AHRC-Funded PhD Studentship 2011-2014

The Courtauld Institute of Art and Tate
Between God, Art and Mammon:  Religious Painting as Public Spectacle in Britain, c.1800-1850

Applications are invited for an AHRC-funded three-year Collaborative Doctoral Award studentship, starting October 2011, working with The Courtauld Institute of Art and Tate.  The award will cover tuition fees and provide a maintenance allowance.

This project will aim to explore an important but little studied dimension of the history of British art:  the striking proliferation of religious paintings in the public exhibition-spaces of London and other urban centres during the first half of the nineteenth century.   The importance of this cultural phenomenon has long been acknowledged by scholars, but – for reasons having largely to do with the secular bias of both the historical and art-historical discourses on British Romanticism - it has never been closely examined, nor have its implications ever been seriously explored.  This neglect offers the opportunity for The Courtauld Institute and Tate jointly to oversee a research project that will not only enrich our knowledge of some of the era’s most ambitious paintings, but also complicate our understanding of a host of key players – artists, art institutions, audiences, patrons, and art entrepreneurs – in an increasingly commercially-driven art world.  An even broader aim will be to gain a new appreciation of the role of Christianity in British high visual culture, and indeed in British society at large, at the beginning of the modern period.

The researcher will work toward the fulfilment of these larger ambitions by constructing a succession of focused case studies, mainly of pictures that belong to Tate.  These could include major religious paintings by JMW Turner, Benjamin West, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Joseph Severn, Francis Danby, and the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, all of which were created for public display, either at the Royal Academy or in a variety of commercial spaces.


Research will be supervised jointly by Professor David Solkin (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Dr Martin Myrone (Tate).


Applications for this studentship are to be made to The Courtauld Institute of Art.  Candidates should normally have, or be studying for, a Master's degree in Art History or an appropriate related discipline.  In addition to the application form, applications must include a research proposal of no more than 500 words, an academic transcript and two letters of recommendation.  Completed applications are due 10 June 2011, with interviews provisionally scheduled for the last week in June.

For application forms and further details, please contact Aleshia Haselden, Admissions and Enrolment Supervisor, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, The Strand, London WC2R 0RN, 020 7848 2645 (aleshia.haselden@courtauld.ac.uk).

The successful applicant will need to meet the AHRC’s academic criteria for doctoral study and demonstrate the potential to develop advanced research skills.  S/he will be expected to engage with ongoing research activities and to take an active part in the postgraduate communities of both The Courtauld Institute and Tate.  For further information about AHRC eligibility and residency criteria, please consult the ‘Guide to Student Eligibility' available on the AHRC web page: http://www.ahrc.ac.uk.

Further Information about the project:

Research Questions

In one way or another, all the broad questions that have initially been identified concern different dimensions of the three-cornered relationship between art, commerce and religion in Britain c.1800-1850.  These questions are as follows:


  • Given the lack of church or state patronage of religious art from the Reformation onwards, and therefore the paucity of works in this genre by earlier native painters, why did so many British artists produce large-scale paintings of Biblical subjects during the first half of the nineteenth century?
  • What role, if any, did bodies such as the Royal Academy and the British Institution play in encouraging the production of religious art?  To what extent was this purely a commercial phenomenon?
  • How can we explain the commercial success of certain examples of religious art, and the commercial failure of others? What were the roles of exhibition and of print reproduction in securing material success?
  • How can we explain the critical success of certain examples of religious art, and the failure of others? To what extent were religious paintings assessed in a different way from secular art, because of their subject matter?
  • Who formed the audiences for publicly-exhibited religious art, and what were the public’s motivations? Did the expanding provincial audiences for art differ significantly in their expectations and requirements?
  • Is the proliferation of religious pictures symptomatic of the growing importance of Christianity in this period of British history, or (paradoxically) of increasing secularisation?  Of both perhaps?  Neither?

It is anticipated that these very broad questions will be indispensable to the enquiry, although they are far from exhaustive; we would expect the researcher will generate his or her own questions as well.   These may go in the direction of art theory, and in particular the discourse of history painting, as this was modified in the nineteenth century; a related primary literature deals with the history of religious art – Alexander, Lord Lindsay’s History of Christian Art (1847) being an obvious (if rather late) example, which in turn opens up the whole issue of contemporary British attitudes toward Old Master painting on religious themes.  Another rich area of investigation may be sermons and other types of religious discourse, particularly where these directly (or indeed indirectly) addressed matters relating to art.  It is also anticipated that the researcher may want to modify the proposed selection of case studies after proper consideration – for instance by including major works by other artists such as William Etty, John Martin or William Hilton, each of whom is also appropriately represented in the Tate’s collection.

By the end of the project, the researcher will not only be expected to have gained a sophisticated understanding of British religious painting and exhibition culture in the first half of the nineteenth century and how this fits into a broader history of British art, but also to be in a position to shed significant new light on the highly complex relationships between high art, commerce, and Christianity at the time of Britain’s emergence as the world’s dominant imperial and industrial power. Additionally, by working closely with the visual materials over an extended period, by engaging on a regular basis with Tate curatorial staff, and by attending to the empirical requirements of object-based documentation and analysis, the student will also gain high-level experience of collections research.