Save Art History


The first time I understood Art History to be a subject, rather than something you did at the weekends with your parents, was at my sixth-form open day aged sixteen. I had chosen my other A-Level subjects, but chanced across a classroom at the end of the school filled with pictures of paintings and stacks of colourful books. I could recognise some of them – Rubens, Gainsborough, postcards of cathedrals, Mondrian. All the students were smiling and saying how much they had enjoyed their lessons. I crossed Italian off my course choices and signed up that evening.


Art History was the first class of term at this new school. I remember distinctly that we were shown two images, one of the 'Red House' – a significant building of the Arts & Crafts movement – and the other, Richard Hamilton’s collage, Just what was it that made yesterday’s homes so different. Our teacher didn’t give us their titles or dates or much information at all, but asked us to spend some time working out what we were looking at. This was my first experience of a formalist appreciation for visual culture and the start of shaping my language of how to look and talk about art.


From this followed the happiest two years of my school life. Our brilliant teacher, passionate about his subject and eager that we knew far more than the exam board required us, introduced my class to concepts and movements, artists and critics, steadily shifting us into critically engaged, knowledgeable young people. Lessons were a mixture of debate, discussion, presentations and endless numbers of slides. By the second year I had read (some of) Baudelaire, questioned how feminist readings might change Henry Moore sculpture and could tell you the architectural differences between Greek and Roman temples. To have even a superficial familiarity with the visual world, with history and its makers, was deeply empowering. I filled pages and pages of notebooks with new terminology, quotes, references, books to read, places to visit.


To think that a school subject could be so enjoyable was a revelation to me. In my A-Level year I wrote an extended essay on Botticelli’s 'Primavera' and humanism. My bedroom floor was briefly filled with excerpts of Petrarch, postcards of the Medici and a pack of tissues bought in Florence with the faces of 'The Three Graces'. This was the first proper bit of independent research I had done and I loved it. I still keep a rather dog-eared copy of the 'Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism' on my bookshelf.


And what I learnt in those classes fed into my other A-Level subjects. When studying Schoenberg and serialism in music, I could think of the disjointed nudes of Egon Schiele, the ‘angst-filled voids’ of blank paper against the anti-academism of twelve-tone composition. I could understand the terror