ULEMHAS   BIRKBECK & ALUMNI HISTORY OF ART SOCIETY
 

 

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THE FOUNDING OF ULEMHAS

by the late Claire Andrews (from the 2003 issue of ULEMHAS Review)

The University of London Extra-Mural History of Art Society held its first proper meeting on the 30th October 1981 in the Beveridge Hall, Senate House. Few of us knew each other. But concerned about our subject, we had come in twos and threes from all over the London region on a chilly Friday evening to hear this inaugural lecture. It was given by the then Director of the National Gallery, Sir Michael Levey; an inspired and inspiring choice -that institution being at the very core of a London art education - and his subject "An Alternative View of Art History" was chosen to give heart to this audience. It was a tough lecture, with no condescension, or slides, and it worked. By opening up different perspectives in its own subject it conjured up faith in a continuing, if different, future: a faith badly needed in a University Department which in that grim financial year of 1981, was threatened with possible total closure.

Cuts in Central Grants Funding meant that London University, like others, was facing alarmingly reduced resources. A solution to its problems would be to shed one entire educational responsibility: the Extra-Mural branch being the logical choice. But that limb supported all the University's most accessible courses. A sudden axing would ensure political uproar, followed probably by diminishing returns. It was a similar dilemma with adult student fees. They should and would go up, but if overnight they rose to anywhere near the shortfall tomorrow no students would be able to pay. A "no demand" situation would justify indeed a future axing.

Whatever economies chosen, radical change must come sooner or later. The Extra-Mural Department would defend its own; each Subject Department prepared to present its separate case. Thus student subject societies, as exemplary vehicles for consultation, consolidation and sheer high profile came into their own if already in existence (like Music and Ecology) or were swiftly convened if (like English, Philosophy and History of Art) they were not.

Our Convenor was Maria Shirley, full-time Staff Lecturer with academic responsibility for our Diploma Programme and well known for teaching the Classical Course. Instead of forming ULEMHAS from a single class, she mustered her colleagues to brief and enthuse their own students for support, creating a broad base for the Society. Three lecturers joined her steering committee: John Boulton Smith, a man of great painterly sensibility and an expert on Scandinavian art; Roberta (Macrae) Taylor, who gave the Society its essential grounding in architecture; Claire Ford-Wille, a particularly dynamic Diploma teacher with interests in Dutch, German and Flemish painting. Other lecturers - Eve King, Richard Pestell, Michael Symes, and many others took an active interest. Three students, John Wood, Ann Norton and myself were recruited to the committee, listening while they devised a programme of suitably attractive width and depth, deliberately inviting speakers from a diversity of institutions. The wider the support for our subject inside and outside the University the better.

I had not experienced Miss Shirley's Classical course, but holding a National Design Diploma and the ATC, I had been attending her Post-Diploma classes at the National Gallery. I knew her as a uniquely captivating teacher. She was a brilliant exponent of both the manifest and the invisible in any work; detecting its content from its form; then explaining and expanding that context by means of other, many sources. She was exacting and imaginative, authoritative and humble. Presenting a paper in that class was a worthwhile, if fearful challenge. She could be gentle, encouraging and genuinely impressed, but also devastatingly blunt, notoriously so. We learnt to deflect that explosive indignation, absorbing criticism while tending our wounds. Yet she once confessed how frightening she found the confidently educated, English middle class. French on her mother's side, and of formidable family on both, she had won a Slade Drawing Scholarship at a very early age, and was only now, in 1982 and at the University's insistence, taking her BA. At Birkbeck Francis Ames-Lewis was her tutor.

This situation, fraught for her, was significant for ULEMHAS which, on March 5th 1982 at the AGM in the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, was handed over to six students, and left to its own devices. I, as Hon. Chairman took on responsibility for a blank programme; Terry Bingham-Daly offered rare computer skills as Hon. Secretary; Margaret Staniforth learnt from scratch the Treasurer's job and membership business; Erika Speel, Joan Heaton and Winifred Crathern provided diplomacy, constitutional know-how, social catering in strange venues and invaluable academic support. Husbands offered quietly wise, if sometimes exasperating advice. It was daunting. What if, in our hands, ULEMHAS became an UNexemplary vehicle, exposing the wrong angled profile? But Clare Ford-Wille was also a member, (co-opted) to our committee. Totally approachable, if often committed elsewhere, she gave us advice, contacts, practical help with projectors, and above all else confidence to get on with it. Our brief was to maintain the pattern and standard already set. We were, and continued to be our teachers' students: "by their fruits ye shall know them".
Our chosen speakers agreed to come: they were generous. People wanted to hear them and a shared experience began. Membership grew.

 

  Another account, by the same author, appeared in the 25th anniversary issue of Review Two (2006)

For tributes to the late Maria Shirley, follow this link.

In 2015 we changed our name to London Art History Society. This link explains why.

Webmaster: Andrew Gray

Updated: 01 May 2016