AAH Oral Histories
Interview with John Steer
John Steer (b. 1928), an art historian specializing in Venetian Renaissance painting, started the Art History Department at the University of St Andrews in 1967 before becoming Professor at Birkbeck, University of London, in 1979 where he remained until his retirement in 1984. An early member of the AAH’s Executive Committee (1977-79), he became Chair of the Association in 1980 following the retirement of John White.
Extract from an interview conducted with Liz Bruchet at John Steer's home in London on 1 December 2009. Segments of the excerpts have been removed for continuity. © AAH
Excerpt 1. Surprise nomination to Chairmanship
John Steer, then at the University of St Andrews, reflects on his early involvement with AAH in the mid-1970s and his surprise at being nominated Chair of the Association in 1980 [2:00 mins]
Do you recall how you got involved in the Association? Who might have invited you?
I think I joined naturally and then I think perhaps because I was in Scotland, they asked me to be the next Chairman after John White. In fact I moved I'd moved to London by the time it happened so that I was very much a Londoner in a way and I think perhaps they would've liked it not to be so but it was actually very convenient, it wouldn't have been possible to be much to have been much use to the Association at that distance I think at that time when it was still in its foundation years. I mean it had been going five years I think or something like that.
And then you started as Chair [of the AAH] in 1980.
What did you think about the idea of forming an Association?
Well I thought it was a very good idea. I mean it was it was a very necessary step in the development of Art History and I was a hundred percent in favour of it, yes, and John White of course who started it was a charismatic and extremely talented man and so I was quite honoured to follow him.
Why I was chosen to succeed John White I don't know quite. Very odd. I thought it was very surprising at the time but I did I was pleased to do it and I was delighted that by the time I did it I was in London because it would have been jolly difficult to, do it adequately from St Andrews.
Why were you delighted?
Well it was an honour and I don't regard myself as a great art historian, and, but I do regard myself as being somebody who thinks laterally as well as straight ahead and I thought therefore that I was probably quite a good choice. I think that's what I thought, to blow my own trumpet a bit about it. I was very surprised, I didn't expect it at all, I was astonished.
Excerpt 2. Studying at the Courtauld in the 1950s
Recalls the influence of the Courtauld Institute’s Director Anthony Blunt and Deputy Director Johannes Wilde. [3:11 mins]
At a time when the subject of Art History was virtually unknown, the Courtauld Institute was the only places in Britain devoted solely to its study. Its director Anthony Blunt, who later gained notoriety when he was exposed as the Fourth Man in the Cambridge spy ring, was a powerful figure in the cultural establishment of post-war Britain, working to establish opportunities for his students around the world and increasing the standards of the field. Johannes Wilde, an Austro-Hungarian émigré and Michelangelo scholar and specialist in Venetian art, worked alongside Blunt as Deputy Director from 1948 until his retirement in 1958.
Where did you study Art History?
I went to the Courtauld Institute after a year two years gap I had two years gap I think because you couldn't get in you see. So that was the time I should have been in the army but I wasn't in the army I was teaching in a rather decline and fall prep school ... most of the time.
And what was the Courtauld like?
Very different from Oxford. Er very specialised. A very good training I think. And it had Anthony Blunt at that time as its Director and Johannes Wilde who you've probably heard about who was my mentor well he was my um, he was the one I cared about he taught me most of what I know about art I think. He had a wonderful eye and um, so I was very much indebted to him for my whole approach to art and my career, in a way.
And what was he like as a person?
He was very Germanic … he was actually Austrian I think he wasn't German I think he was Austrian, and he'd been in the Kunsthistorisches Museum I think before the Anschluss, and then he came over to this country to escape when it became Nazified I think that's right. And he was a magnificent teacher. He had a great feeling for works of art I mean any individual work of art you could get a great deal out of him, out of it just by looking at it with him. And he was a wonderful teacher.
What was the atmosphere like at the Courtauld?
That's a very difficult question. Rather introverted. It was of course the only place where you could study Art History at the time. Anthony Blunt was its head at that time and Wilde was the second guy. And I went for Wilde rather than for Blunt although I quite admired Blunt and he taught me quite a lot. But it was Wilde who made my career in a way.
And what was Blunt like?
Um ... well if you were gay as I was, he was quite sympathetic. I mean he was gay himself and so that was a help I think with him. And so he was quite relaxed. He was a curious teacher, he was a bit academic I think as a teacher rather than Wilde who was much more spontaneous ... but I wouldn't like to underplay Blunt I think he was a very good Director of the Courtauld and he gave it a reputation and a standard which it didn't have before I think before the War. It was dicey before the War but after the War Blunt took it over and he did a great deal for it.