By Tom Stammers
In the obituary written for his friend and collaborator, Nicholas Penny described Francis Haskell as a “father” of art history who felt more like “something of an intruder”. Haskell came to writing about pictures rather unexpectedly out of his earlier training as an historian, researching a PhD on the Jesuits as artistic patrons under the supervision of Pevsner at Cambridge. His connection with history was perpetuated later through his role on the editorial board of Past & Present; he claimed to “subscribe in full” to the bold maxim of another Oxford academic who blended art history, cultural history and the history of ideas, Hugh Trevor-Roper: “History which ignores art or literature is jejune history, just as a society without art or literature is a jejune society, and, conversely, art and literature which are studied in detachment from history are only half understood.”
This dual loyalty to both history and art history explained what made Haskell’s contribution so singular: his extraordinary erudition which sought to place artworks in their fullest, civilizational, context. Scornful of the clumsy generalizations that dogged the social history of art in the 1960s, Haskell showed that archival research into the mechanisms of patronage and reception would offer richer and more complex ways of conceiving of the relationship between art and social change. Elucidating the capricious history of taste- arguably the central objective of all his writing- meant investigating the manifold factors that led to the creation or disintegration of common norms of evaluation. “Any aesthetic system, however loosely held together, is inextricably bound up with a whole series of forces, religious, political, nationalist, economic, intellectual,” he argued in Rediscoveries in Art, “which may appear to bear only the remotest relation to art, but which may need to be violently disrupted before any chance in perception becomes possible.”
This commitment to both history and art history imbued Haskell’s writings with a dynamic tension. On one side, he maintained an allegiance to the importance of pictorial values. In contrast to some modern quantitative or sociological scholars, who treat the market in paintings as analogous to any other kind of commodity, Haskell never willingly abandoned his attachment to notions of quality. The history of art could not, for him, be reduced to another subset of economic history without missing out on what made the category of ‘art’ special in the first place. Conversely, however, he was obliged as an historian to recognize the volatility of all such qualitative judgements (even if he firmly refuted the charge of flirting with aesthetic relativism). The nineteenth century thus became central to his lectures, his reviews and his research, since it was in the decades following the French Revolution that the reputation of different schools and styles began to fluctuate violently. If his volume on Taste & the Antique had charted the construction of one ideal canon founded on the marbles of antiquity in the late eighteenth century, then the story sketched in Rediscoveries in Art charted the proliferation of rival canons and the dissolution of hierarchies.
Haskell was professor of art history at Oxford between 1967 and his retirement in 1995. His tenure coincided with the establishment of the history of collecting as an autonomous field of study in the 1980s, thanks to the parallel efforts of scholars such as Arthur Macgregor. Haskell’s contribution to the art history department was remarkable, not just as a teacher and designer of the diploma course (which, in an oddity of the Oxford system, remained technically within the history department) but also through the material resources he assembled. Both the photographic and slide collections expanded dramatically. The former were catalogued with the aid of students and friends, including Jon and Linda Whiteley, and Elizabeth Clifton, and the resulting card index system is an enduringly precious research tool, whose thematic sub-sections (such as the ‘artistic world’ or ‘French history’) strongly reflect Haskell’s agendas and enthusiasms. The latter grew thanks to both purchases and donations, absorbing for example the slides of Ellis Waterhouse, one of Haskell’s inspirations and friends at the Burlington Magazine.
The slides and photograph archive together testify to a continuous engagement with the physical location, ownership and reproducibility of works of art, showcasing a wealth of pictures from private collections or painted by obscure and overlooked artists. The department also built up a formidable library of books and sales catalogues (now housed in the reserve section of the Sackler library). These volumes were consulted by students and scholars from inside and beyond Oxford, and helped inspire auxiliary projects such as the Bibliography of Salon Criticism and the Oxford Art Journal. Although these were student initiatives, they owed much to the pedagogy and intellectual environment fostered by Haskell. The interest he showed in the circulation of art and the contingencies of exhibition- as well as his reflexive inquiry the formation of taste- has been continued by students who have gone on to become leading curators in Britain, France and the United States.
On 23rd and 24th October 2015 a conference will be held with St John’s College and the Ashmolean entitled ‘A Revolution in Taste: Francis Haskell’s Nineteenth Century’. It will revisit the terrain mapped out in Rediscoveries in Art, namely the transformation of the art world between the 1770s and 1870s, a period when war, revolution, plunder and state-formation brought fundamental changes to the knowledge of and trade in Old Master paintings. It features a prestigious line-up of scholars from Britain and Europe including Nicholas Penny, Charles Hope, Jeremy Warren, Charles Sebag-Montefiore, Susanna Avery-Quash, Donata Levi, Charlotte Guichard, Bénédicte Savoy, Véronique Gérard-Powell, Jon Whiteley, Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy, Dora Thornton, Silvia Davoli, Pascal Griener, Juliet Simpson, Jenny Graham, Stephen Bann and Richard Wrigley. It is particularly precious to have the perspective of European scholars, since Haskell’s work has proved highly influential in both France and Italy. The conference aims to celebrate and extend Haskell’s insights into the nineteenth century, showcasing new research into the problem of taste and the entwined development of public institutions and private opulence.
Yet it also seeks to raise methodological issues, probing the unsteady boundary between history and art history. In one of his typically incisive pieces for the New York Review of Books, Haskell complained in 1992 that to date the literature on collecting had too often been distinguished for providing readers with “unrivalled offerings of nostalgia, sycophancy and amateur psychologies”. By going beyond the biographical and anecdotal, Haskell countered that understanding the processes by which objects had been accumulated and interpreted could provide “essential clues about the past.” Hopefully the October conference will vindicate that insight, and indicate new directions in nineteenth-century cultural history.
Tom Stammers is a cultural historian at the University of Durham and visiting Deakin Fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, 2014-15.