Interview with Jo Kirby Atkinson
Interview conducted by Isabella Boorman (MA 2016)
So, to begin with, how does it feel to be an Honorary Graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art this year, in 2016?
I have to say it feels slightly unreal, even though I said in my acceptance speech that I felt I had finally become a real part of the Courtauld Institute, even though I have had friends and colleagues here, alongside my friends at the National Gallery, throughout my entire career. At the same time, though, the fact that all the very varied research I’ve done has finally been recognised is very satisfying and I can’t help feeling a little glow of pleasure about that.
What does the Courtauld mean to you? How would you describe the experience of undertaking your studies at this institution?
I didn’t actually study at the Courtauld itself. In the early 1970s I studied art history at Birkbeck in the evenings as this seemed a useful adjunct to the work I was doing as a scientist at the National Gallery. At that time, the course followed was that of the Courtauld, and the exams taken were Courtauld exams. However, this was interrupted by my husband’s university career (he is a civil engineer and was Professor of Soil Mechanics at City University, but retired a number of years ago), which took us to Cambridge and then Cardiff, and then the babies arrived. By the time I decided to finish the degree in the mid 1980s, Birkbeck was no longer following the Courtauld syllabus and examinations, but I did not want to change direction (I had gone too far with Trecento and Renaissance art history studies) so registered as an external student to finish the degree and take the Courtauld final examinations. I am not sure that this is possible any more. In fact I did attend some lectures at Birkbeck during this time and I remember one from Joanna Cannon, as an invited lecturer, as part of the Trecento course. I doubt very much that she knew that I was there, though!
You have specialised in linking the disciplines of both science and art history. What was it about this unique interdisciplinary connection between the two which originally inspired you, and to what extent do you feel the field of technical art history has changed since you began your career?
I would say the works of art themselves and, in my case, primarily paintings were the inspiration. Why was the picture painted? What is its subject matter? Why did the artist, or the person who commissioned it, choose that subject and what were the background circumstances: the requirements, the traditions, the economic or other constraints? What lies behind the design of the painting? How and why were the materials chosen and by whom? Where did they come from and from whom did the artist buy them? Why does the painting have the appearance it has today: is this due to the quality of the materials, the artist’s technique or simply the passage of time? Very clearly, there could be historical, iconographic, economic, social, physical and chemical aspects to the discussion one might have about the painting and while there are, of course, some questions which have quite straightforward answers, this is by no means always the case. It has always seemed to me that the disciplines of science and art history are necessarily linked through the nature and substance of the work of art and, while this link may be most clearly demonstrated in paintings, it is certainly present in sculpture and other art forms.
As to how the field of technical art history has changed: well, I think it’s safe to say that as a field or, indeed, discipline with its own name, it has only really come into its own in the last 20 years or so. It did not exist in the 1970s, although the tools that demonstrate the workings of the painter’s hand and mind – X-radiography and infrared photography (soon to be joined by infrared reflectography), microscopy and the identification of pigments and binding media – were already in use, although not all art historians were at all comfortable with them. Once art historians, and I think particularly people working closely with works of art in galleries, with conservators and scientists to hand, saw the power and value in examining the art work using techniques like these, how one could look at a painting at greater depth in an entirely different way and what could be learned as a result, the field really took off and eventually gained this name. I think it has been assisted by the development of techniques of examination which are non-invasive (like X-ray fluorescence, for example) or minimally invasive and do not require a sample to be taken, or only require a very tiny sample. Depending on what the question is and how detailed an answer is required, these techniques may provide sufficient information in a high percentage of cases.
You worked for the National Gallery, London from 1970 to 2014, working for the majority of this as Senior Scientific Officer. How would you describe this experience for you?
Much of the time it was a joy: endlessly fascinating; never the same. Even the dullest painting might produce an intriguing question which analysis, or a study of artists’ manuals, or discussions round the tea table with art historian or conservator colleagues could not necessarily answer in an entirely satisfactory way. Sometimes there is no answer, or not yet, and the question remains open. I should emphasise the discussions round the tea – or coffee – table as these are where a lot of the work is done: the back of an envelope scribbles; the sideways look at a problem; the development of a new approach. It is very important for the health of any working environment that such meetings can take place.
The most satisfactory aspect of the whole experience was probably the fact that I worked closely with colleagues in other departments – art historians, conservators, photographers, frame makers, librarians, people in the Education, Exhibitions and Finance departments, art handlers, gallery assistants – all the time I was there, and not just on exhibitions, such as the Art in the Making, Making and Meaning and, most recently, the Colour exhibition in 2014. This, of course, extended to working with colleagues in other institutions here in the UK, including the Courtauld, and abroad.
Much of the time, in fact, I was working on more general questions of the historical background to artists’ practice, broadly speaking, or the behaviour of specific materials, like pigments made from naturally occurring organic dyes. These are light sensitive and, at the same time, widely used, particularly the red pigments; as a result, any colour change that has occurred tends to be rather obvious.
You collaborated with Susie Nash, Joanna Cannon, and the late Caroline Villers, for the 2005 international conference European Trade in Painters’ Materials held at the Courtauld and the National Gallery, which led to the 2010 book Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700. How did you find the experience of working on this project, and the impact of its interdisciplinary approach, by incorporating contributions from art historians, scientists, conservators and historians of trade and economics?
The conference was the idea of Caroline Villers, who was deeply intrigued by the questions of where artists’ materials came from, how they were transported and what they cost, all very important factors underlying the cost of a work of art. She discussed the idea with Susie Nash before she telephoned me to see if I was interested. Of course I was; I had already carried out a fair amount of research into the costs and purchase of materials so this was a wonderful idea as far as I was concerned. Between us and our various contacts we got together a range of speakers – and then Caroline became seriously ill. Joanna joined the team and we continued with the organisation, with Caroline cheering from the sidelines as far as she could. Sadly Caroline died shortly before the conference so was never able to see the final, hugely successful event. It was highly emotional for us as organisers and also for many of the speakers who had known Caroline personally, but I think they all felt they had been part of a very special experience, as, indeed, did many of those attending. I am still receiving comments about it today, ten years later.
The book was an amazing project to work on as, speaking for myself, I learned so much while working on it and it was lovely to work with Joanna and Susie: really enjoyable. The book seemed to take on a life of its own, carrying us and all its authors along with it – and also the publisher, Archetype. It was, in the end, a labour of love for us all. We were so excited when it finally appeared and the delighted comments from the authors, and later from people who have bought a copy, were very pleasing to us all. People have told me they even keep it beside the bed and I must admit I do take it out just to feel its cover sometimes: it is so beautiful as well as substantial.
The impact of the book is an interesting question that I still cannot really answer, but I do see it cited in the notes and references to a wide range of papers so clearly it is making its mark. I think an interdisciplinary approach to the field is a strong and useful one, particularly if it is backed up by intellectual rigour, as is the case with this book. Two or three years ago I happened to meet one of our authors, Roland Krischel (Head of the Medieval Department, Gemäldegalerie, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne) and his opinion was that the book has so much in it that it will take a while for its value to be appreciated fully. I think he may well be right.
You currently work as Secretary-General for the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, and as Editor-in-Chief for Dyes in History and Archaeology. I wondered if you could say a little more about your current projects and what they involve?
The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, IIC, is an independent international membership organisation for the preservation of cultural heritage artefacts and its aim is to recognise and promote the conservation profession. It is responsible for Studies in Conservation (published by Taylor & Francis Routledge on its behalf); it also publishes an on-line newspaper, News in Conservation and organises a biennial international congress which this year will be in Los Angeles, on conservation of contemporary art: Saving the Now: Crossing Boundaries to Conserve Contemporary Works. It also organises student and emerging conservator conferences or, rather, it helps the group of students who want to organise the conference, on questions of concern to them as they venture out into their chose career. The next will take place in Bern in 2017. My role is largely administrative and the current project is the Los Angeles Congress; it takes place in mid-September and it’s now that everything seems to happen at once.
Dyes in History and Archaeology is an interdisciplinary annual conference on natural and early synthetic dyes that first started in 1982 as a small meeting of eight analysts and archaeologists with a common interest in dyes on historical and archaeological textiles. Over the years the conference has increased in numbers, but is rarely more than about 100 people and has retained its interdisciplinary emphasis: typical papers may be on embroideries. pigments in paintings, the use of analysis to assist historians with provenance of some textiles, analytical methods, documentary sources recording the purchase of dyes and archaeological textiles. With the assistance of a number of colleagues, I have edited the conference proceedings of the same name since about 1999. These are refereed so involve quite a lot of work and it is simply not possible to bring them out annually any more, particularly as there is a constant need for funding, but I am working on a collected volume at present and another volume is in the pipe line. Scientific journals publish far more papers on the analysis of dyes today, but the importance of these conferences and the journal derived from them lies in their interdisciplinary nature: historians, conservators, scientists, dyers and other interested people all sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.
Following your highly successful career as a world-renowned expert in conservation, if you had to pick any, what would you describe as your most prominent career highlights?
Undoubtedly the 2005 conference European Trade in Painters’ Materials and the book derived from it would be one. Another would be the work I have carried out on natural dyes in the class of artists’ pigments known as lake pigments: by these I mean the traditional, pre-late nineteenth-century pigments in which a plant or insect-derived dye is precipitated onto a suitable, usually translucent substrate, often hydrated alumina. I have worked on different aspects of these pigments over the years, including their stability to light, but probably the two that have been of greatest value are, firstly, the documentary evidence for the use of a range of different red dyes over the centuries, not simply cochineal and madder as many authors had suggested, based on the usage in the nineteenth century. The second is the successful analysis of these dyes in the pigments present in the small samples taken from paintings, which been carried out by high-performance liquid chromatography at the National Gallery over the last 20 years or so. Other methods are now available and a few other laboratories now carry out this analysis, but as I was once told by a colleague in another museum that this dye analysis was not possible and we would get nowhere I am quite pleased with our success.
The study of historical documents can be extraordinarily illuminating so a third high point would probably be the value I found in the use of documentary research in the service of the study of painting materials, which was hardly carried out at all when I started work in the 1970s, but is now becoming almost routine.
Are there any tips you would give to any aspiring art history and conservation students?
You cannot look too long and too closely at the work of art you are studying, be it a painting, a sculpture, an engraving or some other art form. A painting, for example, contains so much that it can tell you about its history, from the support upon which it is painted to the varnish on its surface, but it rarely reveals this information quickly or all at once. Look by any means you have: under different forms of illumination; at different magnification; using different investigative techniques. Listen to those who can explain to you what it is you are seeing and record it, describe it in writing, by photography or even by drawing. Read the documentary evidence that exists for the work. Later you will probably need to compare this work of art with another and all this information will help you. Do not be afraid to ask questions or to express what you think may be present, or may be the reason underlying some aspect of the work or of the artist’s practice: you may not be correct, but we all have to start somewhere and you need to develop the courage of your convictions.
And finally, a question to finish, what are your plans for the future? Are there any other projects which you are keen to explore further?
There’s always something new to discover even where you think there is no more to be said; no doors ever close completely. I am working on cochineal at the moment, but more on the historical side than the chemical. I’m also very much looking forward to going back to the sources for the purchase of artists’ materials as part of some writing I have been commissioned to do and I hope that will lead back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the time of Rubens and Van Dyck, where I’m sure there was more I could have done given time.