AAH Oral Histories
Interview with Flavia Swann
Flavia Swann (b. 1944 Flavia Bayne-Powell), joined the AAH in 1975 and served as a member of the Executive Committee from 1977-80 before becoming the Editor of the AAH Bulletin.
A specialist in design history and decorative woodwork, Flavia Swann (then Petrie) trained at the Courtauld Institute from 1964-7. She then taught Art History at Canterbury College of Art, University of Reading and London University before taking a full-time lectureship at North Staffordshire Polytechnic in1974 where she launched the pioneering History of Design degree and rose to become the Head of the Department of History of Art and Design. She is Emeritus Professor at the University of Sunderland where she was founding Director of the School of Arts, Design and Media from 1992-2008.
Flavia Swann served as a member of Council for National Academic Awards for ten years and was a founding member of the Steering Committee for the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, where she continues to act as a consultant.
The interview was conducted by Liz Bruchet, and took place at Flavia Swann’s home in Staffordshire on 23 September 2010. Segments of these excerpts have been removed for continuity. © AAH
Excerpt 1. Notable art historians
Recalls her encounters with the notable names in the field of art history while studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art between 1964-67; comments on Anthony Blunt’s influence and realising Art History was her subject of choice [4:44 mins]
When you started at the Courtauld what were you interested in studying?
I don’t think one probably knew. The first year was a survey course, and I have still got the timetable and the names on it are unbelievable now. You know there’s [Anthony] Blunt there there’s Brookner there – Brookner was a member of staff Anita Brookner, later a tutor of mine – [Michael] Kitson, [Peter] Kidson, Michael Baxandall, [Ernst] Gombrich, [Nikolaus] Pevsner, [Leopold] Ettlinger I mean all the greatest names. They weren’t necessarily all at the Courtauld because Pevsner was at Birkbeck [College] and Gombrich was at the Warburg [Institute] but they all came in and did lectures. So we had the most amazing line up.
Blunt’s lectures, he was very poor at lecturing he was very good at seminars, and I remember he was doing the famous Guernica [Picasso] lecture and you know he gets so carried away he’d forget his slides were three out of sequence and he’d look up at screens and go ‘Oh that’s not the one I want and race forward or race backwards and you never had the image on the screen at the same time he was talking about it. He was not very physically coordinated. Whereas Anita Brookner was an absolute ace performer you know she was a theatricality itself and her language was superb and you now you were absolutely gripped with it. But Blunt was a very good seminar thing [ph] and I did in my second year take a course on seventeenth-century landscape painting – so primary Poussin Gaspar Poussin and Claude obviously – and he took all the Poussin ones and Michael Kitson took all the Claude ones he was brilliant Kitson was. But you know Blunt had just written the famous monograph on Poussin which we read in manuscript form before it was published. And once you’ve read that I mean what was there left to say about um Poussin? Except one tiny detail, I had to do a paper on the two series of sacraments and you know, I, when the Marriage painting, I decided that the bunch of flowers that the woman was holding actually had myrtle in it, and myrtle I know was in my mother’s bouquet because it’s a symbol – ancient symbol – of fidelity. And I happened to say this, and he got frightfully excited and he jumped up and he raced through his files [imitates] ‘Myrtlemyrtlemyrtle' 'Oh I’ll look it up later that’s very interesting Flavia.’ So I did all right but only because of myrtle I think [laughs].
It’s impossible to come out with anything original with him. But, it was Blunt that made me a serious art historian in my second year because I mean you know this was the sixties you know we were all having a whale of a time and you know. And you know you know the Beatles were on the doorstep and [everyone] was going to [the Rolling] Stones concerts and you know the great poets and musicians were all coming to the summer parties at the Courtauld Institute and so on. But when I read Blunt’s book because, it was Art History and you suddenly realized Art History was also Archaeology it was also Theology it was also poetry it was also History it was also the history of religions, it was everything it was sort of encapsulated culture in the widest sense. And I think that’s the moment I thought: ‘Art History is where I’m going to go this is this is the most comprehensive cultural study that you could possible do. Much more wide than Literature or History because it has everything in it.’ So he was a formative influence on me.
Do you remember finding out [about] his exposure as a spy?
No 1964, he was actually, I later learned, pardoned and he became the Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, and I think was knighted that year. So whatever he’d done before was, he was either exonerated or it was of no longer importance I don’t know. You well know that in ‘79 he was he was absolutely hounded the moment that Maggie [Margaret] Thatcher got came in and if it’s any interest to you I have every single Times newspaper cutting about Blunt of that time because I was furious because he was already dying of cancer then, and they were just hounding and hounding him, and you know what – he’d probably done absolutely nothing between ‘74 and ‘79 but you know it was Maggie Thatcher finding the common enemy. And they persecuted this dying man I was I was livid about it, absolutely livid about it. No we knew I mean which book of his was it the Blake book was dedicated to [Guy] Burgess Burgess and [Donald] Maclean I mean one of those books those earlier books he dedicated – we knew about that but we weren’t particularly, you know that was all past history as far as we were concerned because the book was a much earlier date I mean early '50s or something.
Excerpt 2. Women at the Courtauld in the '60s
On the student demographic at the Courtauld Institute, Anita Brookner as a role model, and on being a young woman in the ‘60s wanting to break the glass ceiling [3:19 mins]
What were your fellow students like? What was the sort of demographic?
There were some mature students but … mostly they were eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Socially speaking, they were all very middle class … with about two exceptions. There was a girl from Liverpool whose name eludes me who just found it very very difficult indeed. Everyone was fairly socially gifted and you know, did the dinner parties and went to cocktail parties and still did the Carnaby Road thing and whatever. So yes demographically it was very middle class I have to say.
And what about gender?
Gender probably fifty-fifty actually. I wasn’t particularly conscious of less women than men, actually. Might have been forty-sixty but give or take.
And what did you —
[overlaps] It was of course the sort of thing that you know it was polite thing to do if you’d been you know brought up in you know certain [inaud]. It wasn’t necessary, you know after all your degree was a way of meeting a husband wasn’t it you know and then you were a well-polished young lady and you married somebody well and, which of course happened to some people – others of us thought ‘No we’re going to have our own career.’ [laughs] So I think a lot of us came from that sort of background who really never expected their daughters to really seriously mat – to work you know I think I was originally expected to be a secretary or a nurse until I met the right sort of man and settled down. That was what the parental generation thought. But we’re the generation who went to the Courtauld and the ‘60s early ‘60s generation who were the people who – women I’m talking about – who actually on the whole wanted to have a career, and eventually broke the glass ceiling and – I’ll tell you about, if that’s relevant, the Glass Ceiling Circle that I helped to form, which is still going, about women in management in higher education.
The fact that there was one woman there – called Anita Brookner – who you used to go up for private, individual tutorials with her and she was in the top of the building of number nineteen next door. And she was always feeding the pigeons, had an open window and feeding the pigeons, and I remember her I’d knock on the door and she said ‘Come in’ and her back was turned to me feeding the pigeons. And she said ‘You know one day Flavia I’m going to be a novelist.’ And of course she was. Hotel du Lac which I think is the second book but the one that first really made her name in 1984 and how many did she publish since then? Fifteen? But she did write beautifully I mean she was a very good art historian too. So in a sense I suppose she was a bit of a role model. She was very beautiful. Well she’s still alive actually, in her eighties. Very beautiful very elegant French, French dressed. And people didn’t wear scent – scent was very expensive in those days – but she always had the latest or the most exclusive scents from Paris. I mean you couldn’t go into Boots in those days and buy you know, Channel or Armani or whatever you just couldn’t and it was far too expensive but you could always tell where she was and I if I couldn’t find her I’d just walk round the Courtauld [sniffs] using my nose and I’d always find her, because she'd wear this beautiful scent.
Excerpt 3. Early AAH and the development of Design History
On first becoming involved with the AAH in 1975; seeking a voice for the growing number of art historians teaching in polytechnics and art colleges; and comments on trying to bring Design History into the folds of the Association.
Annual meetings of Heads of Art History departments began taking place in the 1960s. The AAH developed both out of these gathering and as a reaction to the limited scope of their membership which did not include art historians based in museums, in polytechnics and colleges of art, and those teaching within other subject area departments. It was felt in many quarters that a formal, more wide-reaching professional association should be formed. Luke Herrmann, Michael Kauffmann and Hamish Miles have written about the various manifestation of meetings between art historians which pre-date the formation of the AAH in the pages of Bulletin no. 100 (February 2009) and Bulletin no. 101 (June 2009) – available to download here.
I hope we can talk about the Association of Art Historians now
[overlaps] Yes yes of course
I just want to ask you how you heard about it and how you became involved.
I can't really remember but I think, there was still a bit of an umbilical cord I think you know. I was living in London in '74 when the first conference took place. I don't know, I think we all knew about. I really don't know, I mean it was easy enough to know. You just knew. What I do remember I remember several two or three things about it actually because it had been set up if you look at the names by all the high-ranking professors of traditional universities. And then of course a bunch of us that came in were now teaching at polytechnics you know and art schools and things and there was no voice. And I can remember in the Courtauld lecture room – was that the music room? – anyway the room at the back you probably know, putting up my hand and saying you know 'It's all very well but you know there's another thing going on and it's the teaching of the practicing based students which in sheer volume terms completely outstrips Art History, to Art History students and there needs to be a voice for that' and grumble grumble from the powers that be and so in the end I think I and another chap called Conal Shields, campaigned for a sub-committee of the Association of Art Historians for those who taught in art schools and polytechnics and that happened.
Later on, one of the evenings anyway, there was a reception and drinkies in the beautiful Courtauld Institute Galleries in Woburn Square and Peter Murray was trying to get the finances right because he was the treasurer and I remember him coming up and saying 'Well Flavia um given you're nice and young why don't you take out a life membership because you know for some of us old buffers it's not worth it but for thirty pounds it should be worth your while?' and so I subbed up my thirty pounds I think the membership was three pounds a year or something like that or maybe two pounds I can't quite remember, but thirty pounds was quite a lot of money actually when you were still, you know struggling a bit financially and I remember being this him saying 'Given you're age Flavia' and he was all flattery he was, you know 'this should stand you in good stead'. [laughs] So he was desperately trying, because you know the AAH had no money it had it had it had to have a cushion it had to have something in the bank, it couldn't rely on 'three pounds coming’ because it probably cost more than three pounds to recruit all that so he was going around over the drinkies recruiting people and aiming very much at the younger generation. [laughs]
To what extend did the universities set the remit for the Association?
I think very much so to begin with. It was very much Art History as taught in universities, which is fine, but it needed also to include Art History as taught in art schools and Design History as taught in art schools and polytechnics which is why we formed that sub-committee and eventually got members on to the Executive and gradually it did open up.
Then Art History, the journal was launched and John Onians was the first editor of that. And it always had very traditional standard Art History – good stuff – because The Burlington Magazine was really the only other place you could publish and you know you'd submit something would be success it would be accepted but it'd be eighteen months before it came out I mean there just wasn't enough, there weren't enough venues for Art History to be aired, so it was a good thing. But I remember talking to John Onians and 'Why don't you get, why can't you include some good Design History articles?' and his answer was 'I never have any submitted to me'. And I said 'Well you know do you try and solicit them?' and he said 'Well I always let it known I'd be I'd be interested in looking at anything that's good'. But I mean I think one had to do probably rather more than that to incorporate Design History.
One of the things that happened around '76 was the Design History Society was beginning to be formed and I was very keen as you'll see from my interview with Sonia Ashmore for the Design History records, I was very keen to keep Design History within Art History. I felt if it fragmented off it was too young too small, and Art History was still, you know compared with numbers of people teaching and studying History or Literature or any of the other great great sort of humanities subjects, it was still relatively small and I felt that Design History needed to grow within Art History because after all some of the methodologies were art historical ones and you know you can't teach Design History without reference to you know, painting and sculpture and architecture I mean there are is an interaction it isn't a completely separate discipline. And I was very keen to keep it in. Bridget Wilkins was a key person in driving Design History in a different direction ie. a separatist direction and I remember at the big conference in Middlesex Polytechnic where I was campaigning to keep it within Art History but it didn't help that we had an executive and an editor of Art History which wanted to keep it in but weren't proactive about doing it. And in the end of course the Design History Society formed itself and eventually its newsletter came out and eventually it started to publish itself, as the years went by. Which is, you know looking back it's given it an identity but it was very frail in the early stages I mean and a lot of fraction a lot of internecine war going on in the early stages of Design History which was not helpful for the development of it. And I think I think it was a pity that the Association of Art Historians which was itself relatively new, didn't encompass Design History because it is not a separate discipline, it's a sub-branch or it's a sister discipline.
And why do you think people were resistant?
Oh I think for the reasons I've sort of eluded to that they felt that the bulk of people within the assoc – within the Executive Committee were, if you like the die-hard traditional university people and that they weren't going to have it. And I was probably one of the few people along with perhaps one or two others but not many saying you know actually it's not like that and we're getting them to change and it will be all right but, you know, they all had visions of someone like [John] Pope-Hennessey or something which you know ok was not around but he was the quintessential you know ‘I know what Art History is the rest of the world can go hang’. [laughs]
Excerpt 4. Organising the 1979 conference in 'grand style'
On being ‘frightfully ambitious’ in organising the 1979 AAH annual conference, and being caught out by a former student, trying to hide her age. [3:51 mins]
Click here to view the 1979 AAH conference programme.
The biggest conference I can recall is the one in '79 which I organised myself. That was an undertaking and a half. It was quite ambitious if not daft to try and organise an a conference in London when I was had a full time job in Staffordshire which in those days about a just under two hour train journey, and it was held at the Institute of Education, London University but I was frightfully ambitious with it, because I thought ‘right we're going to have a reception I'm going to do it grand style.’ So I decided we were going to hire, the Banqueting Hall Whitehall. You know underneath the Rubens ceiling, where Charles the First was executioned [sic] and had to sign a royal indemnity, and so I had to get Francis Ames-Lewis as the Treasurer at the time to come along and sign it because he was the Treasurer and it was a crown indemnity that's right and I remember having to contact, would have been John White and said 'You do realise I need to do this'. He said 'Oh ok just do it Flavia' and I thought well I do need, because it was sort of financial I suppose it was a guarantee that we would repair the Rubens ceiling if we'd set off fireworks or something I don't know but it was the most fantastic reception.
And then for reasons I really can't remember I decided to organise a concert as well so I got Janet Baker the great opera singer to perform for us and she did a concert especially for the Association of Art Historians. The tradition also had developed by then of seeing places you can see the 1975 [conference] we had a visit to Henry Moore's place Much Hadham. So the idea established that you'd see places that you wouldn't otherwise see that were interesting to art historians. So I by this time the numbers were growing there were four hundred and fifty people that was the biggest conference ever at that stage and so I was just beginning to organise trips to all kinds of places and I was just beginning to find that organising the catering, the papers, the venue, the everything the concert was just getting a little bit too much so I dragooned one of my graduates from Canterbury College of Art called Leela Meinertas and I got hold of her and said 'Come on you're going to help me organise these expeditions' and so she took on the organisation of the coaches and the venues.
So Leela Meinertas I went off for a drink in the evening having plotted a whole number of things to do with the conference. I bought her a drink and she had a first sip and said 'Can I ask you a personal question when you about when you used to teach me?' I said 'Well try me' she said 'Why did you wear that wig?' and I thought 'Oh my god' 'How do you know?' Now you have to remember that I had long blonde hair and when you're only twenty three you look just like a student, at least I did. And I decided I'd got to look more grown up and in those days looking grown up was having short bobbed hair. So I went to Selfridges and I bought myself a wig of exactly the same colour as my own hair and on the train down to Canterbury I used to stuff this great mane of hair into this short bob wig and I'd come out the other end feeling frightfully grown up and hoping that I looked older than the students and I kept this up and I said 'How did you find this out?' 'Well we too went to the Tate on a Sunday afternoon, and we'd see you with this long mane of hair and therefore we worked out you had a wig. To begin with we thought you had alopecia or something.' But there were – but it's interesting that what that story's about apart from being a bit funny was that there we were teaching straight out of University I mean in July you were a student and September there you were in front of students some of whom because art schools as I said attracted people mature students and Bruce Brown now Dean of Faculty at Brighton University was one of my graphic design students, you know. And he was the same age as me six foot four of him and you know you tried to feel, you need some kind of authority you didn't feel you had. [laughs]
Excerpt 5. Establishing the first Design History degree
On establishing the first Design History degree in 1976, and being at that time, one of the only female Heads of Department in the country. [4:58 mins]
In 1976 when I’d become Head of Department in ‘75 and had this plan with my young team to launch the first degree in Design History, well it was called History of Design and the Visual Arts. And the process of approval was incredibly complicated. You had to have it approved by your Department Board, by the Faculty Board, by the Academic Committee, by the Academic Board of the Polytechnic and by the Governors. That’s five levels within the institution. Then you had to have approval from the Regional Advisory Council, the RAC – which was Birmingham in this case – and you had to have the approval of the subject specialist, the HMI, before you could even go to CNA. And then the CNA would receive your papers at a board meeting and decide whether they would visit or not. So from between September and April we got all the paperwork together got though all of those processes – a lot of lobbying involved I can tell you. And then they announced ‘The panel are coming’ and to my horror, the Chair of the panel was Peter Lasko. Now Peter Lasko had been at the Courtauld when I was there – I didn’t do Medieval Studies … so I didn’t you know he was just one of the guys around, but he was a real stickler and very much a Medievalist and he’d become the Director of the Courtauld Institute by this time. And I thought ‘Oh of all the people’ you know ‘I’m never going to get a modern subject which is basically 1850 to the present day in Design History with Peter Lasko.’
Mind you I drilled a very young team I was the oldest I was thirty, no I was thirty-one by this time. I still had the long hair and the flower-power gear and all that kind of stuff and all the rest of my staff were younger than me you know they were twenty-five to twenty-seven but they were all very keen you know, undaunted lot. And we Jonathan Woodham was one of my staff and he was very articulate and very useful on that occasion. And for two days this went on and towards the end the Director of the Polytechnic sat through all of this, and he was determined that this woman Flavia with the long hair and this funny lot in Art who wanted to do something rather peculiar called Design were not going to get through, ‘And they’ll see you off’, you know the CAN. But of course that didn’t happen. And I remember Lasko saying ‘Flavia, we taught you medieval ivories. What’s all this Design History stuff? I mean, we’ve taught you Design History it’s called medieval ivories.’ And so I launched into, as politely as I could, that wasn’t quite what we were up to. And he threw up his hands at the end and said when they came to the conclusion, they had their secret meeting and then we all had to troop back with the Vice-Chancellor, and he said ‘Well we give up. They’re obviously going to do it whether we say yes or no so we might as well say yes.’ And that was the first Design History degree and we recruited for the following September 1976.
And this was at North Staffordshire Polytechnic?
Yes yes. By 1974, so I would have been seven years out of the Courtauld, I actually got a fulltime senior lectureship at North Staffordshire Polytechnic. And, having been a part-timer a few months before, I became Senior Lecturer which was jumping four grades from part-timer to Senior Lecturer. And I was Senior Lecture for … eight months and got the Head of Departmentship which was jumping Principal Lecturer so, I moved within twelve months from part-time Lecturer to Head of Department. And I was one of the very very few women Heads of Departments in any subject in the country at the time. It was quite extraordinary so you can imagine I had to sit on everybody’s interview panel because they wanted a woman didn’t they, and they had to be at department level. Gradually that changed. The only other woman was Mary Stewart who was Head of History of Art and Design at [University of] Leicester, who also got some Design History going. But it was quite remarkable to be a woman Head of Department, especially aged thirty.
And what was that like?
What was it like? I don’t know [pause]. You had to deal with a lot of old buffers you know I mean you know all the Heads of Department there were twenty Heads of Departments grouped into faculties obviously. I always thought gosh they were, some of them I thought were fairly moribund you know, and were not progressive didn't want to come up with new ideas or new ways of doing things. So I did get myself a bit of a reputation of wanting to change everything. But actually I did change an awful lot, and we did have this innovative degree and by the second year or third year running it, we had an intake of eighty a year undergraduates in Design History. We became the biggest department of the Faculty of Art and Design, bigger than the Ceramic Department. This is this is the ceramic area and ceramics was big then. So we had about 350 students, FTEs [Full-time equivalent student] that is, so bodies was much more. So it was far bigger than the Courtauld Institute. [laughs]