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Diary: on Francis Haskell

31 August 2015

From the September issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

The great interpreter of artistic rediscoveries, Francis Haskell, is himself benefitting from a revival in interest. Last year saw the posthumous publication by Yale of Haskell’s 1995 lectures on the dispersal of Charles I’s paintings. In the months ahead we can look forward to an updated edition of his landmark book, Taste and the Antique, co-written with Nicholas Penny. The timing could not be more propitious in light of the recent exhibition ‘Serial Classic’ at the Fondazione Prada in Milan which revealed the mobility and mutation of the classical canon, and was curated by that great champion of Haskell in Italy, Salvatore Settis. The contemporary museum landscape is full of Haskell students and friends, crowned by the appointment of Christophe Leribault to the Petit Palais in Paris and Colin Bailey to the Morgan Library in New York.

But if his informal influence is huge, Haskell’s place within the story of British art history remains underappreciated. In a field that is so often divided up according to ideological fashions, it has seemed hard to know where he belongs. Haskell had no desire to form a school, and despite, or perhaps because of, his passion for ideas, was averse to dogmatic theorising. Although he stressed the key role of social relationships and the market in the shaping of taste, he did so from a non-Marxist perspective. Some of his subjects – such as the painting of 18th-century Italy or the French academic tradition in the 19th century – were stubbornly unfashionable. He also had a slightly unusual intellectual formation, for his writing about pictures emerged out of his training in history. His passion for the archive never waned; the footnotes in his published works testify to his extraordinary erudition across many European languages. After his death in 2000 his close friend from King’s College, Cambridge days, Eric Hobsbawm, rightly hailed Haskell ‘the historian’s art historian’.

Haskell’s dual loyalties to both history and art history were perpetuated through the oddities of the curriculum at Oxford, where he was a professor from 1967 until his retirement in 1995. They were also enshrined in the field he did so much to encourage – the history of collecting, an Oxford-inflected specialism which in recent years has undergone a remarkable renaissance. The study of collections for Haskell required a deep understanding of the political, economic, and cultural factors that put artworks into circulation, fostering both private opulence and public institutions. But it also raised fascinating, even disturbing, philosophical questions about the relativity of aesthetic judgements. Haskell relished pondering the puzzle and perversity of our fluctuating standards of taste.

This reflexivity about the gap between past and present artistic values, about the contingent circumstances through which collections have been formed, and a lively curiosity about earlier cultures of display, informs much modern museum practice. We might think of the sumptuous new installation of the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum, or that remarkable coup pulled off in 2013, ‘Houghton Revisited’, in which former Haskell student Thierry Morel recreated the picture gallery of Robert Walpole. Far from being an antiquarian exercise, the history of collecting can be tapped to make visual theatre and to forge new international partnerships.

In Oxford on 23–24 October a major conference is being held with St John’s College and the Ashmolean Museum to consider Haskell’s importance for scholarship. Entitled ‘A Revolution in Taste: Francis Haskell’s Nineteenth Century’, it revisits the terrain mapped out in Rediscoveries in Art, namely the transformation of the art world between the 1770s and 1870s – a period when war, revolution, plunder and state-formation brought fundamental changes to the knowledge of and trade in Old Master paintings. Featuring a line-up of renowned scholars from Britain and Europe, the conference aims to celebrate and extend Haskell’s insights into the 19th century, testing the unsteady boundary between history and art history. It will pay homage to a scholar who in subtle and underestimated ways shifted the terms in which much art history, and by extension, art curating, is practised today. As Charles Hope observed in 2000, it was thanks to Haskell’s example that ‘traditional approaches have lost much of their credibility, and art history has become richer and less parochial as a result’.

For further information on the Haskell conference in October, go to revolutionintaste.ashmus.ox.ac.uk.

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