Happy Holidays

As promised, one last post before the end of 2017.

Among the many events of the last two weeks of term were the Staff-Student exchange meetings my colleagues and I have with the student representatives of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. These are always really interesting and constructive sessions – opportunities for all of you, via your reps, to feedback any issues to us, and for us to respond, and sometimes take away issues for further discussion with the whole department. An example of the rapid working of this mechanism was the discussion about the longer-than-usual Christmas closure of the library and the deadline for MA essays. The reps at the post-grad meeting made an eloquent case for the extension of the deadline, which normally falls on the first day of the Spring term, for an additional week, to 15 January, and we agreed. Democracy in action!

There was also a useful meeting about the British Council Venice Fellowships, in which potential applicants heard from the British Council rep and the two fellows who went to Venice last month. (The deadline for applications is 5pm on 12 January – further information from Clare c.thomas@bbk.ac.uk or Sarah sarah.thomas@bbk.ac.uk) One of this year’s Venice fellows, Ruth Houlsby, MA History of Art with Photography, has written a thoughtful piece for the British Council’s UK at the Venice Biennale blog. Here’s one of her images, showing Yelena Vorobyeva & Viktor Vorobyev’s The Artist is Asleep (1996) – I thought it might resonate with a few of you at the end of term:

Meanwhile here in London, the MA Museum Cultures students were wide awake and out in the field, visiting two highly contrasting archives. Student Richard Godfrey reports:

On the 14th November, we visited both the Bishopsgate institute archive and the British museums archive. Being a totally new experience I didn’t know what to expect. The archive at the Bishopsgate institute was a surprising and humorous visit all thanks to the archive manager Stefan Dickers, who was full off anecdotes regarding his collection. He explained that the archive collects items that are viewed as history from below. The archive does this by collecting from areas like the working class, LGBT community, radical and social history. The reason they collect these items is because often it is this history that is forgotten and the archive acts to preserve them. If you get the chance to visit the archive, then go, even just to listen to Stefan talk about the archives collection or to see their collection of leatherman posters or old take away pizza menus. The British museum’s archive on the other hand was something else altogether, over 200 years of the museum’s history is stored within but in no apparent order. As the Museum is a publicly funded institute its archives are considered to be public records and are available for public access. However the British museum archive is typical of a large institute that is very old – the archive materials have been poorly classified, because in the past the museums interest was mainly focused on its collection. It was interesting to me to see how two archives could be so very different from each other.

An opportunity for the budding young art critics among you (and I say ‘young’ advisedly): the Burlington Magazine has announced this year’s Contemporay Art Writing Prize, with a deadline of 26 February. It’s specifically for aspiring, rather than established, writers, which is good, but it has a maximum age limit of 35, which is bad, and very un-Birkbeck! More here.

Missed Gabriele Finaldi’s Murray lecture on the National Gallery and the Prado, or want to catch it again? Now you can listen here.

I’ll leave you with a seasonal art historical scene, Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow (Winter) from 1565 (thanks to Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum and the Google Art Project). You never know, we may get more of the white stuff!

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Beginnings at the end of term

Last Thursday November 30th was an exciting moment for us – the launch of Opening up Art History: 50 years at Birkbeck, our programme celebrating the anniversary of the department’s founding in 1967. Our kick-off was, appropriately, the Peter Murray Memorial Lecture, named for the founder of the department. We welcomed National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi with a full house and a warm reception for his fascinating, wide-ranging talk about the divergent histories of the two institutions he knows best, London’s NG and Madrid’s Prado, where he was deputy director until recently. Francesca Castelli, a BA History of Art grad and currently a MA Museum Cultures student, has written an excellent blogpost about the lecture, and there’ll be a podcast available soon. One thing that struck me about the evening was how alive our history is and how connected we are to it: Gabriele talked about how important Peter Murray’s catalogue of the Dulwich Picture Gallery was to him when he first encountered history of art in Dulwich, and sitting in the front row were Peter Draper and Francis Ames-Lewis, the two first colleagues hired by Prof Murray to help teach the first Birkbeck art history students, one of whom, Clare Ford-Wille (one of our Associate Lecturers) was also there. Turned out Gabriele’s own father had done a degree at Birkbeck in the mid-1960s – in Italian and French rather than in History of Art, but we’ll forgive him for that. And a tip if you want to find out more about Gabriele Finaldi, his vision for the NG, his own background and his musical tastes: check out the podcast of this Private Passions episode on Radio 3.

The Murray Bequest funds the Peter Murray lecture, and is contributing generously to our anniversary programme of events, for which we’re very grateful indeed. This is in addition to their support for all sorts of other activities within the department, including the Murray seminar, which features leading scholars of medieval and early modern art in free research talks between 5 and 6pm, several times per term, in the Keynes. The last one for this term is on Wednesday 6 December: Cecily Hennessy will speak on ‘Mary Magdalene in Byzantium’.

Another ‘beginning at the end of term’ is the fabulous news of the revival of the History of Art Student Society, a society for all current students in the department. Please take this society to your heart and make it your own! Their first event is an end of term Christmas party on Friday 15 December and here’s the very art historical flyer.

Fancy an opportunity to travel expenses paid to Venice for a month and be part of the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale? Two School of Arts students will get that opportunity in 2018, thanks to the British Council Venice Fellowships. The first thing to do to find out more about it is to come along to a briefing on Tuesday 12 December at 5 in room 106, where a rep from the British Council and the two Birkbeck 2017 fellows will tell you all about it. Note that all History of Art (and School of Arts) students are welcome to apply – no need to a particular background in architecture. For further info please see the email circulated, or contact Sarah Thomas: sarah.thomas@bbk.ac.uk.

Some research news: Kasia Murawska-Muthesius will be giving a paper with the intriguingly pithy title ‘The Satirical Object’ on Wednesday 6 December at University of East Anglia. Kasia’s talk, coinciding with the Sainsbury Centre’s recently opened exhibition of the work of Roger Law, of the Spitting Image fame, will address the relationship between caricature and puppetry. Does the affinity between them extend beyond the formal terms, i.e. the principle of deformation, and subversiveness, which informs both of them? Among other shared features to discuss are anthropomorphism, performativity, ephemerality, and reflexivity.

The RA has recently announced a new free exhibition ticket scheme, as it prepares for its 250th anniversary year in 2018 (anniversaries are clearly all the rage at the moment). It is available to any student studying History of Art at a Higher Education Institution. To be eligible, students need to register their details with the Royal Academy using the form on their website: roy.ac/freestudenttickets. Once you’ve registered the RA will email you to let you know when tickets have become available, and to invite you to book. There will be a limited number per show, which you can reserve online, up to two tickets per person. I’d really encourage you to jump on this one – the RA exhibitions are some of the best, and most expensive, in London.

Have a good final two weeks of term – good luck with your essays, those who have them due on the 15th, and I’ll be back for one last blogpost before the end of 2017.;


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Mortarboard tossing

If you’re in the midst of your studies, graduation can seem a long hard way off. So take a look at these happy faces and take inspiration! We had BA and Cert HE students graduating last week in a celebratory and moving ceremony at Senate House – warm congrats to all of them. The monumental stairs in the foyer were the perfect setting for some impressive mortarboard tossing.



A great way of staying in touch with Birkbeck post-graduation (but also during your studies) and satisfying your need for art history is to join the London Art History Society, which is afffiliated with the department and organises a rich programme of lectures, courses and visits. They also have a snazzy new website.

The first of our major events in the Opening Up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck anniversary programme is coming up on Thursday 30 November 6pm in the Clore Lecture Theatre. There are still a few places for what promises to be a fascinating lecture by Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, on How to form a national collection. The Prado Museum and the National Gallery, London. Book here! Come along to the fun reception afterwards too – all warmly welcome.

You can also now book for the second of our big anniversary lectures, by Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, who will be giving us insights into where the V&A is headed in the future.

Our own Suzannah Biernoff has been in Houston, Texas, where she was an invited speaker at Rice University Art History department’s inaugural interdisciplinary graduate conference, Vital Constitutions: The Appearance of ‘Health’ in History. The conference explored representations and realities of health, illness, care and condemnation and included presentations by artists and emerging scholars in art history, anthropology, architecture and performance studies.

You can hear Suzannah talking about her research on Radio 4’s World War One: The Cultural Front, available on BBC iPlayer. The series examines artistic responses to the war year by year. In 1917 sculptor Francis Derwent Wood set up a studio for portrait masks in Wandsworth after witnessing the profound psychological impact on patients with facial injuries. Wood and his team at the 3rd London General Hospital sculpted masks that would make the patient look as close as possible to how he had been before he was wounded. A century later, we’re left puzzling about what these masks really are: a well intentioned but flawed medical tool, or a kind of anti-portraiture that shows the realities of war in a way that still feels visceral even today.

It’s a big year for new books by Birkbeck art historians. Kate Retford (whom you’ll remember as former head of department and blogger) launched her new book published by Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, in the atmospheric spaces of the Art Workers Guild. It was a sparkling evening and a celebration of an amazing achievement.

I’m off now to moderate a seminar at the Paul Mellon Centre entitled ‘Policy into Practice: Implementing Fair Dealing for image copyright at British Art Studies’. There are still places if you decide at the last minute you’d like to come along. It’s part of a series of events at Birkbeck on Fair Dealing and the uses of images in academic research. The final event, the Fair Dealing Conference, takes place this Friday 25th, 10-6, and features our own Steve Edwards as well as experts in copyright law, moving images, and artists’ rights. Meaty and important stuff, both practically and conceptually.


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Reading week – but are you getting any reading done?

I hope you’re having a restful and reflective reading week. The trick is always finding the time to read, amid all the catching up with life.

I’ll kick off this post with a report from colleague Patrizia Di Bello on a fascinating-sounding talk she’s giving in Rome later this month:

In November, Patrizia Di Bello is giving a keynote lecture titled ‘L’album fotografico: guardare, toccare, raccontare’ (her title in English was ‘The Photographs Album: Histories of Looking and Touching’, but she realised it sounded too much like an Elena Ferrante story, especially when translated in Italian!), at the International conference L’Album Fotografico: Oggetto e Narrazione, Rome, 23-24 November 2017. This is organised by the Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione, which is the organization in the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali (Ministry for Heritage and Cultural Activities) that manages the catalogue of Italian cultural heritage or assets (in Italian, the more familial but also patriarchal ‘patrimonio’) – archaeological, architectonic, historical, artistic and ethno-anthropological. They have a vast collection of photographs, including albums, and one of their activities is researching and conceptualising the processes of archiving, cataloguing, and exhibiting such materials. Photographs albums, often very mixed and heterogeneous objects, can be hard to handle systematically. In the past, they were often split to turn them into single items, easier to catalogue, store and exhibit. Recent scholarship, including Patrizia’s book, Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England (Routledge, 2007), has questioned this practice by arguing for the importance of the narratives embedded in the materiality of albums.

Meanwhile, here at Birkbeck, we celebrated the publication of Professor Lynda Nead’s new book, The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Postwar Britain, published by Yale University Press in association with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, with a buzzing party in the Keynes library. You can hear Lynn talking about her book on a recent edition of the Radio 3 programme Free Thinking.


And as always there are lots of events coming up for you to attend. The next Murray Seminar is given by our own Zoe Opacic on Monday 13 November at 5pm in the Keynes Library. Her topic is ‘From Sacroscape to Cityscape: Images of Central European Towns in Late Medieval Sources’.

Next time you read an article or book for one of your classes, take a look at the way the images are labelled and especially for the part of the caption which reads ‘reproduced with kind permission of’ or similar. Those image credits, as they’re called, are the result of often protracted negotiation with rights holders (museums, archives, libraries, artists’ estates, etc.) and significant expenditure – all of which is almost always done by the author, not the publisher. This has always been a difficult aspect of publishing our research as art historians, and it’s only getting more difficult as so much academic publishing goes online. A couple of excellent events organised by Birkbeck turn the spotlight on this problem:

Art History and Fair Dealing, 22 November 2017, 3-4.30, at the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, 16 Bedford Square


Fair Dealing Conference, 24 November 2017, 10-6, Birkbeck Cinema

Both are free, but you need to book.

A few more places have been made available for the upcoming Murray Lecture, given by Dr Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery, on ‘How to form a national collection. The Prado Museum and the National Gallery, London’, 30 November 6pm in the Clore lecture theatre. Grab your place before they run out!

And speaking of grabbing opportunities before they run out…a message from the Art Fund.

Enjoy a year of endless inspiration at world-class museums across the UK with a Student Art Pass.

From the V&A and Tate Modern to Kensington Palace and Jupiter Artland, you’ll get free access to over 240 museums, galleries and historic houses, and 50% off major exhibitions. Plus, grab tasty treats or mementos at a bargain price with loads of café and shop discounts too.

A limited number are available for £5 until 10 December. Get yours before they go:




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A funny thing happened on the way to the V&A

Can you believe we are in week 4 already? The Autumn term pace is nothing if not hectic.

I know my colleague Steve Edwards has been busy, not to mention globally present. He recently posted the final blogpost in a series for the Fotomuseum Winterthur (Switzerland) on ‘The Fire Last Time: Radical Documentary in Britain During the 1970s’; he was an invited participant in the seminar ‘Between fiction and reality’, University of Sao Paulo, July; he gave the paper ‘Suspended Time: Antoine Claudet’s studio at Regent Street and the Shock of 1848’, at the University of Michigan, USA, in September, and next month he delivers a keynote (with Gail Day) in Lisbon to the Bloco Esquerda (the left bloc of the governing coalition).

As usual there’s no shortage of events to attend here at Birkbeck:

You may not have known that Birkbeck has an artist in residence, and you can get involved in her work: Join Birkbeck’s artist-in-residence Lily Hunter Green to hear about her project ‘Bee Composed Live’ and opportunities to get involved in her workshops leading to her final exhibition in May, 2018. In this first meeting (Friday, 27 October, 6-7.30pm) Lily will introduce her work and her new project exploring the connection between the worlds of bees and humans in relation to the timely question of climate change. It is crucial that you attend this first meeting if you are interested in participating the four workshops she will run throughout the year and the exhibition concluding her residency alongside a symposium (Tuesday, 8 May) Dr Seda Ilter will organise. The workshop series is open to all undergraduate and postgraduate students interested in participating.

Please do book your space asap as numbers are limited.


The Architecture Space and Society Centre has a rich afternoon coming up of new research on the topic of ‘Architecture of Energy’ on Friday 3 November, 1-5pm in the Keynes Library, with speakers from Edinburgh, Liverpool, Leicester, Birkbeck and Goldsmiths. The symposium explores whether there are radical historical and interpretative possibilities in approaches that place energy at the centre of our understanding of architecture and the built environment. It’s organised by my colleague Mark Crinson.

On Monday 6 November at 6pm (Keynes library) the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies hosts Tate curator Martin Myrone discussing his plans for an exhibition of the art of William Blake (1757-1827) in 2019, in the context of the history of exhibiting Blake from the late 18th century onwards.

I’m now handing over to Francesca Snelling, a student on the MA History of Art with Photography, reporting on an experience shadowing Birkbeck alumna Anaïs Aguerre at the V&A on a momentous day in June. It began with a chance encounter with a prominent personage (who’ll be making an appearance at Birkbeck in February…)


Finding myself walking from South Kensington tube to the V&A alongside its director, Tristram Hunt, the day of the UK’s General Election, was just too good an opportunity to resist. Overwhelmingly curious to know how the former shadow education secretary, who had resigned his seat in January, had voted that morning, I boldly introduced myself. He artfully deflected the political question, deferring to the impartiality rules of his new role as civil servant. Party politics for the ‘remainer’, left flying almost solo in what was the 70% Brexit land of his former constituency of Stoke on Trent, was now truly put aside.

As a Birkbeck MA History of Art with Photography student, the day ahead was my first opportunity to get behind the scenes of one of my most loved museums, on a work shadow placement with alumna Anaïs Aguerre in the museum’s International Department. For Hunt, as the country rallied to the polls, it was business as usual. Founded in 1852 by Henry Cole as an offspring of the first International Exhibition, the V & A has from its inception prided itself on being an organisation with global relevance, collections, audiences, exhibitions, and relationships. This poll-morning encounter with the custodian of some of our country’s most prized treasures to me exemplified the “sense of freedom” the museum embodies; pride, accessibility and a sense of ownership for Jo Public over its many treasures. Fresh off Dr Gabriel Koureas’ module Museums and National Identity, this all felt somehow right and good.

Knowing that disillusionment with the Brexit vote was cited as the reason for the resignation of Hunt’s predecessor, the late Martin Roth, a sharp sense of the ongoing negotiation of the institution’s obligations and global positioning added to my interest in the workings of the International Department. With a collection and education program of such global significance and international content, what did and didn’t fall within its remit? With the recent & slightly controversial acquisition of the Royal Photographic Society archive from the National Media Museum in Bradford in mind specifically, I wondered how these obligations aligned with the V&A constituency across Britain itself, beyond its South Kensington site.

Responsibilities to engage with an open face to the world in a Brexit age, it turned out, is an issue as close to Anaïs’s heart, as it is to Hunt’s and Roth before him The day, which comprised of several in-house and Skype meetings to brainstorm the reworking of Henry Cole’s 1867 ‘Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art for the Benefit of Museums of All Countries’, gave me fascinating insight into the devising of new international guidelines on Reproducing Heritage. As a photographer currently obsessed with the digitisation of archives and the expansion of their visual economy, I had struck gold. Anais also spoke to me at length about the Training Program for museum professionals from overseas as well as the department’s touring exhibitions, like the Bowie exhibition then currently in Barcelona.

In retrospect, it couldn’t have been a more significant day to be there; a day in which the Brexit vote was probably felt by the country most keenly. How this decision will affect and resonate through Britain’s art institutions is still yet to be seen, but knowing that our cultural heritage and its scholarship lies open to the world on principal, at least for now, is some comfort.


Francesca Snelling, MA History of Art with Photography




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Opening up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck

It was wonderful to see all the new students at the induction evenings over the past 2 weeks – there was a great buzz at the drinks receptions, and it was gratifying to have to eject people from the Keynes at 9pm. I hope the conversations continued elsewhere! I hope too that everyone’s first classes went well last week.

I promised more info on how we’re marking the department’s 50th anniversary over the course of 2017-18. Full details are now available here. You’ll see we have two very prominent museum directors giving public talks: Gabriele Finaldi and Tristram Hunt. Our academics have also organised a series of four workshops under the banner ‘Forward Looking’ which will confront topical and indeed fraught issues facing art history and museums, such as austerity and the relevance of ‘old art’.

The anniversary celebrations have the motto ‘Opening Up Art History’, taking inspiration from Birkbeck’s historic role in radically redefining an elite and esoteric discipline. At the same time, we want to use the occasion to look forward, scope out and have an impact on the future. You may have already seen the posters featuring the 18th-century engraving of a woman – her dress connects her with the servant class – reaching for a book by lamplight, seeking out intellectual stimulation after a day’s work (a cropped version is on the website). We chose it from the British Museum’s open-access databank – an image, itself openly available, which conjures up the pleasures and risks of breaching the boundaries that traditionally surround knowledge.

Étude nocturne, mezzotint by Philip Dawe, after John Foldsone, 1772 © Trustees of the British Museum.

Speaking of women, art and the 18th century, there’s a fascinating-sounding symposium coming up here at Birkbeck on 20 November, organised by our own Kate Retford with Jacqueline Riding, who is an honorary research fellow in the department. Basic Instincts: Art, Women & Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century draws out themes explored in current exhibition Basic Instincts at the Foundling Museum (until 7 January), curated by Jacqueline Riding. Speakers include Kate and Birkbeck PhD student Kirsten Tambling and a great roster of visiting speakers. The symposium is ticketed (£30 for students) and you need to book in advance.

The two research centres based in History of Art, the Architecture Space and Society Centre and the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre have recently announced their events for the term. Please check out their websites for details and booking links. And the Murray Seminar, featuring talks on new research in medieval and Renaissance art, has also announced its programme, which kicks off on 18 October 5pm in the Keynes with Kim Woods on ‘Speaking Sculptures’. All events are free and open to the public.

Do make sure to take some time out from racing around to class, library, tutors’ offices, etc., to spend some time in the Peltz Gallery, with the very beautiful and thought-provoking exhibition Sunil Gupta: In Pursuit of Love, curated by our own Annie Coombes and featuring contemporary photographs with strong art historical echoes.

Sunil Gupta, Untitled #5, ‘The new Pre-Raphaelites’ 2008, ink-jet print

Finally, if you’re interested or think you might be interested in the world of tech, Birkbeck has organised a new series of events with employers from the tech sector called UpSkill – looks like interesting stuff, and is open to all students no matter what they’re studying.

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Welcome to the new academic year!

I’m Leslie Topp, and I’ve just begun a three-year stint as Head of the Department of History of Art, taking over from my colleague Kate Retford, who set up this blog and who’ll be a hard act to follow. You can find out more about me here. I’ll post something newsy about developments and events in the department every two weeks. You can add your email on the right of this message to get updates sent straight to your inbox.

A warm welcome to all our new students, and welcome back to those of you who are continuing. Inductions happen this week and next, and classes begin next week – I hope that on balance you’re feeling excited, though anxiety’s bound to come into it too. The beginning of term always takes me back to that stomach-churning combination of anticipation and dread that accompanied the first day back at school.

It’s a particularly big moment for our new international students and if you’re one, welcome to London and Birkbeck! It’d be lovely to see you at a party the School of Arts is putting on to welcome you on Friday 13 October 5-8pm. You can reserve your place here. 

Our activities for the year kicked off earlier this month with the School of Arts building opening to the public for Open House London on 16-17 September. and we had more visitors than ever: 427 in total! Our team of student volunteers did us extremely proud, leading group after group around the building on 25 tours over the two days. Some of the visitor comments: “Loved the talk about the squares + the history of this particular building.” “Excellent tour – extremely informative.” “Totally unexpected.” “Contemporary & traditional architecture at its best!” “The stories bring it to life.” If you yourself would have liked to have gone on a tour but missed out, you can learn more about our building by watching this short film made by the Derek Jarman Lab last year.

This week already we have a study day on the theme of ‘Enshrining the Miraculous Image in Renaissance Italy’ on Thursday 28 September 10am-1pm in the Keynes Library. Birkbeck colleagues Dorigen Caldwell and Robert Maniura will be speaking, alongside speakers from University of Reading and the Courtauld Institute. We are grateful to the Murray Bequest for their generous support.

The Architecture Space and Society Centre has two fascinating events coming up this term: a talk by Douglas Spencer, author of The Architecture of Neoliberalism, on 27 October 6pm, and a symposium on ‘Architecture of Energy’ on 3 November, 1-5pm, featuring speakers from Edinburgh, Liverpool, Leicester and Goldsmiths universities, as well as from Birkbeck.  More on these and past events on the centre’s website.

Department staff members have been busy blogging and podcasting over the summer. Take a look at/have a listen to:

  • the new Mapping Museums blog. Mapping Museums is four-year project led by Fiona Candlin that will produce the first authoritative database of museums that opened and closed during a period of rapid expansion and change, and will provide the first evidence-based history of independent museums and their links to wider cultural, social, and political concerns.
  • a podcast by Laura Jacobus about her recently published discoveries about the advent of facsimile portraiture in Italian art
  • Steve Edwards’ current series of blogposts for the Fotomuseum Winterthur (Switzerland),  The Fire Last Time: Documentary and Politics in 1970s Britain’, in which he considers the meeting of the political Left with photography in Britain in the 1970s.

We also like to celebrate the achievements of our current and past students in this blog (so do contact me please with news: l.topp@bbk.ac.uk). Dr Amelia Smith, recently graduated from the PhD programme, has just published a book based on her PhD, which was co-supervised by Birkbeck and the National Gallery. The book is entitled Longford Castle: The Treasures and the Collectors, and it will be launched at the National Gallery on 13 October.

Finally, we celebrate the department’s 50th anniversary in 2017-18, under the banner ‘Opening Up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck’ with a series of talks, workshops, an exhibition, and a party! You can see the details here, but more on that in the next post.


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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!

Image result for school of arts gordon square

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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 eva.hoog@btconnect.com 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: http://www.ceupress.com/.

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: https://www.ceu.edu/istandwithceu.”

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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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