From a start in the slide library to the pioneer of the former students programme, Jane Ferguson (MA 1975) has been involved in The Courtauld for four decades. Janine Catalano canvassed her views on The Courtauld and her experience here.

Jane Ferguson, MA 1975

How was it that you decided to come to read for an MA at The Courtauld?

I came looking for a job! In 1970 I had a letter of introduction to Alan Bowness, and joined the Slide Library at Portman Square. I made slides, took my turn at running the projectors for lectures and seminars. Those who lectured, in addition to the staff of The Courtauld, were people like Kenneth Clark, Nikolaus Pevsner, John Summerson – the best in the business. After two and a half years, I applied and was accepted to do an MA. My first year was with Alan Bowness, and the second with Chris Green.

It goes without saying that you are a staunch supporter of The Courtauld. What makes it so important and unique in your opinion, both to you personally and more broadly?

I love being part of a place of such quality and diversity, surrounded by beauty every day, in paintings, sculpture, architecture. I have had unique access to lectures and seminars in every period of art history. From 1970 to 1976 The Courtauld was a very large part of my life and I got to know it from top to bottom. Knowing everyone helped a lot when I returned to what would become CAFS. On the physical plane, I love the organic organization of the place, reflected by the rabbit warren quality of the building, which seems to have translated happily from Portman Square to Somerset House.

On a personal level, it gave me two opportunities to create something, in this case, CAFS, and CIA News. In 1990 Michael Kitson and I set about creating the Courtauld Association of Former Students. In 1997 the newsletter became the magazine the Courtauld Institute of Art News.

In terms of the summer school courses and trips, have you had a favourite trip or any particularly memorable experiences?

The summer school was more or less created in our office, the development office, by Susie Nash andLaura Brook. I have been a fan of the Summer School ever since. The atmosphere is absolutely terrific, often fuelled by the excitement of those engaging with art history for the first time. The teaching staff perform a delicate balancing act of being academic whilst capable of communicating their subject to generalists. I have taken a course each year on a variety of subjects, all fascinating.

All the study trips I have taken have provided real insights, from Dijon to Bruges, Prague to Athens. Robin Cormack’s trip to Venice was a superb evocation of Ruskin’s love affair with the Byzantine. We started one January day in the snow on Torcello and ended on the last day reading Ruskin in front of the Tintorettos in the Scuola de San Rocco. 

What are some of the changes or developments, both for good and for bad, that you’ve experienced over your years here?

By 1976 it was becoming obvious that The Courtauld was bursting at the seams, and that the Conway and Witt Library boxes were in every last nook and cranny of the Institute. I went away for twelve years and when I returned The Courtauld was just moving to Somerset House. So the first big change I witnessed was the move. By that time it was clearly important to find out who the former students were and see what we could do to enlist their support.

Then the next great change was going independent. Independence meant much soul searching, defining what The Courtauld wanted to achieve and how it wanted to go forward.

After we became independent, an agent of change was the director Jim Cuno, who stayed for a short 18 months, but in that time showed us, I feel, that there were alternative ways of doing things. He instigated many changes, and some of them were brilliant. The graduation ceremony, for example, which was created by him is always an occasion of real celebration and fun.

The other huge change is how businesslike the Development Office has become. When I started CAFS the office consisted of the development officer, her secretary, a part time Friends co-ordinator and me. Now, when I look at the Development Office with six team members and a full-time alumni officer, all of whom raise a huge amount of money, I am covered in admiration.

So what then is your vision of The Courtauld in ten years’ time?

There is always such a contrast between the continual flow of wonderful ideas, and their realisation due to financial constraints. The Courtauld has had to carry on for a long time on such a tight financial rein. So, my vision would be to have a well-funded institute that is able to achieve more of its terrific ideas, particularly taking advantage of modern technology.

You’ve worked with many alumni in your time here. What, in your estimation, have you found is the greatest help the alumni provide to The Courtauld, and what do you believe they derive most from their relationship to it?

When I haved talked to students over the years, they have usually either adored the Institute itself, or have been inspired by a teacher who has changed their lives. I do feel that the alumni are our greatest ambassadors, and it is important that they have a good experience here. At reunions, people have been very happy to see not only each other, but also their former teachers and other staff. The other important thing is the reconnection with ideas and scholarship. The public lecture programs and open conferences and seminars are critical in enabling people to reengage with their experience here.

What advice would you give to current students to make the most of their time here and get as much out of The Courtauld as you have?

I would say just keep your eyes and ears open and take advantage of all the facilities of this wonderful place. Get to know the drawings, the photographic libraries; just get to know everything that this place has to offer. It is unique.

janine catalano, alumni relations officer