My final blog post as Head of Department – over to Leslie Topp!

The academic year 2016-17 officially reaches its conclusion in two days time! Dissertations have been submitted and marked – exams have been sat, marked, and the BA exam board meets this coming Friday. Glasses will be raised and nibbles consumed at the Summer Party that evening (7th July) – do come along to the Keynes Library, 6-8pm, ideally with a bottle or some nibbles to share, and celebrate the end of the year!

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In honour of the academic year coming to a close, this will be a particularly full posting! First up, I want to hand you over to Caroline South, who did her Graduate Certificate in History of Art here in 2014-15, and whom I got to know well as she took my level 6 option module, ‘Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Arts in a Polite and Commercial Society’. Caroline has kindly written this piece for the blog, about what she’s been up to since leaving Birkbeck, and about an exciting event she’s organised for this coming weekend…

Caroline South on ‘The Garden at War’

“Since Kate Retford immersed me in the eighteenth century, I have not looked back! The Graduate Certificate gave me the foundation to go on to take a Masters Degree in Eighteenth-Century French Art at the Courtauld Institute. Since completing that, I am now extremely fortunate to write for the Tate about J.M.W. Turner. I literally follow his pencil marks and travels by working through Turner’s sketchbooks and watercolours at Tate Britain – the largest Turner collection in the world, consisting of over 32,000 works, of which only approximately 25,000 have, as yet, been catalogued! It is an exciting and fascinating role of analysis, research and interpretation.

As seems the case with many people in the arts, I have more than one job. I also work for a small arts company, Aganippe Arts (Community Interest Company). Like a lot of students at Birkbeck, I came from a different background, in that I was a lawyer for many years. This puts us in a position to pull previous experience and new knowledge together to offer a very rounded skill set, invaluable for multi-faceted roles such as that at Aganippe.

This summer we are proud to be putting on an exciting exhibition, and the Courtauld Symposium on 8th July, at the magnificent Stowe House, Buckinghamshire. The exhibition, entitled The Garden at War, features works by Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Ian Hamilton Finlay and newly-commissioned work by two contemporary artists: Joseph Black and Antoine Espinasseau. For the symposium, we have gathered world-leading art historians to speak on the innovative theme of the exhibition: the eighteenth-century garden at Stowe as a conceptual garden of ideas. It promises to be a fascinating day, so please do come if you can! Follow this link for tickets. Thank you for your support.”


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We’ve been celebrating a lot in the department over the last couple of weeks. Last Friday, we toasted the triumph of not just one, but two more colleagues who have recently published monographs! Leslie Topp’s new book has just appeared with Penn State University Press, in their Buildings, Landscapes and Societies series: Freedom and the Cage: Modern Architecture and Psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890–1914. Leslie’s book builds on many years of extensive research, undertaken in archives and libraries across five countries, in order to offer an important reinterpretation of asylum architecture and design in Austria-Hungary around the turn of the twentieth century. During this period, psychiatrists and public officials looked to reinvent asylums as large-scale, totally designed institutions, that offered a level of freedom and ‘normality’. This is the “caged freedom” evoked in the title of Leslie’s book, as these institutions presented a sense of liberty, through designs such as loosely connected villas, even as they exercised careful social and spatial control over patients. I didn’t spare Suzannah Biernoff’s blushes when I cited one of her reviews last time, and I shall now proudly quote Professor Kathleen James-Chakraborty, of University College Dublin, on Leslie’s new work: “An important and impeccably researched corrective to widespread assumptions about the relationship between space and power in the design of asylums and in architecture more generally”.

Cover image for Freedom and the Cage: Modern Architecture and Psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890–1914 By Leslie Topp

The History and Theory of Architecture as a field has been flourishing at Birkbeck for some years now, headed by Leslie and a number of other colleagues, including Tag Gronberg and Zoë Opačić for History of Art. The Architecture, Space and Society Network – a key hub for scholarship in the areas of architectural, design, and landscape history, contemporary architectural humanities and archaeology – became a Research Centre in 2015. Then, last year, we were delighted to welcome Mark Crinson as a new Professor, to work with these colleagues in deepening and expanding our teaching and research in this area still further. Mark has been on leave this academic year, awarded a Senior Research Fellowship by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, to work on book project entitled Shock City: Image and Architecture in Victorian Manchester. He will be joining us as part of the active teaching team this coming Autumn, and we’re excited to be offering his two new option modules: ‘Concrete and Flesh: Modern Architecture and the Body’ for Graduate Certificate and Level 6 BA students, and ‘This is Tomorrow – Architecture and Modernity in Britain and its Empire, 1930-60’ for MA students in the Autumn term.

Mark’s new book – which we celebrated alongside Leslie’s publication – is entitled Rebuilding Babel: Internationalism and Modern Architecture. It explores the extent to which modernist architecture was inspired by the emergence of internationalism – by the ethics and politics of world peace, justice and unity through global collaboration. The book’s title refers to the ideals represented by the Tower of Babel – built, so it’s said, by people united by one language. The ‘International Style’ was one manifestation of this way of thinking, but Mark is keen to show how the aims of modernist architecture often engaged with the substance of an internationalist mindset in addition to sharing surface similarities. The book features the work of the visionaries of internationalist projects – Le Corbusier, Bruno Taut, Berthold Lubetkin, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe – and explores that work within a rich and diverse socio-cultural context. Here’s praise from Anthony Vidler of the Yale School of Architecture: “Mark Crinson’s wide-ranging analysis proves a significant addition to the history of architectural modernism and its strange association with internationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. In unravelling the untold story of these two unlikely partners, he also offers constructive thoughts about their future.”

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The other celebration recently was at a departmental meeting, when my colleagues very kindly marked the end of my term as Head of Department. As many of you will know, at Birkbeck we operate the system in which an member of academic staff will take on the role for a three year period, before handing it over to a colleague. I officially step down at the end of this month, and I am delighted to be passing the job onto Leslie Topp, who I know will offer wonderful leadership to the department in the coming three years. My time has Head has, unsurprisingly, had some stressful moments (!), but it has been an honour to oversee the department at such an important time in its history, during which we have appointed two new Professors, Mark Crinson and Steve Edwards, to expand our teaching and research in Architecture and Photography. I’ve been privileged to witness so many other positive developments, it’s hard to know where to start! We received a generous donation to fund our Wallace MA studentships, and our ties with the London Art History Society have become productively closer, resulting in very welcome initiatives such as the Research Fund which now supports the work of our MA and MPhil/PhD students. We’ve expanded our portfolio of programmes, launching a new BA pathway or joint degree every year over the three year period. There’s the Careers and Employability programme I wrote about last week – and, of course, this blog!

More or less every two weeks during term time, for three years, I have posted here – writing about and featuring pieces on staff research, events, the activities of our students, and our annual field trips. It’s been a lot of fun doing the blog – but it’s also underscored my deep belief in and enthusiasm for the work done by the staff and students here. Thank you to those who’ve guest-written for me – and thank you to everyone for reading! Leslie will be taking over the blog, as well as the headship, in the Autumn, and I look forward to keeping up to speed with the latest news during the period of research leave I now have coming up. I will, however, pop back, to join in the upcoming events organised for 2017-18 to celebrate the department’s 50th anniversary. The theme of the celebrations is ‘Opening up Art History’, celebrating the way in which this department has offered, and continues to offer, life-changing, eye-opening access to the subject, as well as producing cutting-edge research which has consistently opened up the field to other disciplines, other media, and various social and political contexts. We kick off with the Peter Murray Memorial Lecture on 30th November, being given by Dr. Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery. We also have a series of four public workshops in the Spring term (23rd-24th February 2018), exploring the future of Art History and Museums, as well as an exhibition in the Peltz Gallery. Celebrations will draw to a close with a garden party in Gordon Square on 29th June 2018. More details will follow in due course – and I look forward to returning to join you all at these events, as we celebrate 50 years of History of Art at Birkbeck!

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Calling Open House London volunteers…

The end of the summer term is on the horizon, and we’re eagerly anticipating the two key events that mark the end of the academic year: the BA exam board, and the Department summer party. I hope you’ve all seen the invitation to come and join staff and students in the Keynes library on Friday 7 July, 6-8 pm, to raise a glass to another very successful year in History of Art! It’s a great opportunity to celebrate everyone’s hard work, and particularly to congratulate undergraduate finalists who have come to the end of their BA degrees. Congratulate, but not necessarily ‘say goodbye to’, as I know from our admissions system that we will happily be welcoming a number of you back to Birkbeck in the Autumn, as you progress to Masters level work with us! I hope as many staff and students as possible can come along to the party – please do bring along a bottle, or some nibbles to share, and join in the fun.

Events are now starting to draw to a close. The final Murray seminar of the year takes place this coming Wednesday, 28 June, at 5pm in the Keynes. Robert Maniura will be speaking about Jaume Huguet, decoration and innovation in fifteenth-century Iberian art. This research is part of Robert’s broader project to explore art of this period which is so often neglected, due to art historians’ dominant concern with the Italian and Netherlandish schools. In his paper, he will be considering and restoring welcome attention to the output of Huguet, whose elaborate and heavily gilded works conspicuously depart from these familiar traditions. Huguet was the most prominent painter in Barcelona in the later fifteenth century, but he is now seldom explored.

Another busy year for the Architecture, Space and Society Centre, meanwhile, comes to a close next Wednesday, 5 July, with a symposium entitled Modernism and the Museum Space in Germany (6pm, Gordon Square Cinema). This event will explore the ways in which the advanced architecture of the early twentieth century in Germany confronted the space of the museum, and was itself curated and presented for display. Come and hear Max Sternberg from Cambridge speaking about the Schnütgen Museum in Cologne, 1910-1932, and Jeremy Aynsley, from the University of Brighton, on the topic of Curating Bauhaus Houses, 1923-2019. Robin Schuldenfrei from the Courtauld will be present as respondent. Places are free, but do need to be reserved. 

I hope you’ve all seen the call for volunteers for the next Open House London which went round recently? A number of you have been involved in this fantastic event in the past, when the School of Arts building has previously been opened up to members of the public. Last year, during Open House London 2016, the Derek Jarman Lab made this film, which includes lots of footage of those members of staff and students who got involved, as well as being packed with information about our building and its history. Open House London 2017 falls on the weekend of Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 September, and the School of Arts will be open for both those days. As ever, the success of the opening relies on our wonderful volunteers – those students and former students who are prepared either to act as wardens, or as guides to those coming to see both those rooms rich with historic Bloomsbury Group associations, and the award-winning spaces around the cinema, designed by Surface Architects from 2008. Volunteers need to be available for a training event on the evening of Monday 11 September, and then for one morning or afternoon of the Open House London weekend itself. It’s a lot of fun – and it’s great for the CV! Do email  Eva Höög at with your name and programme of study if you’re interested in taking part.

Over the course of this year, I have kept you up to date with our Careers and Employability programme for History of Art students. It’s been a great success, from the valuable training sessions provided by my colleagues in the Careers and Employability team, on topics ranging from ‘CVs for Arts’ to ‘The Value of Internships’, to our three masterclasses, generously hosted by Sonia Solicari, Alice Payne and Jacqueline Riding. The final part of the programme, which has taken place this summer term, has been a series of work shadowing opportunities. Andy Stirrups, in the Alumni office, worked hard to organise a total of seven placements for us, with impressively placed alumni, now working in institutions ranging from the Whitford Fine Art gallery to the V&A. Applications were invited from students, and those successful were provided with a training session ahead of the day of workshadowing itself, for which we were able to pay a London Living Wage allowance thanks to the support of the Alumni Fund. I’m now starting to receive feedback from those seven lucky students – and picked up a message at the end of last week from Tatiana Nenilina, who’s just completed the BA History of Art programme. We matched Tatiana with Dr. Katy Barrett, Curator of pre-1800 Art at Royal Museums Greenwich, and an alumna of our Graduate Certificate in History of Art. Katy achieved a distinction on that programme in 2010, before moving to Cambridge for a PhD looking at the cultural history of the longitude problem in the eighteenth century through the work of William Hogarth. She was then appointed to her current role at the National Maritime Museum. We’re very grateful to Katy, as well as to the other alumni who so kindly offered work shadowing placements, for the time and effort they have put into giving our current students these valuable opportunities.

Tatiana Nenilina on work shadowing at the National Maritime Museum

“A Job Shadowing Programme offers the unique opportunity to gain an insight into the working world of an institution. In my case, it was the National Maritime Museum and its Curatorial Department.

I had a fantastic day with Katy Barrett, who is a Curator of Art at Royal Museums Greenwich. She perfectly organised the day, starting with a short introduction about the museum, its programmes and new projects, one of which was the Travellers’ Tails pop-up museum at Lewisham Shopping Centre.


Later, Katy, knowing my interest in provenance research and my background in law, organised a meeting with a member of the Registration Department, where I could ask questions about due diligence, provenance research and ethical issues, loans of objects and legal regulations regarding their movement, insurance and display.

The Job Shadowing Programme has broadened my vision of working in a museum. It has offered the chance to ask questions about career paths in the art sector, from what stage to start and how to progress, through to what resources will be useful in advancing my knowledge and career.”

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Research in History of Art, and Teaching-Led Research…

The exam period has now run its course, and it’s almost possible to hear the sighs of relief from undergraduates echoing up and down the corridors of the School of Arts building! I hope that everyone got on well, and is now having some well earned rest. If you do now have a little more time on your hands than you had previously, then you might like to take advantage of a couple of free Curator’s Tours of the current Peltz Gallery exhibition, Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways, being run on Wednesday 14 June, at 1pm and 2pm, as part of London Creativity and Wellbeing Week. If you haven’t yet had a chance to drop into the gallery and have a look around the display, then please do so – it’s a very powerful exhibition of objects made by residents of a British psychiatric hospital between 1946 and 1981, under the guidance of art-therapy pioneer Edward Adamson.

Academic staff are, of course, busy with all those exam scripts, but research activities continue apace. Some of you will remember me writing last summer about the wonderful news that Professor Fiona Candlin has been awarded around £1 million by the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a project to map and analyse the UK independent museums sector, from 1960 through to 2020. This is a monumental undertaking, taking place across four years. Records of the around 1600 independent museums currently operating in the UK, and those that have opened and closed since 1960, are very patchy, and this project is going both to document and analyse the emergence, purpose, development and closure of these institutions. The project blog is now up and running, so do have a look at Fiona’s first postings, and subscribe here.

Meanwhile, I am delighted to announce the publication of Dr. Suzannah Biernoff’s new book, Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement, by University of Michigan Press. Many of you will know of Suzannah’s research in this area, whether through the seminar and conference papers she has given over the last few years, or through the material she has incorporated into her teaching. Two of her presentations which I remember particularly vividly concerned material to be found in a chapter of the book on Henry Tonks’s drawings of WWI facial casualties, comparing them to medical photographs in the Gillies archives, and one dealing with the extraordinary appearance of the image of one of Tonks’s patients in BioShock, a major computer game. These are two case studies in her powerful study of the image and idea of facial disfigurement, as a symbol and consequence of war. It’s an important contribution to disability studies, art history and visual studies, and literature on the first World War. And it’s already elicited this kind of critical response, from the very eminent Sander Gilman: ‘A powerful and engaging study of the politics of representation of facial disfigurement in medical and mass culture, Portraits of Violence is a substantial addition to the study of visual culture and disability.’ Congratulations Suzannah!

I’m going to end this blog with another welcome piece from Dr. Laura Jacobus, who has a major article coming out this month in the journal Art Bulletin (100, June 2017). Here she explains how her teaching at Birkbeck has fed into the work showcased in this forthcoming publication: ‘”Propria figura”: The Advent of Facsimile Portraiture in Italian Art’.

Laura Jacobus on ‘teaching-led research’

“I’ve written a couple of times for this blog on the subject of ‘research-led teaching’, a concept which is fundamental to Birkbeck’s work, though the many ways we put it into practice are not always obvious. This time, I thought I’d write about ‘teaching-led research’, which seldom gets talked about, but which is also fundamental to our work as scholars.

In the June edition of the journal, Art Bulletin, I’ll be arguing that a statue of the businessman Enrico Scrovegni, made around 700 years ago, is the earliest known accurate image of any human being. But how did I reach this conclusion? It’s a long story, but it began when I was teaching a class of second-year BA students and I showed them a slide of Arnolfo di Cambio’s Portrait of Pope Boniface VIII.


Enrico Scrovegni was one of the wealthiest men of his era, and a colourful character – a bit of a scoundrel, who personally knew Giotto and (probably) Dante, two of the greatest painters and poets of all time. He owned the breathtakingly beautiful Arena Chapel in Padua, where his true portrait can still be seen. I reached this conclusion by digitally comparing two sculptures of Enrico at different times of his life, helped by my colleagues Liz Drew and Nick Lambert. I found that, although the sculptures of him as a young man and a very old one looked quite different, their underlying bone structures were identical.


This is something that no artist could have achieved by simply observing their subject at a sitting. In fact, until the invention of photography in the nineteenth century, most ‘true’ portraits were just approximations of the sitters’ appearances. For Enrico’s accurate portrayal the sculptors would have had to constantly take very precise measurements of Enrico’s face using three dimensional instruments. It wouldn’t have been feasible to do this with their sitter ‘in the flesh’, so the only way round the problem would have been to make a plaster cast of his face. A contemporary description of the process tells us that Enrico would have had to lie on his back with breathing tubes up his nostrils while the cast was being made. The artist would have tried to keep the customer happy by mixing the smelly plaster with rose-water, and greasing his eyebrows so that they didn’t hurt when the cast came off. The results were worth it.

If I’m right about this, we now know, for the first time, what a medieval individual actually looked like. An encounter with the portrait of Enrico Scrovegni has the compelling power to bring us face-to-face with someone who lived seven hundred years ago, but is recognisably real even today. It’s a discovery which has come too late for me to teach to those students who first made me see the problem – they graduated a few years ago now. But my students still have the capacity to make me see things afresh, and I thank all of you for all the opportunities for teaching-led research that you send my way.”

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Birkbeck History of Art in Rome!

I do hope many of you were able to join in Arts Week last week, and come to one of the more than fifty events laid on by colleagues in the School of Arts between Monday 15th and Saturday 19th May. There were lectures, seminars, film screenings, readings, performances, panel discussions and a sound installation – not to forget the fantastic Friday night concert at which we were treated to the musical talents of Dr. Jo Winning from the Department of English and Humanities, and Anthony Shepherd, Programme Administrator for MPhil/PhD Research across the School of Arts. All of our History of Art research students will know Anthony very well indeed – but some of you may not know that he is also one half of the highly successful folk music outfit, Pepper and Shepherd!

More than 1,500 people came to Gordon Square to take part in Arts Week – but, if you missed anything of interest, or want to relive a particular event, then do take a look at the Arts Week page. You can listen to podcasts, read reviews and blogs, and see photographs of events. Also, the new Peltz exhibition launched during Arts Week will be running until 25th July 2017, so there’s still plenty of time to visit the powerful Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: a selection of works from the Adamson Collection. This is an internationally renowned archive of art objects made by residents of a long-stay British psychiatric hospital between 1946 and 1981, under the guidance of art-therapy pioneer Edward Adamson. One of the highlights of Arts Week was a panel discussion of Mr A – but do also read this blog by Dr. Fiona Johnstone, Co-Curator of the show and Associate Research Fellow in History of Art.


I want to take this opportunity to remind you about a couple of funding opportunities available for our students, before I hand over the rest of this blog to one of our MA History of Art with Photography students, Ruth Houlsby, to give her account of the recent departmental field trip to Rome.

One is the London Art History Society Research Fund, generously established by the Society to help postgraduate students in History of Art with expenses relating to their research. This is awarded on a first come, first served basis, but we do have a small amount of money remaining to allocate before the end of the academic year – so please send in any applications before it runs out! MA students can apply for up to a maximum of £150; MPhil/ PhD students for up to a maximum of £300.

The other is an exciting opportunity I was delighted to announce a few weeks ago to all students in the School of Arts: the British Council Venice Fellowships scheme. The School is inviting applications for two Steward-Research Scholarships at the Venice Art Biennale 2017, running between 29 October and 26 November. The successful candidates will each be given a grant of £1600 for the month towards their expenses, and will work four days per week as an invigilator in the British Pavilion. The rest of the time is for study and research around the biennale theme, Viva Arte Viva. If you are interested, then please do look at this page for further details.

It is now my great pleasure to hand you over to Ruth, to tell you about the Easter departmental trip to Rome, led by Dr. Peter Fane-Saunders and Dr. Piers Baker-Bates!


Ruth Houlsby, MA History of Art with Photography, on the Easter trip to Rome, April 2017

“In the midday sun we passed the crowds outside the Colosseum to gather near the Arch of Constantine, meeting our fellow students and tutors Dr. Peter Fane-Saunders and Dr. Piers Baker-Bates. During the introductory session back in London, Peter and Piers had asked us to think about the notion of ‘palimpsest’: something built or layered on top of something else, or an object made for one purpose and later reused for another. They said that Rome abounds in palimpsests and we were to encounter this idea again and again. The Arch of Constantine was a useful introduction to this theme, with many of its decorative panels and sculptures having been re-used from other monuments. I knew a few fellow students, but the trip included a mix of students from the Graduate Certificate, BA and MA, so there were many new faces. Everyone looked pleased to be there and eager to get started!

We progressed to the Forum, the well-known space in the heart of the busy city that almost transports visitors back to ancient Rome. Many of the group had visited before, but it seemed a new experience exploring under the guidance of Peter and Piers. We split into two groups as we would for most of the week, forming two more manageable sized parties, and explored the vast and slightly overwhelming site. Seeing the immense Basilica of Maxentius, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, the Julia Basilica, the Atrium Vestae and many others, we had a fascinating introduction to ancient Rome that set the scene for ideas we would encounter throughout the trip; a culture that deifies its own kinship, a city built on the spoils of Jerusalem, the hidden passages and crypts, a culture which even in antiquity looked after its own antiquity. The huge site of Domitian’s Palace (Palazzo di Domiziano) at the top of the Palatine Hill was particularly impressive. Built to be ‘as high as the heavens’, even in ruined form, it was astonishing.


A lovely walk took us via the Piazza del Campidoglio, the monumental civic square commissioned by Pope Paul III on the Capitoline Hill and designed by Michelangelo to create a unique piece of urban planning, featuring the giant order. Peter explained it was ‘an erudite citation of the antique’ and featured one of the first balustraded staircases of the Renaissance; a symbol of turning away from ancient Rome and looking towards a new future for the city.


Onwards we walked to a restaurant for a group dinner to end the first day in great style, with talking, wine and pasta, helping us to get to know our fellow students and refreshing everyone ready for the rest of the week.

The following days saw visits to many churches to look at and discuss Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture. Highlights included the Church of the Gesù, designed during the Counter-Reformation to ‘enflame the people’. Beyond its relatively simple façade by Giacoma della Porta, an exercise in moving on from the classical, is a striking ceiling fresco by Giovanni Battista Gaulli.


Another fascinating church and possibly the ultimate palimpsest was the Basilica San Clemente, with three layers of a church on one site. After entering the twelfth-century basilica at ground level, we descended into the remains of a fourth-century church, buried in the eleventh century and re-discovered in the nineteenth. Frescoes from the tenth and eleventh centuries are still visible, at least in part, and several walls are lined with a nineteenth-century display of sculptural fragments found during the excavations. The whole site had an evocative feeling of the passing of time and a changing attitude towards conservation and modes of display. Moving down more steps into a dark space, we saw the remains of a second-century Mithratic temple. Piers explained that the exact nature of the temple is disputed, but that many early Christian churches were based on Mithras and were often to be found in dark, underground spaces, on frontiers or areas of conflict such as Hadrian’s Wall. Back up into the sunlit twelfth-century basilica, we admired the beautiful twelfth-century mosaics in the apse, featuring the cross symbolizing the tree of life, and the fresco series by Masolino, c.1428-31.

In the Church of St. Louis of the French (San Luigi dei Francesi) we battled school groups and tours to see Caravaggio’s cycle of three paintings in the Contarelli Chapel: The Calling, The Inspiration and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. We learned more about the Baroque – as Peter explained, the viewer ‘gets caught up in the entire experience, there is a sense of movement and the eye can never rest’.


At San Gregorio Magno al Celio, the priest granted us access to the three Oratories; St. Andrew, St. Silvia, St. Barbara featuring frescos by Guido Reni and Domenichino. In typical Roman style, once outside we were reminded again of the ancient, seeing the ancient Roman road and wall tucked away behind the church.

No trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Vatican! The crowds meant that the group were free to explore on their own or stay with Peter and Piers if preferred. I choose to split off and enjoyed seeing some art works from different periods; from ancient cultures outside Rome in the Egyptian gallery, to Medieval and early Renaissance paintings and altarpieces.

I also enjoyed the quiet galleries showing more modern and contemporary works of art from the twentieth century by artists such as Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland. And I came across a work commissioned by the Vatican for the 2013 Venice Biennale by an artist called Lawrence Carroll. Carroll was someone I hadn’t previously come across, but I enjoyed standing considering his work, not least because the rest of the crowds largely bypassed it – a quiet moment during a hectic day.


Of course, we also followed the crowds and spent some time in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms, which despite being packed with visitors offered a truly special experience; head pulled back, gazing upwards, jostling alongside people from all over the world gathered to see Michelangelo’s painting.

During an optional bonus visit, we were treated to a guided tour by Dr. Thomas-Leo True, Assistant Director at the British School at Rome. Erudite and enthusiastic, Dr. True explained that the Baroque is ‘fundamentally Roman’ and invited us to play ‘Borromini or Bernini; who is best?’ by looking at the neighbouring churches of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Borromini, and Bernini’s Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale. It proved a fascinating insight into the differing styles within the Baroque movement and how the best architecture often comes out of challenging sites.

A steep climb up the Janiculum Hill (or a relaxing cab ride for some!) lead to San Pietro in Montorio to see the Borgherini Chapel featuring Sebastiano’s Flagellation and Transfiguration (1516–1524). Many of the group had seen the chapel recreated in the current National Gallery exhibition, Michelangelo & Sebastiano (for which Piers was an academic consultant) and it was fascinating to see the real thing. As was often the case, thanks to being with Peter and Piers the priest kindly obliged us with extra lighting, allowing us to see the best of the work in an otherwise dark corner; Sebastiano’s use of oil, his employment of colours from Venice, and the sense of space he created in the shallow chapel. Outside, we explored the small but beautifully formed Tempietto by Bramante.


As a second-year MA History of Art with Photography student, whose option modules all dealt with much more recent art, I approached the trip with less knowledge than some of the other students, but it offered a fascinating experience. I was able to catch some more contemporary exhibitions in my spare time, such as a retrospective of Letizia Battaglia’s photographs at the MAXXI gallery. I was also lucky to benefit from the knowledge of other students, visiting churches with some of them in our spare time to see Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and Carravagio’s The Conversion on the Way to Damascus and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter.

It was a privilege to visit the historic sites with Peter and Piers who were so kind in sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with the group. The week was absolutely fascinating and a reminder of why the History of Art is so worthy of study. The chance to see a city through its art and architecture, surrounded by fellow enthusiasts and lead by two experts was an amazing opportunity and without doubt one of the highlights of my time at Birkbeck. When next year’s trip is open for booking please do not hesitate to secure your place! And enjoy every minute.”


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Arts Week is Nigh!

There is so much to tell you about this week, I fear I will be unable to cram everything in! I’ll start with a word on upcoming Careers and Employability events. On Thursday 18th May, at 6pm, the Careers and Employability team will be running an event called ‘What Employers Want; Media’, featuring alumni speaking about their careers and experiences post-Birkbeck. There will be some guests of particular interest to students in the department, notably Cristina Lombardo who completed our MA History of Art in 2009, and is now Rights and Clearances Manager at VICE Media. The following week, we have the last of the workshops in the series which Careers and Employability and the History of Art department have been running this academic year, thanks to support from the Alumni Fund. Sign up and come along to the Keynes library on Wednesday 24th May, at 4pm, to find out how to ‘Manage your Digital Footprint’.

Arts week 2017 banner

Arts week is nigh! I hope everyone has been combing through the lists of events which will ensure the School of Arts will be a hum of activity and excitement all the way from next Monday through and into the weekend – and reserving their free places on Eventbrite. In my last blog posting, I pulled out some highlights, from an introduction to the upcoming Peltz exhibition of works from the Adamson collection, through a session on modernist architecture, to a panel discussion about the politics of landscape. And don’t forget the photo competition! Do you have any photographs of animals who look like politicians?! If so, send them in – there are prizes to be had!

The first Arts Week event organised by my colleagues here in the History of Art department will take place on the Monday: Steve Edwards and Patrizia di Bello speaking about the Jo Spence archive. And here’s Steve to tell you about a valuable new addition recently made to that archive:

Steve Edwards on Picture Post

“The History of Art department has just acquired a complete set of the photo-magazine Picture Post (forty thick volumes). We are excited to have found a good-quality complete run – which is now rare.

Set up by Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian picture editor and refugee from Hitler, Picture Post was published by Hulton Press from 1938 to 1957. Lorant bought with him new ideas from Germany concerning journalism, photography and magazine layout and he hired important photographers, including Bert Hardy and Kurt Hutton. Tom Hopkinson took over as editor in 1940. At its high point during WWII, Picture Post was selling nearly two-million copies every week.

Accounts of modern media often focus on film and television, but the picture magazines were at the heart of the new visual culture of modernity. Along with magazines such as Life (USA), Vu (France), USSR in Construction, and AIZ (Germany), Picture Post pioneered an approach that combined photographs edited in narrative sequences with captions and short news items, to tell stories about everyday life. Often this meant focusing on aspects of society overlooked by the more traditional press, whether unemployment or an afternoon at the football. Significantly, Picture Post also paid a lot of attention to women’s experience and employed Grace Robertson as a photographer as well as women writers such as Dorothy Parker and Ann Scott-James. This focus on the ordinary and the ignored doesn’t mean it ignored politics; Picture Post covered world events as well as British life and took a particularly clear anti-fascist stand.

Our set of Picture Post will prove invaluable for teaching and research in the history of photography, but it will also be important for anyone interested in the visual culture of the twentieth century. It will be housed in the Jo Spence Memorial Library at Gordon Square (at one point Spence worked on the magazine). We will be organising special sessions with Picture Post for those interested, so look out for announcements.”


Even with everyone caught up in preparatory work for Arts Week, there are lots of other activities and events to tell you about. On Tuesday 17th May, at 7pm, you can go and hear Gabriel Koureas at the newly re-designed National Army Museum, taking part in a panel organised to coincide with the current War Paint exhibition. The discussion will look at how art – historically and today – influences public perceptions of the army. Or, this very evening (5pm, Wednesday 10th May, Keynes Library), the Murray Seminar will be given by Joanna Cannon, on her ‘Second Thoughts: Redating the Frescoes by the Maestro di San Francesco at Assisi’. The mid-thirteenth-century murals in the Lower Church of San Francesco at Assisi mark a key moment in the construction of the narrative of the life of St Francis.  But when, precisely, was that moment? Dr. Cannon will be revisiting her often-quoted article of 1982, ‘Dating the Frescoes of the Maestro di San Francesco at Assisi’, to argue against some of her earlier conclusions, and to explore the implications of this change of mind.


I shall save further news until my next posting, as I’m keen to hand over the rest of this blog to another of my colleagues, Zoë Opačić, to tell you about a very grave and pressing situation concerning Central European University, where Zoë will be spending a couple of weeks later this month as a visiting lecturer. If, having read her piece, you would like to add your voice to the widespread protest against what’s happening in Hungary, then do sign the petition.

Zoë Opačić on Central European University

“Just over a month ago the Hungarian government passed new legislation that not only takes a step towards limiting academic freedom but also makes the existence of Central European University all but impossible. CEU is a liberal English-language university accredited in the US and Hungary and situated in Budapest. It was founded in 1991 through generous sponsorship of the philanthropist George Soros with the aim of promoting democratic values at the end of the Cold War. For decades this university has provided a truly international platform for research and has been particularly active in bringing together young scholars from the former Yugoslavia under the umbrella of scholarship. In my field, the Middle Ages, CEU has been one of the leading and most forward looking institutions, always coming up with new initiatives, collaborative projects and publications:

The current threat to the university’s survival in Budapest is one of several questionable policies promoted in recent years by the nationalist Hungarian government under PM Viktor Orban. However, the issues at stake are universal – the freedom of universities in Europe and everywhere to exist and operate without political pressure. Over the last few weeks thousands of Hungarians, supported by the international community, have protested on social media, on the streets of Budapest and abroad, but the government in Hungary remained unmoved. Recently the European Commission finally stepped in and sanctioned Hungary for its undemocratic education laws. However, as things stand, the university’s licence will be withdrawn in October, leading to its departure from Hungary and the loss of hundreds of jobs. In the words of the CEU’s rector, Michael Ignatieff: ‘This is a line in the sand. If universities can be shut down in the heart of Europe, then what does it mean for the future of democracy?’

Many of us at Birkbeck have had contacts with CEU and with its scholars and alumni. In 1993, Birkbeck’s distinguished philosopher, Eric Hobsbawm, gave a prestigious lecture at the CEU (later published in the New York Review) reflecting on Central Europe, which he described as the backbone of the European Union. He also singled out the political role of historians, especially their duty to resist the formation of national, ethnic, and other myths. Unfortunately many of his warnings proved prescient.

I will be taking up a position as a visiting lecturer at the CEU for two weeks at the end of May. As well as teaching a post-graduate course and delivering a public lecture, I hope to extend our support to colleagues and fellow students in Budapest.

If you wish to find out more about the current state of play, follow this link to BBC news, and get more information about CEU’s on-going campaign and ways to support it here:”

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Welcome back – and congratulations to today’s graduates!

Welcome to the summer term! I hope everyone had a good break over the vacation – although I know for many of our students the Easter break is a particularly busy one, not least for those final year undergraduates coming back to submit their dissertations at the start of the new term, as well as to face upcoming exams. I see from the timetable that they’re starting pretty early this year – I think those BA students taking Michael Douglas-Scott’s option module on art in Renaissance Venice will have the dubious honour of being the first in the department to take their seats in the examination halls, on 15th May! I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone the very best of luck!

It was a great pleasure to be at the Spring graduation ceremony earlier today, to see those who have completed their studies have their names read out, and shake the hands of the Master of Birkbeck, Professor David Latchman, and our President, Baroness Joan Bakewell. I was up on the platform with my colleagues Leslie Topp, Fiona Candlin and Zoe Opacic, beaming as we watched students from a range of our programmes go up, from the Certificate through to the PhD. Many of our Masters students who completed their studies last Autumn were there – here’s a lovely picture of Dorigen Caldwell with one of them, John Peacock, also a graduate from our BA History of Art, and now Liaison Officer for the department and the London Art History Society.


I am going to allow myself a personal indulgence here, and to say how proud I am of two students who I supervised who gained their doctorates today: Dr. Hannah Armstrong, who did her thesis on the sadly vanished Wanstead house and its grounds, and Dr. Amelia Smith, who worked on the building, collections and gardens at Longford Castle – very well done to the two of you! (I really am as delighted as I look here…)


So, onto events… A few weeks ago now, a new exhibition opened in the Peltz Gallery. El Encanto will run until 4th May. This is a display of work by the artist Freddy Dewe Mathews, looking at the history of the rubber industry in the Putumayo – a large area of the Colombian Amazon once heavily exploited for this naturally occurring resource. The show brings together the Third and First Worlds, tradition and modernity, past and present in fascinating ways, comprising 16mm film, sculptures, engravings, drawings, photographs, and installations. Do pay a visit! There’s also an opportunity to hear the artist himself in conversation with curator Robert Leckie, discussing issues of landscape, progress, international trade and local mythology, the day before the show closes: 3rd May, 7-8pm.

El Encanto

Gabriel Koureas, ever busy, has co-organised and will be speaking at a one day symposium on 5th May, dealing with ‘Transcultural Memories of Mediterranean Port Cities: 1850 to the Present’. This event will explore the intersections between Mediterranean cultures with a specific focus on visual, textual and material representations of Mediterranean port cities, asking: what is it that binds these cities together other than geographical positioning? What do representations reveal in relation to shared Mediterranean identities? What were the effects of colonization? How did the British, Ottoman, French and Italian Empires which all, at various times, ruled over these cities, alter their cultural and memorial fabric? For more information, do take a look at the full programme here.

Then, we’ll be into Arts Week 2017! The programme is now fully live, and I do urge you to follow this link, and to have a look at the more than fifty events which will be taking place between Monday 15th and Saturday 20th May. There really is something for everyone and, as ever, it’s all free, and everyone is welcome! Share as widely as you can with colleagues, friends, family, and come and be part of the buzz around the School of Arts that week. The History of Art department, as always, is very well represented.

  • On Monday 15th May, Steve Edwards and Patrizia di Bello will be doing a workshop on the Jo Spence Archive and Memorial Library.
  • Wednesday 17th sees a discussion of ‘Art Nouveau and Modernist Architecture’, led by Patrizia (more than doing her bit for Arts Week!), Tag Gronberg and Sabine Wieber. It will focus on two iconic buildings: the Jugendstil Photo Studio Elvira in Munich (1896 by August Endell) and E-1027 (1926-1929) built in the south of France by Eileen Gray with Jean Badovici.
  • On Thursday 18th, you are spoiled for choice! At 6pm, you could listen to a panel discussion introducing the exhibition of works from the Adamson Collection, which opens in the Peltz Gallery at the start of Arts Week: ‘Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection’. Or you could listen to three distinguished speakers on the subject of ‘Landscape and Power’. Swati Chattopadhyay, David Haney and Birkbeck’s own Joel McKim will be sharing new research on the politics of landscape in colonial Bengal, Nazi Germany and post-9/11 America. Utoya MemorialStarting later that evening, at 7.40pm, Aris Sarafianos – a scholar at the University of Ioannina in Greece, but with us for the summer as a Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck – will be giving a lecture hosted by the Eighteenth-Century Research Group, which I co-organise: ‘The Sublime Real: Painful Excitements in Eighteenth-Century Art and Criticism’.
  • More delights courtesy of my colleagues follow on the Friday, 19th May. We have the Rome lecture, organised by Dorigen Caldwell. There’s a showing of ‘The Price of Desire’, the 2014 film dealing with Eileen Gray’s iconic modernist villa E1027, picking up on Wednesday’s discussion. Or you could take part in an evening with members from Ph: The Photography Research Network. Notions of reality will be explored through work from emerging artists/researchers Lauren Winsor, Anne Pfautsch and Alexandra Hughes.

I’m going to end with a word from our new Professor in the History and Theory of Photography, Steve Edwards, but before I do, a couple more quick things to squeeze in. To all those potential applicants for our full-time Wallace studentship, to support study on one of our Masters programmes in the department in the coming academic year, 2017-18, do remember that the deadline is coming up in just a few days, on 30th April… And I can’t resist inserting this lovely photograph of Laura Jacobus with T.J. Clark at his Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities lecture last month, on ‘What can Art History Say about Giotto?’

© 2017 Birkbeck Media Services / Dominic Mifsud

Steve Edwards, Professor in the History and Theory of Photography

“Having completed my classes for my modules, I finally have a moment to say hello to you all. It has been a hectic few months since moving to Birkbeck as Professor of History and Theory of Photography in September. I previously worked at the Open University and haven’t taught classes for a long time. The preparation has involved a lot of work (PowerPoint!) and the new systems take a bit of getting used to, but it has been great to engage with students and colleagues. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy teaching and that the history of photography can be so stimulating. The students I have worked with have been engaged and enthusiastic, so thank you all for making my first year inspiring.

I was recruited to develop the history and theory of photography at Birkbeck. Dr Patrizia di Bello has done excellent work establishing the subject in the department, both as a topic for teaching and in establishing the Photographic History and Theory Research Centre. As many of you will know, we run an MA History of Art with a Photography pathway. Patrizia’s work has drawn out the current enthusiasm for studying and researching photography, and indicated the scope for developing this area.”

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Enjoy the Easter vacation!

We’re now in the last week of the Spring term – a big week for the History of Art department, as our Internal Review takes place this evening (Wednesday) and all day tomorrow. Every department in the College has such a review every four years, and it’s a key moment to pause and reflect on every aspect of our programmes – from admission, through curricula and learning resources, to assessment. The Review starts at 6pm today with a group of students meeting with the panel, and I want to take this opportunity to express our thanks again to those of you who have so kindly agreed to take the time to be part of this event. When we sent out emails to a range of students from across our programmes, from the Certificate through to the PhD, inviting participation in this meeting, we were so pleased to receive so many willing and enthusiastic responses.

Before I move onto telling you about some departmental news from the last couple of weeks, I want to remind you of a couple of funding opportunities….

One is the London Art History Society research fund, available to support the research of MA and MPhil/PhD students in the History of Art department. The London Art History Society is an organisation affiliated to the Birkbeck History of Art society, and it has generously established this fund to help our postgraduate students with expenses relating to their research. This academic year, MA students can apply for a sum of money up to a maximum of £150, while MPhil and PhD students are eligible to make an application for a sum up to a maximum of £300. Any research-related expenses are potentially eligible, including travel, accommodation, photography and photocopying. We award this money on a first come first served basis, so please do get in any applications you’d like to make as soon as you can. Having met with a number of Masters students over the last few weeks, to discuss developing research projects and dissertation plans, I know that many of you are now concentrating on these independent pieces of work, and so are in a position to start making good use of this fund. You can find out details of how to apply here. This is also a handy opportunity to recommend that everyone keep an eye on the Society’s programme of events. Having just had a rummage through their website, I’m reminded that a lecture by our own Tag Gronberg is coming up soon: On the scent of Art Deco, Tuesday 11 April!

The other opportunity is one I’d like to flag up to those BA and Graduate Certificate students due to complete this summer. Last year, we were lucky enough to be able to announce a generous donation from Graham and Denise Wallace, to fund a series of studentships for our Masters programmes. These studentships are available for all three of our MAs: in History of Art; History of Art with Photography; and Museum Cultures. This donation is in honour of the History of Art department’s upcoming Anniversary, next academic year, celebrating 50 years of widening access to the discipline. We were delighted to award the first studentships last summer, and we are now advertising one full-time Masters studentship for the coming academic year, 2017-18. This is non-repayable, and will cover the successful student’s fees and a contributory stipend of £2000 pa. These studentships are available to Home/EU students, and are allocated on two criteria: academic excellence and financial need. When making the award, the panel will give priority to those applicants who are able to demonstrate strong promise for Masters work, but who would be unable to progress to taught postgraduate study without financial support. If you are considering a full-time Masters programme next academic year, and feel that you can make a strong case for a studentship on these grounds, then do take a look at this webpage to find full details. The deadline is the end of next month, Sunday 30 April 2017. 

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So, onto some news – beginning with a couple of follow-ups. In a previous blog posting, I advertised a lecture by T.J Clark, organised by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities on 2 March, asking ‘What can Art History Say about Giotto?’. My attention was drawn the other day to this lovely comment about Professor Clark’s talk on our School of Arts facebook page: ‘I went and it was amazing – never seen an audience so enraptured. Can’t wait for the new book…’ You’ll also remember that, for the last blog, Charlotte Ashby wrote a great piece about her new book, Modernism in Scandinavia: Art, Architecture and Design, recently published by Bloomsbury. I have a copy of the flyer in front of me, with some impressive plaudits. This from Professor David Jackson of the University of Leeds:Charlotte Ashby’s impressively wide-ranging survey of Nordic modernism is a timely and much needed examination of the complex and interrelated strands of Scandinavian innovation in theory and practice. Its inclusive and multi-disciplinary approach, giving recognition to the internal and international impulses that fuelled the phenomenal successes of progressive Nordic culture, offers a fresh and original consideration that will appeal to the specialist and general reader alike.’ What great feedback! Charlotte celebrated with a launch in the Keynes library last week, presenting some of the material from the book in a fascinating lecture before the guests tucked into their wine and nibbles.


Meanwhile, Gabriel Koureas has been very busy, speaking at and co-organising an international conference on ‘Museums and their Publics at Sites of Conflicted Histories’, at the recently opened POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw (13-15 March). Gabriel’s paper was entitled ‘Conflicted Histories in the Re-designed Imperial War Museum London: Heroes and Perpetrators’. He explored what he terms ‘selective empathy’ in the space of the re-designed Imperial War Museum in London, through two particular objects. One was the ‘L’ Battery QF 13 pdr Mk 1 (Nery Gun), which has become symbolic of the First World War since it was first exhibited in 1921, currently re-positioned in the atrium of the museum. The second was the Ferret Mk II, 4×4 Scout United Nations Car, that served in Cyprus. In his paper, Gabriel unravelled the dynamics and exchanges that take place between memory, history, victim and perpetrator on the one hand, and empathy on the other.

Gabriel was not the only member of the School of Arts at Birkbeck to head over to Warsaw for the conference, however – it was a veritable delegation! Anthony Bale from English and Humanities spoke about ‘Blood in London’, Diana Popescu, a Research Fellow at the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, gave a paper on ‘Performing local memories of multicultural pasts in contemporary Poland’, Kasia Murawska-Muthesius, from our department, engaged with the ‘The Critical Museum’ and its debates – while Annie Coombes was also on the academic organising committee. I hear that Kasia organised a traditional Polish dinner in Warsaw for the Birkbeck group – sounds like a lot of fun!

I shall now sign off for the Easter vacation. I know there is lots of hard work to be done over the next few weeks – not least by those undergraduates who have exams coming up in the summer, and especially by final year BA students who are also submitting their dissertations at the start of the new term. I hope you do all get the chance for a break as well. But, before I go, a couple of dates for your diaries. A few days after we get back after the vacation, the History and Theory of Photography Centre will be holding its next lecture. Dr. Christina Riggs, from the University of East Anglia, will be coming to speak about Photographing Tutankhamun: Photo-objects and the archival afterlives of colonial archaeology (Thursday 27 April, 6-7:30pm, Room 106, School of Arts). And do make a note that Birkbeck Arts Week 2017 will be taking place between 15 and 19 May – watch this space for further announcements! Those of you who have been with us in previous years will rightly be expecting a typically packed week of free events, from lectures and workshops through to performances and guided walks. I had a sneak peek at the draft programme the other day, and it looks as exciting as ever…

Arts week 2017 banner

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The Birkbeck Hours, biopolitics, and Bolivia

I want to open this blog with a big thank you to the three alumni who took time out of their demanding schedules to come back to the History of Art department at Birkbeck, and to give talks to students about their careers – about what they do, and how they have developed their careers in the Arts: Sonia Solicari, Alice Payne and Jacqueline Riding. I was able to go along to the last in the series, and hear Jackie Riding, freelance art historian, author, and historical consultant, speaking about her diverse career: from curatorial work at the Palace of Westminster and her position as founding Director of the Handel House Museum – through her experience of the Clore Leadership Programme – to the recent publication of her book on the Jacobites, her curatorial work at Wilton’s Music Hall (the oldest surviving Music Hall in the world, in Whitechapel) and her work as historical consultant on Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner film. I thought I had a busy professional life, but, as Jackie laid out her current projects, I wanted to go and have a lie down! Highlights include: involvement in the restoration of J.M.W. Turner’s house in Twickenham, opening soon – consultancy work on Mike Leigh’s forthcoming film about the Peterloo Masacre of 1819 – and curating an exhibition at the Foundling Museum, which opens on 29th September this year: ‘Basic Instincts: Love, Lust and Violence in the Art of Joseph Highmore’.

Work continues apace on the other elements of our Careers and Employability programme. I look forward to announcing work shadowing opportunities in the summer term in due course, and the next of our workshops is coming up on 15th March: CVs for Arts (4-5pm, room 106, Gordon Square). Do sign up for your free place if you haven’t already!

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A couple of news items before I whet your appetites with the wide range of events coming up over the next couple of weeks. Just before Christmas, I included the exciting fact that the School of Arts building was to be used as a film set in this blog – and the tantalising detail that this would involve an actor being thrown through Gabriel Koureas’s window! We were all sworn to secrecy about the precise nature of the filming – but I can now formally reveal that 42-47 Gordon Square will be seen playing the part of Baker Street in the upcoming Sony film, ‘Holmes and Watson’ – a comedic take featuring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.

The other piece of news is that the Derek Jarman Lab have made a short film about the rediscovery of four medieval books in Birkbeck’s library by Professor Anthony Bale in the English and Humanities department. Anthony brought these to light when teaching a class on ‘Medieval Material Texts’ on the MA Medieval Literature and Culture – three of them had never been catalogued, and did not seem to have been viewed since about 1991! They include a book of hours from northern France, dated c.1400, and a history of the Trojan War, printed in Venice in 1499, Dictys Cretensis & Dares Phrygius. Do take a look at the film about this exciting find – it’s fascinating!

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)

from the Birkbeck Hours

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So, onto upcoming events. The Architecture, Space and Society Centre is as busy as ever! The next annual ‘Thinkers in Architecture’ lecture will be held on Monday 20th March (6pm, Keynes Library). Professor Peg Rawes, from the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, will be talking about ‘Housing Biopolitics and Care’, engaging with Spinoza’s seventeenth-century philosophy and Foucault’s writings on technologies of the self within a biopolitical discussion of the UK housing crisis.


It’s also well worth heading to the ASSC’s website, to read Leslie Topp’s write-up of the most recent event in the ‘New Books’ series, held to mark the publication of a collected volume entitled Healing Spaces, Modern Architecture and the Body (Routledge, 2016).

Meanwhile, the next Murray seminar is coming up next week, on Wednesday 15th March: Péter Bokody, speaking on ‘The Politicization of Rape: Giotto’s Allegory of Injustice in Padua’. Dr. Bokody, from the University of Plymouth, will be looking at the allegory of Injustice in the Arena Chapel in Padua, by Giotto di Bondone, and the allegory of War in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338-39), as key allegorical images of rape. These two monuments are well-known amongst scholars, but they have not, to date, been fully explored as representations of sexual violence – Dr. Bokody’s focus in this paper.

In my blog, I concentrate on events organised by my colleagues in the History of Art department, but it’s always worth keeping an eye on what’s going on in the School of Arts more broadly. Colleagues in Film have been working hard on this year’s Essay Film Festival, which runs from 24th March until 1st April. They’ve got some great filmakers coming to Birkbeck to show and share their work, including Babette Mangolte and Jocelyne Saab. Screenings will be taking place at the ICA, the Birkbeck Cinema, and the Goethe-Institute, and some events are free. As well as going to the website, you can also follow what’s happening on Twitter and/or Facebook.

Finally, as you’ve been negotiating your way around our currently non-functional front door (at least the attendants on the front desk are warmer than usual!), you may have spotted that there’s a new exhibition on in the Peltz Gallery, here in the School of Arts: ‘Decolonising Witchcraft: Portraits of Traditional Healers in Bolivia‘.

Bolivian pic.jpg

This display is a collaboration between the photographer  David Green, and the geographer, Dr. Kate Maclean, who has worked in Bolivia since 2006. It portrays the women whose livelihoods involve the traditional rituals, artefacts and medicines that play a central role in culture and health in Bolivia. The portraits are accompanied by quotes from the women themselves, discussing how they came to this profession and their role in the community. The exhibition opened on Friday, with a panel discussion, and will run until 25th March, so do drop in when you’ve some time on your way in or out of the building. The closing event, on 22nd March, will also be of great interest to everyone interested in the history and theory of photography. Join David Green, our own Patrizia di Bello and others for ‘Photographing the Rituals of Healing and Dying in Latin America‘, to consider some of the visual and ethical challenges of documentary photography.

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Two reminders, two events, and Charlotte Ashby’s new book on Modernism in Scandinavia

I hope everyone on our taught programmes is enjoying the relative tranquillity of reading week! A crucial time to take stock – have a break from those dashes from work or home to make it into Birkbeck for 6pm – to catch up on reading and to make headway on essays and dissertations. I also know that for all those with school-age children out there, the fact this is one reading week in the academic year which coincides with the half-term break is decidedly handy!

The two reminders up first. I’m delighted to report that the first of our Careers and Employability masterclasses yesterday evening, led by Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum, was a great success. Gabriel Koureas chaired the session, and dropped me a line afterwards to say that Sonia had provided a fascinating discussion of her experience in both large and small museums, and a host of useful insights into applying for jobs, CVs and interviews. The next in the series is a masterclass led by Alice Payne, who completed the Graduate Certificate in History of Art with us in 2011, followed by the MA History of Art in 2013. Alice has been working at Art UK since 2011, and is now Head of Content. She has project managed the development of the wonderful Art Detective website, and the build and rebrand of the Art UK website. Currently, Alice is project managing an audience broadening initiative. Do reserve a place on Eventbrite to come along on Tuesday 21st February, 4pm-5.30pm (Keynes Library), to hear Alice speak about her career, and to ask her questions about professional opportunities and development in her field. You can also follow Alice on twitter: @Alice_Payne__

The second reminder is to all final year undergraduate students to complete the National Student Survey (NSS)! I am assured by those in the know that it doesn’t take long at all to complete, and it really does matter to us in the department. I know that these kinds of questionnaires can feel like box-ticking exercises, and a chore, but they do matter to us, and we take them very seriously. We have a whole host of mechanisms by which we scrutinise responses to these surveys and reflect on our courses accordingly: we discuss them at committees; we respond to them formally in annual programme monitoring exercises; and we’ll be talking about them more at our upcoming Internal Review. Birkbeck are currently running a “You said, we did…” initiative, to show how the results of student surveys do lead very directly to improvements in our provision. Take a look at the Student Feedback webpage to find out more. The results of the NSS are also published on Unistats, so, in addition, it provides a useful guide to people working out what they want to study, and where.

Onto the two upcoming events that I’m very keen to advertise. On Wednesday next week, 22nd February, Dr. Laura Jacobus will be giving a paper in the Murray research seminar series (5pm, Keynes Library), with the intriguing title: ‘”Mea culpa?” Penitence, Enrico Scrovegni and me’. Until very recently, the Arena Chapel in Padua was thought to be commissioned as an act of restitution for usury, and its frescoes by Giotto as an expression of penitence on the part of the patron Enrico Scrovegni. Laura and colleagues in the field have challenged that view. But, two of her most recent discoveries have the potential to reinforce the established view, and to undermine her own. Laura will be asking: what happens when a researcher uncovers inconvenient truths, and what is to be done? Go along to the Keynes to find out, and to reflect on the matter over refreshments!

Laura has also asked me to publicise an upcoming CHASE workshop on Medieval and Early Modern Spaces and Places, organised by the Open University and the Architecture, Space and Society Centre here at Birkbeck. This is for MPhil/PhD students, and will take place on 24th February. It’s a fascinating programme, and the morning features Laura, along with Dr. Robert Maniura and Dr. Caroline Goodson from the Department of History, Classics and Archaelogy. Interested research students are strongly encouraged to sign up!

medivial placesThere are a number of key research interests in the History of Art department here, and one is the need to move beyond the regular stamping grounds of Art History. This is true in a whole host of ways – but one in particular is in terms of geography. The desire to look at areas of Europe typically neglected by art historians is at the heart of much of Robert Maniura’s recent work, and it is a major concern of Dr. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius. Kasia recently spoke at a symposium in Paris, organised by the Centre Allemand d’Histoire de l’Art, as part of a series of events devoted to the methods of art history in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Kasia’s paper, entitled ‘Welcome to Slaka, post scriptum’, returned to the issue of the applicability of Postcolonial Discourse Analysis to studying art in East Central Europe.

Meanwhile, Dr. Charlotte Ashby’s work revolves around her interest in Nationalism, transnationalism and modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in art, design and architecture, with a particular focus on Scandinavia. And I am delighted to announce that her new book is imminently to be published by Bloomsbury press! Over to Charlotte, to tell you more:


Charlotte Ashby, on Modernism in Scandinavia: Art, Architecture and Design (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)

“In 2011 the department gave me the opportunity to run a Cert HE module on Nordic Art. This module developed from the general overview of Nordic culture that I had gained during my PhD, which focused on Finnish architecture. A course on Finnish architecture alone would have been too niche, but I was excited to be able to share my enthusiasm for the art, architecture and design of the Nordic region with Birkbeck students. From this first class I continued to develop my material up into a level 6 option module that I ran at Birkbeck in 2013-14, and again in 2015-16. I also taught on Scandinavian art and design at Oxford University, and as part of the V&A education programme.

All along the way, students would ask me what book they should buy to further their studies – but there was nothing I could really recommend that tried to cover the broad field. There was a fair amount written in English, but it was often out of print, or published by small academic and museum presses in the Nordic countries without international distribution. In addition, all the available books were either about fine art or about architecture and design. No one, it seemed, had considered looking at the relationship between the two, except in the form of national histories of art. Even in these cases, the essays on fine art were written by art historians and those on architecture by architectural historians. My training, practice and teaching as an art historian has always ranged across art, architecture and design as intimately interconnected cultural activities, and this is an approach shared by colleagues at Birkbeck. Especially in the small and interconnected art worlds of the Nordic countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, maintaining divisions between the arts was, in my view, artificial. After three years of teaching on the subject, I decided that the thing to do was to write that book myself.

I wanted the text to capture what I attempted to do in my classes at Birkbeck: to introduce students to the rich visual cultures of the Nordic countries and at the same time consider debates relating to modernity, modernism and national identity. These were among the key factors that had transformed these cultures between the mid nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries. Covering the art, architecture and design of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland was a potentially unmanageable, huge task. I wanted to avoid anything like an exhaustive survey, with an endless series of short entries on unfamiliar figures and places. I could still remember struggling to read such books myself as a student. As a teacher, I find the case study the best teaching tool. New ideas, themes and relationships can be much more graspable when applied to a concrete example. As an undergraduate, I had shifted my degree subject from History to Art History precisely because the social and cultural forces I wanted to examine were so much more legible to me in the subject and handling of a painting or the ornament of a building.

My book, therefore, is arranged as a series of case studies drawn from across the five countries of the Nordic region (sorry Estonia). These case studies were selected to open up the relatively unknown world of Nordic art, architecture and design and allow for both a sense of overview and a window onto the broad array of factors shaping culture in the region. I attempted to strike a balance between a ‘greatest hits’ selection of works of well-established significance and being willfully iconoclastic: no one wants the first book on Scandinavian art they buy to not mention Alvar Aalto or Edvard Munch. I wanted to give a sense of the wider cultural forces shaping the period as well as the developing infrastructure of cultural institutions, the professionalization of art and design practice and the markets within which works were produced. The book is arranged chronologically, but various themes run back and forth allowing for connections to appear between the different countries and across the decades. Some of these key themes are art and the national landscape, the entry of women artists into the profession and the desire to represent national and civic identity in architecture.

The support of the department and of the Birkbeck students I’ve taught, who enthusiastically and intelligently embraced this relatively little known art historical area, lies behind the success of this project and the book that I’m now proud to bring out.”

I shall indulge in some shameless promotion of a colleague’s work, and recommend that everyone reading this goes onto Bloomsbury’s website to pre-order their copy of this fascinating book as soon as they can! 

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Ranging from ‘Quality Assurance Mechanisms’ to Diamonds and Giotto….

I hope everyone’s Spring term is going well so far? It’s been a busy few weeks for the Department. Lots of marking – and we’ve been continuing work on our Careers and Employability programme, putting the finishing touches to our upcoming series of masterclasses with alumni, for example. An email went out to all students a couple of days ago, so I do hope that lots of you have been signing up for these valuable opportunities to hear from, and talk to, people who have developed fascinating careers in the Arts: Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum, in a couple of weeks’ time (Monday 13th February); Alice Payne, Head of Content at Art UK (Tuesday 21st February); and Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant (Tuesday 28th February).

We’ve also been bustling about, preparing and submitting materials for an upcoming Internal Review, due to take place in late March. This is a process which every department in the College goes through every four years – as one of what’s known as our ‘quality assurance mechanisms’. It’s not the most catchy label(!), but these are the vital ways in which we constantly monitor our programmes of study, check that everything is working as well as possible, and think about ways to improve and develop what we do. Quality assurance mechanisms include some things you’ll be familiar with as students here – the module questionnaires we ask you to complete at the end of every course, or the Staff-Student Exchange meetings we hold in the Autumn and Spring terms, for example. They also include some things you might not be as aware of – the role of external examiners in checking our processes and results at every level of study, for example, or the paperwork we need to get approved when we want to develop a new module, or change one we’ve taught before. The Internal Review at the end of this term will begin with the panel – three colleagues from other Schools in the College, and an external specialist in History of Art – meeting with a range of our students, to chat with them about their experiences here. I’ll be emailing some of you over the next week or so, to ask if you would be able to take part in this process – and we’ll all be very grateful indeed to those who agree!

Another of these quality assurance mechanisms that’s very much on our minds at the moment is the National Student Survey – now open for responses from all final year undergraduate students. Birkbeck runs a range of surveys, which are crucial for this process of reflecting on what we should be doing more of, and what we can improve – but the NSS results are also vital for prospective students, considering where they might like to study.

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I have lots of upcoming events to tell you about, but a couple of pieces of news first.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will be familiar with the name of Gary Haines, I’m sure! Gary is one of our research students in the department, working on cultural perceptions of the blinded British soldier in the first world war. He’s written for the blog in the past about Access, Birkbeck and our Disability Office, and also about his valuable work with Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people. I’ve been in touch with Gary this week, and was delighted to hear that he’s recently been appointed as Archivist at the Museum of Childhood – congratulations Gary! Inevitably, I have asked him to write another piece for us about this post – but, in the meantime, he’s tipped me off about a fun event, coming up at the Museum on the evening of Thursday 23rd February: an East London Quiz Night. Book your place if you fancy seeing just how much cockney rhyming slang you really do know!

The other piece of good news I wanted to share is a new publication from one of our new Professors: Steve Edwards. This is an edited volume, containing some 32 articles and essays by Adrian Rifkin, about art, urbanism, music and popular life in France and Britain over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As well as being editor, Steve has provided an extended introduction for Communards and Other Cultural Histories, in which he considers the key theories and disciplinary formations which underpin Rifkin’s essays.

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Onto events, and there are a couple of important ones coming up later this week. This Thursday, 2nd February (6-7.30pm, room B04), we will be welcoming Professor Marcia Pointon, giving a lecture entitled Robert Harris’s Photography at De Beer’s Kimberley Diamond Mine 1875-1890. This is co-hosted by the Departmental postgraduate seminar series and the History and Theory of Photography Centre. Professor Pointon’s name will be familiar to many of you, and we have been lucky enough to welcome her as a speaker at Birkbeck before – she came to give the Peter Murray Memorial Lecture some years ago. As someone who specialises in portraiture, I have many of her books on my shelves: a very well thumbed copy of Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England, for example, and her Portrayal and the Search for Identity, published by Reaktion in 2013. One of Professor Pointon’s many other interests is in gems and jewellery – the subject of her Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery (2009), and a theme which will be developed in her new book, soon to be published: Rocks, Ice and Dirty Stones: Diamond Histories. Thursday’s lecture is a key opportunity for our postgraduates to hear Professor Pointon’s very latest work in progress.


Then, this Friday, 3rd February (2-5pm, Keynes Library), the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre, together with the Centre for Medical Humanities, will be hosting the next in their ‘New Books’ series. This event will mark the recent publication of a collected volume entitled Healing Spaces, Modern Architecture and the Body (Routledge, 2016). The book explores the various ways in which architects, urban planners, medical practitioners, and others have applied modern ideas about health and the body to the spaces in which they live, work, and heal. The coeditors – Dr Sarah Schrank (Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach) and Dr Didem Ekici (Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Nottingham) – will be joined by Caitjan Gainty from Kings College London as respondent. The event is free, but you do need to book your place.

The final event I want to bring to your attention isn’t until Thursday 2nd March, but I’m sure it will soon get booked out – so reserve your place now! Birkbeck is currently extremely fortunate to have T.J. Clark as a Visiting Professor, with the Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities. Professor Clark will be asking ‘What can Art History Say about Giotto’? – get onto Eventbrite now to make sure you find out!

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Happy new year!

A very happy new year to all of you! I hope everyone had a good break, and a chance both to rest and make merry over the festive season? Quite a lot of coursework deadlines were set for this first week of term, so I know that many students will also have been beavering away on essays, in between the mince pies and mulled wine.

There’s been a lot of bustling around the School of Arts this week, with staff and students picking up the reins again, and diaries are already full with upcoming events. I told you all in my last blog that we’ve now finalised the next stage of our History of Art Careers and Employability programme: a series of three masterclasses with alumni. An email went out to all students just after that, with links to eventbrite pages for these sessions – but I wanted to take this opportunity to remind you to sign up at the earliest opportunity! The masterclasses are all free, and organised at a range of times of the day in the hope that there’s something to suit everyone – so do come along to hear stellar alumni talk about their fascinating jobs, and how their studies in the History of Art have helped them to advance their careers…

  • Monday 13th February, 6-7.30pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum.
  • Tuesday 21st February, 4-5.30pm, Keynes Library: a chance to hear from Alice Payne, Head of Content at the Public Catalogue Foundation (Art UK).
  • Tuesday 28th February, 7.30-9pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant to the likes of Mike Leigh.

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As ever, I have the pick of a host of events and activities taking place around the School, and the College as whole, to tell you about. On Monday, 16th January (6pm, The Bevan Suite, BMA House, Tavistock Square ), we’ll be welcoming back an ex-colleague, who will have taught many of you reading this blog – perhaps on the level 5 ‘Art and Society in the Nineteenth Century’ module, or on his level 6 ‘Gothic Revivals’ option: Dominic Janes. We were sad to say goodbye to Dominic a couple of years ago, but also very pleased for him as he left us to take up a new, prestigious post as Professor of Modern History at the University of Keele. Dominic will be back in Bloomsbury to give a lecture hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for Gender and Sexuality, in collaboration with The Raphael Samuel History Centre: British Caricature and Queer Fashioning 1750-1900In his talk, Dominic will be asking: what are the links between the histories of fashion and of sexuality? Did Oscar Wilde invent the image of the camp and dandified homosexual? Or did he simply become its most celebrated exemplar through the sensational media coverage of his trials in 1895? I know Dr. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius will be going along with those BA and Graduate Certificate students on her ‘Satire, Caricature, Cartoon’ option module – and I hope others of you will be able to join them. The lecture is free, but do book your place here on eventbrite.

dominics-lectureThere are so many other events I could tell you about – or remind you about, such as our own Dr. Sarah Thomas’s lunchtime talk at the National Gallery on 30th January, being given in conjunction with the Australian Impressionists exhibition, included in my last blog. It’s always well worth keeping an eye on the websites of Research Centres and Institutes of interest around Birkbeck. The Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, for example, has just announced its programme for this term. BIMI’s events take place in the Birkbeck Cinema, and most are free. Meanwhile, the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre is soon to host its first event of term: Professor Margaret Iversen from the University of Essex will be coming to give a paper entitled Profane Illuminations on Thursday 19th  January (6-7:30pm, Room 120 Gordon Square). Walter Benjamin credited the Surrealist movement with ‘a true, creative overcoming of religious illumination’ by replacing it with a kind of ‘profane illumination’. Professor Iversen’s talk will attend to two key moments in the art of producing technically mediated, profane illuminations: the innovations of the Surrealist movement itself; and Leo Steinberg’s ‘Other Criteria’, with its conception of the picture plane as a receptive surface or, as he put it, ‘a consciousness immersed in the brain of the city’. A great opportunity to hear from a great art historian of truly international repute.

Robert Rauschenberg, Rebus, 1955

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For the final part of this blog, I’m going to hand you over to Dr Laura Jacobus, my colleague who specialises in early Italian art. I mentioned the hugely successful Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality conference which she organised in late November in a previous posting. Laura kindly promised me a piece for the blog a while ago, and has just sent me this account of her research and teaching last term, and how the two fed into one another…

Laura Jacobus on research, and research-led teaching

“Last term was a busy one for me – so busy that I’ve only just got round to contributing to the blog. There were quite a few new lectures to prepare for remodelled undergraduate modules, plus a number of my own research projects to work on – and that got me thinking about what ‘research-led teaching’ means in my practice. Research-led teaching is what distinguishes university-level study in the UK, and our commitment to it is behind the fact that staff often seem to be on leave. In fact, Birkbeck allows each of us to take one term in nine as research leave, and one reason I was so busy last term is that some of the research I did on my last period of leave has started to come to fruition. There were several  elements of research that kept me occupied, and each of these fed into my teaching in one way or another. The question I’ve been asking is: how exactly did that happen?

A major element of last term’s research concerned medieval portraiture. I was working on the proofs of an article on questions of likeness in portraiture (it will be published in June 2017 in The Art Bulletin) and at the same time I was delivering a partially-remodelled series of lectures for the second-year BA course ‘Art and Architecture in Europe, 1250-1400’. This course has been running for a number of years, and, while I’ve always slipped material on portraiture into my lectures, I’d never devoted a whole class to the topic. That’s now changed, and I hope those of you who were there enjoyed the new lecture on Portraiture that resulted.


In reading week, I didn’t get much reading done! Instead, I went to a conference in New Orleans to deliver a paper on a related element of my research (also on portraiture, but using different case-studies to raise a different set of issues). This is the only conference in the world that deals exclusively with my area of expertise – fourteenth-century Italian art – and was a not-to-be-missed occasion, as it only takes place every few years. It was great to experience total immersion in research so related to my own (24 papers in over two days), and to get feedback on my research from those most in the know. Thankfully, it was both favourable and useful feedback, and I also heard a huge amount of really interesting research in my field. Some of this fed back into my teaching – pretty much immediately after touch-down in London, when I was able to share with my MA class some of the things I’d heard, and to give them a sense of what seems to be most  at the cutting-edge of research in this area (Materiality is going up. Gender is going down….).

A separate aspect of my research – perhaps not surprisingly given the trends I observed at the New Orleans conference – is that my work on women and art in fourteenth-century Italy has led me by a roundabout route to become interested in textiles. The coincidence of there being a major exhibition of English medieval embroidery at the V&A (Opus Anglicanum – a fabulous exhibition which ends 5 February – don’t miss it!) led me to organise a one-day conference at Birkbeck on Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality. It was great to see a number of past and present students there, and it proved to be a sell-out. I hope to get recordings of the papers on Panopto soon so that all Birkbeck students can hear them if they’re interested. Once again, I was prompted to try to integrate this research into teaching, and so our new level 4 ‘Material and Process in Art’ module, for BA and Certificate students, included a lecture from me on Textiles.

These are some of the obvious manifestations of what research-led teaching means in practice: students can get to hear what’s new in the discipline of Art History, before it’s even been published, while knowledge is actively being made. Students can also (I hope) benefit from being taught by people whose enthusiasm for their subject is constantly being refreshed at source by the chance to do research. And last, but very far from least, staff can benefit from the experience of communicating their ideas to students and having those ideas tested by the enquiring minds of the next generation of scholars.”

I entirely echo all those sentiments – thank you Laura!

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Wishing you all a very happy Christmas break!

Two days until the end of term – ten days until Christmas day – and I imagine everyone reading this feels well and truly ready for the upcoming break! Final classes are being attended, and essays are being uploaded at regular intervals onto Turnitin. However, I would thoroughly recommend taking ten minutes out, as soon as you’re able, to watch the new film about the Open House London weekend which has just been uploaded to our website. Back in mid October, I wrote about the third opening up of the School of Arts building for Open House London, and Michael Clegg, who has just finished his MA with us, and who acted as a student volunteer during the event, contributed a lovely piece to tell us all about it. I mentioned at the time that the Derek Jarman Lab – based in the School of Arts – were working on a film, about the building and the tours that weekend. I got to watch it for the first time the other week, and it’s truly wonderful. You can listen to Leslie Topp, Patrizia Di Bello, and Victoria McNeile (who did her PhD in the English and Humanities department here) talking about the Bloomsbury area – the townhouses we work and study in – their most famous inhabitants, the Stephens siblings – the paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant – and the life and work of Virginia Woolf. Their discussion ranges across architecture, space, social status and gender. There’s also a fascinating interview with Andy MacFee, the lead architect on the Cinema, describing how that multi-coloured, geometric part of our building was inspired by Virgina Woolf’s famous ‘stream of consciousness’. And the Derek Jarman Lab has contributed some lovely pieces of film, not to mention some nifty graphics, so that it’s impossible not to be reminded how lucky we are to be based here. I’ve been at Birkbeck for more than ten years now, and thought I knew a lot about 39-47 Gordon Square – but there was so much in the film that was new to me. Truly not to be missed!

Image result for cinema gordon square

I know most of us are struggling to think beyond Christmas, but I do have some important dates for your diaries….

First of all, I am delighted to announce that we have finished organising the next stage of our Careers and Employability programme for History of Art students in 2016-17. This, as I mentioned in a previous blog, will consist of a number of masterclasses with alumni, who have kindly agreed to come back and chat about their career trajectories: what they do, and how they got there. We will be circulating Eventbrite links in the near future, but do please make a note of these sessions: –

  • Monday 13th February 2017, 6-7.30pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Sonia Solicari, currently Head of the Guildhall Art Gallery, following curatorial positions at the V&A. However, in the new year, Sonia will be taking up the prestigious post of Director of the Geffrye Museum, on the retirement of David Dewing.
  • Tuesday 21st February 2017, 4-5.30pm, Keynes Library: a chance to hear from Alice Payne, Head of Content at the Public Catalogue Foundation (Art UK). Alice has project managed the development of the Art Detective website, the build and rebrand of the Art UK website, and is currently project managing an audience broadening initiative.
  • Tuesday 28th February 2017, 7.30-9pm, Keynes Library – come and meet Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant. Jackie has recently published a book about the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and, having worked on Mike Leigh’s award-winning Mr Turner film, is now advising on his upcoming film, Peterloo.

These events will all be free. And you’ll notice that, in recognition of the fact that there is no ideal timing for ‘extra’s at Birkbeck, we’ve gone for a range of options: one session in reading week; one session before teaching starts at 6pm; one session after most classes end at 7.30pm. Hopefully at least one of these will work for you! We’re very grateful indeed that Sonia, Alice and Jackie have agreed to take time out of their busy schedules to come and speak to us about their fascinating jobs, and how their studies in the History of Art have helped them to advance their careers -so please do make the most of this opportunity. And don’t forget about the ongoing Careers and Employability workshops: next up is ‘The Value of Internships’, on 8th February 2017.

Image result for australian impressionists ng

The other date I’d recommend getting in your diary is a lunchtime talk by our own Sarah Thomas at the National Gallery: 1pm, on Monday 30th January. Sarah’s lecture will be on the subject of ‘Australian Impressionism: National Art in a Global Context’, given to coincide with the Gallery current exhibition, Australia’s Impressionists. Before joining us at Birkbeck, Sarah worked as a curator in Australian art museums for many years, and so is very well placed to speak on this subject! The exhibition is definitely at the top of my ‘to do’ list for the Christmas break. I got to visit Melbourne and Sydney for the first time in September, and was fascinated by the work of the late nineteenth-century/ early twentieth-century artists Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, which I hadn’t encountered before. These painters sought out subject matter that was considered uniquely ‘Australian’ – in particular, the pastoral and bush landscapes of New South Wales and Victoria, and the resilient and hard-working pioneer settlers who inhabited them. They played a key role in constructing a national identity in the years leading up to Australian Federation in 1901. But Impressionism was a global movement, and the work of these artists was deeply beholden to European modernism. Sarah’s lecture will examine the tensions between this emergent nationalism and a broader global consciousness. It is free, and all are welcome!

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Finally, before I sign off, I am delighted to be able to fulfil a promise made in my last blog: to tell you more about Isobel Elstob’s recent trip to Montpelier, to speak at a conference on Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World. I hope many of you have got to meet Isobel since she joined us in October, covering for Suzannah Biernoff who is currently on research leave.

Isobel Elstob, Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World

“Last week I attended the interdisciplinary conference Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World at Montpellier University. A wonderful city, woven through medieval cobbled passageways and neat nineteenth-century boulevards, Montpellier offered an ideal setting for our discussions on the situation of the past in the present.  Scholars from France, Gabon, the United States, Haiti and Britain, working across literature, history, the visual arts, anthropology, ethnography and linguistics, asked the question of how we go about the task of memorialising events as traumatic as the Atlantic Slave Trade and, indeed, what might the effects of such memorialisation be? My own paper examined well-known visual artworks by contemporary artists Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson that represent (or re-present) slavery histories ‒ and enslaved people themselves ‒ through the application of an African American linguistic model, known as signifyin’. Across the course of my research into these works what has become most apparent is how these artists construct a visual encounter between the past and the present ‒ forcing the viewer to confront the relevancies of history to our own, contemporary, attitudes towards ‘race’. And this ‘inter-temporality’ also emerged as the most crucial common theme across many of the conference presentations. In the end, then, the question being asked was not so much about how we memorialise an extinguished historical past in the present but, as the conference title so aptly describes, how do we acknowledge the traces of historical events that continue to reverberate through the cultures and experiences of people across the world today.”

Another prime example of how our discipline, the history of art, can provide a way into some of the most pressing issues of our times – and how visual culture is a key medium for unpicking those complex, all-important interrelationships between the present and the past.

It just remains for me to wish you all a wonderful festive season, and a very happy new year – see you all in January!Image result for christmas


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A roll call of success!

The Autumn term is nearly at an end, and I know many of you are working hard on coursework to be submitted next Friday. In fact, term will be coming to a more dramatic end than usual, as the School of Arts building will be completely closed from Saturday 17th December until after Christmas, when the College as a whole re-opens. This is because a major film company will be using our premises as a film set! It’s all most exciting. I have been sworn to secrecy on further details, much as I am itching to pass them on – but I can’t resist sneaking in that, during the course of said filming, an actor will be dramatically thrown out of Gabriel Koureas’s window! (Gabriel’s room will definitely have to feature in the next Open House London weekend, on the back of this).

Image result for man being thrown from window

On a prosaic note, though, this does raise certain practical issues for us all, as not even post will be able to enter the building, let alone staff and students. My administrative colleagues will be in touch next week with further details – particularly about how to submit any required hard copies of coursework.

An important feature of the second half of the Autumn term every year is the MA exam boards, which meet in late November. Colleagues from across the department, and external examiners from other universities, meet to discuss our Masters students’ work, our programmes and processes, and to ratify marks. We were delighted to be looking at the grades of a particularly strong cohort of finalists this time round, and some stellar dissertation results. In fact, one of the dissertation prizes we were able to offer – the London Art History Society prize for the best MA dissertation on a modern topic – had to be split between two students, who scored equally highly in this final piece of work on the programme. We divided the award between Anna Jamieson, for her dissertation on ‘Dark Tourists at Bedlam: Madness and Spectacle in Eighteenth-Century London’, and Wil Roberts, for ‘“Life Itself”: Victoria and Albert as Living Statues’. Another new prize available for the first time this year was the Murray prize for the best dissertation on an early period topic, and this was given to Sarah McBryde for her dissertation entitled ‘More than meets the eye?: Reassessing the Representation of Dwarfs in Renaissance Italy’. We’re very grateful indeed to both the London Art History Society and the Murray Bequest for funding these new awards. And many congratulations indeed to Anna, Wil, Sarah – and to all our MA finalists!

In fact, this blog posting is a roll call of achievement. In other news this week, Melissa Buron, one of our postgraduate research students, working on James Tissot’s spiritualist and biblical images, and an assistant curator at the Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, has received not just one, but two awards. Having secured a Research Support Grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, she was then awarded the 2017 Amy P. Goldman Fellowship in Pre-Raphaelite Studies from the Delaware Art Museum/University of Delaware. Congratulations Melissa!

[Image: Tissot, The Mediumistic Apparition]

I’ve also been in touch recently with Vicky Hau, who finished our BA History of Art in 2012, and is currently studying on our MA Museum Cultures programme. Vicky has been very busy organising a symposium, connected to an exhibition she’s working on: Silk Roots: Travels in Chinese & Arabic Calligraphy. This will be at the P21 Gallery, a few blocks away from Birkbeck, on Chalton Street, from 18th May to 1st July next year. The exhibition will explore the interaction between China and the Middle East through the fascinating medium of calligraphy; a highly revered art form for both these cultures. One part of the exhibition will look at the historical context, particularly of the Silk Road itself, and how calligraphy has traditionally been represented along its route. The other will look at contemporary interaction between Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, exemplified by the works of Haji Noor Deen. At the end of the exhibition, there will be an opportunity for visitors to practice their own calligraphy, encouraged to write/draw the symbols for “Peace” in both Chinese and Arabic! More details anon. The one-day symposium is scheduled for 25th May 2017, and is being organised in association with the London Confucius Institute at SOAS University of London, and supported by the department here at Birkbeck, and the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts. Vicky has just put out a call for papers for this event, which – like the exhibition – will explore how the Silk Road was not only a trade route for goods such as silk, herbs and paper, but also the major route by which concepts and culture travelled both westwards and eastwards, and think about the role played by calligraphy in that cultural exchange. The deadline for the call for papers is 15th January, so if anyone reading this would like to present at this event, then please email Vicky at for further details.

History of Art staff have also been very busy! Laura Jacobus’s conference on ‘Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality’, which took place the other week, was – I have on excellent authority – a triumph. I had a particularly nice email from our colleague, Zoe Opacic, telling me how much she had enjoyed this exciting, high-profile – and exceptionally well-attended – event (standing room only)! Meanwhile, Isobel Elstob, who we’re currently lucky to have with us whilst Suzannah Biernoff is on leave, was off to Montpellier for a few days, to speak at a conference dealing with ‘Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World’. I have been promised more details anon, so keep reading this blog… Meanwhile, it was announced this week that Lynda Nead has just been made a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a wonderful, highly prestigious appointment, and one of many testaments to Lynn’s standing as an internationally renown scholar. We’re also very pleased in the department that it will strengthen further the already good relationship that we have with the V&A: from Tag Gronberg’s work as part of the curatorial team on the exhibition Modernism: Designing a New World in 2006, through to Carlo Rizzo’s current work as a V&A/Birkbeck collaborative doctoral student, working on ‘Collecting and displaying contemporary Middle Eastern Art and Design at the V&A: a comparative analysis of museum practices’.

Look out for one last blog of the term next week, to wish you all a very merry Christmas before we make way for the film crews…!

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