AAH Oral Histories
Interview with Evelyn Welch
Evelyn Welch (b. 1959) was Chair of the Association of Art Historians from 2007-2011. A scholar of early modern European visual and material culture, she served as a member of the Executive Committee from 2000-2006 before becoming Chair of the Association in 2007.
She gained her PhD in Combined Historical Studies from The Warburg Institute, University of London in 1987, and BA in Renaissance History and Literature at Harvard University in 1981. Currently Professor of Renaissance Studies Vice-Principal for Research and International Affairs at Queen Mary, University of London, Evelyn Welch was previously Pro-Vice Chancellor (Teaching and Learning) at the University of Sussex. She is also the director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s programme, Beyond Text: Performances, Sounds, Images, Objects.
The interview was conducted by Liz Bruchet and took place at Queen Mary, University of London on 9 March 2010. Segments of these excerpts have been edited for continuity. © AAH
Excerpt 1. Studying at the Warburg Institute, mid-80s
Describes studying at the Warburg Institute, University of London, in the mid-1980s, facing ‘death by seminar’ and the introduction of computers into the practice of Art History [5:00 mins]
And what were your impressions of the student community?
Well the Warburg Institute was a very eccentric place when I arrived. Sir Ernst Gombrich had retired by that point and it was being run I believe by Joe [J.B.] Trapp, was still in a phase of transition. Frances Yates had only died a few years before and Charles Hope had just really started as a Young Turk … and David Chambers was there Jill Kraye was there. It was a very eclectic staff group who didn't really, there wasn't really a student community. There were about five of us taking the MPhil course which took no prisoners, if you went and took this course with Michael Baxandall on rhetoric and dialectic, you were just handed these illegible photocopies in Latin, and he just waded in as if he assumed you knew what he was talking about which none of us did but we were all too terrified to say anything. You had Nicolai Rubinstein who was always around and his wife Ruth, so you weren't really taught but you were constantly challenged and from people like Ruth and Nicolai Rubinstein to Charles Hope it was death by seminar. People completely terrified. And I do remember my very first seminar that I gave, you know there was this kind of halt and everyone looked I had Gombrich and Rubinstein in the room and it was very much like being in a Roman arena and I can't remember who asked the first question but somebody asked a kind question, either Gombrich or Rubinstein, and you could hear this sort of exhale of breath, you know that I wasn't going to be slaughtered at that point. So yes the graduate students did try to look after each other under these circumstances.
What was Gombrich like?
He was very witty, very um acerbic, he – I gather had been a terrible Director of the Institute in that he was much more focused on his own life and career than on the politics of the University of London. He could be extremely irascible. There were famously antiquated slide projectors at the Warburg Institute which were always breaking down and you know the poor people trying to do the slides for him when he gave his lectures were in complete state of paroxysm of nervousness whenever he spoke, and he had a habit of using – he must have come out of a very old system – he had a pointer in one hand and when he wanted the slides to be changed he'd bang it fiercely, in order to get the slides to change. None of this old – this new-fangled stuff about pressing buttons yourself. So he was, if you were on the periphery and just listening to him, he was always amusing, he was actually seemed very supportive but if you had to do something for him, I think you got very nervous indeed. I didn't work directly with him Kristen Lippincott did and I think she actually she got on very, very well with him.
I will never forget actually the moment when the Warburg was considering – the Warburg bizarrely through Charles Hope's interest one of the first places to, to become really interested in how to use computers and to computerise the production of dissertations, data and things like that and Charles – I mean I learned to do work on a computer on a BBC computer which had little chips that you put into the motherboard to save your materials. Then Charles convinced us to all sign up to using these great big soft floppy discs and a programme called Final Word which he probably still writes on which you know in order to do italics you'd go ‘et’, ‘i’ brackets around the word close brackets, completely nightmarish looking back on it. So we actually had lots of computers and, we were going to computer – not digitise because that wasn't what you did then, but we were going to put the Warburg census of antiquities and inter [inaud] Renaissance [Census of Antique Works of Art and Architecture Known in the Renaissance] onto a computer database and Gombrich was very, very, very concerned about this. He felt – and I understand it – that when you looked at a piece of paper with scribbles and handwritings and corrections you saw, the … the kind of the problems with the evidence whereas if it came as a printout it looked accurate and he was very good at saying actually I think, you know, we think we're going forward but there are problems that lie ahead as well.
Excerpt 2. Investigating the Renaissance period
Describes the intrigue of the Renaissance period, the value of its recording keeping systems and changes in research methods since her time as a student [3:32 mins]
And what is it about the Renaissance period that you find intriguing?
Well I think I know a lot about it. And I spent a lot of my career trying to say that it wasn't a Renaissance or Re-naissance there, really fighting against the label but I know a huge amount about Italy between around 1280 and now increasingly 1650 and like any period and place its multi-faceted you come back to it there's - you think you've got it right and now it slips away between your fingers … there's just so much. One of the things that does make it fabulous is that a the quality of the paper that they were writing on was amazing so it still survives and the quality of the law courts and the litigation, was equally substantial so that people wrote things down because they were afraid that if they didn't not simply they but their children and grandchildren might have property, possession, donations removed there so there was a really fierce attempt in Italy to keep good records and to hang on to stuff which may not have been true everywhere. And then importantly in the late eighteenth early nineteenth century Napoleon comes in and he, sort of centralises the recordkeeping system so you have old monasteries such as the archive in Milan turned over to central state record keeping. So that combination of fiercely individualistic 'I need to know what I own so I can fight for it in court' and then this astonishing centralising bureaucracy which is 'The state needs to keep all this material safe' was a very good combination for historians.
And how would you characterise your research methodology?
Well my research methodology used to be very very straightforward. You went to an archive, ideally somewhere where it wasn't very good weather and the food wasn't as wonderful but that meant lots of Anglo-Saxons hadn't ever studied there before. You went in you made good friends with the archivist, you got to know the people who brought you your materials and you turned over pieces of paper, you know for days and weeks etcetera. And then you found good stuff there and you created a narrative and a story about it. That is over. Because only people who are graduate students with strong stomachs and a lot of stamina and a lot of time can do it that way but it was very much the kind of micro history, archivally-based, empirical way that someone like David Herlihy or Nicolai Rubinstein had had done their work and had essentially taught us that until you'd found every last scrap that might be relevant to whatever question you were asking, you really couldn't even start to write an article. That was quite debilitating in some ways. Now I say I look online and I do as many searches as possible and then if necessarily I try to dive in and dive out of an archive but mainly I'm sending graduate students so, I'm trying to have an idea now and then find some documents whereas I used to find some documents and then go occasionally in search of an idea.
Excerpt 3. Becoming involved with the AAH
Recalls her early experiences of the AAH, from attending conferences to becoming a part of the AAH University subcommittee and the dangers of not attending an Executive Committee meeting [3:09 mins]
When you joined what was the perception of the Association among your colleagues?
Well no one at the Warburg ever joined, because we were an interdisciplinary group and we didn't do theory and we – I’d say we didn't engage at all with the outside world. So I'm sure I wouldn't have joined until well after I'd left the Warburg. In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s it was definitely a place which if you wanted to do kind of wackier Art History you could present it at the AAH conference in a way that you couldn't do in your single subject or period specific conferences. So you learned a lot more about theory and there were a lot of the so-called newer universities, which were involved. I don't think we've ever had an AAH conference at Oxford or Cambridge but I remember quite a few in not very salubrious new campuses.
And how did it come about that you were on the Executive Committee?
Well I think it came about because I was on the university's sub-committee and then I'm pretty sure it was Beth Williamson who said 'Oi – I'm stepping down you have to become Chair' and as you know as Chair of these sub-committees you automatically become a member of the Executive. So I think I did some of that and then Toshio Watanabe sidled up to me at the Edinburgh conference, and said 'Would you like to join the Executive?' and I think I didn't quite know what I was signing myself up for and I said 'Yes' but I've been through quite a number of Chairs, and ended up as Chair myself … because I was out of the room when Colin [Cruise] was trying to find an a Vice-Chair and a new Chair to take over after him and I didn't attend that meeting which shows you the dangers of non-attendance at Exec meetings.
How did you feel about becoming part of the Executive Committee?
In those days it was very prestigious. I didn't go to Sussex until 1994 but I remember being very impressed that people like Craig Clunas had been a member of the Exec I mean I you could look down the back of [AAH] Bulletins and see very impressive people were on the Executive so it felt like a real honour. And Toshio had instituted a policy where anyone on the Exec had to actually do something which hadn't been the case before. And I can't remember exactly what my role was but I was given something to do and I must have done it reasonably well and I kept being given stuff to do and this was in the run-up to the very first RAEs [Research Assessment Exercise] that we were having the need to support Heads of Department so I set up a lot of kind of pre-meetings at conferences where people could get together, and instead of seeing each other as competing departments of Art History say, ‘how can we actually support the discipline in a very troubled and changing political environment’.