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2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past

By Aidan Mehigan, Current Graduate MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


Caroline van Eck’s 2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past, were announced by a flyer bearing an image of an ornate candelabrum sculpted under the supervision of Giambattista Piranesi and now housed in the Louvre. In just the small part of the object captured by the photo, we can see several tiers of stonework, a lion’s head, acanthus leaves, foliated strigilations, clusters of berries, and much more. Van Eck’s idea of the “excessive object” is immediately clear.

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Close-up of the Louvre Candelabrum, © Hende Bauer

But what made me (and I’m sure many others) particularly excited for these lectures—even though, as the Slade Lectures, they really need no further advertising—is the fact that this object has two siblings in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum houses two such candelabra, purchased from Piranesi’s workshop in the mid-eighteenth century by Roger Newdigate, who donated them to the University in 1775. They spent a few decades in the Radcliffe Camera before moving to the Greek and Roman sculpture collection at the Ashmolean in 1846.

The first few Slade Lectures this year, then, stayed very close to home, and I think we all relished the opportunity to learn more about a set of objects with which we already had some passing familiarity. Prof. van Eck spent several sessions walking us through the controversial provenance of these complicated works and explored their ancient precedents, initial reception after their supposed “discovery,” and relationship to Piranesi’s other design work and drawings.

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Candelabras in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Despite their imposing form, the Ashmolean candelabra are easy to overlook—because they are placed against a wall, it’s impossible to get a full view of them, and since they flank a doorway, the natural impulse is to keep on moving. The chance to be forced to spend some significant time really looking at them in detail, to see them close read again and again from a variety of angles, was most welcome.

But it soon became apparent that, despite her intensive initial focus on them, the candelabra themselves are not the real focus of Prof. van Eck’s project. Putting on a display of the trademark scholarly versatility and appetite for wide-ranging argumentation that have made her reputation over the years, Prof. van Eck has, in her last few talks, pivoted to an in-depth exploration not of any particular objects but to the birth and intellectual roots of Neoclassicism itself.

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Candelabra in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Patrons, artists, viewers, collectors, and their habits have all had their part to play as Prof. van Eck has probed into the origins of the eighteenth-century impulse to make present an ancient past. Characters as diverse as Wolfgang van Goethe, Caroline van Humboldt, and Aby Warburg have all made appearances. Objects themselves have wielded considerable agency as well, particularly given that, as Prof. van Eck has pointed out, certain works (such as Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix) were perceived by their contemporaries to be truly alive, and were treated as such.

Other topics that have been incorporated into the series include the profusion of animal-related imagery, especially in tableware, and its links to ideas of domestication, totem poles and Rorschach inkblots, the eclectic interiors of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris, and the emergence of the tableau vivant—all of which, Prof. van Eck is careful to repeatedly point out, were conceived, created, and experienced in contexts that predate the museum.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In a conversation with the History of Art Department’s own architectural historian, Dr. Matthew Walker, as part of a reception held at St. Peter’s College on February 21, Prof. van Eck made explicit for the first time just what she’s driving at with this impressively large cast of objects and moments. As one might have suspected, the book project she envisions developing out of this lecture series will not be about the Piranesi candelabra in the Ashmolean or elsewhere, but rather more generally about the formation and emergence of the Empire Style in early nineteenth century France.

The candelabra, fascinating objects though they may be, are, for Prof. van Eck, most useful as summary objects around which to organize both the initial questions she’s interested in asking and the later-emerging concepts her analysis engages with. That they are so striking certainly makes this organizational role a vivid and memorable one, but Prof. van Eck has made clear that her interests here are in higher-order phenomena themselves rather than any particular manifestations thereof.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

The final two lectures of the series elaborated on the ideas previewed at the St. Peter’s reception. The whole audience was especially intrigued by lecture seven, in which Prof. van Eck surveyed a great deal of literature in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral anthropology to familiarize us with the essentially universal human tendency to assign animacy and intentionality to even the most abstract movements and visual stimuli.

Though it took some time to get an audience of art historians and art enthusiasts up to speed on some occasionally quite technical material, this foray into the sciences proved crucial to substantiating Prof. van Eck’s point that the defining feature of the Empire Style is its immersiveness: uncanny animal forms invite us to grasp and control the world of objects. For Prof. van Eck, the Empire Style profoundly entangles humans with things.

Prof. van Eck, at the opening of her final lecture, urged us to consider a line from an essay by Novalis on Goethe: “antiquity is only now coming into being.” In this moment, one of her larger implicit arguments of this series immediately became clear: Piranesi and his fellow antiquarians were not restoring, recovering, or reimagining antiquity—they were creating it. The artistic and intellectual situation in Napoleon’s Paris around 1800 prefigured, she asserts, the material turn currently taking place in the academy—where the obsession is not with ideas or texts but overwhelmingly with things and their thing-ness.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In this final lecture, Prof. van Eck wonderfully demonstrated the need for scholars to bring together anthropological ideas about agency attribution and art historical ideas of style formation. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history all have claims on the object, and it is only by uniting them, Prof. van Eck concluded, that we can begin tackling the problems of materiality.

I can’t be alone when I say that I was wowed by the breadth and depth of Prof. van Eck’s lectures and that I left them unsettled and inspired in equal parts. I’m sure our memories and notes from this term will serve us all well for years to come. We’ll certainly need something to tide us over until the book arrives, and I believe I speak for everyone when I say I am incredibly excited for that day to come.


Professor Caroline van Eck was appointed in October 2016 as Professor of History of Art at the University of Cambridge.

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History of Art UNIQ Summer School 2016

By Nathan Stazicker, BA History of Art Graduate 2016


During the long vacation Oxford is overtaken by tourists and summer school students, forming endless queues outside the Ashmolean and every college connected with Harry Potter. The students who attended the History of Art UNIQ summer school in the first week of July were just as keen to take in the city’s tourist hotspots but also spent their time in Oxford’s libraries preparing for tutorials. Accompanied by two current student mentors – myself and Issy – the 14 potential applicants had a packed week which, at times, felt like it was packing 8 week’s worth of stuff into just 7 days!

That’s not a criticism though, for the whole point of the UNIQ programme (which runs over 4 weeks every July) is to give sixth form students an insight into life at Oxford University, both social and academic. Sleeping and eating in colleges (for free!) – Wadham and St John’s this year – also provides a valuable experience of student life. The great value of UNIQ is that it shows students from state schools and areas of little progression to higher education that Oxford (and university in general) can be right for them. As a former participant of the programme back in 2012, it was a particular pleasure to take on the role of academic mentor this year and help to inspire the next generation of Oxford students.

As the sixth formers’ trains pulled into Oxford on a sunny Saturday afternoon they had little idea of what Oxford could offer them, who they would be spending the week with, or, indeed, what art history is. After seven days immersed in the History of Art Department however, this was far from the case! After an intense day of admissions preparation on the Sunday the students, Issy and I threw ourselves into exploring what Oxford has to offer art historians. Led by Prof. Craig Clunas we visited the Weston Library where we compared 16th century visual representation in the Sheldon tapestry map and Aztec scrolls before heading off for tours of St Catz and Wadham with Prof. Gervase Rosser. And Monday still had more to offer with an introduction to the Pitt Rivers Museum and an evening of sports in University Parks (although some of the art historians took the opportunity to sketch rather than run around!).

During the rest of the week we had amazing tours of the Ashmolean with curators – where we also viewed modern Chinese artworks not usually on display, handled medieval manuscripts and Renaissance books in St John’s College library, visited the Christ Church Picture Gallery and climbed up to the lantern of Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre! The aim of these visits was to introduce the students to some of Oxford’s collections, leading to a mini research project in the style of the first year object essay. Each group of students was given an object to research, ranging from an Ancient Egyptian scarab beetle to Uccello’s famous painting ‘The Hunt in the Forest’. Over the course of the week these objects were researched using books in the Sackler and Balfour libraries, which led to tutorials with members of the Department and a final presentation at the end of the week. This was a great morning, with each group speaking for 20 minutes and sharing what they had learned, teaching the rest of us a lot along the way!

Aside from the academic programme we enjoyed a comedy night and quiz night and a fabulous alumni dinner at Christ Church. Here we were joined by Ros Holmes, a Junior Research Fellow in the History of Art, and Louise Stewart, Cross Collections Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, both former students of the Department. With a Q&A session and a three course dinner there was plenty of time to chat and the students enjoyed both the fancy food and the chance to learn about opportunities after university.

On Friday afternoon the UNIQ students ‘graduated’ in the Sheldonian and received books courtesy of Oxford University Press before we headed off to the farewell BBQ. Everyone needed a rest after such an action-packed week but there was unanimous agreement at how enjoyable UNIQ had been. As they headed back home to embark on Year 13, there were more than a few who had their sights firmly set on a History of Art degree from Oxford. Thanks must be given to the students who made the week so enjoyable with their dedication, and to the hard work of all the Department and museum staff who gave up their valuable time, especially to Prof. Clunas who dedicated his week to UNIQ.


Nathan was awarded the History of Art Gibbs Prize 2016 for achieving the highest examination marks in his cohort. He also received the Good Citizen Prize for making the greatest contribution to the life of the Department during his course, over and beyond his academic work.

More information about Oxford’s UNIQ summer schools can be found here.

Delving into Delacroix: An Introduction to the Lee Johnson Archive

By Dr. Fiona Gatty and Emma Walshe

The National Gallery’s current exhibition, ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’, has catapulted the nineteenth-century French painter, his influence, and his legacy to the forefront of art conversations everywhere. Here at the History of Art Department, we have been prompted by this to return to and appreciate our very own connection to Delacroix—the Lee Johnson Archive.

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The Lee Johnson Archive, housed in the History of Art Department

Professor Lee Johnson (1924-2006) was a leading scholar on Eugène Delacroix. His extraordinary catalogue raisonné (first published in 1981 with the final supplement emerging in 2002) was, and remains, a monumental contribution to Delacroix studies. Volumes 3 and 4 won the prestigious Mitchell Prize in 1987, awarded in recognition of their outstanding and original impact on the field of visual arts. Johnson also published extensively on Delacroix and French art, and was the editor of Delacroix’s letters from 1817-1863.

On his death in 2006, Johnson’s archive was bequeathed to the History of Art Department here in Oxford. Rescued from the fire that tragically took Johnson’s life, the initial priority was to re-house the collection of his papers in conservation quality archival boxes. In light of Johnson’s continuing posthumous relevance as the primary authority on Delacroix, two of the next most important decisions were, firstly, how the integrity of his system could be maintained and, secondly, how to enable researchers to access and use his archive. After the most flimsy and vulnerable material was protected, the archive team established a basic index of his files which maintained the character of Johnson’s collection, preserving his own themes and classification system. Aims and objectives were then set for the next phase of the archive’s cataloguing: to create a cross-referencing system that would enable the full scope and range of Johnson’s ephemera and thoughts to be easily traced and accessed.1

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Archival boxes keep the collection safe and organised

These files, which now amount to 109 boxes, are accompanied by books from Johnson’s own personal library, many of which are richly annotated. It is the collection of a connoisseur, built over decades, and vast in its scope. The archival boxes are packed to the brim with handwritten memos, ideas, gallery postcards, transcriptions of journal entries, and musings on ownership changes and rejected works. Johnson’s correspondence with other art historians such as Anthony Blunt and Erwin Panofsky provides further insight into the emotionally complex nature of art historical relationships and rivalries within the discipline itself. Photographs of Delacroix’s paintings and preliminary studies are the visual storyboard onto which Johnson’s typewritten discussions with museum curators, auction houses, and art specialists shed light.

Box 81, for example, is full of unexpected materials that Johnson collected as a student during the mid-1950s and is a rich and interesting example of personal archiving, providing insights into Johnson’s mind as he constructed and compiled his catalogue raisonné. Ripped-out notebook pages are labelled “Notes on Delacroix drawings worldwide (in alphabetical order by towns)” and chronicle museum and gallery holdings with painstaking detail. There are postcards of Delacroix paintings and sketches sent to Johnson by his friends from all over the globe. One bundle of material is labelled “photos and postcards of It. [Italian] architecture and painting collected as student”, featuring short potted histories of each piece of art on the verso, composed by Johnson as he contemplated their appearance.

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Box 81, which includes material collected by Johnson as a student

The depth of Johnson’s research and the enormity of his archive also reveal the unexpected in Delacroix as well as in Johnson. A series of photographs taken of pages from a Delacroix sketchbook housed in one of the Rijksmuseum’s private collections not only depict detailed anatomical sketches; muscled shoulders, the play of light and shadow on skin, but on others…Delacroix doodles abound! A charming and reassuring insight into Delacroix’s own procrastinations, the awkward star shapes, undirected curled lines, misshapen dots, and bizarre geometric patterns cover several white sheets, the familiar and comforting refuge of anyone who has ever been faced with a blank page, a pencil, and a disturbing lack of ideas.

During the course of the cataloguing and re-organising process, enquiries from museum curators at the National Gallery of Canada, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum and the Wallace Collection (amongst others) demonstrated that Johnson’s archive is still an important resource for those confirming the attribution of potential acquisitions or determining the provenance of items coming up for auction. Some enquiries were spurious attempts by dealers to force an attribution; for others, the archive provided additional evidence to support a major acquisition. One enquiry even gave a fascinating insight into the ongoing debates surrounding the disputed ownership and restitution of looted works of art during World War II. During the course of the archiving process, conversations were also begun with the Musée Delacroix about their ongoing digitisation project of Delacroix’s correspondence.2

These enquiries and the legacy of Johnson demonstrate the turbulent process of authenticating and rejecting works of art, in which Johnson is the ever-present shadow. To a Delacroix expert, the archive provides an invaluable backdrop and paper trail for the creation of a truly impressive catalogue raisonné. The challenge to Johnson’s standing as an authority in the recent Santa Barbara exhibition Delacroix and the Matter of Finish demonstrates the dominance of Johnson’s legacy even ten years after his death, and the extent to which his word became the final answer on any attribution. To a lecturer or student, the archive is a rich example of an eminent art historian’s methodology and connoisseurial expertise, both in his approach to his subject and to his own personal archive.3 To anyone with even the most remote interest in the visual arts, it is a fascinating and wonderfully human body of materials, reflecting a lifelong devotion to scholarship.

Reviewing The National Gallery’s exhibition for The Observer, Laura Cumming suggests that “if ever there were a show worth waiting for it would be an almighty survey of the full strangeness of Delacroix”.4 Exploring the Lee Johnson Archive provides a glimpse of the magnitude of any such endeavour. Looking through it, we begin to comprehend the scale and ambition of Delacroix’s oeuvre, and of the “almighty survey” conducted by Professor Lee Johnson himself. To fully realise the untapped potential of the archive, perhaps the time has now come to consider the second phase of cross-referencing the archive, to reveal the deeper richness of the legacy that the History of Art Department has inherited.


Interested in learning more about the Lee Johnson Archive? Contact us at vrc@hoa.ox.ac.uk.

Dr. Fiona Gatty wrote her doctoral thesis on ideal beauty in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century French art and art criticism. During her time spent at Oxford’s History of Art Department, she led the team that re-boxed and indexed the Lee Johnson papers.

Emma Walshe is the Visual Resources Assistant for the History of Art Department. She completed both her Masters in English, 1700-1830 and her undergraduate English Literature degree at Trinity College, Oxford.

The National Gallery’s exhibition, ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’, runs until 22 May 2016.


Footnotes

1 At present, whilst a researcher might find some of the information they need relating to a particular work in the relevant file, later notes (those possibly relating to another work, an exhibition, or placed in the ‘to be filed’ box) mean that a complete review of the whole archive is potentially necessary.

2 The database, Correspondances d’Eugène Delacroix, is currently in its trial phase.

3 Eik Kahng, Delacroix and the Matter of Finish (Santa Barbara, California: 2013), pp. 10, 36, and 40.

4 ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’: review for The Observer by Laura Cumming (21 February 2016).

A year in pictures: History of Art at Oxford University

As we approach the first anniversary of the History of Art Department’s and Visual Resources Centre’s blog and the beginning of a new academic year, we thought we would use this post as an opportunity to reflect back on the past twelve months. It seemed appropriate to do this through a medium that is very familiar to us – images!

Matthew Walker visiting Pembroke College's JCR Art Fund Collection with prospective art historians

Dr Matthew Walker leads a visit to Pembroke College’s JCR Art Fund Collection

September 2014: This time last year, Dr Matthew Walker led a group of budding art historians to view some of Pembroke College’s art collection as a part of the Department’s Open Day.

The History of Art Department's new student reception, History Faculty, University of Oxford, October 2014.

The History of Art Department’s new student reception, History Faculty, University of Oxford, October 2014.

October 2014: We welcomed 13 new undergraduate & 32 new graduate students and looked forward to the academic year ahead of us.

'The Shock of the Old: Victorians and Edwardians in search of the past', lantern slide show at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 15-22 November 2014.

‘The Shock of the Old: Victorians and Edwardians in search of the past’, lantern slide show at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 15-22 November 2014.

November 2014: As Dina Akhmadeeva (MSt History of Art and Visual Culture, 2014) wrote our inaugural blog highlighting the Visual Resources Centre’s lantern slide collection, some of these jewels appeared in an Ashmolean exhibition as part of the Institute of Archaeology’s HEIR project and the Being Human Festival.

Talbot Patroculus

Bust of Patroclus, from WHF Talbot, Pencil of Nature, plate V, London, 1884

December 2014: The Christmas parties came thick and fast as Dr Mirjam Brusius alerted us to the 175th anniversary of Photography and the Bodleian’s acquisition of the Fox Talbot Archive.

Professor Antony Griffiths, Slade Professor of the History of Art 2014-15, delivering his inaugural lecture, January 2015

Professor Antony Griffiths, Slade Professor of the History of Art 2014-15, delivering his inaugural lecture, January 2015

January 2015: Professor Antony Griffiths, Slade Professor 2014-15, treated us to the first of a series of eight lectures based on the theme of ‘The Print Before Photography’.

Conservation underway in Charleston’s kitchen. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Conservation underway in Charleston’s kitchen. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

February 2015: Alice Purkiss (MSt History of Art and Visual Culture, 2012) presented – and then blogged about – her work at the Charleston Trust at the History of Art Department’s Careers Seminar.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, 2nd Century AD, Athens. © Visual Resources Centre, History of Art Department, University of Oxford

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, 2nd Century AD, Athens. © Visual Resources Centre, History of Art Department, University of Oxford

March 2015: Dr Matthew Walker (picking up on the theme of this year’s Slade Lectures) blogged about ‘The Building before Photography’ and reflected on prints as ‘evidence’ and as artefacts in their own right.

Craig Clunas delivering the keynote at the Association of Art Historians Annual Conference 2015

Craig Clunas delivering the keynote at the Association of Art Historians Annual Conference 2015.

April 2015: Professor Craig Clunas was key-note speaker at this year’s AAH (Association of Art Historians) Annual Conference, at which Dina Akhmadeeva was also presented with the AAH’s prize for best Dissertation.

Le Journal pour rire, 25 June, 1853, cover

Le Journal pour rire, 25 June, 1853, cover

May 2015: Dr Mirjam Brusius convened the Centre for Visual Studies Image and Object workshop on the theme of data and Dr Julia Langbein (Junior Research Fellow in Art History, Trinity College, Oxford), went on to compose a blog for us on the same theme.

History of Art Department BA Finalists, June 2015

History of Art Department BA Finalists’ Tea with staff, June 2015.

June 2015: We bid a fond farewell to our BA finalists as they completed their undergraduate studies.

History of Art UNIQ Summer School students & staff, July 2015

History of Art UNIQ Summer School students & staff, July 2015

July 2015: While Henry Tudor-Pole told us about a medieval crosier-head in the Ashmolean, we welcomed a group of UNIQ Summer School students, as well as some more prospective art historians at the Department’s Open Day.

Francis Haskell

Professor Francis Haskell, c.1964.
Image courtesy Mrs. Larissa Haskell

August 2015: We welcomed Dr Tom Stammers (Deakin Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, 2014-15) into the VRC’s archives as he reflected (in a guest blog) on Professor Francis Haskell’s contribution to the discipline of art history whilst the professor of the same at Oxford.

History of Art celebrates 60 years of art history professors at Oxford, Trinity College, Oxford, September 2015

History of Art celebrates 60 years of art history professors at Oxford, Trinity College, Oxford, September 2015

And finally, September 2015: We celebrated the 60th anniversary of the appointment of the first professor of the history of art at Oxford.

‘From the Islands of the South Seas, 1773-4’ : A student foray into the papers of Peter Gathercole in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

By Sarah Mathews

“Student Labour: Agreed that this would probably be more trouble than it’s worth, but P.G said he would keep them ‘in reserve’”

Extract from minutes taken at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1969 re. The opening of “From the Islands of the South Seas, 1773-4: An Exhibition of a Collection Made on Captain Cook’s Second Voyage of Discovery by J.R Forster ”

P.G refers to Peter Gathercole (1929-2010), lecturer of Ethnography at Oxford and the person responsible for the collation of the Forster Collection into the catalogue ‘From the Islands of the South Seas, 1773-4’. He was a founding member of the Pacific Arts Association and director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge from 1970-1981.

I came across the meeting minutes as I rifled through the exchanges of letters, research and documents relating to the exhibition during my weekly research placement at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Before the days of email, arranging a meeting to determine the origins of a single object often required multiple letters with days of waiting in-between. Following a letter trail back and forth can lead to the conclusion of a school visit to the collection, or the attribution of origin of items in collections in New Zealand. Indeed, even a handwritten application to ‘Bodley’s Librarian’ for the loan of a book dated 12/03/1970, does not go undetected.

Such seemingly abnormally drawn out procedures are nothing more than the common everyday when I am drawn back into the daily world of the 1970 exhibition’s formation, with Gathercole at its centre. The fastidious research undertaken, the precision in even the flora and fauna that the exhibition was to include, is demonstrative of the immersion and involvement that the Forster Collection was, and still is, capable of evoking.

I am responsible for cataloguing and collating the archive of Peter Gathercole’s work on the exhibition so as to facilitate eventual online access, via the Museum’s website, to the vast and fascinating documentation. In our swiftly moving lives, instantaneous and constant information is at our fingertips. It’s refreshing to slip back to the unfamiliar momentum of letter-exchange. It’s engrossing to follow the unpicking of the origin of a single object, collected in 1773-4, transported and exhibited in on the 1st of May 1970 in Oxford. The steady repetition of weaving a tapa cloth (barkcloth) such as the ones that are part of the Forster Collection, echoes the rhythmic flow of letters and draws me further back; to a corner of the South Pacific with the scuttle of land-crabs in the oil-lit shelter, and the communal hum of village chatter as one strip of barkcloth flips over the other just as was done for those collected in 1773-4.

Sarah Mathews is a second year BA History of Art student undertaking a placement in the Photograph and Manuscript Collections section of the Pitt Rivers Museum. The papers she is listing will become a new series of papers in the collection – the Gathercole Papers – and will appear online here: http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/manuscripts.html