Andrew McClellan, Duffus 1975 - Professor of Art History, Tufts University
Reflections from Across the Water - Part One
As a university-based art historian for the last thirty years, I would say my life has been spent in the art world more than in the arts. I don’t practice the arts, I teach them and write about them; and my writing, to be more precise, concentrates more on the history of art criticism, collecting and museums than on practicing artists. Nevertheless I love what I do and I owe Gordonstoun a good deal for putting me on my way.
Looking back on my years at school, it feels like I spent so much of my time - and certainly every Saturday - on a playing field somewhere in northern Scotland or on a bus getting us there, winding through beautiful landscapes and many a forlorn town. But in the end a more lasting influence was exerted in the tired old Nissen huts near Cumming House that served as the school’s fine arts hub. I was a hopeless artist - couldn’t paint a lick and my pottery wasn’t much better, but it was there that I first studied the history of art with Messrs Paterson and Waddell (better known as Ali P and Willy Waddell). Mr Waddell in particular, who taught architecture, was a delight. He enjoyed teaching and, beyond dates and terminology, he conveyed a sense of style, taste and the importance of aesthetic standards. Despite the coming of the first girls, it was still an austere and macho school back then, and the freedom to study art history at A Level in the company of my fine fellow students, Doug Quin and Sally Lincoln (both fellow Americans, curiously), was a welcome respite from the rigors of outward bound. Also important, I should add, were some adventures in theatre under the provocative supervision of Jim Wingate, who pushed to find the creative “plus est en vous” in each of us. Fresh from Oxford, he made the prospect of going to university seem exciting, a little daring even.
I relished my time at Gordonstoun but after five invigorating years in the Highlands I was done with public school and the wilderness. I was accepted at various universities, including Yale back home, but I couldn’t resist the lure of London and the chance to study art history and philosophy at UCL. London was, and always will be, an art lover’s paradise and I consumed the city’s rich art and architectural heritage. I spent holidays traveling rough and cheap in Europe (thank you, school expeditions!) and a summer tour of Italy before my final year left me certain that art was in my life for good. After university I landed a job working with school groups at the National Gallery and selling post cards in the shop. I got to know every painting in the collection, but a year of retail and children was enough. I decided to pursue a PhD in art history and entered the Courtauld Institute of Art.
A bastion of the art establishment, the Courtauld was at low ebb when I arrived. With some exceptions, professors left their students to sink or swim; there was little esprit de corps. I was interested in eighteenth century art and assigned to Anita Brookner, who was then morphing from art historian to successful novelist. She was kindly but distant and never more than vaguely aware of what I was up to. Winning the Booker Prize half way through my time at the Courtauld did nothing to increase her attentiveness. I remember she once said to me: “Don’t let art history become a substitute for your life.” The trouble was I wanted art history to be my life, or at least my career.
I vividly remember the moment my outlook and fortunes changed. Sifting through historical documents at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, I came across a list of instructions issued during the French Revolution on how to protect monuments and works of art against the destructive turmoil unleashed after 1789. The document felt so modern. The consciousness of history and co-ordinated effort to preserve the past even as the future of politics and society were being remade was utterly compelling. One document led to another and they all pointed to the creation of the first public art museum at the Louvre, which became the subject of my thesis and first book, still in print after twenty years. It was unusual at that time to write about something other than a famous artist, but it was a fortuitous decision that has fuelled a happy and productive scholarly career writing about museums, art connoisseurship and collecting. But thanks to varied interests and a certain humility ingrained at school, I like to think I have prevented art history from taking over my life.