Newsletter Archive: Spring 2007
Dr. Peter Stewart, Senior Lecturer, at Royal Palace of Knossos, Crete
An Interview with Dr Peter Stewart
Peter, tell us about your background and how you came to the
I was brought up in Northern Ireland but did all my university studies in the Classics Faculty at Cambridge: BA, MPhil and PhD. In fact I then became a classics lecturer – first in a temporary post at Cambridge, then at Reading University. So almost uniquely among academic staff here I have absolutely no degree in the history of art! But my move to the Courtauld in 2000 was not a radical departure. I have always specialized in ancient art and archaeology, so my Courtauld work is not very different (though I no longer have to teach Intermediate Greek!). In fact, it’s normal for classical art to be studied in classics departments. Despite its depth of specialism in later periods, the Courtauld is very unusual within UK art history for the chronological breadth of its coverage, which extends back to the sixth century BC.
Could you describe something about your approach to classical
Like mainstream art history, I suppose, classical art history can be caricatured by its extremes: at one end of scale the old-fashioned connoisseurs, identifying the anonymous ‘Masters’ responsible for Greek pot-paintings, and at the other extreme the poststructuralists indulging in intellectual interpretative games. A lot of my undergraduate education was closer to the trendier end of the spectrum, and certainly we were sometimes encouraged to laugh at those fuddy-duddies in Oxford and Germany! Insofar as either caricature reflects reality, both types have strengths and great weaknesses. Both are guilty of some very lazy thinking. I admire very theoretical work when it’s careful and rigorous, but increasingly I value, and try to emulate, the sort of art history that respects the material itself and seeks to address real historical questions and problems. I should say that my particular field is Roman art, which has sometimes been disdained in the past (‘didn’t the Romans just copy the Greeks?’). But precisely because of the difficulties of interpretation that it poses, Roman art has sometimes inspired pioneering thinking in art history – and cultural history generally. It preoccupied some of the great figures in our subject – people like Wickhoff, Riegl, Malraux – and it has the potential to raise big questions again.
And what about your teaching practice at the Courtauld?
I have to be careful here in case my former students don’t recognize my description of myself! Clarity is of great importance to me. I am frustrated by things that I don’t understand myself – remember that the scope of my teaching covers a millenium so the extent of my ignorance is impressive – and so it pleases me most to help students to understand unfamiliar and obscure material and ideas. The experience of writing two textbooks on Roman art has both shaped and been shaped by my Courtauld teaching. I face some special obstacles though: firstly, for many art history students the classical world is utterly unfamiliar; and secondly, I concentrate on sculpture, which is harder to learn to think and write about, especially ancient sculpture – all that white marble.
You are currently on AHRC-funded research leave. Could you
tell us something about your current research and why it is important?
I am doing research on a particular kind of Roman tombstone. No, don’t switch off: these stones hold the key to understanding much more about how art worked in the Roman Empire. These monuments have relief sculptures showing the deceased apparently enjoying the luxuries of the afterlife; reclining on a couch, eating and drinking wine, attended by slaves and relatives. The imagery has its origins in Greece and ultimately in the ancient Middle East, but it became very popular in many parts of the Roman provinces. By looking at how it changed as it spread across Europe and into Roman Britain, I hope to learn about the people who made and saw the sculptures, the communities to which they belonged, the practices of artists, and the whole phenomenon of classical art in the provinces. It’s a very neglected field, partly because provincial art is at best unoriginal-looking, at worst downright bad. The great philosopher and archaeologist R. G. Collingwood accused Romano-British art of ‘a blundering, stupid ugliness that cannot rise to the level of ...vulgarity’. He wasn’t necessarily wrong. But isn’t that part of our job as art historians: to explain even ugly art?