Reviewed by: Cheryl LaGuardia, Research Librarian, Widener Library, Harvard University
Published jointly by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (PMC), London, and the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), New Haven, British Art Studies grew out of “many conversations and collaborations between the two centres, working with scholars and institutions worldwide. The foremost aim of British Art Studies (BAS) is to provide a platform for innovative thinking, debate, and dialogue about British art, an area of research that … is constantly changing, expanding, and being re-defined.” The editors want to “encourage and share a multitude of approaches, voices, and objects.” The journal is open access and available online only, with no print counterpart, and is “designed primarily to be read on screen (although all content can be downloaded or read offline)…, with “pages of BAS responsively adapt[ing] to the size and orientation of the device, whether a computer, tablet, or smartphone.”
The stated “guiding principle for developing BAS has been to ask what could be done with a digital journal that could not be done in print.” To that end, instead of assigning a single image as an issue’s cover, the editors “worked with the artists and curators of British Art Show 8 to create a dynamic set of covers, featuring eight works and a “Cover Collaboration” commentary. Each time the journal is reloaded or refreshed, a new image [is] displayed.” And the journal is indeed replete with lush, high-resolution, resplendent images, as well as sharply defined photographs conveying a sense of tactility rare in an online journal. Content is accessible in multiple ways, through an issue index, an image-based article index, and a keyword search feature.
BAS uses the digital format to “reach beyond the physical walls of [the brick and mortar] buildings in London and New Haven,” and articles here deal with “a diverse range of topics, periods, and approaches.” The publication format is for there to be two open issues as well as one special issue each year, allowing the editors to “remain responsive and engaged with the very best and most exciting scholarship in the field.”
The case can certainly be made that “the very best and most exciting scholarship in the field” can be found here, making good use of the digital format. Issues offer single-author articles as well as “interactive features that foster dialogue, discussion, and the participation of many voices—including those of readers.” Issue 7, for Autumn 2017 offers an “In the Artist’s Words” piece titled, “From a Sheet of Paper to the Sky,” which is a short (app. 10 minute) film that “grew out of research that [the author, Inga Fraser] conducted for an essay of the same title, written for the catalogue accompanying the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain (October 2016 to March 2017).” The author notes about this film, “It seemed I had a point to make that was best made visually, with direct reference to the works themselves and to the “voice” of Nash as found among his various writings. Consequently, when asked to present a paper on the theme of my catalogue essay for the Paul Nash study day organized jointly by Emma Chambers at Tate and the Paul Mellon Centre, I proposed to make a short film that would allow space and time for the works, and for Nash, to speak for themselves.”
The piece, “The Famous Women Dinner Service: A Critical Introduction and Catalogue,” is a “Look First” feature that presents a “catalogue documenting Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant's 1932 painted dinner service commission,” consisting of a “completed set of 50 plates, which feature portraits of “famous women” throughout history, [that] survived wartime bombing and several moves of house by the Clark family, but for the past 30 years its whereabouts had been unknown to art historians. In spring 2017, prompted by the Vanessa Bell monographic exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, the owner of the dinner service contacted Piano Nobile art gallery. It soon emerged that not only was the set intact, but that the plates themselves, hand-painted on Wedgwood blanks, have been preserved in their original condition.” This online presentation “offers the first opportunity for close scholarly examination of a culturally and visually potent art object. The feature uses photography, archival materials, and film to explore the process of creating the set and its place in the history of art. The present article includes a catalogue with biographical entries for each of the women featured in the set, together with source images and preparatory materials. The article text establishes where this playful, yet ground-breaking work fits within the artists’ oeuvres, and within a feminist history of art.”
Also in Issue 7 is the “Conversation Piece,” “Art by the Many: London Style Cults of the 1960s.” The “Conversation Piece” is “a British Art Studies series that draws together a group of contributors to respond to an idea, provocation, or question. The conversation develop[s] as more respondents enter the debate. Readers can also join in by adding a response at the bottom of the page.” “Seeing Red” is the Cover Collaboration focused on the installation, Made in China, by the artist Clare Twomey, which is “a legion of vases, each about five feet high, made of porcelain. Floridly patterned and scarlet red, they are placed throughout the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), on every floor, in the galleries, in the library court, on the stairs.” Thus a new image of Made in China displays every time the journal issue is reloaded or refreshed.
There are also general articles, accompanied by gorgeous illustrations, in the issue, such as “’The Snob’s Chaldron: Alexander Davison and the Private Patronage of History Painting in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain,” discussing how, “in 1806, the wealthy merchant Alexander Davison commissioned eight leading artists to produce paintings depicting scenes from British history to hang in the dining room of his London townhouse in St James’s Square. Many of these pictures are now lost but a record of the gallery is preserved in the patron’s Descriptive Catalogue, which is presented here as a digital facsimile,” along with text “[exploring] Davison’s activities…, argu[ing] that the gallery was designed to serve an ambitious private agenda as the merchant–a prosperous parvenu and convicted fraudster–sought to secure entry into upper-class society and to escape the taint of scandal. Deploying a traditionally public genre for private gain, Davison’s project invites us to consider the opportunities, as well as the problems, associated with patronizing history painting in early nineteenth-century Britain,” as well as “Elegant Engravings of the Pacific: Illustrations of James Cook’s Expeditions in British Eighteenth-Century Magazines,” which showcases “extraordinary images of the [Pacific] region presented to the public… [which] became the basis for dozens of artworks, which brought to life areas of the world that had previously been little known to Europeans.”
Making excellent use of text, visual works, and film, the BAS certainly does “open the conversation about British art and architecture even more widely,” as hoped for by its editors. A splendidly conceived and realized digital tool for exploring the many faces of British art, enthusiastically recommended to students, art scholars, and art historians.