February 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
This isn’t a post I wanted to write, nor envisioned myself writing, for a very long time to come. Life had other plans, which is why I’m writing it years too early.
Last week John House, with whom it was my inestimable good fortune and privilege to study, passed away unexpectedly. To say that his passing leaves a gaping hole in so many areas – the study and practice of art history, the museum world, the lives of his students, past and present – is no exaggeration. There have already been, and no doubt will be many more, tributes to him (this one in the Guardian is especially eloquent), all of which will mention his contribution to the study of Impressionism (monumental) and his record of exhibitions and publications (enviable). But it’s as a teacher that I want to remember John here, for he was one of the best I – and I suspect many of his students – have ever had.
I was lucky to have studied with John in two contexts, a taught MA where I was one of eight students crowded around the table in his book-crammed study, and a PhD. What I remember most from the MA was his passionate enthusiasm for his subject, and how eloquently – and yet with such a light touch – he conveyed it, not just sitting around that table discussing Baudelaire, Benjamin and Zola but, even more memorably, in front of paintings in the Musée d’Orsay or simply strolling through Paris. I knew, even at that point, that I was destined for a museum rather than a lecture theatre, but his insistence that there was no substitute for close looking at works of art, that they should be at the heart of our argument rather than merely serving as pegs on which to hang theory, was and still is at the core of my own work. (It’s probably no accident that a considerable number of his students have become curators.) I also – probably like generations of his students – owe the beginning of my love of Paris to the trip where he whisked us all over the city. It wasn’t my first time there, but on my two previous visits I found the city cold, grey and intimidating. Paris seen through John’s eyes was a fascinating, multilayered city begging to be explored in all its bewildering variety, for like another John (Ruskin) he urged us to reject nothing and scorn nothing – not even the (frankly dreadful but still strangely interesting) nineteenth-century paintings in obscure churches dotted around the seventh arrondissement.
A PhD is a rather lonelier experience than the conviviality of a taught degree and because of its one-on-one nature it can so easily become fraught – I have known more than a few friends and acquaintances whose relationships with their supervisors went from bad to worse. There was never any danger of that with John. He was generous of his time and wealth of knowledge, but not prescriptive; incisive but never cruel (I got my share of chapter drafts back covered in red ink but rather than feeling crushed, I’d always feel relieved to have been nudged onto a clearer path); flexible and humane. That last is, I feel strongly, a woefully undervalued quality in a PhD supervisor. Writing a 100,000-word thesis in under four years is a painful experience, not least because you feel guilty 24/7 – guilty when you’re working on it, because your work isn’t good enough, and guilty when you’re not working on it, because you should be working – so often made even more painful by a supervisor who is a slave driver or a martinet about deadlines. Not John – if I was a week late with a chapter it was never the end of the world, and if I looked particularly frazzled he would counsel me to have a good dinner, a glass of wine, a day or two off. I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that under this gentle regime I not only finished on time, but also with my sanity and sense of humour intact – something which can be said of the vast majority of his doctoral students.
The last time I saw John was last June, at a conference given in honour of his retirement. Ten of his former students gave papers, and I think it a great tribute to his teaching that not only was the quality of all the papers sky-high, they were all utterly different from each other. His generosity – sharing his vast knowledge and then allowing us to forge our own way, rather than expecting slavish imitation – was always, with his humour, his enthusiasm and his eloquence, one of his distinguishing qualities, both as a person and as a teacher. My heart aches for all the generations of future students who will never experience his teaching, but at the same time, I feel blessed to be one of the countless students who will carry his teaching with us for the rest of our lives.