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Professor Kate Retford

Professor of History of Art

BA, MA (Warwick), PhD (Warwick)

Contact details

tel: 0207 631 6114

Mailing address

Department of History of Art
School of Arts
Birkbeck, University of London
43 Gordon Square
London WC1H 0PD

About Dr Kate Retford

Kate Retford joined the Department of History of Art at Birkbeck in 2003. She researches eighteenth-century British art, particularly the portraiture of the period, issues of gender, and the country house art collection. Kate has written a number of articles and her first book, The Art of Domestic Life: Family Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century England, published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press in 2006, was runner-up for the Longman History Today Book Award that year.

Kate is a member of the Birkbeck Eighteenth-Century Research Group.

New Book: The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Winner of a Historians of British Art book award, 2017 (1600-1800 category)

shortlisted for the Apollo Book of the Year award 2018

Kate was awarded a Paul Mellon Senior Fellowship (October 2013 to April 2014) to help her complete her new book, The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain. This was published by Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre in October 2017. The Conversation Piece explores the emergence of a new type of small group portrait in eighteenth-century Britain, in which diminutive sitters, engaged in activities such as taking tea or playing cards, are seen seated in genteel interiors or enjoying the air in their landscape gardens. The first monograph on this subject for decades, it examines the reasons for the development of this innovative art form, unpicks the resonances of that evocative word 'conversation', analyses the nature and function of those carefully described settings, and explores the full range of relationships encompassed in these groups.

Read a review of Kate's book by Alexandra Macdonald here.

Print Rooms

Kate has begun a new research project on print rooms in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century country houses in Britain and Ireland, with the support of a research support grant from the Paul Mellon Centre. A fashion for pasting prints onto the walls of a room, often adorned with printed paper borders and decorative elements such as festoons, was in full swing from the 1750s through to the 1820s. Engraved images ranging from portraits, through scenes from Piranesi’s 'Vedute di Roma', to contemporary satires were compiled in striking displays that could run from numbers of 30-50 to some 200-300 prints.

Shakespeare in the Royal Collections

Kate is Co-Investigator on a new AHRC-funded research project, ‘Shakespeare in the Royal Collections’, led by Principal Investigator Professor Gordon McMullan at King's College, London. The project seeks to establish a new understanding of the relationship of Shakespeare and the royal family from 1714 to the present by way of the first thorough investigation of the Shakespeare-related holdings in the Royal Collections. It explores the mutually sustaining and legitimating nature of the development of both Shakespeare and the royal family as hegemonic cultural phenomena, asking the twin questions: what has Shakespeare done for the royals, and what have the royals done for Shakespeare? Follow Postdoctoral Research Associate, Dr. Sally Barnden, on twitter!

Country Houses, Town Houses

Kate has been involved in a number of projects about British houses and art collections. In 2013, she co-edited a collection of essays exploring the relationship between eighteenth-century portraiture and the English country house, with Professor Gill Perry, Dr Jordan Vibert and Hannah Lyons, entitled Placing Faces: The Portrait and the English Country House in the Long Eighteenth Century (Manchester University Press). In 2015, she co-organised a major conference entitled Animating the Eighteenth-Century Country House, a collaboration between Birkbeck, the National Gallery, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. This was followed by a related event the following year, co-organised by the same institutions: Animating the Georgian London Town House. This has formed the basis of a volume of essays, The Georgian London Town House: Building, Collecting and Display, co-edited by Kate and Dr. Susanna Avery-Quash, which will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in March 2019.