Art history and me

| Kate Aspinall is a freelance art historian and trustee of the Association for Art History. She reflects on what made her fall in love with art history.|

My relationship with the history of art began with a single confrontation that shook me deeply. I was seven years old, frightened (and knowledgeable) of sharks and standing before John Singleton Copley’s monumental oil painting Watson and the Shark of 1778. It captivated me. I was already visually inclined, but this was the first time that the image alone was not enough.

I didn’t have the full words for it, but I realised later was that what inspired me so urgently, was a pressing need to know why the water was so translucent and how an image that looked so personal was expressed in a manner so epic. Later I learnt how appropriate these fixations were – what translucency and mirrored surfaces symbolised for Colonial America and how Copley, a Boston native, had taken an innovative chance in channelling the personal memory of a successful merchant, Brook Watson, into a European-style history painting in order to establish himself in London.

I now work with history of art as a researcher, writer and artist. The memory of this first impulse to study a picture has thus become particularly special. It was when I first fell in love. It was not so much the realisation that paintwork was like a puzzle hiding insights, but that these could remain emotionally and intellectual potent to the point of possession centuries later.

This experience has deeply informed my current conviction that art is enhanced by study and that art is a space within which the maker metabolises wider conflict, be it personal urges, political instability or consumer shifts. It reflects and essentialises as well as expands and questions so much that we humans cannot channel within the limitations of verbal language. I am proud to be an art historian for I strongly believe in the primacy and necessity of studying art: visual culture is our social subconscious and understanding it is to understand ourselves. As a society we neglect this consciousness at our own risk.