AAH Oral Histories

Interview with Alan Bowness

Sir Alan Bowness (b. 1928) was a key instigator in the establishment of the AAH. Along with John White and other members of the Steering Committee, he initiated a series of meetings between 1972-74 leading up to its official launch in 1974, when he became AAH Honorary Secretary until 1976.

Alan Bowness studied Modern Languages at Cambridge before obtaining a diploma at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1955. After briefly working for the Arts Council, he began teaching at the Courtauld where he remained until 1979 and where he greatly expanded teaching of what was then known as ‘the Modern period.’ He was Director of the Tate Gallery (1980-88), Director of the Henry Moore Institute, and was knighted in 1988.

This interview was conducted by Liz Bruchet and was recorded in London on 5 May, 27 July, 5 November 2010 and 21 January 2011. Segments of the excerpts have been removed for continuity. Recording © Alan Bowness and AAH
Photo © The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2011

Excerpt 1. Art and Art History, 1950s

Reflects on his early interest and exposure to contemporary art while studying modern languages Cambridge, in relation to his growing understanding of Art History as a professional academic subject [4:59 mins]

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I'd been going to Art exhibitions in those early days so when the museums began to reopen the National Gallery when the collection was brought back and the V&A and they had some pioneering exhibitions, like there was a Picasso, Matisse exhibition which I remember and a Klee exhibition a Braque, a Rouault exhibition and I saw these early exhibitions. And then I also used to go to some of the Bond Street galleries where new work was on show and I was already very interested in as it were the new generation of painters and sculptors who were just emerging. Figures like John Minton, Keith Vaughan, [Robert] Colquhoun, [Robert] McBryde and mainly that kind of neo-romantic obviously Sutherland and Nash in the background. And then from the time I went up to Cambridge I was always very regularly museum visiting in London in vacations. So I had this long background of interest in art but of course Art History wasn't even thought of as a subject in those days, you know, it didn't really exist. It was only when I got to know the director of the Fitzwilliam Carl Winter and he said he told me about the Courtauld, I'd never heard about the Courtauld. It was completely unknown it was a tiny institution lost in the University of London.

So can you tell me, what was the advice that he gave you?

I always remembered this because it was I rather cheekily said to him 'What do I have to do Carl to get your job?' And he said 'I'm afraid, you'd have to go to the Courtauld'. You see he belonged to a generation which on the whole had gone straight into museum work from Oxbridge degrees. That's the background of Kenneth Clark, Philip Hendy and so on. And the Courtauld was set up specifically in the 1930s to train people for museum work, it being felt that a professional training which was of course on offer in Germany for example, was really very necessary in this country as well. I mean K. Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery when he was thirty-six or something and one of the reasons given was he was the only person who seemed to have any qualifications, as he sat at [Bernard] Berenson's feet, to run the National Gallery. And Art History tended to be what I would call 'art appreciation' really sort of general essays and lectures of … not exactly criticism it was a kind of … well the shining exception of course was Roger Fry but he was really rather an exception and there was something of a dilettante about Fry who jumped around from one subject to another and tried to set a kind of philosophical background to what he was saying, obviously supported by Clive Bell who was still writing in the New Statesman I think when I first started reading it in the mid-1940s. And the difference really was that the idea of Art History was to provide a much stronger historical background because it is fairly obvious once you start thinking about it that if you're going to talk about influences for example and development of an artist, you need to know the context in quite strong historical detail. You need to note who else was exhibiting, what works were being shown, which were the exhibitions most talked about, what did the artist you're interested in particularly, like how do we know what he likes, have you read his letters, have you read contemporary criticism, all these kind of questions which of course German art historians – at least some of them – had been asking for some time but this was really very much Anthony Blunt's attitude, that the study of Art History needed a firm basic documentation.

And this was not being provided anywhere. There were some quite good courses in Edinburgh for example under Talbot Rice. But I don't think any university in England or Wales had anything approaching Art History. And the Courtauld was still a completely isolated institution getting back on its feet in the later '40s because it had been more or less dormant of course during the War. And things were changing very quickly I would say in the 1950s the there was a feeling that there were huge changes in the subject and I think that was really made very clear to us.

Excerpt 2. A shortage of students

On the surprising sequence of events that led to his admission at the Courtauld in 1953, and his early debates with John White, then a young lecturer at the Institute, and who would later become a collaborator in the founding of the Association of Art Historians. [5:10 mins]

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When you went to the Courtauld did you have to interview to get a place?

[laughs] No. The honest answer is that when I had taken my final degree in Cambridge, I didn't get a First Class degree. I was a bit disappointed because my tutors had told me they thought I would and for that reason I was expecting to eventually go into teaching French at university. But I didn't, largely because I neglected the language side and I had the most bizarre set of papers, I was told. I did get a starred 2:1 which is a very unusual [laughs] degree in Cambridge but it was precisely somebody who does some brilliant papers and some dreadful ones. So I wasn't quite sure if I was going to go that route and I thought it would be more difficult I wouldn't automatically get a postgraduate grant. So I had about six months before, when I'd first heard of the Courtauld I had actually got the prospectus and I'd gone to see the Registrar, a man called Charles Clare. And I talked with him and I said 'I'm thinking of doing a doctorate on Symbolism in Zola,' that was my doctoral subject. And I'm particularly interested in the switchover from realism to symbolism. And Charles Clare said to me 'Well we're not offering there's no course in the next academic year on French nineteenth-century painting so we couldn't offer you anything at this stage'. So I said 'Thank you very much' and that was the end of my enquiry.

But come I suppose June I had a phone call from Charles Clare saying would I be interested in coming to the Courtauld and I was in that kind of undecided state moment you know, being very much influenced by Existentialism and the idea that chance affects the decisions that you make in life and so on and I thought well maybe this is the call. So I went and saw Charles Clare and he said ‘Yes we're short of students’ – can you believe it – they were short of students and they were really trying to find a few more people to fill up the postgraduate places which were only about eight or ten anyway over the whole period. I would have to do Renaissance the first year but then I could do the Modern period with Blunt in the second year so I agreed to do that. I nearly left at Christmas I thought I'd made a terrible mistake I had terrible arguments with John White, who was a young teacher there and John became a very good friend of mine later but in those early days I suppose I was quite argumentative and probably quite a difficult student and John didn't like postgraduate students there was always this division in the Courtauld between the teachers who had an undergraduate Courtauld background like John White and John Shearman and I was going to say the rest of us because most of the other people had a postgraduate background so they already had a degree usually in History or languages, literature. But when I got to the second year that was wonderful I was writing essays on [Jean-Baptiste-Camille] Corot and Delacroix and Van Gogh and Gauguin and so on Cézanne, Picasso for Blunt that was great.

And what did you and John White argue about?

[laughs] I suppose the answer is that it was probably the visual analysis of pictures, because he taught the early Renaissance particularly Giotto, and he took us through the sort of the way which one of the Padua frescos lead to another with linking gestures and so on. And I think I had – I can't remember it now I had the essay on Assisi which even then we didn't think really was by Giotto but you nevertheless had to study it. I thought I was doing the same thing and John kept on interrupting he did this with everybody. Because one of the problems with the Courtauld was that you read your essay to your teacher, and that could be very irritating. It was irritating me because in Cambridge I'd always handed essays in and then you know my supervisor had read them. So I said I'm you know John kept interrupting saying 'Why do you say that?' and I always remember saying 'Well I'm coming to it you're just in too much of a hurry you know you’ [laughs] and then some something like 'Well you that's just what you were doing last week you know what's the difference between what I'm trying to do now and what you did last week?' And so it went on. But it's very good I mean I think the English tradition of pupils arguing with teachers is wonderful actually and I hate the kind of docile continental tradition where you know you just go and listen to lectures and you don't have any contact really with your teachers except possibly if you're doing a doctorate later on.

Excerpt 3. Establishing the AAH

On the sequence of events and the rationale behind the foundation of the Association of Art Historians in 1974. [4:00 mins]

The creation of new universities and polytechnics in the 1960s, along with the implementation of the Coldstream (1961) and Summerson (1963) Reports, led to unprecedented growth of art history teaching. Before the foundation of the AAH, the only regular meetings among professional art historians took place annually between senior university art historians and were known as the 'Heads of Departments meetings.' 

In March 1973 a general meeting open to all art historians was called to discuss establishing a professional association of art historians. View the invitation to this meeting, the agenda and minutes here.

View the original 1974 AAH constitution and brochure, programme for the first AAH conference held in 1975, a press release issued shortly after, and the letter from Michael Levey described by Alan Bowness.

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Can you tell me the story, how did it come to be that there was this establishment of the Association of Art Historians, which was formally established in 1974?

As I remember it the story is this really. As I've said already there was this extraordinary growth of Art History in the '60s and it was accompanied by the … particularly the growth of Art History in universities and in art schools. Museum situation was more static, though numbers of people in the museums were growing certainly in this time. My own recollection is that the impetus really came from conversations between John White and myself. John had invited me to teach half a semester at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and John had as I mentioned already he'd really re-established Art History as a serious subject in Manchester, and he after seven years he was tempted to America with an offer of, you know much more money, better conditions, more time for research etc etc like us all we all have these offers, and some took them and some didn't. Anyway when I went to Johns Hopkins I remember we talked a lot about the American what's it called?

The College Art Association

The College Art Association because I think John had been, and what an important role it played and how important it was for mundane things like recruiting new staff and so on. It gave people an opportunity to meet one another and I think we thought at that time that it would be a good idea to have something similar, because there was nothing like it.

Anyway as these new departments grew they set up a head of department meeting.
However that Heads of Department meeting did not involve the bulk of art historians and as far as those of us who were teaching at the Courtauld in the centre of this new development, we had very little to do with it. But certainly there were I was at the centre with John of a lot of discussion during 1973 about setting up an association of art historians.

Now certain things we decided at a fairly early stage in these informal discussions was that we would like to open it up to all art historians, not just university art historians certainly art historians now working in the art colleges and in the art departments of universities, and also to people in the museum world. And hence [Andrew] McLaren Young who was a very engaging affable Scot who was Head of the Department in Glasgow. I mean I think it was all quite political we wanted somebody in Scotland, which was always a very important area for art historical studies and research and numbers of students and we also wanted somebody who would be of an older generation in a sense, to be the Chairman.

And we'd also started to interest the museums. I have a letter from Michael Levey in fact which I give to you to put in the archive because I think it's a better place for it to be. ‘Twenty-ninth of April 1974. Dear Alan I am now back and had a chance to look at your letter of 4th April and the papers you kindly sent. Naturally I am honoured and delighted to accept membership of the committee, and hope to be able to attend the first meeting on Monday twentieth of May.' One thing I have not done is paid my subscription. I'd better hasten to do this and I will send Peter a cheque.' So, here you are.

Excerpt 4. Design History

Comments on the place of Design History within Art History and the AAH during its founding years. [2:08 mins]

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What about the sub-committee for Design History, and there was also a Design History Publication sub-committee quite early on actually.

Yes. Well I think we welcomed people with an interest in history of design from quite an early stage. I mean somebody like, I seem to remember Gillian Naylor coming into the Association quite early on. And she was always a very important figure in that particular development. I mean design history was rather dismissed by some of the big Art History departments I mean the Courtauld was always being told that they should be doing more for design history but I think most of my colleagues and certainly this was my view thought that by diluting things you could only do them worse really and it was better to stick to the three basic subjects of painting, sculpture and architecture and to teach these in depth and feel that if you're interested in say furniture for example, you could sort of slot that interest in to what you'd learnt about the development of architecture on the one hand painting as decoration for houses on the other hand you know so it's that kind of thing. But I think the atmosphere in the Association was always very broad from the beginning. Partly because it if it was going to succeed it had to have a fairly big membership and I don't know what the membership is now, but we were very pleased that we very quickly had a couple of hundred members or so something like that within a year or two that was quite important I think and it really did show the need for such an association because in those very early days I mean I can remember you know persuading people to get involved particularly to play a part in the Steering Committee for example and some were not all that keen but could be persuaded.

Excerpt 5. Transition to the Tate

Comments on the transition from being a senior member of staff at the Courtauld Institute of Art to the Tate Gallery, where he was Director from 1980-88. [3:51 mins]

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So again you've referenced this a couple of times, but in 1979 you left the Courtauld have I got that right?

[overlaps] At the very end of the year

At the very end of the year and then you went on to become the Director at the Tate


What was that transition like?

Well it was a huge change obviously … because if you're an academic art historian you are working within a fairly narrow compass basically. If you go to become a major museum director you suddenly have to deal with all different kinds of constituencies so you're not just an art historian interested in the subject and people working in the subject and the teaching and training of those people, you're suddenly aware that you're running a huge national institution and you've got all these different constituencies out there particularly true of the Tate. You've got the artists who are all very interested in what the Tate is doing, you've got the politicians who eventually provide the money, you've got the journalists who all think they could be running it better than you could and have plenty of opportunities to tell you such, and you've got the ordinary general public who have a concern and you've got the collectors. You've got to establish yourself vis-a-vis all these other groups, in other words you have to cultivate some friends among politicians let’s say or the artists or possible donors and so on, so I found from the very beginning that I had to pay attention to all these things and it took a great deal of time and energy as you can imagine.

On the other hand in some strange ways when you move from a teaching post where you're primarily concerned with postgraduate teaching – which means that you have to motivate your students really to work and to produce and you see them on a regularly basis and you discuss what they're doing and you hopefully make some helpful suggestions to them. Now I found moving to the Tate to some extent it was the same situation I had a big staff there of course but I used to see the senior members of staff every week in general on a Monday and talk to them for half an hour or so, discuss their particular problems and in a sense it was not a dissimilar situation actually. I was quite surprised at first when I realised that.

And while you were at the Tate did you have a sense of the changes that were happening in Art History?

I suppose I was a bit bemused at that time about the so-called ‘New Art History.’ If only because I couldn't quite understand what was so new about it, if you see what I'm getting at. Because depends on how you define the New Art History I mean if it means you're going to take an interest in things other than the pictures in other words let us say, the critical context or collectors for example A. that was already happening and B. it's an excellent thing to do as long as you keep the primacy of the work of art. I do think that's quite important – that the most important thing if you're an art historian is the study of the actual work that the artist is producing. And I think it's a pity that in some areas a lot of the research is all on the periphery and not really looking at the works concerned this is particularly true perhaps of a lot of continental research in so far as I can understand what's going on.

Alan Bowness, AAH Steering Committee Member & Honorary Secretary 1974-1976 Alan Bowness, AAH Steering Committee Member & Honorary Secretary 1974-1976