Dr. Paul Crossley and students in the rain at Troyes, 1990 (photo: Prof. John House)
Dr. Paul Crossley and students in the rain at Troyes, 1990 (photo: Prof. John House)

Over the years Courtauld teachers have led many student study trips and individual researchers have gone far and wide to study works of art and archival materials first hand. Most trips are smooth-running. There are exceptions though, and hilarious or hair-raising situations can ensue, which pass into legend. We have started collecting anecdotes from colleagues and present a sample of them here. In the way of legends the specific names and places have faded and the facts are not entirely reliable but the flavour of these experiences remains.
Adventures in England invariably included the Courtauld minibus, an ancient affair, primarily used for the transportation of works of art but regularly dragooned into service to save on the expense and complication of public transport; experience showing students to have no money but a knack for waywardness. The vehicle itself did not instil confidence. Reservations were additionally held about 'dons’ as drivers; one MA student was heard earnestly to enquire whether a rosary was a prerequisite for a safe trip to Birmingham.

Before the advent of Eurostar, Courtauld students were dedicated to the cheapest modes of transport. Groups of third years left Victoria coach station late one night bound for the coast. After a difficult nocturnal passage of La Manche, the party, dressed invariably for the beach, arrived in the damp and cold of a Paris dawn to be expelled, shivering, in the dubious environs of the Gare du Nord. A relentless timetable of events and visits followed, the likes of which, judging from the plaintive protests from more recent generations of students about the necessity of regular trips to the 'double-V C’ and a sit-down for lunch, will not be seen again.

The cheapest option for a scholar of limited means is to find a friend, or a friend of a friend who will put you up. People are often so generous and obliging that they fail to mention when it really is most inconvenient. I remember the friend of a friend in Manchester who did not say that his extended family from India was visiting and that I would be sharing with a number of cousins in bunk beds or that his auntie, who was working hard in the kitchen, would be put to the trouble of making extra chapattis.

Whereas budget hostels or cheap hotels might be the answer, these can be at times seedy or downright alarming. We took a group of postgraduate students to a two-day conference in the north and thought that the conference organisers’ recommended accommodation would be a good bet. Once we got past the lobby we found the stairways inhabited by skinheads who seemed to be sniffing glue. Graffiti of Nazi slogans covered the room doors. We doubled up, rigging beds on the floor because the place was too scary to stay in alone. The rooms looked out onto a street that came alive after dark with neon lights, disco music, fights and breaking glass.

At the opposite extreme was the gracious Le Corbusier-designed villa in the South of France, which once accommodated an MA group. The group settled in late after a long drive and a stressful visit to the local hospital casualty department when the van driver collapsed on arrival (diagnosis: low blood sugar, remedy: ham sandwiches). It was a dark and stormy night. At two a.m. disaster! A wash-hand-basin came unmoored and water started to gush out. Our colleague, who recounts that she had unwisely selected pink baby doll pyjamas for the trip, was suddenly awoken by a hysterical student and faced with an inundation of several inches. Equal to the task, she was able to gain assistance, and calm the panicking student. Despite the night’s adventures the group all made it to their appointment to view Matisse at ten the next morning.

Individual post-graduate students are rarely so lucky. At every turn, their earnest endeavours in pursuit of art are thwarted by individuals and institutions. An MA student with less than perfect French, struggling against the hauteur and the lack of co-operation of the 'information’ desk at the Bibliothèque Nationale finally demanded in exasperation, 'What is your problem? Don’t you like foreigners?’ To which the bibliothèquaire answered, 'No, we just don’t like readers.’

Dr Caroline Arscott and Dr Katie Scott

We would welcome stories of travel adventures from former students. If you had a vintage experience in your travelling days as a student at the Institute, please send your tale to Editor, Jane Ferguson.