to undergraduate work. In the first few days of the project I was putting pressure on myself to “solve the mystery” of the manuscript!… As I later found out, proper academic research is a much longer process than that.

In the first week I did some general research to get to grips with the manuscript illumination, its history and so on. Then I worked on compiling my own bibliographies and finding comparisons with the Liège manuscript in terms of its miniatures, the script and its binding. I found the research process really interesting; analysing images, finding similarities and then tracing the leads to identify trends. I felt like I had gained a good grasp of the predominant styles and active workshops at the time when the Liège Hours was made. In the middle of the five week period I got to see the book in the flesh: Liz had arranged funding for me to travel to Belgium and work with her there to advance the project. I met Liz at the train station in Liège, designed by Santiago Calatrava, and the next day we went to the University library, just over the bridge from the hostel where I was staying, so I managed to not get lost and was on time to meet Liz outside the very impressive building. Liz showed me to the room where we would be working for the day and introduced me to her colleague Cécile Oger who was also working on the project. There was a lot of French flying around the room! I found it really interesting, and although my French at that point was not quite up to the standard required for in-depth art historical analysis, Liz and Cécile really made me feel part of the project. It felt great to be in a team working at such a high level.

Gare de Guillemins, Liege

University of Liège

I had travelled to Liège with a friend from home who studies Fine Art in Reading so we got to explore some of Belgium in between working. At the weekend we had the great idea that instead of travelling miles to a big town like Antwerp, we would get to see loads more if we took the train to the towns around Liège. On Friday night we researched on the Hostel’s computer places such as Verviers and Pepinster (if I remember correctly I think we chose this town solely because we found the name amusing – I blame the lovely fruit beer for these decisions!). We went to bed extremely happy with ourselves and our plan… this did not last long. We arrived in Pepinster and our first words were ‘Oh, is this street it?!’ It was a very small place but we made the most of it and had some chips and mayonnaise. ‘Surely there will be more to see in Verviers?’, I said optimistically, but with a tinge of desperation. Unfortunately there wasn’t. So we headed back to Liège and went to Le Grand Curtuis, an art museum in the centre of town whose collection, ranging from ancient Egypt to the middle ages, made up for our lack of art during the morning.

Royal Library, Brussels

On Sunday we travelled to Brussels and the next day I met Liz at the Royal Library. The building was extremely impressive and after the long process of obtaining a reader’s card we were let into the manuscript reading rooms. Liz left me to find certain books we had on our bibliographies so I was able to practice my French as the system there takes a while to work out! The experience of travelling to Belgium gave me a real insight into the work Liz does. I got to meet researchers in the field, work alongside Liz in important research libraries, practice my French in the professional art history world and of course my unforgettable trips to the towns of Pepinster and Verviers.

On my return I worked for two more weeks on the scholarship. I spent one week following up the links between the manuscript and printed manuscripts of the period and the other was spent doing in-depth image analysis. I found the last week really interesting and so different to undergraduate research. I had the time to really study every stroke made by the artist who worked on the miniatures in the Book of Hours and I compiled certain facial types that reappeared  in the manuscript as well as certain techniques of shading. I then compared these to the Books of Hours of Henri II and Anne of Austria that were in a similar style and by doing so I was able to group together certain elements in the three manuscripts to gain an idea about the different hands involved in their production.

The end of the five weeks was not, however, the end of my involvement in the project. In September Liz invited me to Paris to be part of a meeting/workshop to discuss the manuscript with two scholars in the field. I had moved into my house in Poitiers in August and after the horrendous administration process in a French university, I welcomed a break in Paris with open arms! I met Liz at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France along with Cécile. After a lovely Parisian lunch we met some of the scholars with whom Liz is working at the Bibliothèque nationale. During my researches, I had read articles by these people so to be sat next to them discussing our research in French was very daunting! However, it was great being able to see the discussions that are had between art historians. The next day I met Liz at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. We looked at copies of printed manuscripts that had links to the structure of the pages of the Liège manuscript. I couldn’t believe I was working in the same institution as the great artists of the past! The scholarship has benefited me so much. I gained important research skills over the course of the five weeks and the help that Liz gave me each week over Skype was invaluable. I also got to meet scholars in the field and discuss art history in French on a professional level. It has helped all elements of my degree and on a personal level it has given me the confidence to pursue further research with a Masters after my undergraduate degree. It has opened up the world of professional research to me and Liz has kept me in the loop, such as my visit to Paris. I would definitely recommend everyone studying art history to apply for a scholarship.

École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts

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35 days, 4 libraries, c.180 call slips, 6 museums, 3 lovely Fellows…. Yale, it was a blast!

In September 2012 I took up a month-long Visiting Research Fellowship at the Lewis Walpole Library (LWL), Yale University. I was awarded the fellowship to conduct research towards my doctoral thesis, which focuses on the visual cultures of Roman Catholic emancipation in Great Britain and Ireland, 1821-32, and provides the first detailed academic analysis of a body of satirical prints that were produced in response to the prospect of full civil and religious liberty for Roman Catholics at key points in the 1820s, during the passage of the bill through Parliament in 1829, and after the Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed (13 April 1829).

As I sit and write this blog post back in Brum, it all feels like a dream. I had a wonderful and productive time; in short, it was intense, but by far the best month of my academic life. I doubt whether I will have such an experience again. To research at the Walpole is to research in an idyllic academic bubble. And you get to play croquet on your lunch break.


The LWL is a specialist library for eighteenth century studies, open to researchers by appointment. It boasts the biggest collection of eighteenth-century graphic satire outside of the British Museum: given my research area, it was the place for me to be.

And what a collection they have. Day in, day out, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in research with no distractions, calling relevant print after relevant print, making notes (24,000 words of them) and thinking, thinking, thinking. In fact, I wasn’t prepared for my Fellowship to be as formative to my thinking as it has been (I feel like I’ve joined up the dots of my ideas, if that makes sense); my PhD is definitely going to be all the better for having been there.

The Library is tucked away in the beautiful town of Farmington, CT, about an hour away from the New Haven campus.



With a wonderful guesthouse over the courtyard where Fellows stay, Timothy Root House (built 1786), rocking up at the Library in the dazzling 30c heat, I couldn’t believe my luck. A few hours later and after a tour of the library, I was emailing my friends, family and supervisor declaring that I was ‘living the dream’….




I really was.

I had to opportunity to identify and study in detail a whole host of prints, rare books and manuscript material, none of which are available to me in the UK. The Library’s reading room is pretty special, and it was a great place to study. It was relatively small, and reminded me of the Barber Fine Art Library at the University of Birmingham, for those of you who are familiar. All around are eighteenth-century paintings, sculpture and furniture.





I had the pleasure of being in residence with three lovely Fellows: Emily C. Friedman, Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University, AL; Matt Wyman-McCarthy, History PhD candidate at McGill, Canada; and Rachael King, English PhD Candidate at NYU. I learnt a lot from discussions with them about their work, their approach to the archive and their experiences of academia. From them, I also learnt about perfume, American football, Seinfeld and ‘Kraft-dinners’ (what a combo!). I should also thank Emily, again, for treating me to a delicious Mexican meal during my last week; I promised that I would carry this lovely tradition of hers forward and treat my budding ‘junior colleagues’ to slap up meals if I ever get to the point that I am the senior one.

Along with the wonderful staff at the Walpole – particularly Maggie Powell, who is the kind of director who leaves beer for you in the fridge, the lovely Sue Walker, Cynthia Roman, Ellen Cordes, Todd Falkowski, and the ever helpful John Clegg –  I was spoilt for generous company and stimulating conversations. One thing I especially liked was the mandatory coffee and cake break on Friday mornings, where all staff, Fellows and day-readers got together to chat and listen to an informal presentation of research by a Fellow. Check out the serviettes (I snuck one home with me for prosperity!)….


I was particularly pleased to be in residence for the Walpole Library’s Annual Lecture, which was given this year by Robert Crawford on the theme of ‘Robert Burns and Scottish Independence’. It was thought provoking and exceptionally well delivered. As a Fellow, I was invited to the canapé reception, in the gallery of the Yale Center for British Art, and formal dinner afterwards; both were rather splendid! I had the pleasure of meeting interesting people, including one of the Trustees of the Walpole Library, and I particularly enjoyed talking semiotics, typography and teaching with John Gambell, the ‘Yale University Printer’.

I spent the majority of the month at the Walpole Library, but did make a trip down to New Haven on a few occasions. I spent time at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Yale Divinity School Special Collections, and the Yale Center for British Art.








Fantastic architecture and holdings aside, I still cannot get over how helpful and friendly everyone was – from the Yale shuttle bus drivers, to security staff, librarians, and Yale students I struck up conversations with – it made researching on a very limited time frame run so smoothly, and I could not have got through all the material I did without that. One of my favourite anecdotes is that, on my second visit to the Beinecke (a week after my first visit, having only ever spent about 2 hours there), I walked up to the lending desk and was greeted with a ‘Hey, Carly! You’re back!’ from one of the loveliest librarians, Ingrid – researching at Yale was a joy!

On one of my trips to New Haven, I was lucky enough to have lunch with Prof Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of History of Art, Yale University, who had just flown in from London after the opening of his exhibition at Tate Britain. Tim is one of the most engaging academics I have met, and I got an awful lot from our conversation; he suggested books for me to read and opened up new research questions that I should explore. The same afternoon Gillian Forrester, the Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Center for British Art, treated me to coffee (my thanks to Dr Paul Spencer-Longhurst, Paul Mellon Centre, for going some way to setting this up). Gillian is incredibly knowledgeable, and was very generous with her thoughts about my research.

One day each weekend I gallery-hopped and explored the local area. I could write whole posts about each place that I went to, and maybe I will at some point. The YCBA, the Wadsworth Atheneum and especially the Hill-Stead Museum (so good I went there twice. The House, collection and volunteers, especially Susan Williams, were fantastic) are now some of my favourite places.










And, Yale University Art Gallery’s vast and wide-ranging collection is impressive to say the least.



All in all, I went for research, but got much more from it than that. I learnt a lot from the whole experience of organising a major research trip, travelling solo, studying abroad and in multiple libraries, and especially from meeting interesting and knowledgeable people.


On the morning before I flew home, I spent some time looking through the Guest Book at the Root House (where Fellows stay). The number of eminent academics who have stayed there, and by token the amount of inspiring scholarship that the Library has informed, was quite staggering, if a little overwhelming; I feel privileged to have been a part of the Lewis Walpole Library Legacy. As I’m sure is the case for most LWL Fellows, my ‘Golden Asses’ has pride of place on the wall…

Note to future fellows: take a thermal vest – the reading room is, at times, near-arctic!

Vive la Revolution!

Here at Golovine HQ we’re excited by the release of our very own Richard Clay’s new book, Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs (SVEC, Oxford, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0729410540).

Dealing with ‘iconoclasm’, Richard explores the sophisticated ways in which eighteenth-century Parisians thought about ‘art’, and therefore how its potential destruction (or, rather, transformation) could be understood in relation to their world view and at a time of political and religious upheavals. Transforming art objects through acts of violence (whether officially sanctioned or unofficial) changed meanings associated with those objects and the spaces in which they were traditionally viewed: these acts were informed by, and informing, complex discourses in relation to the Revolution.

Yet, these issues also have resonance today; do value judgements we hold about cultural objects affect decisions we make about preserving them for the future? What are the bases of such judgements, and how might they change over time and circumstance?

To hear Richard talk about his research, click here.

Richard is Senior Lecturer in History of Art, Co-Director of the Heritage and Cultural Learning Hub, academic advisor for Tate Britain’s forthcoming Iconoclasm exhibition (2013) and co-investigator (with Prof Leslie Brubaker) of the AHRC-funded international Iconoclasms network.

Art History Research Seminar – Thursday 8 November

On 8 November – this coming Thursday – the department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies welcomes Professor David Peters Corbett from the University of East Anglia, who will present a research paper as part of our seminar series.  David’s paper, American Water: Industry and Contemplation in Mid-Nineteenth Century American Painting, derives from his current book project on ‘urban painting and the landscape tradition in America, 1850-1930’. David is Professor of History of Art and American Studies at UEA.

Come and enjoy a glass of wine or two while listening to our esteemed speaker. The seminar will take place from 5pm in the Barber Photograph Room, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

CeSMA Research Seminar – tomorrow

Tomorrow – Wednesday 7 November – Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange, University of Birmingham, will be giving a paper at 4pm in the Staff Common Room, 2nd Floor, Arts Building, University of Birmingham.  Her paper, titled ‘Beyond the 1520s: A Bellemare Workshop Manuscript in Liège (MS Wittert 29)’, is part of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages seminar series.

Review of ARTIST ROOMS: Damien Hirst at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. By Jamie Edwards

As a Renaissance man (my work focuses on Pieter Bruegel the Elder), I’m unashamed to admit that I just don’t “get” Damien Hirst. As an entrepreneur and businessman, credit where credit’s due. But with regards the art I’ve never really managed to think objectively about Hirst’s stuff. I guess that I’ve just grown accustomed to looking at fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art, meaning that a pickled animal simply jars with my expectations of what “art” is supposed to be all about.

I don’t take my uneasiness about Hirst to the same extreme as others have done, however. Hirst’s art divides opinion. Although some admire Hirst’s maverick personality and his avant-garde critique of conventional notions and narratives of what art is and when art existed, in others Hirst’s art arouses frank indignation. Julian Spalding scathingly described Hirst’s art as ‘the sub-prime of the art world’, adding ‘It’s often been proposed, seriously, that Damien Hirst is a greater artist than Michelangelo because he had the idea for a shark in a tank whereas Michelangelo didn’t have the idea for his David. … [but] what separates Michelangelo from Hirst is that Michelangelo was an artist and Hirst isn’t.’ ( The Independant 27th March, 2012) In my view, it’s exactly this kind of haughty presumption to make value judgements that has alienated most from the art world and should be avoided. Art and its appreciation is a subjective thing, and I don’t think that experts or critics should prescribe a view, especially one as extreme as Spalding’s.

I’ve always tried to be mindful that when it comes to art, one size really doesn’t fit all. I try to avoid judging art according to fixed, immovable categories such as “art” or “not art”, “artist” and “non-artist” etc.; as much as I don’t get Hirst, I am perfectly happy for others to get it. Just as much as people would be more than entitled to say they don’t get the appeal of Bruegel.  So, inasmuch as my own research must have prejudicially skewed my opinion of Hirst, I reckon we should just accept that there can be different kinds of art that don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Well, I decided to put this theory to the test when, for the first time ever, I took myself off with the sole intention of seeing a Hirst exhibition, at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. The Hirsts went on show here on October 6th as part of ARTIST ROOMS on tour, an initiative sponsored by the Art Fund that sees important contemporary artworks by influential artists being shown in galleries across the UK. Putting Hirst to one side momentarily, I really do think that this collaborative initiative should be praised for endeavoring to make the contemporary art world, which is usually very Londoncentric, seem that bit more relevant on a National scale. Hirst rarely exhibits outside of major cities and since his name will probably draw crowds and increase footfall at Walsall gallery, this can only be praised.

When it comes to the exhibition itself, though, I was initially disappointed to find myself confronted with Hirst’s face, twice(!), before I even got to see any of the art. Now I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with Hirst’s face, but these portraits—one of which shows Hirst looking rather pleased with himself in front of his Zebra in formaldehyde, inexplicably titled The incredible journey (2008) and worth a fortune, I guessseemed to confirm one of my preconceptions about Hirst: ego and celebrity coming before art.

Two portraits of Hirst hanging outside the exhibition rooms at Walsall Gallery

Perhaps overly-cynical, but it got on my nerves nonetheless.

Mild irritation ensued inside, since the very first thing I saw was one of those animals suspended in chemical preservatives, this time the Sheep titled (more explicably this time) Away from the Flock (1994). There seems to be no real justification for plonking this in the middle of the Main Hall, except for the fact that the formaldehyde specimens are easily Hirst’s most recognisable. And controversial! Again, another one of my preconceptions seemed to have been confirmed: controversy and the need to shock coming before art.

‘Away from the Flock’ inside the Main Hall. Above, ‘beautiful c painting’

My attempt to maintain an unequivocal position seemed to be proving untenable. Quickly, I was veering off into Spalding’s realm…

View of room showing: ‘The Pharmacist’s Creed’ and ‘Pharmacy Wallpaper’ (left); ‘Monument to the Living and the Dead’ (right)

OK”, I thought, “so I don’t get the animals in tanks thing, move on”. And to my surprise I actually found some of the stuff thought-provoking and even uplifting. The exhibition’s highlight and its most successful room is undoubtedly the one housing the Controlled Substances Key Painting (1994), Monument to the Living and the Dead (2006) and The Pharmacist’s Creed (1997-98), the latter of which is hanged against Hirst’s Pharmacy Wallpaper (2004). Forgetting about “meaning” for a moment, this room is simply a nice space to be in. Perhaps it’s the colourfulness of the works.. the brightness of the lighting… or the scarcity of the exhibits (both in terms of number and imagery). Not sure, but I liked the feel of this particular gathering. It was a bit of “Eureka!” moment for me and I suddenly understood what people meant when I’ve heard them say that Mark Rothko’s canvases make them “feel” a particular way.

Moving on though as we inevitably do to the murkier business of “meaning”, the exhibition’s interpretation told me that these works all intervene on the issue of life, death, faith and belief, and suggest that modern medicine has usurped God’s spiritual benevolence. In our increasingly secular society we apparently–we are told–habitually place our faith and hope for life in science instead of the Divine (whether that’s good or bad, I’m undecided and I suspect Hirst is, too). The Monument meanwhile frames and contextualises the whole of the room. Showing real butterflies stuck to gloss on canvas, suspended as though frozen in flight, this collage actually harkens back, conceptually, to momento mori iconography,reminding us (in much the same way that skulls in older art do)  that life is transient and fleeting. Altogether, this room struck me as being actually quite clever, and I hadn’t really considered Hirst’s indebtedness to iconographic conventions before. “Perhaps there’s more to Hirst”, I thought.

The above mentioned room even helped me to make sense of the Gallery’s newfangled Art and Religion room. Usually, this room, with its plain walls, displays some of the older art from the permanent collection, including two (sumptuous) sheets from an illuminated manuscript made in the 1300s. When I first stepped into this room, I assumed that the wallpaper now surprisingly adorning the walls was a rather eccentric renovation. It turns out, of course, that it’s the Pharmacy Wallpaper again, and knowing that, the reasoning behind juxtaposing Hirst with fourteenth-century illuminations from a Book of Hours becomes clearer.

All very interesting. But this show was making me vacillate. Was I now becoming pro-Hirst? Do I get it, or not?

I returned to Away from the Flock and read the label this time. A play on the conventional Agnus Dei iconography, this installation(? Sculpture? Readymade?… whatever) supposedly subverts the conventional associations of the Lamb of God by representing the sacrifice of life for the sake of art. Hmm.  Maybe? But I’m just not sure about this one and I still think that Away from the Flock really is arbitrarily positioned in the show simply because of its fame. (This isn’t, by the way, a value judgement, and the tank with sheep is in fact a rather fascinating object. But I just don’t find some of the interpretation offered in this show very convincing…)

Hirst’s spin paintings are represented by the beautiful c painting (1996). Apparently, this and Hirst’s other spin paintings challenge the idea that “high” or “fine art” requires the direct intervention of the artist’s hand. Spin paintings are made by mounting the canvas onto a revolving turntable and pouring paint onto the spinning support. You or I could do this, and the point is indeed to show that anybody, a child or fully-fledged artist, can produce something legitimately describable as a work of art. However, I don’t think that these psychedelic tondi can really make claims on behalf of the democratising and equalising potential of art, since it’s precisely because they are Hirsts that justifies their display in the gallery. I doubt whether Tom, Dick or Harry’s spin paintings would make it onto the gallery wall. The spin paintings therefore purport to essay against the notion of the virtuoso artist-author, but in the end, the institutions of art actually render them complicit in the cult of the artist. Indeed, the exhibition’s curator was apparently aware of the spin paintings’ tenuousness, since it’s hung high above the entrance door where it can easily be missed. The beautiful c painting neither has any thematic justification for its inclusion, since it in no way relates to the themes of life, death and faith that provide the main concept linking Hirst’s art to the permanent collection at Walsall.

A glimpse of ‘beautiful c painting’ from a stairwell

In all, I reckon it’s well worth seeing the Hirsts while they are in Walsall. Seldom is such a big name shown in such “provincial parts”. And the show is successful insofar as it provokes all kinds of interesting comparisons and analogies, of the like that have certainly altered my perceptions of Hirst and some of his art. A good exhibition, I think, should always make you challenge your own presumptions, and this does.

ARTIST ROOMS: Damien Hirst runs at Walsall till 27th October 2013. New Art Gallery Walsall, Gallery Sq, Walsall, WS2 8LG. Open Tue to Sat 10am-5pm, and Sundays 12-4pm. Admission Free.

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