Newsletter Archive: Spring 2004
John Shearman as Teacher and Colleague
At his memorial service in November 2003, Dr. Paul Hills and Prof.
Christopher Green spoke of Professor Shearman
"In recalling Johns inspiration as a teacher I am casting my mind back to the Courtauld of more than thirty years ago. When I first attended his MA seminars we were, of course, all in awe of him — though not yet forty, he seemed omniscient. It was the special intensity of his own engagement with Renaissance art that rubbed off on us. Like all great teachers, his example made us raise our game. Above all, he instilled faith in precision and his was an exhilarating precision.
I remember how he coaxed us into closer and closer observation of Piero della Francescas Baptism of Christ, drawing our attention to the tiny ring of bubbles around Christs ankles; then going on to demonstrate how Piero calculated the angle of incidence and the angle of refraction in painting the surface of the river Jordan. We were dazzled and — if optics was not our strong card — a little bemused. But the message came through crystal clear that art historians could cut through the fog; that there was such a thing as "getting it right" — and under Johns guidance this is what we would aspire to.
As a PhD supervisor John never deluged me with bibliography — and even refrained from mentioning his own studies, which were far the best thing on colour in the Renaissance. Instead he bestowed the gift of his attention, constantly testing argument against evidence. And if — finally — an argument held up, his pleasure was palpable. In these tutorials Johns passionate regard for the creative intelligence of the artist shone out, and so did his impatience with all forms of scholarly condescension towards the past. That regard for the artistic intelligence, unfashionable in some quarters, was something I found deeply sympathetic.
Over the past two months it has come home to me how many of my own ideas owed their genesis to Johns teaching, and in reading publications by his pupils I often inwardly murmur, "Oh yes, thats a Shearman theme". This is the case because his themes were central to the history of art, and many of us were lucky, very lucky, to have sat at the feet of a great scholar."
Dr Paul Hills
"When I came onto the Courtauld staff as a very junior lecturer, I was certainly not of much importance to John as a colleague — I was not a specialist in his area, and I had done absolutely nothing of any moment as an art historian. The fact is that John bothered about me; not only his junior colleagues, but also his students. I will always be grateful to him. At staff meetings, it was always John who stood up for the student view-point, who did not just sympathise but empathised with them.
He had already then really done things of moment as an art historian, and before I came I knew, from reading him, what Paul has called his exhilarating precision. There was something else too; his insatiable appetite for facts, and the way he could stick facts together so that they didnt just make sense but became eloquent. After I joined the staff, I remember a staff meeting when John himself became eloquent not so much with facts but about facts.
We were discussing the idea of multiple- choice answer exams: Massacios Madonna and Child in the National Gallery was painted in 1422? 1431? 1426? or 1442? — that kind of exam. In Johns view it was right to introduce multiple-choice papers; certain facts in every period really mattered and so it really mattered that we know our students knew them. When we didnt go along with it there was a little smile under the moustache: it wasnt worth losing sleep about, but he had argued the case, and argued it well.
Shortly after my arrival, I was detailed to do the undergraduate interviewing with him. We two selected the entire undergraduate intake for, I think, at least five years. Interviewing with him, showed me a lot about John. He interviewed by teaching, and the way he taught showed me how much he cared about it and how open he was to potential. I remember once that we agreed to interview one applicant largely because he had been expelled from four different schools: "He had to be interesting", said John. We took him, and now he is very successful; where I cannot say.
John was kind to all the interviewees but that didnt mean that he was undemanding, nor that they did not see how demanding he was. He had a way of welcoming them gently, with a certain warmth, and then of opening them up. His method of questioning in itself communicated a real interest in what they had to say. One of his favourite ploys was to deal out three Quattrocento Madonna and Child images and ask them to put them in date order: one was always the Masaccio from the National Gallery. He would challenge and coax, and they would shuffle the deck, and mostly, after a while, they would make him smile by at least knowing that the Masaccio came first. The Masaccio was always the earliest.
Then he would ask the question that came from his passion for facts: "We know that the Massacio Madonna and Child is 1426, why?" Deceptively simple it seemed. Sometimes it took long meanderings before it would be realised that that kind of precision just cannot be arrived at on the basis alone of style (style at that time, was so much in the ascendancy in art history that many went under the delusion that it answered every single question). When the answer came — if it did — it was, of course, documents. And, if it came with logic behind it, there would be that smile under the moustache and sometimes a sparkle too, because here was someone who not only could see things in images, and who knew the value of facts, but maybe someone who understood something of what method could be too. Here there might be real potential.
The Shearman method of interviewing still survives in the Institute — showing and then teaching in order to find potential. And some of us still have an appetite for eloquent facts. Its especially on interview afternoons that I remember John in that room up the windy staircase somewhere near the roof at Portman Square."
Prof. Christopher Green