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Professor Francis Ames-Lewis

Elected 2005


‘I feel deeply privileged and touched that Birkbeck should wish to honour me in this manner, and I shall greatly value the company of the other Fellows,’ says Professor Francis Ames-Lewis, a distinguished art historian who served the College for 36 years, including three months as Acting Master in 2002, before he retired last year.

As Acting Master, Professor Ames-Lewis has presided over graduation ceremonies and attended many more as a member of staff, and he says it is a ‘great pleasure’ to return to receive his Fellowship.

‘This ceremony is extra special because my career at Birkbeck has meant so much to me. I’m very grateful to the College for its robust support of high-quality scholarship and I greatly value my contacts with colleagues and students over the years. I’m proud to have served Birkbeck in a number of important roles and to have made some small contributions to its impressive achievements in research.’

His high points at Birkbeck include witnessing the achievements of students ‘who started with disadvantages but won through with unexpected success’ he says. ‘I have been constantly amazed by the enthusiasm, high motivation and determination of students, especially those in adversity. Part-time students who achieve results as good as their full-time peers, although studying for only one year longer while holding down demanding full-time jobs, have often been particularly impressive.’

He continues: ‘Postgraduate students will often have had their intellects sharply challenged by cutting-edge, research-led teaching, but have responded with energy, imagination and intellectual excitement. It has been a frequent thrill to read their creative and original work, guided and stimulated by their intellectual maturity and the experiences of their professional lives.’

Initially employed as a lecturer in 1969 at what is now the College’s Department of History of Art, Professor Ames-Lewis progressed to senior lecturer, reader, professor, and Pevsner Professor in 2002. He served as head of department between 1981-84 and 1995-98, designed and launched the MA History of Art in 1983 and led the department to achieving top marks for teaching quality in 1998.

His College-wide roles included a five-year chairmanship of the Quality Assurance Committee from its inception, a term as Vice-Master, and as Acting Master until the appointment of Professor David Latchman.

Professor Ames-Lewis fondly remembers the pleasures of writing, which he says would have been impossible without the encouragement of Birkbeck. His books include Drawing in early Renaissance Italy (1981, 2000); The Draftsman Raphael (1986); and The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist (2000), as well as some 25 refereed journal articles.

He left Birkbeck with many memories, ‘not least of wonderful colleagues and students who became good friends, with happy memories especially of field trips to Florence and Venice’. However, it seems the last thing on his mind is relaxation in his retirement. ‘I plan to spend more time with my family and grandchildren, have more time for music-making and singing and continue to research and write books on the history of Italian Renaissance art.’


President, Master, Governors, Graduates and Guests.

Francis Ames-Lewis has participated in the life of Birkbeck College and nurtured the growth of art history in it for 36 years. He joined us as a young lecturer in 1969, following his MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art. He continued as a student at the Courtauld, conducting research towards the PhD on ‘The Library and Manuscripts of Cosimo de Medici’ which he completed in 1977, and which was later to be published by Garland Press. After this he turned to the study of Renaissance drawing, which at that point was a somewhat marginal area, of interest primarily to collectors, curators and connoisseurs. His pathbreaking book Drawing in Early Renaissance Italy, which appeared in 1981, was to change all that. In it, he displayed a meticulous attentiveness to the materials, techniques and processes employed in fifteenth-century drawing, a quality that would be the hallmark of his work thereafter. I will never look at a silverpoint drawing in the same way again, after learning that it was usually applied to a base composed of bone ground up with spit. But his book goes far beyond this, to reveal the many functions of drawings in fifteenth-century Italy - as models for other artists, and, increasingly, as objects to be collected, displayed and circulated as a kind of currency between artists and patrons. His next book, The Draughtsman Raphael, which appeared in 1986, extended this analysis into the sixteenth century.

In later work, Francis branched out into different areas of Renaissance art - most particularly, sculpture, with his book Tuscan Marble Carving 1250-1350: Sculpture and Civic Pride of 1997. This book focusses on the ways in which artists in Pisa, Siena and Florence contributed through their work in marble - pulpits, facades, funerary monuments and civic sculpture - to the projects of affirming and celebrating their cities. Once again, the emphasis is on the social use and function of these works, rather than on their style or beauty as autonomous objects. At the same time, Francis insists on the importance of close attention to those objects - most notably in his remarks on the importance of attending to the original settings and lighting conditions of objects that may today have been broken up or moved from their original locations.

In 2000, The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist charted the process whereby, during the course of the fifteenth-century artists such as Mantegna, Da Vinci, Raphael and Durer, strove for greater social and philosophical standing, through their writing, their explorations of the classical past and their cultivation of social contacts. Thus they moved from the condition of mere technicians or functionaries to the lauded estate of the artist as genius. In this book, which like all of his work, is as accessible and full of riches to the newcomer as it is to the erudite, Francis gives us something like a prehistory of the very idea of the artist.

Francis's standing as one of the leading scholars of Renaissance art of the last 30 years has been recognised in the many invitations he has had to lecture around the world. In 2002, he was invited to give the prestigious Lettura Vinciana in Florence. The following year, he assumed the title of Nikolaus Pevsner Professor of the History of Art.

But all this time, Francis had been at work developing the highly distinctive and much admired academic culture of the History of Art department. When he joined it, along with his coeval medievalist, Peter Draper, he doubled the establishment of the department, taking it from two to four. When Professors Laura Mulvey and Ian Christie joined it, more than 30 years later, it had grown into the School of History of Art Film and Visual Media - SHAFVM, or Shaving-Foam, for short.

Francis played a leading part in developing a unique departmental culture, in which students knew that, though they were being taught by researchers with international reputations, they were always absolutely at the centre of things. He led countless field trips to France and Italy and during the 1990s. He also revived the tradition of public lectures established by Nikolaus Pevsner. Francis himself took responsibility for seeing these renowned summer lectures, often mounted in parallel with current London exhibitions, into publication, editing volumes under Birkbeck’s own imprint, of lectures on the early Medici, Mantegna, Venetian painting and Da Vinci. He also developed links with colleagues in Poland, and edited the proceedings of the first two exchange conferences. His contribution to Anglo-Polish relations, at a crucial time after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the turning back to Western Europe of Poland, was recognised by the award of a medal by the Instytut Sztuki in Warsaw.

Francis has been the most tireless and dedicated of administrators. It is not often that the work of an administrator can justify the epithet ‘inspirational’, but no oxymoron is committed in using the word of Francis. His calm, resourcefulness and indefatigability in the face of the ever-increasing bureaucratic demands of recent years inspired gratitude and something approaching awe in his colleagues. Francis has made huge contributions to the life of Birkbeck. As chairman of the College's Quality Assurance Committee, a post he held for an heroic five years, he assured that the demands of reporting and accountability never distorted or deflected us from the fundamental joys and responsibilities of teaching.

But his instinct of service to the college never withered into mere servitude to the whims of the hour. When it was proposed to discontinue the teaching of Classics in the 1980s, he led the protests with the kind of polite but pitiless insistence that is so characteristic of him, declaring to anyone who would listen, and to quite a few who, at first, would not, that the absence of Classics weakened not only the teaching of the History of Art, but also the teaching across the whole Faculty of Arts. His endeavours eventually led to the return of Classics to the College, now adjoined to the School of History, Classics and Archaeology.

In 2000, he agreed to act as Vice-Master, to Professor Tim O’Shea. We have heard from the lips of Professor O’Shea himself, when he accepted his fellowship on this platform, that this was on the express understanding that there would never be any question of him having to act as Master. But, three years later, Tim O’Shea had departed for the University of Edinburgh, and Francis found himself acting as Master of the College.

I can reveal that Francis may partly have himself to blame for the Master's enlarged horizons. I remember being asked once what I knew about Thomas Gresham, the founder of a college in London. I ran through the risibly small fund of knowledge I possessed on the subject in a few minutes, but urged him to read the volume of essays on Sir Thomas Gresham that had been edited by the Vice-Master. Three months later, we heard that Tim O’Shea had been appointed Principal of Gresham College, having doubtless dazzled the appointments panel with his detailed knowledge of the life and works of their founder.

I know that one of the greatest pleasures of Francis's time as Acting Master of Birkbeck was presiding at graduation ceremonies like this one, for he has always been more at ease in admiring and applauding the achievements of others than in receiving praise himself. A previous occupant of the chair in which he is now sitting told me that the experience was like being slowly stroked to death. So Francis’s position today will, I know, truly be exquisite torture to him. But I am afraid I am constrained to deliver just a few more turns of the screw yet.

I have been a colleague of Francis's for 25 years, a mere eyeblink compared with the geological epoch of his time at Birkbeck, but long enough to appreciate for myself the vast contribution he has made to the life of the institution that he loves so much and the affection and esteem in which he is held by colleagues of all degrees, and in all areas of the college. Summer mornings in Gordon Square will lose much of their lilt, without the uplifting sight of the Pevsner Professor of the History of Art, sweeping up to number 43 on his bike, in surprising shorts, and with beard and hair streaming romantically in the wind. In the nearly two centuries of Birkbeck’s history, there can be few who have joined their lives more indissolubly to it, or lived out more ardently the ideal of academic fellowship. It is a great personal pleasure to welcome my much-admired friend, colleague, scholar, singer and cyclist, as Fellow of Birkbeck College.