AAH Oral Histories

Interview with Martin Kemp

Martin Kemp (b. 1942), was Chair of the AAH from 1989-1992. As a young lecturer at the University of Glasgow he was seconded to help coordinate the 2nd annual AAH conference in 1976 after the sudden death of the Professor Andrew McLaren Young, the first Chairman of the AAH. He later became a member of the Association’s Executive Committee 1982-85 before taking on the Chair in 1989.

Martin Kemp studied Natural Sciences and Art History at Cambridge in the early 1960s before completing further studies the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1965. He has held various academic posts including lectureships at Dalhousie (Halifax) and University of Glasgow, Professorships of Fine Arts at University of St. Andrews before becoming Professor of the History of Art at Oxford University. His research has focused on imagery in art and science from Renaissance to the present day with particular focus on Leonardo da Vinci.

The interview was conducted by Liz Bruchet and took place at the Department of the History of Art at University of Oxford on 27 November, 2009. © AAH

Portrait of Martin Kemp by Maggie Milne, 1984, pastel on paper.

Excerpt 1. Studying at the Courtauld mid-'60s

Recalls studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art as a graduate student in the mid-1960s and the distribution of Art History jobs by the Institute's Director, Anthony Blunt. [4:40 mins]

+ Transcript

When you were at the Courtauld what were you interested in studying?

Well I was doing Italian sixteenth century with John Shearman, Michael Hirst and Andrew Martindale, this was before he [Martindale] went to [the University of] East Anglia. Yeah it's very odd in a way after a bit of Art History at Cambridge going into this highly specialised area without really knowing a Raphael from a Rembrandt. Obviously I did in a way but I'd never studied it in any sense, but I liked it because you were aware that you were operating at quite a high level in the subject and that you weren't just skating over the surface so that suited me pretty well.

And there were some very bright contemporaries in that group I was in with John Shearman and co, there was John Newman who became a major architectural historian, Charles Avery who was there and subsequently at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Christie's, James Austin who was a rather good photographer, John Onians, who became Professor at East Anglia and generally there was – the body of staff were deeply impressive and was Anita Brookner who was just beginning to make her way as a novelist and Anthony Blunt certainly was a figure.

What was he [Blunt] like?

He was… rather remote diffident obviously got a lot of class a lot of kind of languid poise. Didn't really seem to be terrifically engaged with external things but was clocking up everything that was going on. When I finished studying he was running a kind of placement service at that point, and virtually every job in the British Commonwealth or Britain went through his hands because people would call him and say 'Who've you got coming out?' And I went to see him and I'd only ever been in two seminars, but he knew exactly what I'd been doing so this filing system, which didn't look as if it was operating at all, was all ticking away.

He said 'There's a job going in Dalhousie in Halifax in Canada I advise you to apply for it for one year' so I touched my forelock and off I went and he wrote to me when I was in Dalhousie saying there's a job in Glasgow I advise you to apply for so again I touched my forelock and off I went to Glasgow. It was very extraordinary he had tentacles everywhere. And in spite of his de-frocking by the security services at that point was still Keeper of the Queen's Pictures and had a big sort of networking patronage in the –  not in America but in the other bits of the English speaking world in Art History. I listened to lectures by him on Picasso and Poussin and wasn't deeply impressed it was obviously somebody who was a substantial art historian but I always felt that what he did was a bit bloodless, it was much more bloody before the war when he was involved with Marxist Art History and so on, but he went for other intellectualising subjects subsequently. We were aware that he'd had a relationship with [Guy] Burgess and that he was absolutely locked into that group who were being exposed Burgess and [Donald] Maclean were exposed, [Kim] Philby I think had been exposed by then, and we rather assumed that he'd been engaged in that in some way. I've always been part of the stratospheric Left so I was inclined to be very censorious about that activity and indeed as students it's sort of slightly nice to have somebody who's got this frisson of potential notoriety so when it all came out it wasn't a huge surprise indeed you'd think the intelligent services can't be very intelligent if they, if they couldn't have seen this before let alone later.

And what was he like as a person?

Immensely courteous, very gracious, and somewhat superior. You always felt you were being patronized. I was then back there as external examiner, I went back I was quite a young external examiner when Giles Robertson's son was going through, doing a Master's. So I was brought in as emergency cover for Giles Robertson, the Professor in Edinburgh. And for the first time the boot was somewhat on the other foot in that they had to take note of what I saying and I had some minor element of power anyway his tactic was to postpone the difficult cases till after lunchtime and make sure the external was plied with a lot of booze during lunch and became more pliable than he or she might have been before lunch.

Excerpt 2. Art school happenings, c. 1970

Describes experiences teaching Art History at the Mackintosh School of Architecture Glasgow School of Art in 1970, student ‘happenings’ during exams [4:30 mins]

+ Transcript

One of the quid pro quos was that we went down and ran Art History courses at the art school, and this was something of a disaster because we weren't based there. And you got people who wouldn't recognise a Picasso from a bed pan and you know going down and lecturing and having no connection at all with anything which you'd regard as avant-garde even sort of Picasso, and we weren't - we didn't have a feel for the institution and so on, we were visitors and I said to Andrew McLaren Young 'This is going to be a running sore.' He was very irritated by that but partly because I think he thought it was probably true. And I said 'You know the good had to have art historians there' you know you need somebody in the institution who creates credibility and responds.

I went down there and lectured in the Mackintosh School of Architecture and one lecture I gave – and I always made sure I had fantastic visual material, and I got on all right you know I got by and I knew a bit about contemporary art – but one of the lectures the lights went off and they everyone in the audience lit a match so you got this twinkling stars across the whole of the room, it was sort of the era of happenings and things of that sort. I thought it was just wonderful. Anyway they – so I said 'Excellent, yeah, let's settle down and get on with the lecture' and but the person in charge of it Roger Brunyate attempted to impose a kind of iron rule upon this upon this anarchy and he decided to give them a slide test in the university. And he brought them up to the modern languages lecture theatre and he organised it – because he thought they would cheat – so that the people, alternate people sitting in the rows one had to do the right hand slide and the other the left hand slide so that they couldn't say 'Oh Michelangelo' or 'It's Constable' or whatever. Anyway Roger asked me to be in charge of this slide test and I'd only ever gone down there and lectured and didn't know how poisonous the whole situation had become. Anyway I go into the projection box at the back to – having kitted out all these kids with their exam books in different colours to whether they were doing left slide or the right side and they were all arranged in a kind of checkerboard to stop them cheating and I started focusing the projector to the projection box and looked out and all I could see was a lot of stuff in the air. Enormous amounts of sort of straw or shredded stuff all in the air going up like this and I sort of looked out and … Anyway I went out into the lecture room and this terraced lecture theatre was just full of, it was kind of shredded wood, shredded paper and so on and there were three characters sitting there who were just completely covered in this and they were obviously the people who'd been doing it – it was spread around them and rather more thinly elsewhere. And I said, ‘I recognise that as a happening' and I said 'What does it mean?' they looked all a bit sheepish and I said 'No, come on tell me what does it mean?' and one of them said 'It's the Hay Wain, it's the Constable Hay Wain' you know and this was hay. And I said I said 'Right, fine' I said 'Could the people who organised this join me afterwards and we'll get some brooms and clean this up because we can't leave the cleaners with this mess.' And these it was perfectly obvious who'd done it as they were sitting there absolutely covered and these rather sheepish young men there were three young men came along and said 'Oh' you know 'What's going to happen?' 'Well if you clear this up, then that's it. It's a happening, it's great fun, and providing we don't leave any mess nobody's been hurt' and the slide test was a shambles of course you know you put things up on the screen and they all shouted out 'Michelangelo!' or 'Constable!' or whatever it was, so [laughs].

But that was a wonderful illustration that you actually had to have art historians in the art school who could become a recognised part of the culture and you couldn't simply do the academic. What you got away with in Glasgow University you couldn't get away with in the art school and art schools were very anarchic at that time and I think wonderfully entertaining but –

When was that?

… I suppose 1970 or so.

Excerpt 3. Ernst Gombrich

Reflects on the character and values of renowed art historian Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001). [2:20 mins]

+ Transcript

What was he like?



A man of enormous integrity…civilised values and not always very tolerant. I had the most enormous respect for him because he was that generation of art historians for whom studying an academic subject freely and without restraint was a matter of life and death. You know we have easy careers in a way and you can be a Marxist art historian or an extreme Right art historian and you might write rubbish but nobody, you know, you're not going to be stopped from doing it or you're not going to be prosecuted so for that generation the humanities and humanitarian values and Art History is a humanist discipline to use a Panofskian term this was a big deal. And they were for me a kind of heroic generation. He was a great encourager for me, I was never studied with him in a formal sense he said I was a pupil of his in a general sense which I was very glad to be. I always found him immensely supportive, incredibly honest … not entirely tolerant of people he regarded as timeservers or stupid. So he wasn't an angel in that way but a modest man in how he lived, and he lived for the life of the mind. And he could be very rude I remember at one lecture a rather irritating lady came up to him afterwards and who said Professor Gombrich what's his field? and he leant forward and he says [imitates] 'Ah' he says 'donkeys have fields' and this poor lady was completely crushed. And he wasn't immune from doing that and John Onians would probably tell you that you can give him as a doctoral student a great discourse on what you were doing and at the end he would lean forward and he'd say [imitates] 'So what?' [laughs] So he wasn't always, always very amenable.

Excerpt 4. First stirrings of the AAH

Describes how, as a young lecturer at the University of Glasgow, he was invited to attend an annual gathering of Heads of Art History Departments in the early 1970s where discussions were being held about forming an association of art historians.

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 the subject in higher education. 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.' [5:19 mins]

View the original 1974 press release announcing the formation of the Association of Art Historians and a response from Hamish Miles, a member of the 1973 AAH Steering Committee.

+ Transcript

I wonder if we can talk about the beginnings of the Association of Art Historians?


And how you first became involved?

Yeah there was a meeting which I don't know how long it had been going on for but not very long of Heads of Department. That clearly those people who were in the departments that were growing and had a sense that it wasn't all Courtauld Institute. Edinburgh had been there a long time, Glasgow was operating and so on but there was an expansion such that anybody could look at Art History and think 'Well there's something happening British-wide' and it's not just off-shoots of the Courtauld or to some extent the Warburg but mainly the Courtauld.

There was a meeting of Heads of Department and, one was held in Edinburgh and I was then at Glasgow Andrew McLaren Young was I think the organiser or convener of that that was in Edinburgh. And I was invited along as a kind of observer as Andrew was that sort of person you know he'd say [imitates] 'Oh come along' you know 'You're around why don’t you come along and join in'. And it was that meeting I think in Edinburgh where they said 'Well, there's College Art Association, there's a Confédération [Comité] internationale d'histoire de l'art you know should we not have our own organisation parallel to the American one?' And there was great resistance to having to be this great circus of practicing artists, of art historians and so on. So we had this more compact vision of people writing history of art. There was no intention at that time for it to be more than an annual meeting with a committee which would keep the subject under review as it were and would co-ordinate policy, and it’s perfectly clear that professions needed some kind of representation. Probably in terms of constitutional, actions and a feeling for a professional body John White probably was the person who had the biggest sense of that. The others were perfectly happy but he was a much more of an organisations and procedures person and was a fairly conspicuous figure in the in Comité internationale pour d'histoire de l'art [sic]. So, I think, without him being a dominant personality he was the kind of constitutions person and said well we need to have this kind of organisation as 'Flying Officer White' as it were, he was keen to sort of get the get the junior ranks into kind of order and so on.

Andrew was not a great organiser but was a great democrat. He really thought that there should be a body representative and that people generally in the profession had a right to come together which is one reason why he invited me along to that that meeting. Yes there were a whole group of people of Heads of Department, Hamish Miles was at the Barber [Institute of Fine Arts] at that point who were not polemically interested in being anti-Courtauld but by having a representative body which recognised that Art History was now a British-wide subject and a number of the centres because they were placed in different constitutional positions in the universities some in History some linked with other modern languages some relatively independent that there was a diversity within the subject which needed representing.

And what was the atmosphere like at that initial meeting that you went to?

I think it was incredibly good. That group of people were so individualistic that they couldn't have made a clique if they tried. Just the sheer individualism of that group of people, looking down that initial list there's no obvious, clubbing so I think they were rather fortunate in that they could distil a common cause out of positions that were very diverse.

And what did you think of the idea of forming an Association?

I wasn't desperately excited by it. I'm not someone who much likes meetings as meetings. There is too much meeting and proceduralism goes on now and I was always rather suspicious of it. So I wasn't wildly enthusiastic but I recognised, partly as a result of then listening to the discussions of issues at that stage you know I knew nothing about university grants committees or university funding, you know I wasn't at all engaged in that and the rise of Art History in the art schools which clearly needed some degree of scrutiny within the profession rather than just leaving it to be done by dint of funding body decree and individual institutions doing what they would and, it was also clear that the art historians and art schools were often not in a very good situation. That they were regarded as rather hostile intruders in many of the art schools so certainly for them there was a real point in having a body to whom they could turn which provided them with a sort of professional reinforcement.

Excerpt 5. 'Old style' art historians & the AAH

Considers the characters of two leading art historians, John Pope-Hennessy (1913-94) and Michael Jaffé (1923-97), and their involvement with the Association of Art Historians in its early days.

+ Transcript

Why do you think John Pope-Hennessy got involved [with the AAH]?

John Pope-Hennessy's involvement is a bit of a surprise because he's not naturally a, a clubish person. And I would like in retrospect to ask him that question. If I could make a guess it was motivated by two things. One would be, the sense in which, proper standards needed to be inculcated, and I mean his books on Italian sculpture are very representative of what was thought to be the proper art-historical way of proceeding and are very substantial achievements. And the other was I think that he was very much not a Courtauld person in attitude, and would see anything which opened up the profession to being less dominated by the Courtauld the better it would be. He was daggers drawn with John Shearman and he did odd seminars for the Courtauld but was essentially rather antagonistic to them. But there was quite a lot of bad feeling between Pope-Hennessy and individuals and I suspect institutionally and in the museum later when he came up to Glasgow I was sitting next to him at a dinner and he started to run down John Shearman and I said the first seminar I had from with John Shearman I'd learned more about how Art History was conducted than I'd ever learnt from anybody now or since he said [imitates] 'Oh!' and we went onto another topic but I'd established my position with John Pope-Hennessy and we got on well after that. Like a lot of bullies he was – if you lay down he would carry on kicking you even if he didn't like the response, he was happy to acknowledge that this you weren't going to be steamrollered by this. So I think in his case they, not that he would see it in enormously Machiavellian terms but I think he was pleased to think that things were happening which weren't Courtauld based.

And what about Michael Jaffé? What do you think were his motivations?

Michael Jaffé I knew fairly well but never quite understood him and I think he would probably align himself rather with Pope-Hennessy I'm not saying he would take his lead from Pope-Hennessy but I suspect those two factors I outlined for Pope-Hennessy were the same. These are people with independent means who were old style, art historians who collected. I mean I went to see Michael Jaffé in Cambridge in his rooms in Kings in the Gibbs building and this was to do with Part Two in Art History after doing Science and I'd been lurking in the back of all his lectures and very conspicuously because there were only a dozen people in the lecture for a year or so, with my mathematician friend John Sharp, and I wanted to do the Part Two Art History so I made an appointment to see him in the rooms in Kings and the porter told me to go up to the first floor of the Gibbs building which I did and there’s 'M Jaffé' on the board so I pressed the bell and a voice deep within this suite of rooms said [imitates] 'Come in!' so I went in and I then knocked on what looked like a likely door which proved to be the toilets and his room was down the far right hand end of the corridor and I knocked on the door and he said [imitates] 'Come in' and he was sitting at a kind of Louis Quinze [Louis XV] desk in the corner with his eyebrows sort of ascending, and he said 'Sit down' and I looked round and there were no chairs I could sit on they were all museum quality chairs and you know I'd only ever seen these with ropes across them, so I eventually chose a settee which looked like the least damageable of them and sort of sunk in a sea of cushions and eventually came to the surface and I said I'd like to do Art History Part Two and he said 'I think you'd better' [laughs]. There was a bit more to it than that afterwards but that was more or less it and I think he'd seen me lurking in the back of the lectures and he thought he'd got this scruffy oik who's there he might as well get credit for as one of his students. Yeah Michael was another individualist a bully as well. He didn't bully me particularly but like John Pope-Hennessy, they were fairly lordly people they had private resources they had a natural air of being better than the rest of the crowds so they certainly weren't democrats in the Peter Murray sense.

Martin Kemp, Chair of the AAH 1989-1992 Martin Kemp, Chair of the AAH 1989-1992