The start of summer!

So, this is my final blog of the academic year, as term ends on Friday (3rd July)! I do hope that lots of you will be coming along to the History of Art summer party for staff and students, on Thursday 2nd July, 6-8pm. Please bring something to eat and/or drink and share to room G01 in Gordon Square, as we have lots of celebrate! The start of the summer vacation of course, but also the end of exams, and the fact that our part-time fourth year and full-time third year BA students have finished their degrees. It’s always particularly nice to see our finalists at the summer party, and to have a chat – quite often about the odd combined sense of pleasure, relief and loss which tends to come with completing a programme like this. Scrolling back through my blogs over the course of the year, there are many other triumphs to savour. There was the highly successful field trip to Florence in April, run by Joanne Anderson and Zuleika Marat, for which Joanne did such a wonderful write up for this blog. We had an exciting Arts Week in May – do remember to have a listen to the podcasts, if you haven’t had a chance already. And there have been so many other events: the Murray seminar series on Medieval and Renaissance Art; the various talks organised by the Architecture, Space and Society Centre; the rich programme run by the History and Theory of Photography Centre etc.

There’s also a number of staff publications this year to celebrate – and I’m pleased to be able to tell you about a new one, hot off the press. Dr. Leslie Topp has an essay in the latest issue of the Harvard Design Magazine, published four times a year by the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.  Her essay, ‘Freedom by Design: The Paradoxes of Psychiatric Architecture’ is a synopsis of her book, Freedom and the Cage: Modern Architecture and Psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890-1914, forthcoming with Penn State University Press. She discusses attempts by designers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to create totally designed environments that would enable social control, while also appearing to be free, normal, and non-institutional. This special issue of the magazine, entitled ‘Well, well, well’, focusing on the interactions between health, illness and design, contains contributions by architects, artists, cultural historians, and critics, as well as other architectural historians.

We’ve also been treated to a series of fascinating exhibitions in the Peltz Gallery this year. And the Peltz has recently joined forces with Bow Arts to award the first Artist-in-Residence in the Gallery to John Timberlake. The Residency brings together artists and academics, with the aim of developing reflective arts practices and advancing academic thinking. John Timberlake has been working with Dr. Gabriel Koureas from the History of Art department, and you can see the fruits of their collaboration as the installation, Artist’s Impression: Mangled Metal, on until 14th August. Together, John and Gabriel are exploring issues around the representation of the figure of the ‘terrorist’. Central to that exploration are reflections on the use of mangled metal as exhibitionary strategy by museums of war, in representations of ‘small wars’ and the War on Terror.

John Timberlake’s display explores the transformation in the life of metal from material object (car, plane, building) to photographic index, to relic, to drawing, to paper object, and finally to installation. An exhibition of drawings and reference material has been on display for several weeks, and the final show opens on Saturday, 4th July. Do drop in and see the installation: the Peltz is open from Monday-Friday: 10am – 8pm, and on Saturdays from 10am – 5pm. There is also a number of related events:

  • 3 July 2015, 3.30-5.30pm: Veterans of Small Wars. Roundtable discussion
  • 7 July 2015, 6.00-8.00pm: 7/7 Ten-Year Anniversary. Roundtable discussion
  • 8 July, 6.00-8.00pm: 2015 Artist’s Presentation at Bow Arts, 183 Bow Road, London E3 2SJ

After Mangled Metal closes in mid August, it won’t be too long until a new display opens at the Foundling Museum, curated by Professor Lynn Nead here in the department. The Fallen Woman will be running from 25th September until 3rd January 2016. Many of you will have read the seminal book which Lynn published in 1988, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Victorian Women. You’ll almost certainly have consulted it if you’ve studied the second year BA module, ‘Art and Society in the Nineteenth Century’, as it’s always on the reading list! Lynn has been revisiting some of the images and ideas which she explored in that book, using this new exhibition to unpick the myth and reality of the ‘fallen woman’ in Victorian Britain.

The Fallen WomanThis was a period when chastity was everything for the respectable woman. Sexual activity was only deemed appropriate within a marital relationship, and any loss of ‘virtue’ by an unwed woman was a very serious matter indeed. This exhibition will draw together the work of a number of artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Richard Redgrave, George Frederic Watts and Thomas Faed, who engaged with this subject matter, and helped to propound the myth of the fallen woman. Their images will be shown alonsgide popular visual media, including newspaper illustrations, stereoscopes and lantern slides.

The Fallen Woman will also consider the petitions of women who applied to the Foundling Hospital in this period. Most of you will at some point have visited the Foundling Museum, only a few minutes walk from Birkbeck, and know that it explores the history of the hospital established by the eighteenth-century philanthropist, Thomas Coram. Coram was a retired shipwright, appalled by the devestating scenes he witnessed of children left abandoned and dying on the streets of London. For many years, he struggled to establish an institution which could take care of these infants, and he finally succeeded in 1739. As the hospital took in the first babies over the following years, so a number of artists – led by William Hogarth – donated work to the hospital, and I regularly send and take students on my eighteenth-century modules there to see the wonderful collection of paintings and sculpture by the likes of Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough and John Michael Rysbrack. Alongside these seminal objects are the terribly moving artefacts which speak across the centuries of the desperation of the mothers who gave up their babies. These include the tokens which they often left with their infants, in the (sadly unlikely) event that they would one day be able to return, and reclaim their son or daughter.

The Foundling had a number of admissions policies over the years and, during the early nineteenth century, it changed to focus on restoring respectability to the mother. Only the petitions of previously respectable women, bearing their first illegitimate child, were considered. One of the aspects of Lynn’s exhibition to which I am most looking forward is a specially-commissioned sound installation by the artist / musician Steve Lewinson, which will offer a new interpretation of the Foundling’s archive materials and bring these women’s voices to life.

Well, that brings me to the end of my final blog of 2015-16! I shall resume my postings in late September, at the start of the Autumn term. I know there’s a lot of work to be done over the summer: research projects and dissertations to research and write; preparatory reading to be done. But I also hope you get to have a break, and a good rest, before the academic year starts its new cycle.

Kate Retford, Head of History of Art at Birkbeck

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Summer events!

The exam period is now done and dusted! Well done to all of you who’ve been hard at work revising and holed up for hours in exam halls – I hope you’re savouring your freedom, enjoying the nice weather, and getting a little rest! As we come up to the end of the summer term, in a few weeks’ time, we’re moving into the period of independent work – for students, it’s the time for getting stuck into dissertations, research projects, and catching up with reading. Members of staff will also be turning to their own research in early July – getting out those half finished articles and blowing the dust off book manuscripts in progress – so do remember, if you need to get advice from your personal tutor, or to have a supervision ahead of the summer, then do make an appointment now to catch staff before they become embedded in studies, libraries and archives.

There are still lots of events to look out for before the end of the summer term..

*           the last Murray research seminar for this academic year will be taking place next Tuesday, 16th June, 6pm, in the Keynes Library. Michael Douglas Scott, one of our Associate Lecturers, will be talking about ‘The Censorship of Images in Sixteenth-Century Venice’.

*           the Architecture, Space and Society Centre’s summer term speaker will be Stefan Muthesius, coming to Birkbeck on Friday 26th June to give a paper entitled, ‘Tower Block Revisited: Aspects of British Public Housing Post-WWII’. This will be at 6pm in room B03 – do take a look at the ASSC’s website for more information about the event, and Professor Muthesius’s research.

Kitchen Sink Advertisement 1969

*           And, on Thursday 25th June, at 6pm, there’s a special opportunity to see an extraordinary film in the School of Arts. This is a piece called Abandoned Goods, a short essay film about the thousands of artworks created by patients who were detained in Netherne psychiatric hospital between 1946 and 1981. These were made in a pioneering studio at the hospital, run by the artist Edward Adamson. The film uses archive, reconstruction, interviews, observational footage and photography to explore the objects, the changing contexts in which they were made and displayed, and the lives of those who made them. Not to be missed. Do have a look online for further details, and to book a place.

Abandoned Goods invite

The screening of Abandoned Goods has been co-organised by Fiona Johnstone, who completed her PhD in History of Art at Birkbeck in April, supervised by Suzannah Biernoff. She then promptly added to this triumph by securing a six month postdoctoral fellowship, based in the department, funded by the Wellcome Institute. Dr. Johnstone (always nice to be able to use a recently awarded title!) is currently working on Adamson as a pioneer of art therapy, and she will be presenting a paper on this research at the Association for Medical Humanities annual conference in June.

However, this is only one of the many projects on which Fiona will be working during her ongoing time at Birkbeck. She will also be developing a monograph entitled Aids and the Art of Self-Representation, based on her doctoral research. This will look at expanded self-portraiture by HIV-positive artists working in the US between 1987 and 1996, looking at how AIDS had a significant and lasting influence on artists’ practices of self-representation. It will show how AIDS fundamentally changed the way in which the human body could be imagined and visualised, compelling critically ill artists to develop a new creative language with which to express the complex physical and emotional experiences of living with HIV and dying from causes related to AIDS. Alongside this, Fiona will also be working on a book she is currently co-editing with another Birkbeck PhD student, Kirstie Imber, to be published by I.B. Tauris. This is called Anti-Portraits, and developed out of a fascinating conference which the two of them organised at Birkbeck a couple of years ago.


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Over to Joanne Anderson for tales of Florence….

I have the great pleasure in this blog post of handing over to my colleague, Joanne Anderson, who, together with Zuleika Murat, led the 2015 History of Art field trip, taking a group of 40 students from a range of programmes across the department to the city of Florence. I won’t pre-empt her wonderful account, below, but do make sure you read through to the extraordinary story of the group singing in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, as the ‘miraculous’ painting of the Annunication was revealed from behind a screen!

Before I pass you over to Joanne, though, I want to wish all those students currently beavering away in exam halls continued good luck with their endeavours – and to say that I hope you enjoyed the delights of Arts Week! It was a triumph – from the cinema packed on the first afternoon with people eager to hear Brian Dillon, Laura Mulvey, Marina Warner and Fiona Candlin talking about ‘Curiosity’, all the way through to Friday’s events, which included the Shadow portrait workshop: a chance to create an eighteenth/nineteenth-century style silhouette portrait. Next time you’re in the office in Gordon Square, do take a look at the wall and admire the profiles of our admin team! Podcasts of a number of Arts Week events are already available online, so do have a listen to any lectures, seminars or panels you missed – or any you were at, and would like to re-experience!

Joanne Anderson on the Birkbeck History of Art Study Trip to Florence

13-17 April 2015

“When taking in the panorama of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo you appreciate continuities and changes over the last 600 years or so.

Picture 1Giuseppe Poggi’s urban renovations hit the medieval centre hard in the 19th century but the principle landmarks of a more distant past still organise our visual field: Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, the mendicant churches, the Arno and its bridges, the surviving gates and fragments of city walls.

On Monday morning, early birds for the 2015 Birkbeck Study Visit got to grips with urban topography, comparing our view with old, like Rosselli’s Chain Map (Veduta della Catena, c.1471-82).

Picture 2

Imagine the impression the skyline made on a first time visitor in Renaissance times! To see Brunelleschi’s cupola rising up as a beacon of Florentine identity; its sonic boom connecting borghi, città e contado. Our reflections came hot on the heels of a visit to San Miniato al Monte: a kick start session on sites, patrons and artworks. A.k.a., some excellent Tuscan mosaics, Romanesque floor tiles, sinopie for frescoes and a crypt for the relics of the city’s first martyr saint, Minias.

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That we had to leave at a respectful time for a funeral reinforced the ongoing role of the basilica in community life.

40 History of Art students across our programmes and years of study signed up for the annual trip and all took their places: such is the allure of Bella Firenze! For some, it was a welcome return visit, for others a first time revelation or fulfilment of a long-cherished hope of experiencing this most remarkable city. By 3pm on Monday, we had gathered in the centre and were ready to delve into the fabric of religious and civic identity. A tale of two piazzas, of cathedral, bell tower and baptistery, of town hall and loggia, and a few other monuments connected by the Via dei Calzaiuoli.

Picture 6Picture 7

We were on processional ground taking in the work of leading architects and artists but also keeping an eye out for signs of its Roman origins.

We stayed with civic power on Tuesday morning at the Bargello; former Palace of the Podestà and later a prison. Despite its remarkable collection, the Bargello remains a quiet haven for art-historical study. Its formidable walls enclose a peaceful courtyard and rooms full of interesting objects. We enjoyed the opportunity for close looking and comparisons: monumental gate sculpture, the line-up of Davids and Cellini machetes, painted marriage chests, terracotta busts, maiolica plate and metalwork and even a frescoed chapel. It’s an intelligent museum, one that provokes thought on the history of collecting and display of cultural heritage. A real hit with our students.

The Uffizi, well, what a contrast. Packed corridors and rooms, gridlocked masterpieces. Yet this institution still offered precious moments of recognition and connections. One of the best comments from the cohort: ‘when you walk into the Botticelli Room and see the Portinari Triptych, its impact on Florentine artistic production makes sense.’ We had a good chat about Tomaso’s commission and the strapping lads required to carry it into the city from the boats following its sea-journey from Bruges to Pisa. Travelling art, travelling ideas. I’ll leave discussion of the artworks to the dedicated webpage which is in preparation (we’ll announce in due course!) but the octagon tribuna designed by Bernardo Buontalenti for the art collection of Francesco I de’ Medici (1584) certainly made an impression on everyone – especially the 6,000 Mother-of-Pearl shells in the dome!

Wednesday was mendicant church day, with visits to Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce.

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Wall paintings, tombs and altarpieces galore all set in church fabric that has seen its fair share of change over the years.  It was utter heaven, thinking about making and meaning, revivals and continuities, the art of memory and commemoration.

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I have to admit, as a Magdalen scholar I was overjoyed to be following up the chapel in the Bargello with the Guidalotti-Rinuccini Chapel painted by Giovanni da Milano. What did they have in common, what set them apart, what can we say about iconography, typologies and composition? I’m happy to say that my group indulged my passion (read, obsession!).

Everyone enjoyed a free morning on the Thursday. A chance to take a breather or else squeeze in some more visits (che bravi!). Such escapades were heard and shared in the afternoon. We met in Piazza del Carmine in readiness for the Brancacci Chapel but not before a few hundred group photos were taken on the steps outside. The one I’ve attached here is a great shot.

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It really brings home what this trip is all about: bringing everyone together and having a direct experience of the artwork. Birkbeck students don’t often get the chance to hang out during the terms, what with busy professional lives, family commitments and of course, timetabling. The annual trip makes this happen, a different kind of space to talk about art and architecture.

We got the Brancacci Chapel to ourselves. To be honest, I think its compactness took most by surprise. Also, entry from the cloister via the transept plays with your orientation – yes it’s small, but it’s a side chapel. Our precious half hour was put to good use, discussing composition, technique, iconography, space and audience. Once out of the chapel, many took a pew to continue the viewing experience: we’d travelled far and were not wasting any opportunity to study this legendary work.

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And for good reason. Next up was Santa Trinita and a chance to compare notes with the Sassetti Chapel.

But the monks weren’t back from lunch yet so a little gelato stop was just the ticket. We found an excellent gelateria near Ponte Santa Trinita (Oltrearno) and enjoyed more good chat over a myriad of tasty delight. Once inside the church, we marvelled at the Ghirlandaio paintings commissioned by Francesco Sassetti (the original façade of the church can be seen in the miracle scene) but also let Lorenzo Monaco lead the way with fresco technique and Marian imagery in a nave side chapel – skies may be purple now but with an upper layer of azurite we’re talking lapis lazuli effect; what works artists might have looked at to develop their ideas. Oh, and there happened to be a nice Magdalen sculpture by Desiderio da Settignano – closest we could get to Donatello’s haunting work, sadly off display at the moment but hey, any excuse to come back to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo when it reopens later in the year!!

Can I just reinforce just how content everyone was after this day? Focused, at times lost in contemplation, and certainly inspired. I will remember informal conversations in church or whilst taking a seat in the square; a chance to share ideas and laughter.

How could we be at Friday already?! Ah well, we saved the best for last. The convent of San Marco delivered on so many levels. How often do you get to walk into the dormitories of quattrocento friars and their guests, replete with original wall paintings by Fra Angelico and his workshop, including the young Benozzo Gozzoli? How about standing in Savonarola’s cell? Or looking at the manuscripts in the library – marvellous marginalia. But it was also about the layers of history. Set in the floor are tantalizing glimpses of a former decorative campaign of the pre-Dominican era via carefully positioned mirrors. A visit to Florence is suffuse in religious imagery often with a Medicean hue but one of the last rooms before exiting the convent was full of fragments of secular paintings from Florentine palaces. Birds on trellises, trompe l’oeil fabrics, geometric patterns. Jigsaw pieces of past times and all the more fascinating for the challenge of reassembling, even if only in the mind’s eye.

Our last experience was beyond planning. A nip round the corner to Santissima Annunziata to see the shrine designed by Michelozzo that frames the miraculous Annunciation, dating to the fourteenth century. Everyone was primed to not see the image, given its continuing importance as a cultic site in Italy. We took in the chiostrino with its Marian frescoes by Andrea del Sarto and his workshop, which were undergoing conservation; the woman up on the scaffolding was absorbed and absorbing in her work. Once inside we took in the shrine and the ex-votos that stand as testament to its power. Alas, it was almost closing time for lunch and time to go. Genaro, the tertiary, took a shining to some of our ladies, however, and suggested that a little singing might enact a miracle. With our group united in song (and humming!), the screen over the painting began to descend. Not a divine revelation but an act of kindness and joy in community that moved many to tears.

Picture 15

Genaro was our hero. The group was brought together in a circle to celebrate the moment, just being there together. After much singing, they emptied back into the square full of joy and laughter. I think this last photograph captures the moment.

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A memory of Florence that will stay with us all and one we are happy to share with Birkbeck History of Art.

The Murray Trust made it possible for six of our students to participate in the 2015 Study Visit. We are grateful for their continuing generosity to Birkbeck History of Art, reinforcing how important such experiences are to the degree programme and making them available to all. My thanks to Zuleika Murat for lending us her time and expertise. You have a new cohort of fans. To my colleagues at Birkbeck, thank you for your support, encouragement and trust. To Clare and Susan, I would never have managed without you.

To my fabulous students, you made it. Grazie mille.”

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The joy of Arts Week – and the pain of exams….

There are a number of hot topics in the History of Art department at the moment. One is, of course, the undergraduate exams – which kick off for our BA programme on 18th May. Those up first are students who have taken the level 5 module ‘Art and Architecture in Europe 1250-1400’, and Michael Douglas-Scott’s level 6 option, ‘Art in Renaissance Venice c 1475-1530’. We wish you all the very best in the final stages of revising, and in the exams themselves. I can still remember sitting in examination halls, as a BA History of Art student at the University of Warwick, worrying about whether I was going to recognise the images I would see when I turned over the paper in front of me! It’s a feeling that’s hard to forget…

18th May also sees the start of Birkbeck Arts Week, so – whether you’re not one of those experiencing exam pain, or are, and want to secure yourself some welcome breaks from the books – it’s time to go onto the website (if you haven’t already) and book your free places. Some of the lectures, performances, screenings and workshops are filling up fast, so do get in there while you can. From ‘Curiosity’ to ‘Renaissance Ways of Seeing’, ‘Globalization’ to ‘Photographs of London’,’Vasari Centre Past and Future’ to (of course!) ‘Talking Mr Turner’, it’s a richly packed programme.

Other events continue apace, including the Murray Seminar on Medieval and Renaissance Art. Yesterday saw Zoe Opacic speaking about the later medieval cult of Mary Magdalene in Central Europe, and the next in the series is Dr Ioanna Christoforaki, from the Academy of Athens, on ‘Cherchez les Franciscains: Friars, Icons and Devotion on Venetian Crete’ (Wednesday 27th May, 6pm, room 112, Gordon Square). If you’ve been in the department for a while, you will have become familiar with the Murray name, as a Bequest established in memory of Professor Peter Murray supports a number of our activities. Some of those on the recent field trip to Florence with Joanne Anderson and Zuleika Murat were awarded bursaries from the fund, to help with their costs. We look forward in the next few weeks to awarding the Murray research studentship, which will support a PhD student working in the field of European Art or Architecture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. And next year we will welcome another notable scholar to give the biennial Murray Memorial lecture, following on from illustrious names such as Jonathan Miller, Simon Schama, Neil Macgregor and Christopher Frayling.

Peter Murray is one of the great names of the department, along with Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. It was Murray who established History of Art as an undergraduate discipline in the College, although the subject was first taught here by Pevsner. Birkbeck tends to keep people for many years, and Murray was no exception: he was Professor here from 1967 through to 1980. When he died, in 1992, his widow, Linda Murray, established the Bequest, and it has helped to support our teaching and research ever since. Linda Murray was an important art historian in her own right, and you may well know the Dictionary of Art and Artists which she and Peter co-authored.

I shall end this blog post with a youtube link, to a piece of film in which Dr Sarah Thomas, who has been working in the department for a couple of years now, gives a short curatorial speech from Trafalgar Square on the event of the opening of her exhibition, Colonial Afterlives (Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, 19 March – 27 April 2015; touring Australia 2016-2017). Many of you know Sarah from her teaching on BA courses such as ‘Introduction to Modern Art’ and ‘Art and Society in the Nineteenth Century’, and from the very successful MA Option module, ‘Art and the British Empire’, which she ran last year. Enjoy!


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Welcome back – and news of Arts Week!

Welcome back to the summer term! I do hope you all had good Easter holidays – and managed to get a break over the vacation. I know a number of you were in Florence until a little over a week ago, on the departmental field trip with Joanne Anderson and Zuleika Murat. Reports of a wonderful time had by all are already coming my way, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing more about it, and to seeing the photographs. Which I shall use lavishly to illustrate this blogsite in due course!

I also know the Easter vacation saw you hard at work on dissertations, coursework and exam preparation. I heard from the undergraduates on my level 6 option module, at our revision session this week, that final year BA students are somewhat reeling right now, having just submitted their dissertations, and anticipating the final exams of their programme. Hang in there – the end is in sight!

The main thing I want to write about in this blog is Birkbeck Arts Week, which takes place in a few weeks’ time, but, before that, I owe you a big thank you. You’ll remember that I became something of a nag in the last few blogs of the Spring term, as I repeatedly asked everyone to respond to the student surveys in circulation. I particularly emphasised the importance of the National Student Survey for final year undergraduates, as we need a response rate of over 50% in order for the results to be fully reported. Well, I had a communication last Monday, which revealed that the History of Art department has a current response rate of around 62%, comfortably over the benchmark, and the second best in the entire College! I am delighted, the department has been patted on the back, and I am very grateful to all those 3rd and 4th year BA students who have come up trumps. I’m now, of course, getting greedy. If I can persuade any of you out there, who haven’t yet responded, to do so in the last week of the NSS (it ends on 30th April), that would be great. You never know, we could even be no. 1 …

So the programme for Arts Week 2015 is live!


You may well have already seen the signature image on the new screen in the School of Arts foyer at Gordon Square: Herbert Mason’s iconic photograph of St Paul’s, taken during the blitz in WWII. Arts Week this year is taking place in the week of 18th May, the schedule is extensive and exciting, and I urge you to go onto the website as soon as you can, and register for as many events as you’re able to manage! They’re free, but you do need to reserve places. For those of you who are new to Birkbeck this year, Arts Week is an annual event in the School of Arts, when we showcase our research and teaching interests, and our relationships with the Creative Arts. You’ll find lots of events scheduled for each day of the week, including talks, screenings, workshops and exhibitions.

A number of members of staff in the department have helped to organise and are participating in events, and there are plenty to whet the appetite of art historians. This blog would run on and on were I to list them all, but here are a few highlights….

Monday 18th May: Curiosity

2pm – 5pm, Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square

The term curiosity refers to both a quality of attention and a type of object. It concerns novelty and knowledge, secrecy and display, desire and the intellect. In this interdisciplinary symposium, Brian Dillon, Laura Mulvey, Marina Warner and Fiona Candlin will discuss curiosity with regard to museums, art, myth, literature and film.

Wednesday 20th May: Photographs of London

6pm – 8pm, Room G04, 43 Gordon Square

A panel discussion between photographers and historians of the medium. Speakers include: Tom Allbeson (University of Nottingham) on Herbert Mason’s ‘St Paul’s’, 29 December 1940; Lynda Nead (Birkbeck) on Bert Hardy’s ‘Life in the Elephant’, Picture Post, January 1949; Ian Walker (University of Wales, Newport) on Thomas Struth’s, ‘Clinton Road’ 1977; with Mike Seaborne, a freelance historian and formerly of the Museum of London, responding.

Wednesday 20th May: Renaissance Ways of Seeing

6pm – 7:25pm, Room 112, 43 Gordon Square

How did people ‘see’ in the Renaissance? In this panel discussion Joanne Anderson (Birkbeck) will ask who coloured Mary Magdalen and why it matters, looking particularly at early Renaissance artworks produced in Alpine Italy. Paul Taylor (Warburg Institute) will explore the multivalent idea of ‘imitation’ in relation to life and art in the Renaissance. Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck) will explore the visionary ‘seeing’ (or ‘skrying’) of John Dee’s angelic conversations. Gill Woods (Birkbeck) will investigate how characters went invisible on the Renaissance stage, and what that tells us about theatrical seeing.

Thursday 21st May: Vasari Centre Past and Future: 25 Years of Digital Arts Research at Birkbeck

2pm – 5pm, followed by a wine reception from 6pm – 7:25pm, Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square

Founded as part of a major EU project in late 1989, the Vasari Research Centre has pioneered the area of digital art history. The symposium and exhibition of digital artworks will include current practitioners and academics. Areas under discussion will include digital art and design and digital humanities research. Speakers will include the centre’s founder Will Vaughan, researchers from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and digital artists.

and, also Thursday 21st May, 6pm – 8pm in Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square, I’ll be chairing ‘Talking Mr Turner’

I’m delighted that a decision was made to feature events about the eighteenth century this year – no vested interest there at all! I hope you remember the Mr Turner theme which ran through this blog for a while? I told you about Jackie Riding, who did the MA History of Art with us, and worked as historical consultant on Mike Leigh’s film. Sarah McBryde, currently on the MA programme, then got in touch to tell us about her experiences as Production Manager. Well, both of them, together with Tim Wright – who had the job of teaching Timothy Spall how to paint like the great man himself – will be coming together for what promises to be a fascinating panel discussion. There’s a lovely image of Spall striding through the landscape on the Arts Week website, but I also managed to get hold of the photos below from the film, to share with you…

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I look forward to seeing you all, as we race between the many events taking place around Gordon Square and other, nearby venues!

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The end of term is nigh!

It’s my final blog posting before the Easter break, and I do hope everyone has had a good and productive Spring term. Classes may be coming to an end for a few weeks, but events are still ongoing. The ever-active History and Theory of Photography Research Centre, for example, is hosting a fascinating seminar next Tuesday, 24th March, at 6pm: Michael Berkowitz (Professor of Modern Jewish History, UCL) will be giving a paper entitled Not Harry Gresham: Why Helmut Gernsheim’s Jewishness matters.

I want to spend most of this blog telling you about field trips which have been taking place over recent weeks – but, before that, I’m going to raise the issue of student surveys again. Apologies, I know this is the third time! However, I promise it will also be the last occasion on which I’ll say how helpful it would be if you could all complete the surveys which have been sent out by College. These are so valuable for us, as providing vital feedback on what we’re doing well, and what we can do to improve. The National Student Survey is especially important, as one of the ways in which we are scrutinised as a department – so if final year undergraduates, who have been asked to complete the NSS, could take 5 minutes or so out of the last push they’re currently doing on their dissertations, to let us know about their experiences with us, we’d be very grateful. Remember: there are prizes!

Lots of students have been out and about in recent weeks, and members of staff have kindly been taking photos and filling me in on these field trips for the benefit of this blog. I’m most embarrassed to confess that I went to Kenwood House recently with Graduate Certificate and BA students on my ‘Eighteenth-Century Britain: A Polite and Commercial Society’ course, and failed to take a single picture! We had a great time though, looking at works of art by the likes of Angelica Kauffman and Joseph Wright of Derby, as well as getting stiff necks admiring the fantastic ceiling in the Robert Adam Library. I’m just grateful that my colleagues have been more on the ball with their cameras….

* Zoe Opacic and those students taking her Gothic Cathedral course went to visit Ely Cathedral – and you’ll see from this photograph that Zoe’s description of the trip in an email to me as ‘heroic’ does not overstate the case!

Ely I Ely III

– Joanne Anderson and her ‘Italian Mural Painting’ module students went to the National Gallery, to think about the lifespans of Renaissance murals beyond the original time and site of production. Joanne organised her students into groups, and turned them into art detectives for the afternoon: each group was assigned a wall painting, which was a fragment from a larger programme, and a pack of clues comprising catalogue entries, extracts from primary sources and some contextual images. They had an hour of close looking at the artworks, before presenting their findings to the whole group. As Joanne told me, “It was a fun afternoon of thinking about collectors, collection formation, frames and settings and the transfer of wall to canvas. The layers of meaning and new interpretations that make art history exciting!”



* And Leslie Topp sent me this account of a sunny early Spring Saturday morning spent in Pimlico, with students on her MA History of Art option, ‘Space and Politics in Modernity’:

“Pimlico isn’t just pale stucco early Victorian terraces, and good pubs, it also has two very interesting, and in their time very important, post-war council estates. They couldn’t be more different from each other.  Churchill Gardens (1947-62, architects Powell & Moya) is a mix of rectilinear slabs and terraces, open and airy, a world unto itself, announcing the optimism and change of the post-war years.

Churchill gardens estate

Lillington Gardens (1964-72, Darbourne and Darke) is colourful and textured, variegated and multi-level, emphasising privacy and individuality, and opening out at key points to the surrounding city.

Lillington Gardens Estate

We broke up into small groups to explore, and came back to discuss issues of community, values and politics, as represented by social housing.  Then it was off to Tate Britain for the impressive Spotlight display, the New Brutalist Image, which is packed with post-war architecture – don’t think I’ve ever seen architecture so prominently displayed in Tate!  And of course tea and a chat in the cafe afterwards.”

space and politics pimlico visit

Well, it’s time for me to sign off, and to wish you all good Easter breaks. I know there is plenty of work to be done over the vacation, whether that’s coursework such as those BA dissertations, the PhD thesis, reading, revising – or, for staff, getting back to the book manuscript or the latest article. But I do hope that everyone is also able to take the opportunity to have some rest, and can return refreshed and ready for the final term of the academic year.

Kate Retford, Head of Department, History of Art










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This week in the History of Art Department – and Laura Jacobus’s fortnight in Italy….

The end of term approaches on Friday next week, but events in the department continue apace! Here’s the impressive round up for this coming week alone….

–             Tonight (9th March), Dorigen Caldwell will be giving the Murray research seminar in room 112, at 5pm, on ‘Framing, Veiling, Revealing: The Madonna di Mongiovino in the Later Sixteenth Century’. (For details of the next Murray seminar, on 16th March, being given by Professor Gauvin Bailey, please click here).

–             Tomorrow (10th March), as mentioned in my last blog, Carol Jacobi and Hope Kingsley will be speaking about the newly opened exhibition at Tate Britain, ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’, for the Centre for the History and Theory of Photography (6-8pm, Keynes library).

–             And on Friday evening (13th March), I am very pleased to say, the Architecture, Space and Society Network celebrates the fact that it is now the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre! This is a very welcome development – and a recognition of the exciting programme of events and research which this group of academics, including Leslie Topp, Zoe Opacic and Tag Gronberg, have put together over the last few years. The launch will take place in the Keynes Library – Jeremy Till (architect, theorist and Head of Central Saint Martins) will be speaking about a reading of space and time that he has developed in his writings. The event is free, but booking is required. Leslie has promised wine, nibbles, stimulation, discussion, conversation, celebration and some architectural time travel!

–             Fortunately, the launch of the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre doesn’t clash with another exciting event on Friday, scheduled  to take place between 11am and 3pm. Gabriel Koureas, in collaboration with Dr Silke di-Simine and the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, are organising a workshop on the recent re-design and re-hanging of the Imperial War Museum. The symposium aims to investigate the narratives which the museum initiated and chose to promote through its exhibition strategies, engaging with issues of British cultural memory in general, and the commemoration of the First War in particular. Gabriel will be speaking to the title, ‘Memory/Forgetting: British Colonial Wars at the Imperial War Museum’. For full details, please click here.

*             I can’t resist taking this opportunity to say a word about an event I organised last week, with the National Gallery – ‘Animating the Eighteenth-Century Country House’. We had a full day of papers in the Sainsbury Wing Lecture Theatre on Thursday 5th March, followed on the Friday by a trip to Kenwood House and a small workshop at Birkbeck, where a group of academics and curators continued the conversation. It was a big success, and I was delighted to see a number of familiar faces of current and ex-Birkbeck students amongst those at the Gallery – thank you for coming! There are some nice pictures of both days on Twitter – but I’m rather fond of this snap, taken by my PhD student, Amelia Smith, who did a wonderful job co-organising the event. It’s quite something to be putting together a conference for almost two years, and then to see delegates who’ve previously only been names on a spreadsheet start to materialise in person.

ACH conferemce

*             Finally, in my previous blog, I mentioned that Laura Jacobus is currently on sabbatical – and I’m delighted to say that she has written a piece for us, about a recent research trip she made to Venice and Padua. I leave you with Laura’s words – which, I have to confess, as a specialist in British art, whose research trips rarely mean going very far afield, made me rather jealous…

Laura Jacobus on her research leave…

Sitting at my desk squinting at indecipherable medieval documents, I’m suddenly transported to the near-future and the summer term at Birkbeck, when I’ll be sitting at my desk squinting over indecipherable exam scripts.  Academics take research leave in order to refresh their thinking and inform their teaching, keeping up at the cutting-edge of knowledge, so that we can then deliver that to our students and to the wider world of scholarship.  But from students’ point of view our disappearances may be less explicable.  So I thought I’d write a bit about what I’m doing.

I’ve been using this term to pull together research that I began many years ago on the Arena Chapel in Padua.  It’s a fourteenth-century building, with practically every surface decorated with stunning frescoes by Giotto.  I have already published a book on it, but I’d found a great deal of material which was still of interest, and it didn’t belong in that book because it had nothing to do with Giotto.  This term is an opportunity to pull that material out of the filing cabinet (yes, some of it goes back that many years) and try to make sense of it, getting an overview of what needs to be done and doing some of it.

Before my leave started I’d booked a two-week research trip to Venice and Padua, and over Christmas I planned that meticulously.  I had nine different archives and specialist libraries that I wanted to visit, some of them with quite short and irregular opening times.  As things turned out I only managed seven of them, and in one of those the specialist collection I needed to see wasn’t available, but this is quite a high success rate for a research trip, and I may be able to go back for a few more days before the end of my leave.  And, I have to say, some of those libraries were a pleasure!  I’m including a photograph of one, the seventeenth-century library of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Longhena and still with all its original furnishings.  I was very lucky to be staying in a newly-opened research centre in the former monastery there, so this was my local library during my stay.  Before anyone gets too envious, I should also say that one of the other libraries was in a below-sea-level 1960s basement.  Still, there’s no denying that doing research on  Italian medieval and renaissance art has its attractions.

Longhena Library

The trip to Italy allowed me to find and photograph around twenty documents that should help fill some of the gaps in my evidence, but first I have to read, transcribe, translate and edit them.  I returned to London three weeks ago, and have spent much of the time since then doing just that.  It will take many more weeks to do it (more weeks than I have leave), and I am including photographs of some of them so that you can see why.  A few are rather beautiful – such as this copy of a letter from Maddalena Scrovegni, the first female humanist, to the Duke of Milan in 1389…

Maddalena Scrovegni's letter

…but most are definitely not. This is the copy of her brother’s will, written at a time when the family had lost everything in 1435.

DSCF0993 Pietro endowment 1435 July 30 cropped p.1

I’m interspersing the work on these transcriptions with drafting sections of the next book, treating one kind of work as a break from the other.  It sounds like a messy process, and in many ways it is, but the shape of the book is gradually emerging from these parallel processes of thinking, writing and evidence-gathering.  If you happen to be working on a dissertation or thesis, this may sound familiar- as will the feeling of time running out!  One day, a book called ‘The Afterlife of the Arena Chapel’ will appear, but probably not before I’ve marked quite a few more medieval-looking exam scripts.

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A podcast to tune into – and salted paper prints at Tate Britain…

I hope all of you on taught programmes were able to make the most of reading week – that very welcome chance we have in the middle of each term to catch up with ourselves! I also hope that you’re able to respond to the various calls to complete student surveys which are currently circulating. The National Student Survey has been open for a couple of weeks now, whilst the Birkbeck Student Survey (for non-final year undergraduates) and the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (for postgraduate taught students) opened today. As I said in my last blog posting, these surveys are very important for us, and we do very much appreciate the time and effort taken in completing them.

I have lots of news for you!

*           I had an email the other day from Dr. Laura Jacobus, who works on Italian art 1250-1550, and is currently on research leave. She recently contributed to one of the National Gallery podcasts – do download, to hear her talking to Cathy Fitzgerald about the NG’s crucifix by the Master of St Francis.

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

*           I know many of you are already aware of an organisation called ULEHMAS, and attend their events. For those of you who haven’t yet come across this group, ULEHMAS stands for the ‘University of London Extra-Mural History of Art Society’. It’s organised by a number of past students from the department, and membership includes lots of our alumni, as well as those currently studying with us. For a very reasonable subscription of £15, you can attend their lectures – the next one, by Lynda Stephens, is on 9th March, and is entitled ‘A Neglected Renaissance Sculptor: Desiderio da Settignano’. Do also take a look at details of their study days and trips abroad – and keep an eye out for the ULEHMAS review, published annually.

*           And, on the subject of alumni…. TWO exhibitions will be opening at Tate Britain later this month, curated by eminent art historians who did their PhDs with us here in the History of Art department at Birkbeck, working with Professor Lynda Nead!

Professor Michael Hatt is one of the curators of ‘Sculpture Victorious’, due to open on 25th February. This display of striking, lavish works produced in the nineteenth century will be well worth a visit – it was a groundbreaking period for British sculpture. The exhibition will include objects ranging from marble, limewood and ceramic sculpture shown at the Great Exhibitions, to exquisite jewellery and silverwork. And, once we’re closer to Arts Week at Birkbeck (18th May onwards), and the programme is announced, keep an eye out for details of an event in which Lynn Nead and Michael Hatt will be appearing ‘in conversation’.

Another scholar who did her doctoral research with Professor Nead is Dr Carol Jacobi – she also taught for the department for many years. Carol is currently Curator of British Art, 1850-1915, at Tate Britain, and she has been working on an exhibition called ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’, also due to open on 25th February. This is the first exhibition devoted to salted paper prints, one of the earliest forms of photography, unveiled by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839. Relatively small numbers of these survive, and those that do are fragile, so this is a rare opportunity – to be made the most of.


I’m also delighted to be able to tell you that Carol will be coming to Birkbeck on Tuesday 10th March (6-8pm, Keynes library), along with Hope Kingsley, to speak about the aesthetics and reception of these prints in the nineteenth century, and the experience of curating the exhibition. This seminar has been organised by the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre, as part of their rich programme of free events over the next few months, open to all. For full details, do have a look at their webpage.

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Last day to sign up for your free National Art Pass!

I do hope you’re all having a good term, and have enjoyed the first few weeks back at Birkbeck after the Christmas break.

*             First of all, a reminder about the offer from the Art Fund of FREE national art passes for all students on our History of Art programmes. I’ve been told by our contact at the Art Fund that many of you have taken up the offer – but, if any of you haven’t as yet, and would like to do so, then please do sign up before the deadline – TODAY! (30th JANUARY).

*             In my last blog, I filled you in on some of the latest activities of members of staff – and news keeps coming in of new publications, events and exhibitions. My colleague (and neighbour in the attic in Gordon Square), Suzannah Biernoff, has just told me that she currently has essays in the catalogues for not one, but two exhibitions on at present! Both shows are in their last few weeks, so do catch them if you have a chance:

War, Art and Surgery at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, until 14th February

– The Sensory War 1914-2014 at Manchester Art Gallery, until 22nd February


*             Some of you will already know that, whilst it may no longer be the season to be merry, it is the season to be surveyed. The first of the surveys in which Birkbeck participates has just opened: the National Student Survey (NSS), run by Ipsos Mori, for final-year undergraduates (it closes on 27th April). The other surveys which will open over the next couple of months are:

–              the Birkbeck Student Survey (BSS), for non-final year BBK undergraduates, open from 16 Feb – 15 May

–              the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES), for postgraduate taught students, open from 16 Feb – 15 May

–              the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) for postgraduate research students, open from 2 Mar – 14 May

You will be contacted directly by either Ipsos Mori (for the NSS), or the College (for the other three) – and I, and the Department, would be really grateful if you could take the time to participate. For one thing, each survey does have a prize draw attached to it! But also, whilst I know that very few of us rate completing surveys and questionnaires as fun, it is also very useful for the Department, and the College, to hear your views, and to find out more about your experiences of studying with us at Birkbeck. We do take these surveys seriously, and scrutinise and discuss the results. The NSS is particularly important, as the College needs to have an overall response rate of more than 50% before the results are made publicly available on, a site designed for and consulted by prospective students. Thank you!

*             Finally – I’m happy to post a piece written by one of our current PhD students, Gary Haines, who works on the visual and cultural representation of the Blinded British Soldier of the First World War. I shall leave you with his thoughts on Access and Birkbeck, and some useful information about the services provided by the Disability Office.

Independence of Study, by Gary Haines

Independence, the word can mean many things – freedom, to do what you will when you want and, for those of us of a certain age, Will Smith fighting aliens in Independence Day. Independence can mean something else though. It can mean striving to be able to do what most of us do on a daily basis without thinking.  To walk, to see, to read.

How does someone who cannot see read, a sense we take for granted? Without reading, we cannot function as academics. This area is of particular interest to me due to my PhD research on the blinded British soldier of the First World War. How could you regain your independence when you cannot see?

Striving for independence was featured as a theme in the recent exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery. This exhibition, curated by Dr Heather Tilley of Birkbeck, examined portraiture of prominent blind and visually-impaired people in the nineteenth century, who strove for independence and who were  active in the worlds of art, education, travel and politics. It featured the lives and images of James Holman, nicknamed ‘the blind traveller’, who travelled the world in spite of his blindness and limited mobility, and Henry Fawcett, economist and prominent campaigner for suffrage, who was blinded in a shooting accident. A wonderful blog by Heather can be found here.

*                     *                 *                *                      *

Birkbeck enables independence for students with visual impairments and other disabilities via the Access team. This assistance is centred at the Disability Office, located in room G12 on the ground floor of the Malet Street building. The staff here can provide advice and support on travel and parking, physical access, special equipment, personal support, examination arrangements, etc.

UK and most EU students with disabilities on undergraduate and postgraduate courses are eligible to apply for the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). The DSA can provide support and all the evidence shows that students who receive it are more likely to complete their courses successfully. The Disability Office can provide further information on the DSA and can assist you in applying to Student Finance England for this support.

The Disability Office can also provide guidance on obtaining a personal assistant to support you on your course. This can include assistance from a note taker, a reader or a sign-language interpreter.

IT services also offer a great deal of support to enable all students study independently. This includes an Assistive Technology Room, which may be booked by disabled students. There is screen reading and character enhancing software for students with visual impairments, specialist scanning software, large monitors, ergonomic mice and keyboards, specialist orthopaedic chairs, etc.

There are also software packages for dyslexic students. If you think you may be dyslexic, it is highly recommended that you undertake dyslexia screening, as this can assist you in gaining more help if required. You can take an online screening test in the computer laboratories – the instructions for the screening test are available on the Disability Office website.

All this assistance is not just for your first few weeks at Birkbeck but throughout your time here. Many disabled students can receive support in examinations, including additional time and use of a computer. They are often also eligible for extensions of up to two weeks on coursework.

All of this is to enable everyone to be as independent as possible. It is to be remembered that access and independence is not an option – it is a right.

My thanks goes to Mark Pimm, Birkbeck disability co-ordinator, for his help and assistance with the information for this article. For further information or to make an appointment to see the Disability Office, please call the Student Centre on 020 7631 6316 or email

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A belated happy new year!

Rather belatedly, a happy new year to you all! (it’’s been a busy start of term….) I hope you all had good Christmas breaks, and have returned to the Spring term feeling nicely refreshed.

I’’m pleased to say that I’m able to resume my blog posts with a piece of good news! You’’ll remember that, a few months ago, I was contacted by the Art Fund with the offer of FREE national art passes for students on our History of Art programmes. I know that many of you took up this offer, and are already enjoying 50% off major exhibitions and free entry into 230 charging museums and galleries across the UK. The Art Fund have just been in touch with me again to say that there are free still passes available, and that they are reopening the offer, with a new deadline of 30th JANUARY. If you didn’’t take up this opportunity first time round, please do so now. I’’m delighted to be able to add that I asked the Fund if the offer might now be extended to our research students, on the MPhil/PhD programme, as well as students on our taught programmes, and they happily agreed.

ArtPass V4a

Members of staff in the department have been working hard. New publications are always appearing: one of the most recent was a piece in November by Joanne Anderson in the journal, Der Schlern: ‘‘St. Magdalena in Rentsch bei Bozen: Ein neuer Vorschlag zur Auftraggeberschaft im 14. Jahrhundert’’. For those whose German is as rusty as mine, that translates as ‘Santa Maddalena in Rencio near Bolzano: A New Proposal of Patronage in the 14th-Century’. My colleagues are also regularly organising exhibitions, and a display co-curated by Gabriel Koureas and one of his PhD students, Elena Parpa, has just opened in the Peltz Gallery: Exercises in Orientation’. This exciting curatorial project investigates the significance of landscape in the work of contemporary Cypriot artists, asking: How do contemporary Cypriot artists position themselves in a place marked by conflict? What kind of issues do they seek to address and how does their work contribute to our understanding of a divided landscape? The opening event was a couple of nights ago (a great success), and the exhibition will run until 11th February. Do stop in on your way in or out of the building, and take a look.


We’’re also routinely involved in organising events, and I’’m going selfishly to take the opportunity to give one of mine a plug! It’’s a one day conference entitled ‘Animating the Eighteenth-Century Country House’, which I’’ve co-organised with Dr Susanna Avery-Quash at the National Gallery and our PhD student, Amelia Smith. It’ will be in the Sainsbury Wing Lecture Theatre at the Gallery on 5th March, and you can find full details here.

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Recent news in History of Art – and wishing you all a good Christmas break!

We are nearing the end of term, and so this will be my last blog posting before we get to the Christmas vacation! I do hope that you’ve all had successful terms – and, especially, that those of you who joined us in October have settled well into your courses. In my first blog posting, I emphasised how much support we can give you as you embark on a new level of study – whatever that level might be – and I do hope that you’ve been keeping in touch with your course directors, personal tutors and/or supervisors with any issues which have come up. Many of you on taught courses will be currently working towards assessments due in either at the end of this term or the beginning of next – and I wish you all the best with those.

It’s been a good term – one of the highlights has definitely been the generous offer from the Art Fund of free National Art Passes for all History of Art students on taught courses at Birkbeck! I do hope that lots of you were able to take up that offer, and are already enjoying free entry into museums and galleries, and discounts on entry into exhibitions. Another highlight has been – as always – the success of students who have completed their programmes of study, which we celebrate at graduation. I congratulated our new BA History of Art graduates in my last blog, but I’m pleased to say that, since then, I’ve been sent a photo of some of them enjoying their success. Well done one and all!


*             I’ve included a number of success stories in my blog postings over the past few weeks, and it’s nice to be able to write about another one.

Christina Bradstreet did her PhD in History of Art with us here at Birkbeck a few years ago, supervised by Professor Lynda Nead, and her career has gone from strength to strength ever since. She was recently appointed Course and Events Programmer at the National Gallery, and has kindly written about her new role for us. You can also find some of this information on our news pages.


“I work in the Education department at the National Gallery. I help to produce the adult learning programme, which includes everything from study days to Friday Socials. One minute I am giving a gallery talk or preparing for a course I am teaching on; the next I am generating ideas about how to refresh our programmes and be more innovative in the ways we engage people with art. I love that everyday I’m learning about the collection, which covers European painting from around 1250-1900.

Since I am responsible for ticketed events, there is an emphasis on generating income for the gallery, and I like knowing that my work helps to support the many free learning opportunities provided by the gallery for school children, families and adults.

Studying art history at Birkbeck can lead to a diverse and rewarding career. Since leaving Birkbeck in 2007, my career has spanned academia, museums, schools, the art market and the charity sector. Alongside my job, I serve as Honorary Secretary of the Association of Art Historians, where we are mounting a campaign to promote art history in schools and universities. My first job on completing my thesis, was teaching art history in a school, while lecturing part-time. It was a baptism of fire, but I enjoyed it! After two years, I began a postdoctoral fellowship at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art to work on turning my thesis into a book and I’m now in the midst of the publishing process. My most recent job was as Director of Careers at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. This gave me a much broader picture of the wider art world, which helps me in my current role.

My doctoral thesis was on scent in Victorian art and it was later awarded Birkbeck’s Anne Humphreys Prize. Studying for a PhD supervised by Lynda Nead was a phenomenal experience; with her guidance I wrote exactly the thesis that I wanted to write. The period I spent at Birkbeck was a particularly special time in my life; it was wonderful to be able to spend those years devoted to my research and writing!”

*             Finally, before I sign off, I’m conscious that I promised to pick up the story of the School of Arts building which I began in my first blog posting, telling you about the more recent history of our premises. Once again, my account is very much indebted to the factsheet which Victoria McNeile put together when we were included in the Open House Weekend.

In 2007, the College commissioned Surface Architects to rebuild and refurbish a modern extension to the basement and ground floor of the Gordon Square terrace, and parts of the original building. You enter this new area as you go through the foyer and then turn left, moving into a dynamic, brilliantly coloured environment! These circulation and breakout spaces are wrapped around an 80-seat cinema.


Using a 3D modelling programme, the architects developed the concept of a ‘carved out’ circulation space, following the route of a block as if it were tumbling through the solid mass of the building. The angular and dynamic result is reinforced by those strong contrasting colours and a variety of textures.

You’ll be familiar with the tilted picture window, with the ratio of a cinema screen, which you see as you walk past or go into the cinema. This is the terminating point of a ‘cone of vision’ hinted at in the geometries of the space, and it provides a vista out onto the usually hidden rear spaces, behind the School of Arts, and the backs of the Georgian terrace facing onto Tavistock Square.

The project was awarded an RIBA award (London Region) in 2008.

*             well, it only remains to wish you all a good break over the Christmas vacation, and a very happy new year!

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New graduates, a day trip to Eton – and ‘Mr Turner’ again….

Congratulations are in order!

The most important recent news in the History of Art department is the undergraduate graduation ceremony which took place last week, on 11th November. Many, many congratulations to all our new BA History of Art graduates – we’re very proud of you!

graduation hats

(a rather cheesy picture I know, but hard to resist a ‘graduation hats in the air’ opportunity)

Mr Turner again….

I began my last blog by telling you that one of our alumna, Dr. Jacqueline Riding, who did her MA in History of Art at Birkbeck some years ago, had acted as historical and art historical consultant on Mike Leigh’s new film, Mr. Turner. I was delighted to be promptly emailed by one of our current MA students, Sarah McBryde, informing me that she had worked as production manager on the film! Sarah has kindly written a short piece for us about the experience…

“Having worked with Mike Leigh since 2003, I’m familiar with his approach to film-making. However, the subject of JMW Turner presented some new and interesting challenges. As usual, the actors worked with Mike to develop their characters and storylines during months of intensive rehearsals prior to filming, appropriately based in the former Central School of Art on Southampton Row. The obvious difference with Mr. Turner was that most of the characters were based on real individuals, so the input of various art historians, notably Dr Jacqueline Riding, was vital to Mike’s meticulous research process. In fact, the scope of Jackie’s advice extended way beyond art history, encompassing everything from historically accurate vocabulary to 19thC stethoscopes.  We were incredibly fortunate to have assistance and advice from institutions and galleries in the UK and across the world, many of whom also generously gave their permission for us to replicate the innumerable artworks. The results can be seen in the reconstructions of the Royal Academy Exhibitions filmed at Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire. The added challenge of making a period production on a relatively small budget resulted in some imaginative solutions. For example the historic boats which feature in the Margate sequences (filmed at Kingsand, Cornwall) weren’t added in post production, as someone recently asked me. Our Art Director rowed his way around Plymouth harbour, knocking on the hull of anything suitable and asking if they wouldn’t mind mooring up off Kingsand for the price of a few bacon sandwiches. It worked perfectly, apart from the occasional Royal Navy submarine unexpectedly surfacing mid-shot!

Having already spent a year immersed in Turner and Art History, it seemed a logical step for me to continue onto the Graduate Certificate at Birkbeck and now the MA…”

Our students out and about once more

Following Fiona Candlin’s lovely picture of Museum Cultures students at the V&A, I am very pleased to be able to post another photograph of our students, out and about on a field trip. Last week, Dr. Joanne Anderson, Lecturer in Renaissance Art, and those BA History of Art students taking her option course on ‘Italian Mural Painting’ visited Eton College Chapel. Here’s Joanne’s account of the trip:

“On Monday 10 November we were warmly welcomed by Dr Nicola Pickering, Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art to Eton College Chapel. She gave a brief introduction and then the students had an opportunity to look at the fifteenth-century mural painting in the nave of the chapel before we had a group discuss about their making, meaning and afterlife. In the final 20 minutes of our allotted time, we visited the master’s chamber to see a recently rediscovered early 16th-century mural depicting the master in cathedra, holding a book and the birching rod – symbols of his authority – surrounded by his charges on forms. We were also permitted to visit the original teaching room next door, which is still in use today. We couldn’t take any photographs inside but here’s the class assembled in School Yard!

Eton 2

The chapel was founded by Henry VI but we have Bishop William Waynefleet to thank for its completion, and the commissioning of the monumental mural scheme that served College instructors and clergy, pupils, pilgrims and parishioners. His effigy is recorded on the exterior west wall, holding a model of the chapel.”Eton 4

New Peltz Exhibition

A new exhibition has just opened in the Peltz gallery in the School of Arts: ‘How We Read: A Sensory History of Books for Blind People’. The exhibition will be on for one week only, from 17-23 November 2014, and is part of the Being Human Festival, the UK’s first national festival of the humanities. How We Read explores the history of assistive technologies that have been designed to help blind people read. From raised print to talking books and optophones, a fascinating array of historic artefacts are on display from museums and other centres dedicated to preserving the heritage of blindness. Please do visit to look, touch and listen: among the star items are the first examples of raised print books published in Britain, and a mid-twentieth century optophone – a device which translated the printed page into sound (you can hear an example of an optophone in action as well). For more details of the exhibition, and related activities, workshops and live performances, do look at the website.

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Lots of news – and a couple of photos…

  • You won’t have been able to miss the current media coverage of Mike Leigh’s new film: his ambitious biopic, Mr Turner. As a specialist in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British art, I shall be heading off to the cinema as soon as I can, to see how one of the most important artists of the period has come out on screen. We’re very proud of the fact an alumna, Dr. Jacqueline Riding, who did her MA with us here at Birkbeck some years ago, acted as historical and art historical consultant on the film. Nice work if you can get it! There are numerous reviews of the film available – but I, of course, highly recommend one written by a member of the department: Professor Lynn Nead. You can find her review, and an essay on artists on film, in the current issue of Apollo (October 2014), pp.74-8.


  • It’s been a good period for awards… One of our MPhil/PhD students in the department, Thanavi Chotpradit, has just won the 2014 Anglo-Thai Society Education Awards for Excellence (Arts). These awards are intended to recognise ‘the exceptional academic achievements of Thai post-graduate scholars in the UK’ – so many congratulations Thanavi! Thanavi is currently working on her thesis, provisionally entitled ‘Revolution versus Counter-Revolution: The People’s Party and the Royalist in Visual Dialogue’, with Dr. Gabriel Koureas. Gabriel specialises in visual culture from the late nineteenth century to the present day, and he has co-organised a forthcoming event which may well be of interest to postgraduate students. This is a Masterclass for PhD and early career researchers on ‘Transmedial/Transcultural Memories: Points of Convergence’, at Birkbeck on November 29th 2014. Gabriel teaches across the programmes in the department, but he is one of the key figures on our MA in Museum Cultures. A rather convenient segue to allow me to post up a lovely photograph of those students taken by Dr Fiona Candlin, whilst she was leading them on a recent visit to the V&A!


  • I hope you’ll be able to visit the new display in the Peltz Gallery, just inside the entrance of the School of Arts building. Presented by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, it’s an exhibition of Moving Portraits of six survivors of genocide who now live in the UK. The collection draws upon the significance of memory, photographing survivors holding a belonging that is evocative for them. It’s on until 9th November – do take a look.


  • A reminder about the good news I was able to circulate earlier this week. The Art Fund have offered all History of Art students in the department a FREE student national art pass. This means that, amongst other benefits, you’ll be able to get 50% off major exhibitions and free entry into 230 charging museums and galleries across the UK over the next 12 months! Please do make sure you sign up before the DEADLINE OF 7 NOVEMBER. It’s a great opportunity – and also important that there’s good take-up of the offer, to show our appreciation.


  • And, in the tradition of amusing final news items, this is the scene I encountered last Friday, when going to discuss a serious matter with the admin team! Hard at work – but clearly only just keeping their excitement about Halloween in check!


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