Art history and me

| Naomi Daw is a PhD researcher in Art History at the University of Sussex and also the Society Coordinator for the University’s Art History Society. In this latest edition of ‘Art History and Me’ Naomi explains how it was her love of travel and popular culture that sparked her interest in studying art history |

How did you come to study art history?

For as long as I can remember I have been interested in the visual arts. At school I was always involved in art clubs and art shows. When I was at sixth form, I took A-Levels in diverse subjects including Geography and English Literature, but not art or photography. While I was doing my A-Levels I remained interested in art and visual culture, particularly photographs of geographical expeditions and ethnographic objects, but coming from a state school background I’d not come across art history as a discipline in itself. Halfway through my A-Levels, I decided to apply to read Geography at university. The second half of my A-Level in Geography – with all the equations, graphs, and so on – made me rethink my decision to choose Geography. So I took a year out, and worked as an assistant in a clothes shop. I kept up my interest in images, visual culture and the arts, following the news and watching lots of documentaries. About three or four months in to my gap year I happened to be looking at a prospectus for the University of Sussex, and the words ‘Art History’ caught my eye. I read through the modules, and the fact I could continue my interest in popular culture and geography at the same time as ‘doing Art History’ really appealed to me. I applied, got a place, carried on to do a Masters here, and now I’m doing a PhD on Victorian photographic culture and travel!

What are the first art-related things you remember?

In Year 2 of primary school (5/6 years old), our class was taken on a trip to Standen House near East Grinstead in East Sussex. It’s an Arts and Crafts home with Morris & Co. interiors, set in formal gardens. We were taken around the house on a tour, and I can distinctly remember the guide telling us about the interior design, the colours, and why the Morris & Co. interiors were significant. My father is a country vicar, and one of the parishes he is responsible for is Rodmell, in East Sussex. Monk’s House, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, is located here, and when I was a child my dad knew the people living there. We often got invited for tea in the garden during the summer. I can remember sitting and having afternoon tea in the same chairs the Bloomsbury Set would have sat in, surrounded by the flowers in the garden and looking out over the Ouse Valley. One of my other vivid memories is going to the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts) with my mum, to see a theatre performance about paintings. I can’t remember the exact title – I think it was called ‘Off the Wall’ or something like that – but the performers made tableaux of different paintings. These included William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea (1819-20) and Rene Magritte’s The Restless Sleeper (1928). A giant eye came along, swallowed up the light, and absorbed the painting.

What are you working on? Why did you choose that specialism?

I’m currently working on my PhD thesis under the supervision of Professor Geoff Quilley at the University of Sussex. It has the working title of ‘The palm trees and the tinkly temple bells’: popular photographic culture and travel to the Far East, 1860-1910. I’m interested in how objects of visual culture such as magic lantern slides, early film, stereoscopes, panoramas, and so on, represented images of the Far East to Victorian viewers in Britain. I chose to pursue art and travel as a specialism for a number of reasons. The University of Sussex runs a scheme for undergraduate students over the summer break between their second and third year. This allows students to become a Junior Research Associate, where they assist a member of a Faculty with a research project, and produce a conference-style poster displaying the results of their research. I worked with Geoff on his research project looking at ‘Art and Travel to the Pacific, 1788-1850’. Working on this project cemented my interest in the intersection between geography, travel, representation, and visual culture. After this, I completed my undergraduate degree, taking modules including Victorian Art and Art and Empire. I then looked at Masters-level degrees in Art History, opting to stay at Sussex. I stayed here to take the module on Art and Travel offered by the Art History department, and did my MA dissertation on travel and photographic depictions of Rome. Ultimately I chose to specialise in travel and visual culture because it is a subject I find completely fascinating, and enjoy researching. It’s always best to choose a subject you enjoy researching, and to choose your research project for yourself – not for anyone else. You’ll have more energy and passion for it!

What’s the best bit of your work as an art historian?

The best bit of my work as an art historian is being able to handle historical objects and images. There is nothing quite like looking at an image – like a magic lantern slide or a stereoscope card – and being able to experience the same view as someone who lived over a hundred years ago. Some of the nineteenth century visual technologies and ‘optical toys’ I research seem very low-tech but the images they produce are just as spectacular as the images we produce today. I also absolutely love being able to show someone an object or an image, and being able to talk about it with them – even if it’s completely outside my specialism. Being able to go to exhibitions, galleries and cultural sites in the name of work is also a bonus!

 What skills do you think an art history degree/post-grad can equip you with if you don’t want to go on to be an art historian?

Taking art history at undergraduate and graduate level really does equip you with an incredibly versatile skill set. You are trained in visual analysis and how to use images clearly and successfully. An art historical education also helps you learn how to write effectively, conveying the maximum amount of information in the clearest way. Because so much of art history involves talking and discussing with others, you develop your public speaking skills to a very high standard.