Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Leslie Primo (BA History of Art 2004 and MA Renaissance Studies 2010)

Having spent over 20 years forging a career in the Art World, former Birkbeck student Leslie Primo has become a renowned art historian in the UK. He not only currently teaches Art History at Imperial College London, but is also a successful author and TV presenter.

Pictured: Former Birkbeck student Leslie Primo

Considering Leslie, aged 16, left school with barely any qualifications, it is quite the unexpected career trajectory.

In 2000, Leslie found himself working in the National Gallery shop in London. He always knew he wanted to study in the art world and was recommended Birkbeck by his colleagues at the gallery. He had previously furthered his interest in Art History by doing his own studies and his own reading, which was helped by the fact that before working at the National Gallery, he had also worked as a librarian.

As London’s only evening provider of degree courses, like so many other students at Birkbeck, the College was the only feasible option for him if he were to study at university. Leslie needed to keep his job at the National Gallery whilst studying. It was in fact Neil McGregor, the former director of the National Gallery at the time, who took an interest in Leslie studying at Birkbeck. He took him to the private library of the gallery to encourage his studies and would often ask Leslie how his degree was going. To this day, Neil is a huge source of inspiration for Leslie.

Leslie graduated from Birkbeck with a BA in History of Art in 2004, and later went on complete an MA in Renaissance Studies in 2010. Studying Art History in a city that is so rich in culture as London was a particular draw for Leslie. He would thoroughly that current and future Birkbeck students take advantage of having all the galleries and museums that are on your doorstep as it can really enhance your studies.

He also recalls how at Birkbeck he received a huge amount of support. It was in fact his tutor at the time, Professor Simon Shaw Miller, who came to realise that Leslie was almost certain to be dyslexic. The College helped Leslie to be diagnosed with dyslexia, and he was subsequently able to get additional support from Birkbeck’s disability office, including receiving full funding for his first computer at home. Acknowledging his dyslexia for the first time allowed Leslie to make sense of his school years and why he left the traditional education system with very few qualifications.

For Leslie, this is what makes Birkbeck so special. He recalls: “You might have dyslexia, or your might have childcare to deal with. Birkbeck however lives in the real world, not just the academic world. It is trying to help you at every junction to succeed.”

Leslie currently teaches Art History at Imperial. He is the first Art Historian to teach at the university which is often traditionally seen as a specialist for Science and Business. Whilst at Imperial College, he still will often promote Birkbeck, with at least half a dozen of his former students having gone on to do further study at Birkbeck.

Leslie is keen not just to share his passion and love of art through teaching. He is currently writing his book From Renaissance to Abolition: A New History of British Art, due to be published in 2023. He is also interested to be a visual presence that is different to the typical mainstream art historian and has taken to television work, recently featuring on Art at the BBC, in which he discussed the works of Michelangelo.  He will also begin presenting a new programme about JMW Turner on BBC4 later in 2020. 

Leslie’s career continues to flourish and it will be fascinating to see where his journey will take him to next.

Published by


Alumni & Student Ambassador Officer

2 thoughts on “Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Leslie Primo (BA History of Art 2004 and MA Renaissance Studies 2010)”

  1. For Leslie Primo please:

    Thank you for your wonderful lecture about the Magi given to the North Norfolk Arts Society on Monday. I thought it was thrilling and so scholarly and have had a second listen on U-Tube. I learnt so much and was particularly astonished to see the images from 4th Century BC looking exactly like a ‘Madonna & child’ receiving the gifts from the 3 visitors. SO it was most interesting to learn at question-time that the Vatican ascribes this to fulfilment of texts in Jeremiah!
    I’ve often sat in lectures where in question-time at the end some clever dick has to try and upstage the lecturer to show how clever they themselves are, and I detest this trait. However, there were both question and a correction I would like to pass on. near the beginning of the lecture you said that the kings arrived at the birth of Jesus, whereas I had always be told that they arrived when the child was about 1 which coincides with the massacre of the innocents by Herod because he saw the birth of a king (as the Magi announced) was a threat. Can you confirm which is the case.
    The second point was that the tomb in which Jesus was laid belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, although Nicodemus did help Joseph with the embalming of the body. Please don’t think I’m being cocky in raising this but I’d hate anyone in an audience to contradict you about Nicodemus.
    It’s a wonderful lecture and you’re a brilliant lecturer. thank you again for such an enlightening and enjoyable hour or so.
    I hope you come to lecture us again in real time & space post covid. Best wishes, Marion

  2. Please tell Mr Leslie Primo how out standing I thought his lecture was. His observational skills were so acute that he showed us key details we could easily have missed. And what a depth of understanding…Neil MCGregor was right: he is a natural scholar. Please invite him again

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *