Robin Cormack’s Retirement Speech, 27 September, 2004

"Today is a rite of passage for me, and while I would not have chosen growing older, it is, as Woody Allen put it, "better than the alternative". Fortunately the Leverhulme Trust has given me an emeritus fellowship, and I will continue to have a base at the Courtauld. I suppose as retirement age changes, I may be one of the last to be required to go (judging from the American experience, a mixed blessing), just as I was, I believe, the first lecturer at the Courtauld who had to reply to an advert, write an application and go through a selection process and interview.

Cecily Hennessy, Cathy Putz, Robin Cormack and Clare Brisby at the 2004 CAFS summer party

Cecily Hennessy, Cathy Putz, Robin Cormack and Clare Brisby at the 2004 CAFS summer party

I have been to a number of valedictory occasions, some memorable. My first was that of JRR Tolkien, whose address was to judge from the laughter very funny, except that at the time undergraduates were expected to appreciate jokes in Anglo-Saxon. At his, Anthony Blunt unwrapped his requested gift, a tv set, but we didn’t know at that time that it was to help him prepare for his final tv interview. Ernst Gombrich sat us down to a paper on the iconography of valedictory events, and we all got an offprint.

My problem now is that after my first public lecture at the Courtauld John Shearman told me that I had committed the unpardonable sin of being frivolous about the history of art, a subject that was too serious ever to joke about. But I think that ethic has changed.

That was the regime into which I came to Portman Square in 1962 (It would have been in 1961 except that the registrar Charles Clare lost my file and didn’t send the right letters in time to get a grant — I hope that couldn’t happen now). It was a blessing in disguise as it meant I came here with Eric Fernie, Julian Gardner and Timothy Stevens among others. I filled in this gap year with a job at the ICA as gallery manager. My bosses Herbert Read and Roland Penrose said that they would ensure that when I went to the Courtauld I would be the only person there who actually knew how to hang a painting and an exhibition (I discovered later this was a criticism aimed at Michael Kitson). My best job at the ICA was to hang the annual Christmas raffle pictures - at that time what we now call fund-raising was done by Roland Penrose simply visiting Picasso for a weekend and bringing back a signed doodle to include in the raffle.

The Courtauld regime in the 1960s essentially belonged to what Pope-Hennessy called the Alinari generation — meaning black and white photographs (even for lectures on colour) and the core study of the Renaissance, with Witt and Conway giving the essential study tools for object-orientated study. Things have changed, and maybe I can be allowed to gloss here Peter Kidson’s short history of the Courtauld, which though very elegant, does have a somewhat Medieval tone — it focuses on the leaders, not the troops or the processes. I hope that when the longer history is written, the period which followed Anthony Blunt’s retirement will be more fully covered — Anthony himself asked me if Peter Lasko would inaugurate the Dark Ages, and it sometimes felt like that just — as an architect once said about British domestic lighting — "a remarkable instance of adapting to adverse circumstances".

But I was lucky to be here at all. For reasons that I still don’t fully know, the Courtauld in the 1950s had reduced its coverage of art from world art, with which it opened in 1932, to European art, and had even sent its resources of non-western art to SOAS and classical art to the Institute of Classical Studies. So when I came, the prospectus said that the History of Art syllabus began with the Arch of Constantine (I hope they never told Berenson). Fortunately Greece was making a bid in the 1960s to join the EU and through exhibitions of art was emphasising that Byzantium was part of Europe (Turkey is now doing the same), and Hugo Buchthal as an outside teacher at the Warburg had managed to maintain Byzantine art history, notably teaching Paul Hetherington and Michael Kauffmann. When Buchthal went to New York, teaching the subject came back to the Courtauld, though all the research resources were at the Warburg and are still there now. David Talbot Rice had managed to teach Byzantine and Islamic art at the Courtauld in the 1930s without apparently any resources at all — Anthony Blunt annoyed him by describing him in The Burlington as a "fully untrained art historian". I thank the Warburg Institute and its library — nothing would have been possible here without it.

The paradox of the 1960s was that the Robbins Report promoted the expansion of the teaching of the history of art everywhere, except at the Courtauld. Yet Lord Robbins was Chairman of the Courtauld; that paradoxically ensured the finances for expansion here too. At that time the Courtauld certainly set the agenda for art history and the new Universities were mostly set up as clones of art history as it was taught here. The shock of the New Art History was that it came out of the polytechnics or out of universities that encouraged art history in departments of literature, like Cambridge.

The Courtauld [seemed to] feel immune to literary theory, and very few colleagues came to the public lectures I put on in 1982 with speakers including Edmund Leach, Tony Tanner, John Barrell and Norman Bryson. Some hostile remarks made by those who did go felt odd then, and still do: one was to complain that this new-fangled word "discourse" had no future in art historical thinking; another was to ask what value the work of Foucault could possibly have for anyone except for French modern specialists.

But where new art history did influence the Courtauld was in breaking down the old barriers between the mystique of style history and cultural history. This is why the move out of Portman Square looked so iconic. [In moving to Somerset House we took] out all those intrusive new partitions which the civil service had put in and opened out the offices to their original forms. We are now putting them back. As for breaking down barriers, we are now ironically a full college with only one faculty. As for the agenda of art history, we are in a period where it is set not so much by theory as by special exhibitions and by the global interest in world art history.

This puts the Courtauld profile of teaching both Classical art history and Byzantine art history in a strong position, as both fields are well served by major exhibitions and both are now sometimes described as non-western. Whether that categorisation is right or wrong, it certainly makes for debate. As for the Courtauld in this area — perhaps in all periods here — its strengths may lie less in raw Research Assessment Exercise publication statistics than the quality of the students who come. My luck with students was demonstrated with a surprise party a year ago, which left me speechless, when Liz James and Tony Eastmond as editors, helped by Jas Elsner, produced a festschrift (Icon and Word: The Power of Images in Byzantium, Ashgate, 2003) with papers entirely by Courtauld students, and at the same party the current PhDs made their point with an alternative festschrift."

Prof. Robin Cormack

Robin Cormack: Colleague, Leader and Mentor


It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Robin Cormack. Academically, he has a marvellous record, with his publications — always utterly lucid and beautifully argued — and with his enviable capacity to attract exceptional research students to a field that might well, without him, have gone into decline. Beyond this, of all the colleagues I have worked with, he has had by far the surest understanding of university politics; though I have sometimes disagreed with him, his positions are always grounded and deeply thought through. I shall miss him very much as a day-by-day colleague, and trust that his emeritus research professorship will ensure that he keeps returning to Somerset House.

Prof. John House

I was fortunate to work with Robin Cormack during the years when the Institute had to respond to new quality assurance requirements. He was the Deputy Director who had to mediate the introduction of quite radical new procedures and the professionalisation of this kind of academic administration. The most obvious outcome was our success in the 1997 QA Assessment. His extensive experience, acquired as Reviewer for other institutions, and his masterly time management skills, that seem to be innate, proved essential. It was a pleasure to work with such a clear mind, one that is so finely attuned to the intellectual and political arena of higher education, and never patronising.

Dr. Rose Walker

I was one of the many fortunate students who had Robin as a doctoral supervisor. Throughout, he was inspiring, challenging and attentive — support which he has offered ever since. He is able to engage with each and every topic, certainly not limited to his field of expertise, and to be always questioning with a truly informed approach. From talking to undergraduate and masters students I know that his sophistication of thought and judicious direction has stimulated a profound and perceptive level of learning. Going with him on recent study trips has been a real pleasure and has highlighted his originality and attention to detail. Robin is an exemplary teacher and a remarkable man.

Dr. Cecily Hennessy