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Emeritus Professor William Vaughan

(Elected 2010)


Professor Vaughan has been Emeritus Professor of History of Art at Birkbeck since 2003. The main area of his research is Romanticism, particularly British and German art around the start of the nineteeth century. His recent research has considered artistic communities in London in the nineteenth century, British art and national identity, and aspects of romantic landscape.

He has a strong interest in computer applications in the History of Art and was Chair of CHArt (Computers and the History of Art) from its initiation in 1986 until 2003. Professor Vaughan was instrumental in developing joint research projects in this area between Birkbeck and institutions in the museum world, in particular the National Gallery.

Prior to joining Birkbeck in 1986 as Professor of History of Art in the School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media, Professor Vaughan was a Reader at University College London (1972–1986) and an Assistant Keeper at the Tate (1968–1972).

His books include German Romantic Painting; Romanticism and Art; William Blake; and British Painting: The Golden Age: From Hogarth to Turner. He is currently completing a monograph on Samuel Palmer, and a study of the artistic profession in London c.1800–1850.

He has curated several exhibitions, including:

  • Caspar David Friedrich at the Tate in 1972
  • The Romantic Spirit in German Art at the Hayward Gallery in 1996
  • The Artist’s Model in British Art from Etty to Spencer (with Martin Postle) for English Heritage in 1999
  • Samuel Palmer; Vision and Landscape at the British Museum in 2005.

Since 2005 Professor Vaughan has been a trustee of the Art Fund, and since 2009 Senior Research Fellow at Tate Britain.

'I greatly valued my years at Birkbeck, particularly because of the dedication and enthusiasm of both staff and students. It was an inspiring place to work,' commented Professor Vaughan on his Fellowship.


Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests

Professor William Vaughan is one of the most respected historians and critics of Romantic art in the world. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the introduction  of German Romantic art to a British public, doing more to foster this area of study than any other writer. This undertaking began with the exhibition of the work of Caspar David Friedrich that he curated at the Tate Gallery in 1972 , an exhibition that began a sea-change in opinion with regard to this artist, rescuing him from the discrediting opinion of Kenneth Clark, who dismissed him as a painter who was trying to do with a brush what could much better be done with a pen. William Vaughan’s Romantic Art of 1978, which was reissued as Romanticism and Art in 1994, was widely acclaimed for its breadth of reference and for its masterly capacity to put writers like Goya, Blake, Gericault and Turner in their social and intellectual contexts. His German Romanticism and English Art, which appeared in 1980, was the first study of the subject in English a pioneering study of the influence of German philosophy and art on English artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites. This was followed in 1982 by German Romantic Painting, an ambitious and compendious study of German painting between 1790 and 1850. A book on Thomas Gainsborough in 2002, provided a modernised view of an artist whose work is more often celebrated than analysed fully in its contexts.

Will is not only possessed of a fine and sharply judicious eye, he writes with an unusual elegance and sparkle, mediating often highly specialised material with a democratic generosity of address. Reviewers find it hard not to quote at length his precise, atmospheric and captivating evocations of paintings – which can occasionally be disappointing in comparison with the luminousness of Will’s renderings of them. But, alongside the sharpness and responsiveness of his attention to art objects, Will has always emphasised the importance of an understanding of the social, political and economic conditions in which art operates. In 1988, he even described himself, in an interview for the Guardian, as a ‘Marxist with a small “m” in that his approach to art focused more on the ‘material conditions in which paintings are created’ rather than solely on the individual qualities and achievements of artists.

Will’s principal and abiding interest has been in the inter-relations that weave themselves through and around the practice of art. This is an interest that emerges in the collection he coedited in 2000, Artistic Brotherhoods in the Nineteenth Century. More recently, another collection of essays entitled English Accents (2004) investigated the relations between British art and that of other cultures in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Will’s own contribution to that volume stressed how fluid and far-reaching those relations were.

William Vaughan joined the then history of art department in 1986, having previously been Reader in History of Art at University College. He brought a new lustre to a department that was already greatly distinguished not only by the power of its traditions and the depth of its scholarship, but also by the abundance and quality of its facial hair. But Will he was not in the least outfaced by the challenge, and, as his reputation and the range of his writing expanded, so his beard seemed to ramify in splendid and sumptuous sympathy. I was told by one young female lecturer who was appointed to a post in Art History here in the early 1980s that the most difficult challenge she faced at the beginning of her Birkbeck career was how to furnish herself with a sufficiently magisterial set of whiskers to have credibility as an art historian. That she now occupies the Niklaus Pevsner Chair of Art History indicates that there were other forms of intellectual authority available.

I had occasion to consult Will once about a lecture I was writing on the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg, who studied fine art at Birkbeck just before the War. The origins of Birkbeck College in the London Mechanics’ Institution, set up to provide training for artisans and craftsmen in the capital, meant that courses in drawing, sculpture and other practical and design crafts were a thriving and indispensable part of our provision. This began to wane during the twentieth century, while the historical and critical study of art, first developed under Niklaus Pevsner in the 1940s, has gone from strength to strength. During our conversation, Will confided to me his secret wish that one day the study of fine art and allied accomplishments (as they might have been called in the nineteenth century), might one day return to Birkbeck. Will is himself a skilled and committed draughtsman, the doodles he would execute during departmental meetings being a reproach, in their delicate and intricate grace, to the worldly wordy-gurdy of the bureaucratic grind. 

During a time when art history underwent some seismic intellectual upheavals, and new approaches of many different kinds were challenging the connoisseurial traditions of a previous generation, Will showed himself generously open to new currents of thinking about the understanding of art. Shortly after his arrival at Birkbeck, Will developed a new interest and expertise which surprised even those who had grown used to the catholicity of his talents and enthusiasms. He was one of the first art historians to investigate seriously the possibilities that computing might make to the study of art. He had begun this work at UCL, where he was the prime mover in the creation of a group called CHart, Computers in the History of Art. In his inaugural lecture at Birkbeck in 1988, he spoke about his work developing what was known as the Morelli project, named after the nineteenth-century art critic Giovanni Morelli, who built a system of analysis around close attention to trifling details like earlobes and eyebrows. The Morelli system used computer-aided searching and recognition systems to distinguish different paintings, track different reproductions of an image back to their original, and find matches between images that are formally similar to each other. Reporting on this project, the popular press frothed enthusiastically about the automatic art-forgery detection machine that the Birkbeck boffins had invented.

A new breed of brisk, mostly beardless, technical whizzkid began to be seen in Gordon Square, as computing specialists were recruited to work on another venture, the VASARI project, which used very high resolution scanning of images for the purposes of conservation and historical record. His colleagues were astonished that Will proved as adept at making his way through pages of computer code as he was at tracing the contours of brush-strokes. Will was typically alert to the philosophical implications of these new developments, noting wryly that in time the high resolution digital image of a work of art was is likely to be accorded the kind of reverent respect reserved for the original work of art, given that originals decay and digital images do not. ‘A picture’, he declared with quiet momentousness at the time, ‘is its appearance’.

The Romantic Spirit in German Art at the Hayward Gallery in 1996, The Artist’s Model in British Art from Etty to Spencer, for English Heritage in 1999, and, most recently, Samuel Palmer; Vision and Landscape at the British Museum in 2005, as part of his ongoing work on Samuel Palmer. In 2009, he was elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Will has been since 2005 a member of the Board of Trustees of the Art Fund, which is the UK’s leading independent art charity. The Art Fund makes available grants which help British museums and galleries extend their collections and campaigns more generally on behalf of museums and their visitors.

His interests are even broader than this; in an essay contributed to a volume on Whistler’s Mother in 2003, he explored the relationship between artists and their mothers from Albrecht Durer to Tracey Emin. He continues to be in demand to lecture across the UK and beyond, and will shortly embark on a new lecturing venture – embark, literally, for he will be the lead speaker on a art cruise that will sail from Italy to the Iberian Peninsula, during which he will guide the passengers round Renaissance Pisa, the French Riviera of Picasso and Matisse, Gaudi’s surrealism Barcelona, the Moorish architecture of Seville and the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. He does not set sail until May, so there may still be time for a few more midshipmen or cabin-boys to enlist in the crew of the good ship Aesthetic.

William Vaughan is one of the most notable art historians of this, or any other generation. His work, spread across so many different fields, has been an illumination and inspiration to many. He has also been bottomlessly generous in his support and encouragement of younger colleagues and the new ideas they have sought to develop. It is due in very large part to this undoctrinaire openness that the History of Art Department has been able so successfully to extend its activities into so many areas of visual culture, becoming the Department of History of Art and Screen Media that it is today. Very few academics succeed in leaving behind them a legacy of such fondness, admiration and respect as Will Vaughan, and so it is an enormous personal pleasure and privilege for me to welcome him now