History of Art

History of Art involves you flitting between seminars in the grand Fitzwilliam Museum, supervision strolls along The Backs as you discuss “What is landscape?”, and of course the bog standard lectures prerequisite in any Cambridge degree. However, enjoyment comes at a price: as soon as you utter the words “History of Art” to any clueless undergrad you are met with an expression – half amused, half pitying – as phrases such as “copout degree” and “no job prospects” formulate in their mind. Despite this, do not be deterred, as you will quickly discover that you are studying one of the most diverse and challenging courses on offer at Cambridge.

The Course

The course itself is three years, unfortunately with no opportunity for a year abroad (for some reason the university thinks lawyers will benefit more from time overseas). First year is fairly prescriptive, covering the history of western art from antiquity until the twentieth century. In some ways this is a valuable overview, in others it is an absurd lesson in cramming several centuries into a week before dashing on to the next subject for your weekly essay. One of the best things about first year History of Art is that you have two classes a week on the enormous array of objects around Cambridge, from drawings behind the scenes at the Fitz to a college chapel to Ely Cathedral. Perhaps the most daunting aspect of first year is the only thing you are actually given a choice on, the short dissertation. 5,000 words can seem a lot to write on one work of art, but once you start reading around the object you will find that you quickly have too much to say, rather than too little.

While first year History of Art at Cambridge, and indeed most universities, acts as a general overview of the subject, second and third years here give you greater choice. You still have compulsory modules, in second year the excellent Approaches course where you grapple with difficult questions, and in third year Display in which you think more about curatorship. Your time will be divided between these and one optional module per term, accumulating your essay total to three every two weeks (plus proper dissertation in final year). Due to the frustrating lack of funding the department receives, there are only five options per term and the more popular courses are often filled by third years, leaving second years with their second or third choices. However, the occasional lack of choice is usually more than made up for by the teaching. You will begin to realise the diversity of intellectual approaches taken by your lecturers and available to you, ranging from those interpreting History of Art as cultural history to those sticking to pure aesthetic inquiry.

How the course is taught

Supervisions, in which you discuss the issues raised in your submitted essay, are held in small groups with either world experts on the subject or PhD students hoping to attain such virtuosity. Though you can get the occasional supervisor more interested in their own research than teaching you, the faculty staff are on the whole brilliant and genuinely interested in hearing your opinion, as well as sharing their expansive knowledge. These are great opportunities to really get to grips with what you are studying and exceptional to the Cambridge course.

That being said, throughout your time at Cambridge you will often be pilloried for lack of lectures (only a few a week), but what this means in reality is that the “free time” you have is actually intended for independent research. You may look longingly at the beautifully arranged handouts clutched by the sanctimonious science students, but much of the knowledge you accrue at Cambridge will be down to you and how much time you are willing to spend in the library, with the odd nudge in the right direction from your supervisor. At Peterhouse, the library is portentously called the Ward. Luckily, it is increasingly well stocked for art history and provides a peaceful working environment. For books you also have the option of the faculty library, which has pretty much everything you need, although with core reading you can often find some eager student has beaten you to it. There is also the intimidating and enormous university-wide library, which really does have everything if you are willing to brave the barred windows and bunker-like South Front.

History of Art at Peterhouse

As the course is very much run on a department-based system, it matters little which college you apply to. The main pro of studying at Peterhouse is geography. Particularly in first year, you are the closest you could possibly be to the faculty without actually living in it. This makes for expedient bed-to-lecture times. At Peterhouse you will also have an excellent Director of Studies, Alex Marr, who happily falls into the category of staff who actually cares about their students.

Advice for applicants

If you are considering applying for History of Art the best thing to do is simply to go to as many galleries as possible and think about what you are seeing, why the artist has chosen that particular subject and to paint it in that way (or if it was the artist’s choice at all). Gombrich’s ’The Story of Art’ is a recommended read for a good overview, although it is exceedingly traditional. It is also worth finding one or two areas of specific interest and gaining specialist knowledge of them, as it gives you a greater sense of the spectrum of viewpoints prevalent in the discipline.

Advice for offer-holders

If you have applied an been accepted, again it is useful to visit as many galleries as you can and also do a bit of reading, but the best thing to do is have a good rest, because once you arrive at Cambridge it will be a whirlwind of work and socialising. It will be the greatest and maddest three years you will have spent yet, but you had better make the most of sleep while you can!

[Updated 06/03/2014]