Barbara Robertson
Barbara Robertson at the Summer Schools

News of the death of Barbara Robertson last April brought to mind a flood of memories of an enterprise that in many ways encapsulated the tone of the Institute at the height of the Portman Square era. The summer schools, which ran from 1956 to 1981 under the auspices of the Courtauld, were Barbara’s personal creation, not just in the sense that Robertson money made them possible, but because without the huge effort needed to organise them, which she was prepared to repeat year after year, they would never have got off the ground. From beginning to end they bore the imprint of her powerful personality.

To tell the truth, when I first met this formidable lady in the summer of 1960, I was scared stiff, as she spoke and behaved as someone who had never not been accustomed to the exercise of authority. The brisk, no-nonsense manner put me in mind of top-ranking officers one sometimes encountered during the war, whose mere presence was enough to charge the atmosphere with the sort of electricity that makes one jump to it. That introduction took place in Bath, where the summer schools started in 1955, first of all as a private venture of the Robertson’s. It did not take long before Barbara’s instinct to go straight to the top led to the suggestion that they should be run under the banner of the Institute’s approval. Blunt agreed, provided the teaching was up to Courtauld standards, and the active participation of the teaching staff began the following year. The medievalists took over in 1960, by which time a pattern had been established. On the one hand were loyal members of Barbara’s social circle in Bath, augmented by several exceedingly well-heeled American ladies such as Helen Kress Williams, whose inseparable tat bag, according to Ellis Waterhouse, who eyed it covetously, was stuffed with untold riches. What they got from the schools, I suppose, was the sense of sitting in on something exclusive and high-powered; and my guess is that they paid rather a lot for the privilege, since the rest of the party consisted of heavily subsidised students from a wide catchment area that included America and much of Europe as well as the UK. When in the '60’s we started to go abroad, and the problem of how to accommodate this mixed clientele arose, Barbara solved it with characteristic panache by putting the whole group into the best hotels. For students whose travels were normally conducted on shoe-string budgets, this touch of luxury probably made the experience all the more memorable.

What she had in mind was something like overland versions of Swan’s Hellenic cruises. The staff work was nothing if not thorough. Routes and hotels were explored in advance. Schedules were rigid. Distances were timed, the opening hours of sites and museums noted, bank holidays and saints’ days taken into account. To get closed doors opened, she would engage diplomatic agencies at whatever level was necessary. She could be high-handed. Her policeman’s whistle meant business — people were left behind, myself included — and in Spain, where all the rooms were double, I was simply told: 'you don’t mind sharing with the bus driver, do you Peter?’, as a result of which I found myself in the cockloft with a singularly noxious companion. Yet on the same trip, when I was struck down by a mysterious fever at Compostela, she did not hesitate to have me flown home at once. Some of the schools were genuinely adventurous and predictably rich in travellers’ tales, notably the second trip to Turkey in 1972 which penetrated into remote corners of eastern Anatolia not yet equipped to deal with intruders of our kind. Here the best laid plans often disintegrated into on-the-spot improvisations, as when a decidedly un-airworthy aircraft caused us to arrive many hours late in Antioch, with the result that our hotel had reverted to its normal function as the local brothel, and we were obliged to push on to a nearby village where the hotel was a hotel in name only. Forty beds were promptly commandeered from neighbouring houses, as many chickens had their necks wrung and a midnight feast was ready within the hour. But that sort of thing was perhaps a shade too close to the wind for Barbara’s liking and it did not stop there. To see ruined Armenian churches, we had to put up with hotels infested with bugs and cockroaches, taps that ran out of water, plumbing that was at best primitive and often non-existent, an angry ayatollah who took exception to improperly dressed ladies and temperatures well over 100 degrees — all too much for the faint-hearted. In the event, like Xenephon, we got through to the Black Sea, and have dined out on the exploit ever since. This was the high watermark of Barbara’s achievements as a tour manager, as subsequent summer schools were noticeably less intrepid. She settled for subjects closer to home, such as the Baroque in Mitteleuropa, Rome, Venice and George Zarnecki’s Romanesque sculpture, which were probably more useful as teaching exercises.

In the course of twenty-five years the summer schools gradually became less like conducted tours; more like master classes for research students. A lot of talent spotting went on. But they never lost the relaxed informal air that was the hallmark of the Institute during that time. Moreover, the Bath contingent never entirely disappeared. For Barbara this was important, for it helped to preserve the impression that the schools served a wider constituency than the art-historical mafia, and it was part of her mission to keep academics and amateurs in touch with one another. She was a relative of Roger Fry and shared his view that art was something to be appreciated and practised as well as studied.

When her husband Charles showed signs of failing she had no compunction about saying enough was enough. She was irreplaceable and without her the schools came to an immediate end. However the connection of the Robertsons with the Courtauld continued in a different form. For several years in the '80’s there was a series of Robertson lectures, and both Charles and Barbara were made honorary fellows in recognition of their services to the Institute. It is hard to imagine that anyone will ever be able to match the flair and style that made her schools so memorable.

Emeritus Professor Peter Kidson