“Fundaments of Knowledge”: Art History in Britain, c. 1940-1970

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“Fundaments of Knowledge”: Art History in Britain, c. 1940-1970


This project proposes to reassess the institutional history of art history in Britain between c. 1940-70. Looking beyond the usual focus on art history as a university discipline, the project looks to the informal networks and (semi-) institutional nodes that fostered disciplinary discourse in postwar Britain. The project is particularly interested in the practice and ethics of collaborative research efforts such as large-scale cataloguing projects, and how they were fostered by bodies such as the Paul Mellon Foundation.

Historiography often judges British art writers of the postwar period rather mercilessly, contrasting them unfavorably with the serious and sustained research efforts of their continental peers: the British seemed ill-equipped for the scrupulous task of “cataloguing and compilation on a gargantuan scale” so characteristic for the “Teutonic Genius” (Michael Kitson). Many concurred: for example, Ellis Waterhouse claimed to write about pictures “for the pleasure they give”, with any academic apparatus being a “necessary concession” (Italian Baroque Painting, 1962). And yet his archive documents a lifetime’s labour of systematically cataloguing British artists and collections.

This project aims to inquire into the intellectual and institutional frameworks behind the cataloguing activity of scholars such as Ellis Waterhouse and Paul Oppé. I argue that their work is evidence of a ‘pathos of positivism’ (Lorraine Daston): a penchant for large-scale data collection that was not exclusively aimed at producing imminent output in form of publications. Instead, this research ethic deemed the accumulation of resources to be exploited by future generations to be the epitome of academic integrity.