Art History: Know it all
One of the things that I love about my job is that there are always new things to learn. Every week there is someone new to research or a detail to clarify. It is also the part of my job that is sometimes overwhelming. Art on Paper focuses on work mostly from the early 1900’s to the present day. Even with the restrictions of this time period and focusing on works that are paper, in such a rich field of interests, how do you ever get to know something well?
When I first studied art history (many years ago now), I learned about art and artists that I could only ever see in national institutions and glossy books. I studied French Impressionism, English Impressionism, German Expressionism amongst many other movements of the last couple of hundred years. It was fascinating, but it was hard to get to know the works we studied on a personal level.
More recently, I completed an MA in The Art Market and The History of Collecting. I researched and found examples of people, such as Henry Hill (1812 – 1882) on whom I wrote my dissertation, who collected things that caught their hearts and minds. Hill developed an understanding of what to collect through supporting living artists and learning from them and the network of the art world they inhabited.
Around the same time as the MA, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to become familiar with a collection of work by Karl Weschke that was owned by one of the Weschke family members. I had the chance to spend time looking in detail at a range of his oil paintings. I have spent time with preparatory and exploratory drawings, sketches and charcoals that show him (as one example) trying to pin down the force of the sea.
With the works in front of me and having heard stories about Weschke’s life, I was gifted with a very specific perspective into the lives and works of the St Ives school artists. Something personal that tangibly connects these artists living and working in a small but isolated community. The experience with the Weschke artworks provided the next instalment of learning for me – about networks of artists – from the collection of Henry Hill focussing on mid-to-late 19th century, and into the mid-20th century artists of St Ives. This wasn’t just reading in an abstract way about the lives of these people, but investigating and exploring the connections in a way that made them stick in my mind. I have never been very good with recalling dates and facts, unless they are imbedded in understanding the context in which they happened.
Now, I am looking for artworks that speak to me, that I hope will speak to others, and that I can afford to buy and share. Some of this comes from knowledge, some of it is luck, and some of this is just a feeling that a piece of work is speaking out. A bit like Henry Hill, I go with my instincts, but unfortunately, I can’t afford to keep all the things I buy.
For me, opportunities to become familiar with the work of artists and eras of art I am interested in is really important. Sometimes this is hard to do. You can visit the British Museum and see some wonderful prints and works on paper in the print room. If time or resources don’t allow for this, the British Museum have made a good stab at getting their collection online. It’s not the same as seeing the work first-hand, but it is a valuable resource if you are trying to find out more about artworks on paper. I took the same approach with my recent MA dissertation, and produced an online catalogue of Henry Hill’s collection, making it available for future researchers and anyone interested in the history of art. In this case, unlike the British Museum, the collection is no longer together, so it also serves a virtual historical record the collection.Henry Hill
Image courtesy of Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.
So, to the present day and I am now lucky enough to be spending some time with a truly fabulous print and rare book collection – somewhere where I can steep my brain (like brewing tea) in the shapes, styles and forms of modern British printmakers. I’m helping a private collector to make their collection more visible and accessible for study and loans to institutions, in the same way the British Museum has done. I have the opportunity to be with the artworks, to understand them better and to gain a familiarity with them. Not in this case, online, not at a distance, but right there, in my hands. I am delighted and hope to be able to share with you over the coming months some of the artists and artworks that I have come into contact with as I explore the collection.
If you live somewhere that is fairly isolated, it is not always easy to get to exhibitions and events. The pandemic has taught us that a physical connection with something is not always to be taken for granted. The importance of digital archives and collections, allowing research and opportunities for everyone to enjoy art, has really come to the foreground. Most physical archives are only open for a limited time in the week and often not at weekends. Sometimes collections are in places that are difficult to reach. It is often expensive and time consuming to carry out personal research into an area of interest and can be fraught with challenges.
Unfortunately, the digitisation of collections can be a huge task, especially when you have to balance resources with putting on exhibitions and connecting with people in person. It is not necessarily something easily undertaken by smaller institutions with limited time, money and capacity, but it is a really important step in getting closer to equality in this kind of field.
There will always be people who know a lot more about something than you. There will always be another book you could read, or another show you could go and see. The thing is to follow your heart and be interested in what speaks to you. You might be a facts and dates and background information kind-of-a-person. It might be the techniques that interest you, the influences, contacts, materials or forms. It could be that you enjoy looking at something again and again until you form an understanding about what they look like. Most often it is a blend of at least some of these elements.
For me, something needs to stick with me. Sometimes it is the enthusiasm and knowledge of a friend sharing something, or a moment in time with a lightbulb moment that I remember and treasure. More frequently it is an unknowing familiarity with something – a recognition which is a blend of all of my experiences that make me connect with something. And this only grows with time. I still don’t know ‘most things’ about art and the history of art. I sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed by what I don’t know, but I focus on how enjoyable the journey of learning is. I wouldn’t want to know it all.
Imagine if you realised you knew everything!
In close up
This tiny wood engraving by Constance Anne-Parker of a ballet scene, is a good example of an artwork that changes dramatically when seen first hand. It is very small, as many wood engravings are. It is smaller in real life than how it appears on your screen. I have framed it in a really generous mount and frame, to make it look like glimpsing the scene from the off stage, but it is only when it is in front of you that you can really appreciate the mood and detail. It is a tiny gem, designed for close and intimate study and comes to life in the flesh.