AAH Oral Histories
Interview with Lisa Tickner
An early member of the AAH, Lisa Tickner was a young lecturer at Middlesex Polytechnic when she presented a paper on feminist art at the 1977 AAH conference, which later became a seminal article on the subject, published in the newly formed journal Art History. She joined the AAH Executive Committee in 1979 as a member of the sub-committee for Art and Design education, and served as an Executive Committee member from 1980-83.
A Fine Art student at Hornsey College of Art from 1961-66, Professor Tickner was one of the first cohorts of the DipAd degree, graduating in 1966. A fascination with Art History led her to undertake a PhD from Reading University (1970). She went on to teach at Middlesex Polytechnic (now Middlesex University), where she was one of the founding editors of the journal Block (1979-89). Her publications on a wide range of subjects include The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-1914 (1988), Modern Life & Modern Subjects: British art in the early 20th century (2000), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (2003).
Emeritus Professor of Art History from Middlesex University, she is currently Visiting Professor at the Courtauld Institute where she continues her research and teaching.
This interview was conducted by Liz Bruchet and was recorded at the Courtauld Institute in London on 7 June 2011. Segments of the excerpts have been removed for continuity. © AAH
Excerpt 1. Pevsner, art school and touch typing
Recalls being encouraged to study art history by Nikolaus Pevsner as a young Fine Arts student at Hornsey College of Art. Lisa Tickner was part of the first cohort of art school students to graduate with the new Diploma in Art & Design (DipAD), the degree-equivalent strand introduced as a result of the Coldstream (1961) and Summerson (1963) Reports, which required students to study Art History and Complementary Studies as part of their degree. [4:19 mins]
The staff had said you really ought to go on and do Art History and Pevsner who had read my dissertation and had read my exam paper, had invited me to go and here him lecture on William Morris. There was one aspect of the paper which was a scene topic, that’s right. You could choose an artist, and I, I wanted to write about William Morris because I was a great enthusiast of William Morris and the Arts and Craft movement. So he invited me to go to a talk on William Morris at Birkbeck. And he took me under his wing a little bit. And Suzy and John were very keen that I should go on and do Art History, and I think Pevsner assumed that I would start again, you know that I would do a BA in Art History. And I said, ‘But I can’t.’ I couldn’t – I’d been an art student for six years at this point. And – and supported myself because the one condition my parents made if I was going to go to art school was that I must learn to be a typist. So they’d sent me on a typing course, for most of which I’d had to use a cardboard Qwirty-op, flat keyboard because there weren’t enough typewriters to go around. But I had actually learnt in six weeks. So this is how I supported myself, as an audio typist while I’d been a student. And I continued to do that. So I asked around at various places and I applied to the Courtauld and I was seen by the Registrar, who said apart from all the good things you say you have to offer you do not appear to have Latin or Greek. I didn’t actually have the right university entrance requirements because I’d left school with no A-levels. But I had then taken one A-level in my own time, in Art with Art History – secretly because I wanted to sort of lay it at my parents feet, you know, I wanted to make something up to them, for them having said we don’t want you to do this, we want you to go to university, but if you insist, kind of thing.
So I didn’t really have the right entrance qualifications, excerpt that – and of course I only understood this fully later – Pevsner and others were very keen to see the DipAD tested as a university degree equivalent. And one of the ways for that to happen was to have it recognized as a basis for postgraduate work. And so I was turned down at the Courtauld because I didn’t have Latin and Greek, and so on, and I tried several other places but I could only I think do Art History as a joint degree at UC [University College]. I remember talking to somebody at UC – all in utter ignorance you know, as a, as an ex-art student, I had no kind of training in this … didn’t really know how to go about this, didn’t quite know why I was doing it or how it was going to work. And then somebody said ‘why don’t you try Reading? Because it’s not far from London,’ and I think what they were tacitly saying was they might look more kindly on you, you know, less competitive place you’re a rather kind of … unusual animal here. So I went and I was interviewed by somebody called Peter Fitzgerald. I wrote to him and I said that Nikolaus Pevsner, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner had encouraged me to apply and he was the external examiner at Hornsey. And I got a rather tart note back saying, ‘Pevsner is no longer the external examiner at Hornsey: I am. But you’d better come and see me.’ So I went to see him and he said, ‘Well what do you want to do?’ This was about doing an MA. He said ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘Well I want to work on the Arts and Crafts movement … I want to work on William Morris.’ And he made it quite clear to me that William Morris was for grown-ups you know, and I would have to think of something – I had also assumed that they would tell me what I would work on. So I was very diffident about what I wanted to do. And this turned out to be completely the wrong idea. You were supposed to come, already well informed, passionate and enthused, you know, and I did have an enthusiast’s knowledge but I didn’t have any properly trained knowledge about what I wanted to do. Because the Art History we’d had, had been of a survey kind, you know, it had been extraordinary general. So in the end he said, ‘Well, alright, I’ll take you on for an MA.’
Excerpt 2. Women's Art History Collective
Recollections of being involved with the Women’s Art History Collective and comments on the politics of feminism in the early 70s. [5:17 mins]
I think of my formative time as an art historian, as coming out of two things: coming out of that family-like grouping at what was originally Hornsey College of Art when I first went back to teach there, which I remember with enormous affection. Peter Weir, Barry Curtis, John Field and then some others … Bridget Wilkins, Sandy Blagdon … number of other people I remember around then. That was one strand. But then I was also very interested in Feminism. And I think an important book for me as it was for huge numbers of other people was Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch . That didn’t turn me on to Feminism, I already knew about Feminism but, that was an influential catalyst for what followed.
And some point in the early 70s, I went to an exhibition in Covent Garden … and I met there a woman called Denise, I can’t remember her surname, who was involved with the Women’s Art History Collective, in which key figures were Griselda Pollock and Roszika Parker who died recently, who had met at the Courtauld when they were both students here. And Denise said, ‘Why don’t you come to one of our meetings’ so that was how I first became involved in the Women’s Art History Collective and therefore, with a group of women who also had these interests and what Feminism might be able to contribute to Art History or how it might change Art History or anyway, how one was going to juggle these two different things – one of which was a kind of political take on the world and on culture and one of which was an academic discipline, you know, were we going to – as I remember it – were we going to kind of split our identities between these two things or were we going to bring them into some kind of conversation. And I remember that as being briefly very important for me, because much as I love John and Peter and Barry, they were not at that point going to – I mean they were very quickly, very encouraging of my feminist interests, but I wasn’t going to find them reflected back to me by knowledgeable people in the way that I was in the Women’s Art History Collective. Partly because the Collective itself was still finding things out, looking for more new literature and so on, Compendium bookshop was terribly important to us. So we were early subscribers as individuals to things like the Feminist Art Journal and Heiresses which was coming out of the States, and I remember introducing them to a book which I still think is a wonderful book by Mary Ellmann called Thinking About Women , which is incredibly witty and not kind of grindingly essentialist like some of the other material was at that time – for good reason because you start from almost nowhere, you know you can’t always make the most immediate sophisticated theoretical leaps. So it was very interesting to be able to talk to other people then. It then became a little bit difficult because there wasn’t a kind of clear sense of how you joined, I think that would have not been appropriately feminist you know. It was a kind of rather organic grouping. And there were rather different people in it.
They had arranged to run an evening class on women artists somewhere … the view being the things that we’d been talking about and discussing and so on, and that they had been discussing, you know kind of separately before I arrived should be shared with women more widely, this shouldn’t be an academic thing, you know. But there was a whole thing about the politics of how women would share knowledge with other women in a way that didn’t claim authority, that wasn’t intimidating, that, you know do we all sit in a circle, it’s very very difficult during that time and I remember a conference I was at where the speakers were on a dais that was about three inches high, and there was a demand from every woman in the hall, virtually, that they should come down and their chairs – you know because symbolically everybody must be on the same level. And Griselda was one of the women and everybody then sat on the floor and she said to everybody, ‘Congratulations. You have now ensured that it is much harder to see us and hear us.’ So there were always these conflicts which are absolutely unavoidable, they were structural, they were thrown up by the situation and there was no right answer, you know. If you sat at the front, you were wrong. If you sat in a circle, you know, the chances were that somebody – as some of these women said I remember, at these evenings, ‘Look, you know this stuff. Tell us! We want you to tell us. Tell us what you know.’
Excerpt 3. Pevsner and the 'research map'
Describes how Nikolaus Pevsner became an unofficial advisor, helping her find the ‘gap in the map’ to determine her PhD research subject. [2:38 mins]
So I went to see Nikolaus Pevsner in his study in Birkbeck. Such a great man, such a kindly man. And he held, perhaps it was a European idea perhaps it was a, an old-fashioned idea perhaps it just the traditional scientific idea, but he held to the idea that research is about a map, some bits of which have been filled in, and some bits of which haven’t. And the purpose of a supervisor, or an advisor of any kind, is to point to the bits that haven’t been filled in, and to tell a potential PhD student to go and do that. So of course it’s completely different from the idea we were developing in the ‘70s that it’s not a map with gaps, it’s about approaches, you know, it’s about theory, it’s about reflection, it’s about the how, it’s not about the what – or it’s about the how and the what together in a particular way. But this was still very old-fashioned idea that there’s a gap on the map so where do you send somebody. So he said, ‘If you’re interested in the Arts and Crafts movement, I think we need more work on the Century Guild. There’s not enough work on the Century Guild. I’m not sure I’d more than even vaguely heard about the Century Guild. So he said, ‘Ok, there are three main members of the Century Guild,’ – so again this is thought of very monographically, you know rather than any other way, not you know, what would feminism do with the Art and Craft movement? ie Anthea Callen would write The Angel in the Studio; what was the economic basis of …? – no, it’s people. So he said there are three main people. There’s Arthur Mackmurdo – who’s the architect – there’s Herbert Horne, who ended his life in Italy, the expert on among others Botticelli, ended up in the Palazzo Horne in Florence and there’s Selwyn Image. I thought, wow what a name. He said ‘Right, we’ll look them up in the DNB’. So we went to his bookshelf, he took down the DNB [Dictionary of National Biography] and he went through each of the three of them. And quite quickly we ruled out Mackmurdo because he was an architect and I felt that I had absolutely no experience writing about architecture. And then Herbert Horne, one would need Italian which I didn’t have, well one could learn Italian but – I mean he wasn’t himself Italian but given that you’d have to go and look at his archive in Italy – but also this was after the Florence floods which were – when were they, ‘66? Something like that. So the Palazzo Horne was closed because it had been flooded. And it was not clear when it would open. This would have been 1967 you see. So that seemed to be ruled out. So partly by a process of elimination I started to work on Selwyn Image and the Century Guild.
Excerpt 4. The Body Politic
Reflects on the reaction to a paper given at the 1977 AAH conference entitled ‘The Body Politic: Female Sexuality and Women Artists Since 1970,’ which was later published in the second issue of the newly-formed journal Art History, then under the editorship of John Onians. The article caused some controversy within the AAH and led to the resignation of one of the members of the journal’s editorial board. [5:04 mins]
For an additional account of this incident, see highlights from the AAH interview with John Onians.
No I’m not sure I did go to that first London one but I do remember going to the Glasgow one. And then I gave a paper at the next one, I must have done.
[overlaps] the next one. That’s right, in ‘77.
And that would have been because Peter Webb, who was always quite ambitious on these sort of fronts, thought ‘Oh right, I’m going to be involved with this. I’m going to propose a section. So he proposed a section on erotic art and he said to me – not I think because he was any kind of feminist but because he thought well, you know, this is a new topic and maybe we need interestingly different strands in it – ‘Do you want to do something on women and erotic art?’ And I thought, yes actually I do. So it kind of came out of the some of the stuff that I’d been teaching. And then, as always with me, started off much much too big and then got narrowed down to this idea of women artists since 1970 and the body politic.
And at that time what do you remember was the response to the paper?
I remember Griselda introducing me to Tim [Clark] and Tim saying he thought it was really interesting and that was all I really cared about. John was very amused by it because he said, I always think of you as quite demure, you know and there you were at the lectern saying things like ‘fuck’ and showing images of vaginas. And I … I didn’t really … it seems quite straight forward to me, a thing to do. You know if you’re if you’re going to talk about erotic art, then how can you not talk about the questions feminism has about this and the work that women have been doing. So I don’t claim any great courage because I didn’t think it through.
And I didn’t have any great ambition so I was never – I’ve never had any great ambitious excerpt for my writings, such as it is. Peter was probably thinking ahead, you know, will this do me good, will this do me harm because he was quite smart like that. Whereas I was never thinking – cause I was happy where I was, I was never thinking ‘I want to go and teach somewhere else and nobody will give me a job if I show a picture of a vagina,’ you know … which as John Onians corrected me on the paperwork, ‘it should actually be vulva, vagina’s the internal birth canal Lisa.’ I said yes ‘But in common usage John’ … ‘Well no I think you should say vulva, really it’s vulva’. If I see John he always kind of remembers all that, he always thinks of us as kind of rebels in arms, you know, at that moment because he insisted that it went in. I didn’t know for ages afterwards that they’d had this huge row about it. The row they had was about the Lynda Benglis image. It was terrible to get hold of the images you know, these American women they, they didn’t know about the magazine, it hardly existed, it was only – I think John’s compromise was that it wouldn’t go in the first issue. I think it was originally going to go in the first issue and then they wouldn’t have it.
And you know, nobody ever said to me, ‘actually Lynda Benglis image’ – where she’s all oiled you know with the enormous dildo and so on – ‘it’s a bit strong. Do you mind if we drop it?’ I wouldn’t have gone to the wall for that. That would have been fine. But nobody ever said to me, there’s a huge row about this and some of your images are pornographic and you know … is there a way through here? Because I think by that point John had his own agenda which was that it would be quite good for him and the periodical to have something controversial. And various people said to me afterwards, that issue from Art History is missing from the library or it’s fallen apart on the photocopy machine and I got asked to do hundreds of lectures around the country and kind of trotted off dutifully, which I didn’t really enjoy doing very much. Because the women in all these art schools said, a) nobody ever tells us about women artists anyway, but in any case nobody tells us what’s happened since 1970 and here we are in 1978 and we’d really like to know.
And I had by this point met Lucy Lippard who I think is really a wonderful and very feisty figure. And she’d been tremendously supportive and had lent me some of her slides to copy and you know, we talked about some of these things and I read very important article of hers called, ‘The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth’ and she was a bit of an inspiration then too. And when she came over she gave talks in a lot of places and she was very generous spirited, lent slides, talked things through, you know. She’s a force for good. And she was tough, as well. You kind of realised that you might have to toughen up a bit if you’re gonna wade through this. But certain bits weren’t tough. You know on the one hand you were facing people who kind of hated this who felt that this was disgraceful and you should be exiled from the discipline and it should be kept kind of pure. But on the other hand, as I remember Kasmin once saying of the people who wanted to come to the gallery, once he’d got shown his monies, he said it was like a warm knife through butter. In terms of the art schools it was like a warm knife through butter because they were full of women art students who’d been starved of these kinds of debates. It was – what would the phrase be – it was kind of push me pull you, it was plus and it was minus. Some places you were welcome with open arms and some places they held their noses and didn’t want to know.
Excerpt 5. Block
Describes how she and her colleagues at Middlesex Polytechnic launched the seminal journal Block (1979-89) and recalls the unlikely challenges in naming their new publication [6:49 mins]
There was just a group of us who had Left and feminist interests in culture and wanted to have a magazine, which wouldn’t be exclusively art historical and by – I think by this point … were we teaching culture studies as well? … we joined up with like Mike Dawney who’s roots were in philosophy, and Lon Fleming who’s roots were in English literature and social anthropology. So we were teaching in a sort of fairly fluid way across what you might call art history, design history and cultural studies. And particularly the cultural studies art history bit was important because of the contribution of structuralism through structural anthropology, Marxism through Marxist philosophy rather than Marxist economics … what else? Certain kinds of English literature input – trying to remember who else was teaching who came from other directions. Tom Wengraf’s was really another philosophy and literature person … Peter Osborn I’ve mentioned was very important figure in the Cultural Studies degree. So Block was supposed to look at these kinds of questions across a more expanded range from a broadly Left Feminist perspective. And it was John Bird and Barry Curtis and me, and other people, John Walker was involved in the beginning, so there was sort of a core group.
And how do you think it developed across those years?
Well I think it was great, you know. It’s another kind of where angels fear to tread. I get terrible blocks writing now and I’ve very, very slow and it’s all very difficult and I look back and I think, how did I do those things? How did I publish an article in Art History that John Shearman would resign over? Why didn’t I think it would cause a problem? And I think it was probably just the innocence, you know it’s a real – it’s the same with Block. Barry had actually had a bit of research leave and he’d been in the States and he came back and he said, I think he might also have said, ‘Why don’t we start a Design History MA?’ he was full of ideas. Anyway he certainly said, ‘Why don’t we start a magazine?’ and it was just was a sense of, ‘yah, why don’t we?’ [laughing]. I said, ‘Well how do you do that?’ ‘Well … I don’t know. You need some money … you need a printer, I suppose you need to distribute it. I’ve got a friend at Compendium, he says he’d take ten.’ So it was embarked on … with great ignorance. And as so often with these things, if you knew then what you knew later you would never have done it. It took us a very long time to persuade Middlesex Polytechnic – I think it then was – to let us do it, because they were terrified, ‘What are you going to do, it’s going to have the institution’s name on it.’ We kind of needed to do that because we needed to have some support from the institution. So it was agreed that we could do it and then we began soliciting contributors from people that we knew. And Dick Hebdige I think was working with us, by that time, or around that time. And he contributed a wonderful article on pop art which is still regularly cited, very important article. And I had met Tim Clark – Griselda had introduced me to Tim Clark at an art historians’ conference after I’d given a paper. And so I’d gone to one of his lectures he was giving a lecture in London as part of the material that became The Painting of Modern Life, and I’d see him afterwards and I’d asked him for something for the magazine and he’d said, ‘Well I’ve got an article that’s just been published in German but isn’t otherwise published in English, you can have that if you like.’ I think it was an article on Corbet. So I said, ‘We’d love it.’ So he let us have it, you know and that was very good of him.
But of course it was all kind of Evo-stik and cut up the stuff and stick it on. And we did it in John Walker’s flat in Muswell Hill. And I remember the first one was such a nightmare to get the proofs, just so difficult. And we wanted to have artists centrepieces and we had a long piece by Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson, and then we missed out a paragraph, it somehow got lost on the floor. I don’t know we had to be terribly apologetic. And we were all padding around in our socks and after everything was pasted up, with us all fumbling not really knowing how to do it, somebody looked at their sock and there were a couple of lines of their – stuck with paste-it glue or whatever it was on the bottom of their sock. So it was a kind of ‘Oh god where do these go?’ So it was a real cottage industry and really difficult to start with. And the thing Tim Putnam did, he did do two important things. He zoomed in at a certain point and said, ‘Well I’ll be part if you and I’m interested in this new thing called desktop publishing. So you know I want to get involved in this so that’ll be my contribution ‘cause I want to know about this anyway for my own purposes.’ And then he said ‘And why don’t we have conferences? We’ll go to our friend Richard Humphries at Tate, see if we can use the Tate auditorium for free. We’ll do it in conjunction with Tate, we’ll put on three annual conferences and then we’ll publish the papers, and they’ll be like books’ you know, so that’s what we did. So in the mid-90s, after Block itself had finished in ‘89, we actually had three conferences and we published four books, which sell to this day. And it was a great experience actually, although something of a burden – administratively. It was a great deal of extra work. But I’m really glad we did it. And it was our sort of flag, you know for a period, Block was the flag we sailed under.
I thought it was a terrible title. All the others, excerpt me, were in a car going to a Rodchenko exhibition at MoMA in Oxford and I couldn’t go I had tonsillitis or something. And they came back and they said, ‘We decided to call it Block.’ And I said ‘Well I’m the one with an interest in psychoanalysis, how can you possibly call something Block? Block it’s, it’s a completely negative concept, you know, you’re thinking of it because you’re thinking of red Wedge’, which is a paper that Laura Mulvey wrote for. ‘A wedge is different, that’s very Rodchenko-like. A wedge carves a space but a block is in the way, it just stops you doing everything. And they said, ‘no, no, no, we’ve decided it, it was Block.’ At one point we wanted to call it ‘Exchange and Art’. And Middlesex said we had to write to Exchange and Mart and make sure that this was ok with them. So we did and they wrote back and said, ‘We realise you are a small circulation academic art magazine but, you know, nonetheless could you ever change your policy? There could be confusion between us so we really don’t want you to call it Exchange and Art.’ So … it ended up being called Block and of course after a while you just get used to it you know.