Sir Denis Mahon
Sir Denis Mahon

There have been many occasions in the Courtauld’s existence when new approaches to art history have been pioneered on its premises. This short article is concerned with one of the earliest and perhaps least expected of them - the rediscovery in this country of Italian baroque painting. Sir Denis Mahon has himself recently recalled in interviews how it was Nikolaus Pevsner who first introduced him systematically to the subject (which had hitherto only attracted amateurish interest in Britain) in lectures given at the Institute in 1933 and 1934. The two young men (Mahon aged twenty-three, Pevsner thirty-one and both far from being the revered and knighted savants they afterwards became) got on so well that Mahon asked Pevsner to give him some additional private tuition. (Pevsner had just settled in England as a refugee from Nazi Germany and was no doubt glad of the money.) My purpose here is to set this episode in a wider context, both of the revival of interest in baroque art in Britain and of the standing of the Institute in its early years.

The second of these questions is, to me at least, the more difficult and puzzling of the two. Not long after its foundation in 1931, the Courtauld got the reputation of being little better than a high-class finishing school. This is not necessarily contradicted by the fact that there were several students, and not only Denis Mahon, who were serious and were later to become distinguished art historians in their own right. That said, the alleged failure of the Director, W.G. Constable (who had been previously Assistant Director of the National Gallery), to establish high academic standards at the Institute, above all with regard to the relation between history of art and general history, led to his replacement by the Committee of Management in 1937 and replacement by the 'safe’ Oxford historian, T.S.R. Boase. (The letters pages of the Burlington Magazine for that year, in which the issue was openly discussed, make hair-raising reading.)

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner

Despite the misgivings being expressed about the Institute’s professional standing, however, the annual prospectuses for the first few years show that Constable (or 'W.G.’, as he was always known) had high academic ambitions for the fledgling Courtauld. Courses were taught leading either to a University of London BA or an Academic Diploma in the History of Art (roughly equivalent to today’s MA, though without a dissertation), and it was possible to take a University of London Ph.D., which a few students did. More remarkably, 'W.G.’ invited the leading figures in British art history at the time to lecture, and the early prospectuses contain lists of names beginning with Roger Fry and continuing with, among others, the architectural historian Sir Banister Fletcher, Sir Eric MacLagan (Director of the V&A), Sir Kenneth Clark (newly appointed Director of the National Gallery) and a former, current and future Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum (respectively Campbell Dodgson, A.M. Hind and A.E. Popham). There were also younger stars who lectured Anthony Blunt, E.K. Waterhouse, James Byam Shaw and David Talbot Rice - and, from 1934, Fritz Saxl and Rudolf Wittkower from the newly arrived Warburg Institute. The roll-call of other foreign-born visiting scholars was equally distinguished: Walter Friedlaender, Fritz Lugt, Erwin Panofsky, Charles de Tolnay and F.J. Sanchez Canton, to name but a few. From the beginning, the Courtauld under 'W.G.’ had an international outlook and was determined not to be insular or provincial. This, Sir Denis told me, was one of its great attractions.

Somewhat surprisingly, Nikolaus Pevsner’s name does not appear anywhere among the lecturers announced during the 1930s. Perhaps the reason was that, at least to begin with, his movements between Germany and Britain were uncertain and it was unclear until the last moment whether he would be available or not. Moreover, the prospectuses only state that the 'lectures for the coming session include...’ (my italics). (By the same token, one wonders whether all those whose names are mentioned actually turned up.) However, there is no doubt that Nikolaus Pevsner did give a full course of lectures on Italian baroque painting at the Institute in 1933/34 and quite possibly in 1934/35 as well, as we have Denis Mahon’s very clear recollection of it. Looking through the slim file of letters exchanged between Mahon and 'W.G.’ in the Institute’s records, it is fascinating to watch Mahon making careful choices from the opportunities the Courtauld had to offer. In 1933, having come down from Oxford with a BA in History and after studying for a year at the Ashmolean under the (as he recalls very constructive) guidance of Kenneth Clark, he registered at the Courtauld for the Academic Diploma to begin in October of that year. During the ensuing nine months he would have heard Pevsner lecture. This was a crucial event in his art historical education, and it was at Pevsner’s suggestion, as he has said, that Mahon decided to embark on the extended research on Guercino which has occupied him ever since. (Only just before Christmas 1937, a critical edition of that artist's account book was published, in which Mahon took a crucial part.)

In 1935, in order to concentrate on his research on Guercino and to spend time abroad, he withdrew from the Diploma and applied to become an 'Occasional Student’, using the Institute’s libraries, etc., but no longer following a prescribed academic course. Mahon’s letters to 'W.G.’ revealing all this, are at once scrupulously polite and impelled by a clear sense of purpose, are so characteristic of him that, subject matter apart, they might almost have been written yesterday. They come, moreover, from the same house in Cadogan Square where he lives to this day. 'W.G’, one is glad to note, was equally polite in his replies, and very accommodating. Whatever his other failings may have been, he knew a genuine scholar when he saw one.

By that time Nikolaus Pevsner, beginning in the 1920s, had made himself into one of the leading authorities on Italian mannerist and baroque painting in Germany. He revealed his mastery with his remarkable survey of Italian painting from the end of the Renaissance to the decline of the Rococo, published as Die Italienische Malerei vom Ende der Renaissance bis zum Ausgehenden Rokoko (1928) in the Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft series, which he wrote while serving as a voluntary assistant at the Dresden Art Gallery. Although based on secondary sources, not original research, Pevsner’s survey is by no means merely a neutral description of the evolution of styles. On the contrary, it is written with passion and driven by the author's conviction that styles can only be understood and appreciated when studied alongside the religious, philosophical, political and scientific ideas of their period; it is not so much, he argued, that art is a 'reflection’ of these other factors, but rather that all of them are manifestations of a single entity, the 'spirit of the age’.

Although he was by no means the first to approach art history in this way, quite a convincing case could be made for saying that Pevsner made a greater effort than anyone else to employ this concept in a narrative history of styles, in other words, to invoke the spirit of the age as the shaping force while preserving the essential form and purpose of a stylistic survey. The utility of such an approach, by providing the student with the 'why’ as well as the 'what’, 'when’ and 'where’ of the story of art in any given period, was undoubtedly appealing. Its drawback, apparent in retrospect, is that its theoretical foundation is insecure. At all events, the developments in religion, philosophy, politics and science which defined the spirit of the age for Pevsner are not the same as those which a historian would identify nowadays which are themselves, it may be hazarded, no less arbitrary. (The theoretical components of Pevsner’s account, shorn of the descriptive narrative accompanying them, were distilled in three periodical articles published contemporaneously with the book; conveniently for the English reader, these articles were translated and published in volume one of Pevsner’s collected essays, Studies in Art, Architecture and Design, New York, 1968.)

I recently asked Sir Denis how much of the theoretical side of Pevsner’s argument survived in the lectures the latter gave at the Courtauld. Not much, was the answer. Those lectures, Sir Denis remembered, were 'pretty straight forward’, explaining what happened in Italian seventeenth-century painting, when and where; they were a detailed, lucid and above all accurate map of the territory, invaluable to anyone hearing the lectures and anxious to gain an expert introduction to the field and, not less, to the literature on it, both ancient and modern. (Pevsner was a remarkable linguist among his many other gifts.) Virtually nothing of this kind or quality had been available in Britain up to that point, where only a handful of seicento paintings had been brought out from traditional British collections for occasional exhibitions (including the Exhibition of Italian Art, 1930), and where the predominant approach to the Baroque had been through its frivolous late manifestations developed on the fringes of Europe and in Latin America, popularised by Sacheverell Sitwell.

And so Mahon proceeded devotedly on his way, working for a time as an attaché at the National Gallery, following up Pevsner’s suggestions, and going to see Italian baroque painting in Germany, Italy and other parts of Europe, including Russia, all the time exploring especially the work of Guercino - expeditions on which he was happily accompanied by the Viennese scholar, Otto Kurz, who was making the same discoveries for the paintings of Guido Reni. For both of them, it was a different path from Pevsner’s who, at about the same time, in the mid-1930s, turned to the origins of the modern movement in architecture and to the history of architecture in England. Pevsner’s was the more diverse career, Mahon’s has been the more single-minded, but it is a pleasure to unearth, partly from the Courtauld archives, the debt that the young English scholar initially owed to his slightly older German contemporary.

Michael Kitson