How long do we need to wait to acknowledge that black people are no longer our slaves?

Following the death of George Floyd in America on 25 May 2020, Dr Carmen Fracchia, Reader in Hispanic Art History, talks about art, slavery and what it means for modern society.

Isidro de Villoldo, The Miracle of the Black Leg, 1547: © Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid, Spain.

The deliberate public torture and murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a former police officer in Minneapolis, on 25 May 2020 and the indifference to the black man’s pain shown by his killer and three police officers, Thomas K. Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng, immediately brought to my mind the most violent image of The Miracle of the Black Leg, made by the sculptor Isidro de Villoldo, in 1547 in Valladolid (Spain), then the royal seat of the most powerful Iberian empire in the Western world. In this small wooden panel, a mutilated African man lies on the floor while screaming with pain, following the removal of his left leg to have it grafted onto the patient by St Damian, while his brother St Cosmas is taking the sick man’s pulse and examining his urine in a vessel. This horrific scene takes place in a sumptuous setting, where there is a lavish application of the New World gold that was still readily available. The wealth that is exuded here is in stark contrast to the violence of the African amputee lying, in agony, on the ground. The ensuing horror of this image is amplified by the indifference shown by the white figures in the room towards the amputee’s excruciating sacrifice. Medieval legends of saintly healers, who perform miracles of body reparation, were written to counteract the revulsion felt at the fragmentation or dismemberment of bodies for political or scientific purposes that had become common in Western Europe at the end of the thirteenth century with the legalization of dissection practices in European centres and the public exhibition of body parts from criminals, associated with the practice of judicial punishments.

The narrative of the Valladolid image deviates from the three known legends (Greek, Latin, and Catalan) that inform the visual representation of this miracle enacted by SS. Cosmas and Damian, although the Latin legend is closest to it:

Felix, the eighth pope after S. Gregory, did do make a noble church at Rome of the saints Cosmo and Damian, and there was a man which served devoutly the holy martyrs in that church, who a canker had consumed all his thigh. And as he slept, the holy martyrs Cosmo and Damian, appeared to him their devout servant, bringing with them an instrument and ointment of whom that one said to that other: Where shall we have flesh when we have cut away the rotten flesh to fill the void place? Then that other said to him: There is an Ethiopian that this day is buried in the churchyard of S. Peter ad Vincula, which is yet fresh, let us bear this thither, and take we out of that morian’s flesh and fill this place withal. And so they fetched the thigh of the sick man and so changed that one for that other. And when the sick man awoke and felt no pain, he put forth his hand and felt his leg without hurt, and then took a candle, and saw well that it was not his thigh, but that it was another. And when he was well come to himself, he sprang out of his bed for joy, and recounted to all the people how it was happed to him, and that which he had seen in his sleep, and how he was healed. And they sent hastily to the tomb of the dead man, and found the thigh of him cut off, and that other thigh in the tomb instead of his. Then let us pray unto these holy martyrs to be our succour and help in all our hurts, blechures and sores, and that by their merits after this life we may come to everlasting bliss in heaven. Amen.

Jacobus of Voragine collected the Latin legend of the miraculous transplantation of the black leg in ‘The Lives of Saint Cosmas and Damian’ in his book The Golden Legend or Lives of Saints (1275), the most widely circulated stories of saints in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. In this Valladolid image, the first obvious departure from this legend is that the mutilated ‘Ethiopian’ is not a corpse from a cemetery, but an in vivo Afro-Hispanic man whose leg has been amputated whilst he is alive. It is impossible to grasp this violent image if we do not take into account the backdrop of the abolition of ‘Indian’ slavery in the New World in 1542 and the emergence there of a new system of slavery with the enslavement, capture, and export to the Americas of Africans, a trade that was directly promoted by the Crown and the Cardinal Inquisitor Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, but also by Bartolomé de Las Casas. The latter expresses pastoral concern only about Native Americans and actively contributes to the export of black slaves to New Spain in the years between 1516 and 1543, an action that he came to regret (1545–7), some time before the end of the famous Valladolid debate with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda about the soul of the Native Americans (1550–1). This horrific imagery is symbolic of not only the process of colonization in the Spanish empire, but above all the appropriation of the black body and the violence of slavery, the paradoxical emergence of the commodified domestic Christian Afro-Hispanic slave, and the encounter with free Christian European subjects. The shocking thing is that the worth of the black mutilated man is defined vis-à-vis his total subordination to his white master. To be a black person in imperial Spain, between the last quarter of the fifteenth century until the end of the eighteenth century meant to be a chattel, a piece of property, to be hired, bought and sold as a precious commodity at auctions; to become objects of material exchange: traded to save the donor’s soul, gifts, dowry, and, heritage; money to pay debts, to settle accounts in lieu of mortgages, and rents. To be a black person meant to be owned by a slave master and to suffer punishment at any sign of rebellion against this complete dehumanization in a society where the word ‘black’ and the physical appearance of blackness were signifiers of the specific social condition of slavery. Besides, to be a black person also meant to become a strategic resource for the colonization of the New World.

Africans and their descendants anywhere in the globe do not need to learn from us that the institution of slavery is a crime against humanity. They had experienced the dehumanisation process inherent in the workings of slavery every day, every hour, every minute, every second of their lives for the last five centuries. The killing of Mr Floyd shows that we are still stuck in the effects of the transatlantic slavery, originally institutionalized by the Iberian empire that was partly responsible for the presence of approximately two million slaves living in the Iberian Peninsula and islands during the early modern period.

The problem is not the African diaspora. The problem is our attitude toward the Other, in this case towards Africans and their descendants. We need to change our attitude and to become more aware of their history and of their secular sacrifice to their master. We never experienced the lack of total freedom, the nature of total subordination to a master. And we never allowed Africans to be totally free. They could become freed women and freed men which is not the same as free women and free men. The deliberate killings of black people systematically show that we still consider Africans and their descent as our slaves. We believe in their sense of inferiority and we still demand their unconditional services to us because thanks to us they became ‘human’ and ‘civilised’. We still demand their total sacrifice of their life, talents, and contributions to our societies as their obligations towards us, because they owe us their wellbeing, their freedom, education, and, careers. After all, they are now civilised because we rescued them from being wild, barbarians and pagans. We taught them how to become Christians. They should be thankful for these opportunities we gave them in life, so much so that if we need their leg to heal our body, we’ll take it with no consultation. If we need their life to achieve our aims, we take them. The evidence is the death of George Floyd. How long will it take for us to believe that the African diaspora in the Americas and in Europe are no longer our slaves?

Perhaps we could learn from another Spanish image: the portrait of the enslaved painter Juan de Pareja (c.1606, Antequera, Málaga–c.1670, Madrid), by his celebrated master, Diego Velázquez, court painter to Philip IV, King of Spain, which was made (1649) and exhibited to great acclaim in Rome during the Jubilee year of 1650, before Velázquez emancipated Pareja in Rome on 23 November 1650. In his half-length portrait, Velázquez’s slave is seen looking directly at the viewer, holding his right arm across his waist and standing against an undefined brown-and-black back- ground. Pareja is portrayed as a Spanish gentleman wearing a dark grey velvet doublet and coat with an exclusive white lace collar from Flanders, ‘forbidden in Spain to free men and shunned by Philip IV, who favoured austere dress’. In this extant portrait, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the sitter is the sole figure and his powerful gaze totally dominates the canvas and engages the viewer.

In his Juan de Pareja, Velázquez comes to elaborate the emergence of the slave subject in Hapsburg Spain. The court painter acknowledges and expresses the inner life of his slave by depicting his ‘thinking mind’ and the ‘perturbations of his soul’. Thus, Velázquez endows Pareja with his own humanity: his slave has an equal gaze to that of his viewers. The powerful sitter of this extraordinary portrait is not depicted as a subordinate subject as the sacrificial Ethiopian victim of the Miracle of the Black Leg. The slave Pareja is shown as a free subject even before his emancipation. Velázquez’s adoption and adaptation of the restrictive genre of portraiture to include his slave magnifies the effect of Pareja’s sense of humanity and worth. The depiction of a mestizo/mulato slave in a portrait defamiliarizes the essence of this genre and produces a dislocation in the viewer’s mind. Juan de Pareja transcends the hegemonic norm in imperial Spain and could only be regarded as oxymoronic. Velázquez’s powerful depiction of his slave provides the conceptual scaffolding and the form that Pareja uses in his own self-portrait as a freed slave and in the depiction of the emancipatory slave subject in his painting The Calling of Saint Matthew, produced for the Hapsburg court, one year after his master’s death in 1660, and now at the Museo del Prado (Madrid, only recently shown to the public).

The freedman Pareja managed to forge a career as a painter at the Spanish Court. The whereabouts of almost 20 out of the 30 paintings by the artist recently identified are still unknown, such as portraits of unidentified subjects and religious paintings. However, Pareja’s surviving works that are signed and dated are in the following museums: Museo del Prado and the Lázaro Galdiano Foundation, in Madrid; Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia; Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.

We urgently need to recover the often hidden, invisible histories of the African diaspora and of their cultural contributions made to European and American societies. We can celebrate blackness as in this extract from the extraordinary poem, The Song of a Freedman (1700) by an anonymous Afro-Hispanic freedman, discovered in 1993:

I am black
Guinea is my homeland Black my body
and black my soul,
and black too
all my lineage,
my glory is to be black,
and I make celebration of it.

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Art and Conversation at the 58th Venice Biennale

In 2019, BA History of Art student Patricia Yaker Ekall was one of Birkbeck’s British Council Fellows in Venice. In this blog, she shares her experiences in ‘The Floating City’ and what she learned from the trip. 

My time as a research fellow at the Venice art Biennale was an incredible experience that will stay with me for many years. With Venice, one typically thinks of the lagoon and its zany effect on perception (really, it’s like being on a giant float, often at risk, thanks to the bustle of the city, of falling into the seasoned turquoise waters). Venetian dining is famed for its cicchetti and gelato and the beloved spritz. The historical landmarks, with their height and ornamental expressions of astonishing beauty, are also of course part of Venice’s reputation as a ‘must-visit’ destination.  And, while the city is a wonderful representation of the value of tradition and heritage, Venice is equally known for its modern and contemporary art.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, boasts works by Jackson Pollock and Alberto Giacometti, giants among the assemblage of terrific artworks that shaped 20th-century art. With Venice being an artistic city, there are countless workshops dealing in everything from mask-making to pottery. But, bias allowing, I learned the most from the very reason I was there: the Venice Biennale, the showcase for international contemporary art that attracts thousands of visitors to Venice every other year.

My chance to be part of the Biennale was thanks to a Birkbeck/British Council Venice Fellowship, which funded a month in Venice in September, where I worked as a steward in the exhibition’s British Pavilion while pursuing my own research. The renowned event may have been in its 58th edition and 123rd year, but it was my first time attending. I tried to have as few expectations as possible, which stood me in good stead as the experience was full of unexpected elements. For example, I did not expect the dramatic variation in reactions to the art work in the British Pavilion. Cathy Wilkes’ installation drew on arte povera (a movement that subverts the commercialisation of art founded in 1960s Italy, ironically). It touched on themes of motherhood, poverty and death, and was not understood (let alone loved) by everyone. This took me by surprise, as I’d assumed the visitors would be surer of their own perspectives. Yet, alarmingly often, we were asked to explain Wilkes’ work. Since it was made deliberately inexplicable, our own interpretations would have to suffice. Another one of my assumptions was that everyone in Venice would support the Biennale and, save for a bit of context-focussed research conducted just before I travelled, I was not prepared for all the ways the event is challenged when it comes to issues around sustainability and Venice’s economic state.

It seemed to me that every aspect of this tiny jewel, Venice, was up for passionate debate. Such conversations ranged from questioning of the Biennale’s effect (and dare I say relevance) in relation to the locals, to the issue of excess tourism and the tensions between the old and new and, glaringly at times, the rich and the poor. These were the conversations that a lot of the pavilion’s visitors – be they Italian, or from France, Japan, Germany or the UK – felt at ease in bringing to us, while we as art enthusiasts were primed and keen to discuss instead materials, style and the artwork’s contextual background! Though somewhat unexpected, I very much enjoyed this part of the experience. It added another dimension to my take on the power of contemporary art and all its demands. I enjoyed these roiling debates cocooned in artistic excellence!

From the orientation evening that informed us of the fellowship, to the day before we left for England, Birkbeck and the British Council were on hand to keep us informed. I was particularly touched by the program’s flexibility and understanding in the face of the unexpected. There was a real sense of openness of conversation and options, especially when it came to planning our individual research projects. If there was a change in direction which meant more resources would be needed, for example, they would not hesitate to put us in touch with the relevant modes of help.

Moreover, the fellowship program was structured such that we were introduced to the other people we’d be working with at an early stage to facilitate an easier melding process on arrival in Venice. Now, most would probably say the same of their own group but, mine was filled with the most incredible, laid-back but focused people. From early-career Oxbridge grads, to third wave career professionals who used their research practice to inform their doctorate, there was a diverse mix of interesting people. We had one thing in common: our love of art, its histories and its contemporary practices. In a way, the Biennale was the ideal hub for all of these keen minds to meet – which was, of course, the intention.

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La Serenissima: five weeks in Venice

Uli Gamper, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses his summer as one of Birkbeck’s first recipients of the British Council’s Venice Fellowships. 

I was one of the lucky two students from Birkbeck’s History of Art department that was awarded a Venice Fellowship this year. The Venice Fellowship, a partnership between the British Council and Birkbeck, and other universities from all over the UK, supports students to spend a month’s time Venice during the Biennale di Venezia, one the world’s most renowned art/architecture biennials.

Inspired by topics encountered during seminars and lectures in my MA Museum Cultures, I formulated a research proposal around themes of cosmopolitan museology, representations of nationality and arising friction in the collision of local and global forces. The Venice Biennale and museums in general and the British Pavilion in particular were a rich pool for empirical research and observation on these subjects. Subsequently, I used the research conducted in Venice to inform the case studies for my dissertation.

I left for Venice in mid-May as I was part of the first group of fellows, working during the opening period of the Biennale. The great advantage of being part of the first group was to help to prepare the British Pavilion for the opening and meeting the team of the British Council that commissions the pavilion every year. Furthermore, Venice was packed with art, architecture and museum/heritage professionals from all over the world and hence it was a valuable opportunity to network. Last but not least, there were a plethora of great parties all over Venice during the opening week of the Biennale, and that was another unforgettable experience that we all hugely enjoyed.

My working week as a fellow was split into four days working at the British Pavilion. This consisted predominantly of engaging with the audience and introduce them to the installation. We also helped with the daily running of the pavilion as well as condition-checking the installation. The other three days we used to conduct our own independent research, which led me to visit most of the national museums in Venice and collateral events of the Biennale. Other highlights organised by the British Council were the staff seminars at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation that we were allowed to attend. I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar with the head of exhibitions of the foundation that proved to be a very insightful experience.

Overall, there were many positive aspects about my time in Venice. I hugely enjoyed and benefited from being part of a group of 12 fellows from diverse academic disciplines such as Architecture, Fine Art and Graphic Design. This resulted in extremely fruitful exchanges and debates that informed my ongoing research positively. Apart from this benefit, I left with a bunch of incredible new friends. Venice itself was a bliss beyond words; the light, the sea, the absence of cars, the architecture I immersed myself and rested in awe in its shadow, all invaluable experiences and memories I took back to London with me.

Upon my return to London, our group of fellows continued the discourse and organised an exhibition in August, held at a temporary space in Shoreditch. And it didn’t stop there; The British Council is keen to organise another show in the new year, featuring the research outcomes of Venice Fellows. I didn’t imagine that so many further opportunities would come along from this encounter.

Yet again, and I couldn’t say it often enough, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Birkbeck’s History of Art department for awarding me with this Fellowship and particularly to Sarah Thomas for being so supportive during the preparation for the Fellowship and after, many thanks!

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Foundling Museum launches crowdfunding campaign from Birkbeck professor’s exhibition

The Foundling Museum, along with The Art Fund, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the profile of the influential women in their history whose pioneering actions have gone unrecognised for nearly 300 years.

Image: A page from Thomas Coram’s notebook with the signatures of the 21 ladies. Courtesy of The Foundling Museum.

Inspired by the success of fundraising for the Fallen Woman exhibition in 2015, curated by Birkbeck’s Professor Lynda Nead, the Foundling Museum wants to raise money to reveal the unsung women, so far hidden from history, who helped make it possible for the Foundling Hospital to look after the thousands of children left in their care.

The Foundling Museum explores the history of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery. The museum aims to inspire everyone to make a positive contribution to society, by celebrating the power of individuals and the arts to change lives.

The Fallen Woman exhibition raised £25,000 through the Art Fund’s crowdfunding campaign, Art Happens. The exhibition revealed a world where women were forced to make harsh choices to keep their babies alive and reverse their ill-fortune. It juxtaposed paintings of ‘fallen’ women by major artists of the day, with moving petitions from mothers applying to the Foundling Hospital to take in their babies.

Celebrating the centenary of female suffrage this year, curators at The Foundling Museum have located portraits currently scattered across the UK, of 21 women who were instrumental in establishing the Foundling Hospital.

If fundraising is successful and The Foundling Museum hit their target of £20,000, they will be able to replace all of the portraits of male governors in the Picture Gallery with the 21 ‘ladies of quality and distinction’ who put their name to Thomas Coram’s very first petition to the King to set up the Hospital.

The exhibition will take place in the Autumn if they are able to raise enough money by Monday 5 March.

Contribute to the Foundling Museum crowdfunding campaign.

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Farewell to John Berger

Framegrab from A Song for Politics, the third essay in The Seasons in Quincy

On 2 January 2017, John Berger died. Below we offer a reflection on John from The Seasons in Quincy director and producer Colin Maccabe. This article was originally published on the Derek Jarman Lab website

John Berger was an extraordinary individual, extraordinary in the range of his creation and his criticism. But also extraordinary as a presence. He had the least sense of hierarchy of anyone I have ever known. And he was uniquely interested in the present moment. So whoever he was with, young or old, rich or poor, famous or unknown, man or woman, had his complete attention. This was in its way unnerving: you had to think about what you were saying because you were being listened to with quite unusual concentration. And you had to listen with real intensity because what was being said was being said for you and, it felt, for you alone. But if it was unnerving it was also immensely invigorating. You became more intelligent and more consequent, more insightful and more amusing. And what John said stayed with you and you felt transformed by it.

This may all sound quite pious. John could well have been an actor and there was something of the ham in his performances. He was also a seducer and you were seduced. But neither of these facts detract from the wonderful pleasure of his company, indeed they were an essential part of it.

He was the best and most reliable of friends – always willing to lend a hand, to encourage, to enthuse, and, very important, to criticise when it was necessary. His range was extraordinary: major art critic, great novelist, gifted film-maker. He even with his close friend Jean Mohr invented a genre: the committed use of photography and prose to render invisible elements of the social visible. They started with A Fortunate Man in 1967 but developed further with A Seventh Man (1975) which John thought his best book. It is 40 years since A Seventh Man was composed but the analysis of the crucial role of migrant labour in contemporary capitalism could have been written tomorrow.

It is foolish to predict reputation into the future, but I hope that people go on reading and watching John, because he joined the demand for social justice to the recognition of the centrality of desire and the importance of form. His death brought to me three quotes which touch on each of these emphases.

‘To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.’

John Berger ‘The Museum of Desire’ (2001) published at latimes.com, p.1

‘The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.’

John Berger ‘Keeping a Rendezvous’ published in Linda Spalding and Michael Ondaatje eds. The Brick Reader Toronto: Coach House Press, 1991, p. 330.

‘What makes photography a strange invention – with unforeseeable consequences – is that its primary raw materials are light and time.’

John Berger and Jean Mohr Another Way of Telling New York: Pantheon, 1982, p. 85.

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Notes from an intern at the Guildhall Art Gallery

This post was contributed by Fiona Ratcliffe, who is currently studying for an MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Here Fiona writes about her internship experience at the Guildhall art Gallery from January to March 2016.

The internship was carried out as a module on the MA programme – a popular element of the course in which successful students have the opportunity to spend a term working with one of London’s Victorian cultural institutions, gaining first-hand experience of working in the cultural sector and using their host institution’s archives to develop a unique research project. Previous interns have worked with the Dickens House Museum, and the Salvation Army Heritage Centre and Archive.

Guildhall Small Size-4Day One

Having cleared Security (a permanent fixture at galleries today), I meet the small, industrious team behind the scenes at the Guildhall Art Gallery – Katty (Curator), Andrew (responsible for the Roman Amphitheatre) and Jeremy who, as General Manager, handles the practical running of the Gallery.

Katty warns that finding desk (and computer) space is a constant challenge and I will inevitably have a variety of work-places, including perched in a corner of the small shop, gaining an insight into that essential income-generator for museums.

My first task is to familiarise myself with the preparations for the forthcoming exhibition, Victorians Decoded, opening in September. This exhibition will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the successful Transatlantic telegraphic cable-laying, demonstrating how artists subsequently re-imagined time and space, responding to their changing world.

In addition to artworks from the Gallery’s collection, five loans have been requested from other institutions. So far, the Royal Holloway Picture Gallery has confirmed the loan of Edward Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes with the stipulation of a T-Crate for transportation – leading to challenges of storing the crate, space being at a premium here.

Early Weeks

Switching tasks (a constant theme ensuring plenty of variety), I am asked to prepare visitor-friendly information on the ‘Fire Judges’ for a Museum of London exhibition on the Great Fire. This involves circumnavigating the archives – a tiny cupboard space – to research the portraits of the judges who processed property and boundary claims prior to rebuilding the City.

Guildhall Art Gallery

Guildhall Art Gallery

The Gallery is delightfully intimate and peaceful but being within the City’s municipal building, the Corporation’s civic presence is constantly apparent – particularly when the whole building goes into ‘total shut down’ (a security measure) while The Sun hosts The Millies, an awards ceremony commending military bravery, and I realise I may not be able to leave or return at lunchtime. In my haste to get a sandwich, I bump into Rod Stewart, Jeremy Clarkson and Boris Johnson – as a friend asked later, “What sort of gallery is this?”

It’s time for the de-installation of the exhibition “No Colour Bar”. Paintings are shrink-wrapped and swiftly taken through a side-exit by a specialist removal firm – with Katty’s eyes on every move whilst the door is temporarily de-alarmed.

Katty explains that loaned artworks are covered by ‘Nail to Nail’ insurance with the borrowing gallery insuring the painting for loss or damage for the duration. Surprisingly, the borrower also funds and organises any requisite conservation or frame refurbishment.

Exhibitions have astonishingly lengthy lead-times and London galleries are currently collaborating on exhibitions up to 2023 – including a London-themed one for which I am asked to source suitable artworks from the collection database. The remit is not just Victorian art, which is refreshing, but does lead to ‘St. Paul’s overload’.

In Week 3, Sonia (the Principal Curator) departs on maternity leave and we join the Conservation team for her farewell tea-party. Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata aloofly surveys us tucking into cake, and I notice just how exposed a painting appears without its frame. Excitingly up close to the brushstrokes, I am shown various tears and some ‘tenting’ where it has lifted from the canvas.

Middle Weeks

A memorable day! I join the planning meeting for Victorians Decoded and am asked to help with research in preparation for exhibit captions – a steep lesson in brevity. I’m struck during the meeting how much events-planning and budget control predominates – along with the logistics underpinning the positioning of cables and procurement of objects such as a telegraph machine. We didn’t discuss the art at all!

Heading towards spring, the gallery is becoming busier, visited by schools, interest-groups and individuals, many joining the in-house talks. One of the guides tells me that she’s a retired City financial journalist and had looked for voluntary work but could only find weeding in Epping Forest, so just called in at the gallery and was welcomed as a guide. Her groups are usually small and it often turns into a two-way exchange so she’s continually learning too.

In five years, footfall has increased from 30,000 to 100,000, reflecting a widening demographic – younger, international with rising tourism in the City, and also more Londoners increasingly culture-seeking in their own city. Exhibitions are vital – a way for a lesser-known gallery to achieve publicity, although a recurring tension between free access and charging for exhibitions persists.

It’s Friday afternoon and we’re surveying the new Robin Reynolds’ 2016 artwork of London commissioned by the Gallery to hang next to Visscher’s 1616 cityscape. As a commemoration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, Reynolds has incorporated references to all 37 plays but we’re not here trying to identify them. Unfortunately, the canvas is ‘bulking’ where the artist has tried to fix a central rip, at eye level. The conservators arrive, armed with various canisters, but are unable to do a quick fix –it will have to be dismantled, repaired and re-framed as quickly as possible by this time-pressed team.

Final Week

Inside Guildhall Art Gallery

Inside Guildhall Art Gallery

Another exhibition, Martin Parr – Unseen City, begins and there is a flurry of media activity. Katty’s role requires multiple skills – preparing speeches for opening nights, coordinating hanging and lighting, and dealing with both the press and the local authority the Gallery belongs to, who approve the exhibitions but may still express criticisms with the outcome.

Preparations are escalating for Victorians Decoded, with the room layout established six months ahead. A balancing-act is required to ensure the technical aspects of telegraphy are comprehensible, whilst providing substance for visitors specialising in art and science. A subsequent challenge will be to fill the spaces in the permanent collection where paintings have moved to the exhibition. Katty describes it as a four-dimensional puzzle: satisfying the aesthetic, chronological & contextual, scale & size, and overall fit.

On my last day, Katty gives visiting VIPs a private viewing of two Pre-Raphaelite artworks held in store – Millais’ sketch of Lorenzo and Isabella (being watercolour the picture can’t be regularly exposed to UV for long periods of time, which precludes it from being on permanent display) and charcoal drawings from Holman Hunt’s sketchbook. Both the guests and I feel utter wonder at having access to these hidden gems – a true privilege of working behind the scenes in this very special gallery.

The internship has altered my perception of artworks and I’m now far more aware of their vulnerability. Visiting an exhibition will never be the same again, having witnessed the in-depth forward-planning and bustle behind the scenes. Ultimately, however, the experience has opened up new avenues and inspired me to pursue research opportunities with galleries after graduation.

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