X Close

Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Question of the Week: Where did UCL acquire its Art Collection?

By Kevin Guyan, on 12 February 2014

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

Questions directed towards Engagers come in all forms, one of the most common questions I have been asked while working in the Art Museum is also one of the most of interest to me:

Where did UCL acquire its Art Collection?

Excited by the romantic vision of illicit meetings between UCL staff and art collectors, foreign trips and auction houses, I made my own investigations into the history of the collection.

Perhaps reassuringly, the history behind the 10,000 plus objects in the UCL collection is more mundane than I had first expected.  The collection has developed through two main sources: links between UCL and the Slade School of Fine Art and the receipt of art work bequeathed to the museum.

A collection of material produced by prize-winning students studying at the Slade would, in its own right, offer a collection of great importance, with notable students including Stanley Spencer, Paula Rego and Augustus John.  This collection policy continues to the present day, with the museum recently acquiring A Printers’ Symphony,  a sound recording accompanied by a concertina of printed images and marks from these processes, bound together like a musical score and Marianna Simnett’s video Dog, which won the William Coldstream Memorial prize in 2013.

Marianna Simnett, Dog (2013) (c) UCL Art Museum

Marianna Simnett, Dog (2013) (c) UCL Art Museum

What about the collection’s Durers and Rembrandts – they surely were not linked to a school of art that they predate by over two centuries?  The second source explains the acquisition of the collection’s older material.

Above all, the collection is a teaching resource and it is the hope of benefactors that by donating their work to the collection it will be of benefit and enjoyment to the students and staff at UCL as well as being shared with the general public more broadly.

This made me think about how the museum goes about collecting work in the present day.  Space is an obvious limitation and the time of UCL staff is finite, there must therefore be limitations on what the museum can and cannot accept, raising questions over who holds the power of this decision?

The Art Museum is the only collection at UCL that continues to grow, as the other UCL collections do not acquire new objects.  Any acquisition of new works is first approved by a committee and is subject to a strict acquisition policy.  It can be the case that UCL chooses to turn down works if it is felt that they would be unable to conserve or store them properly.

The question of how UCL Art Museum acquired its collection made me rethink the processes behind why the collection takes it current shape.  A more in-depth account of the collection’s acquisition history and charting the chronological spread of the material would be fascinating – a ready subject, perhaps, for a future blog post?

Engaging with Black Bloomsbury

By Kevin Guyan, on 18 October 2013

Kevin Guyan

By Kevin Guyan



'Life Painting', Slade School of Fine Art.

‘Life Painting’, Slade School of Fine Art. George Konig, Keystone Press Agency.

The idea of Bloomsbury is as much a product of the mind as it is a geographical location.  Like Soho, its borders have been established through a mixture of real and fictional ideas, dependent more upon common opinion than municipal rulings.  The borders of Bloomsbury have been a common theme discussed by visitors to UCL Art Museum’s ongoing exhibition, Black Bloomsbury.

In my role as a Student Engager, it has been my task to draw links between the exhibition material and my own research interests.  My work explores how domestic spaces impacted upon the production and reproduction of masculinities in the postwar period (c. 1945-1966), a topic not unrelated to some of the themes emerging from the exhibition.  Afternoons spent engaging in the museum have helped shape my own research; offering a refreshing and reflexive dimension to my work.  Discussing people’s opinions on historical ideas has challenged visitors and I to reconsider our views.  The process usually begins with a casual, “is this your first time at the exhibition?”  After this pleasant introduction and explanation of my role within the museum; around half of the visitors will continue to explore the exhibition on their own, the other half will return with their thoughts, their opinions or questions on the work.
Although my own research focuses upon a different time period (1945-1966 rather than 1918-1948) and a different subject matter (White men rather than Black and Asian men and women), I have located some common themes running across both examples:

Space and identity

The relationship between space and experience, particularly within the context of identity, is one key example.  Black Bloomsbury is co-curated by Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Gemma Romain, from the Equiano Centre based in UCL’s Geography Department, and because of this geographical context, an effective sense of people and place emerges throughout the exhibition.  For example, upon arrival, visitors are met with a large map detailing around 40 locations and a list of characters linked to the exhibition – showing where the characters lived, worked, met and socialised.

The role of place and space links to a secondary project I have been exploring in the past two years, focusing on how bodies were understood within dance hall spaces in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  In my work, the dance hall is framed as more than simply a backdrop for events and instead participates in my historical research as a productive force shaping the actions described.  For example, my research has explored the architecture and spatial arrangement of dance halls, admission policies, rules and rituals – all components that impacted a particular sense of identity when ‘going dancing’.  It appears to be the case that Bloomsbury had a similar affect upon the characters featured in the exhibition.


Equally interesting has been a consideration of the exhibition’s methodological approach.  Alongside paintings, photographs are also displayed as a means to show how historians have been able to ‘see into the past’.  Unlike text sources that may make no mention of race, photographs present a visual window through which it is often possible to ‘see race’.  A key example of this approach in the exhibition is a class photograph of art students based at the Slade in 1938.  Although the name and background of every student is not known, the photograph allows modern-day observers to see the racial diversity of those attending the school at that time.

This is something I intend to echo in my own historical writing, in which actions and behaviours of men in domestic spaces are often hidden or beyond the vision of typical research methods.  Of course, it is very unlikely for source material to indicate that a household task was conducted in a ‘manly fashion’ or read personal accounts by men of domestic space, in which their sense of gender is discussed.  This therefore leads to questions over how best to trace these actions and behaviours?  This can be remedied by examining family photograph albums, documentary footage or any other visual source offering uncontrived access to spaces of the past, allowing historians to ‘see’ what men were doing in the home and how they were interacting with their environment.

Importantly, like Black Bloomsbury, my work also intends to not simply describe the actions and behaviours located or analyse them only within the confines of what is being discussed.  Instead, there is a need to conduct historical leaps – in which ‘everyday examples’ are used to consider what these performances say about wider ideas of race, gender and nation.

Politics and historical baggage

One key focus of the exhibition is on artists and their sitters, based on work developed with the Drawing Over the Colour Line project.  The relationship between artists and sitters has evoked several questions among visitors over the identities of these sitters and how they fit into wider social contexts of early 20th Century London.  What is often most interesting in the photographs of artists and their sitters is not located in the foreground but what is actually taking place in the background of the images.  A particular talking point has been a photograph of a Black male model, sitting perched in a loin cloth in the middle of the room, surrounded by several White, female students.  It is difficult not to see this image of a near-nude Black male and young, White women without setting-off historical alarm bells.  Yet, due to the spatial context of where these people are situated (in an artist’s studio rather than on the street) certain social customs appear to be excused, creating a situation far removed from the moral panic that may be found elsewhere in 1940s London over the association of Black men, quite often American servicemen, and White women.

Engaging upon ideas that are not resident in the distant past, has the potential for divided opinions and clashes over differing histories.  In my own public engagement events on experiences of ‘going dancing’ in London in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, there was often a tension between ‘official histories’ and personal reminiscences.  How can a workable history be extracted from memories – whose memories should matter most?  Should historians try to be as objective as possible or acknowledge that the past can be mined to satisfy contemporary political needs and desires?  These themes also emerge throughout Black Bloomsbury.  Some visitors have questioned the purpose of the exhibition and the political motivation for attempting to expand people’s image of Bloomsbury.  As I see it, it is not an attempt to evict Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes from their associations with Bloomsbury and replace them with a new assortment of characters but instead to complicate this image and suggest that, as was the case with areas like Soho, there was an equally cosmopolitan presence in early 20th Century Bloomsbury.  Through the production of historical geographies or geographical histories, the exhibition and people’s responses to the material continues to show the importance of space in shaping the actions of historical actors and how historical figures are perceived by those living in the present.



Kevin Guyan will be leading a walking tour of Black Bloomsbury between 12 and 1.30pm on Saturday 26 October, exploring topics including geographical settlement, student organisations such as the Indian Students Union, Black visitors to the British Museum’s Reading Room and the fight against the ‘colour bar’ in the area.

He will also give a talk titled Going Dancing: Black Bloomsbury and Dance in the 1940s about the Black presence in 1940s Bloomsbury, focusing on histories of cultural interaction in social spaces such as dancehalls. The event takes place at UCL Art Museum on 15 November between 2 and 3.30pm.

For further information on either event please contact Martine Roulea, UCL Art Museum, m.rouleau@ucl.ac.uk or 020 7679 2540.

Slade Artists Do It Better: Q&A with Artist Siân Landau

By Gemma Angel, on 20 May 2013

Lisa Plotkin  by Lisa Plotkin





Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with young artist Siân Landau to discuss her work, and in particular, her contribution to UCL Art Museum’s Duet exhibition. For such a young person Siân’s CV is impressive. A recent graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art, she is also the recipient of the prestigious Thomas Scholarship from the Slade and has also served as a Heal’s artist in residence.

Duet is the fifth annual collaboration between the Slade School of Fine Art and the UCL Art Museum. The exhibition challenged Slade students to take inspiration from a piece of work already in the Art Museum’s vast collection, and produce something in response. The results were as varied as they were thought provoking, with participating artists taking inspiration from Hogarth to Gwen John, and many others. But it was the four watercolours on the wall, two of which are shown below, depicting colourful female nudes that really caught my eye.

Slade Lady1


Entitled Slade Ladies Do It Better this piece by Landau sheds a unique light on the Slade as a historical institution for female artists and allows us to re-imagine the ways in which the female nude has become an artistic and cultural symbol. Landau’s accompanying text explaining the piece in more detail reads as follows:

The four watercolours I have made are of nude women who are currently studying at the Slade, in each image a woman recreates the poses of female life models from drawings made by some of the first women to study there. The studies I work from were made between 1893 and 1915. I acknowledge the original works by naming each piece with the first name of the artist who made the drawing; Alice, Dorothy, Ethel and Eveleen. My contemporary response to these traditional life drawings celebrates the diversity of female beauty, with colour and decoration to bring life and delicacy. I hope to encourage reflection in a society where women continue to feel the pressures of the male gaze and its unrealistic ideals.



As an historian of women and gender, I immediately wanted to sit down with Sian and try to get at what compelled her to make this piece, find out more about her process, ask what kind of reaction her work is garnering, and find out what is in store for her next.

Q: How did you become a student at the Slade and what has inspired you to continue making art? 

A: I have always loved art and when I was at school doing my A levels I thought to myself wow, I can actually go forward with this and really enjoy studying it! So then I did a foundation course at Chelsea [College of Art and Design] in 2009-2010 and I absolutely loved it. It was a real chance to just explore so many different ways of making art- we did fashion, we did graphic, fine art, visual communications and media, and it was then that I knew fine art was definitely for me. I applied to the Slade from there and the last three years here have been amazing. They give you the freedom to do what you want to do and it has only been in the last year that my interests have taken on their true identity, I guess. The first couple of years you are kind of dabbling around, thinking what is it- what is the crux of my work? It takes some time to figure that out.

Q: What was it like working within the constraints of Duet as a concept?  What did your process entail? 

A: Artists are always inspired by a number of things, but it was different to actually come in and work with a specific piece. But, it was within my own art practice that I started looking at women artists and the place of erotica in feminist discourse. That tension isn’t resolved yet, but I knew I was interested in exploring it further, so when this project came up I thought I would just go in and see what they had, like what I might respond to. And when we came in for the initial briefing they had loads of easels out around the room with loads of different works that they had selected and one of them was a nude woman- you know, a life model- and I saw it and I thought that’s what I’ve got to respond to!

I mean in a contemporary sense a nude woman is not a shocking thing anymore, it’s everywhere so I just thought I could make a piece that commented on that ubiquity. And then it was through coming back and doing research and looking at more women artists that drew women at the Slade that I really made the connection with how I could take that and do something with it. And for me it just seemed really important and obvious that I should take that and literally use the women working now at the Slade because life drawings aren’t really done here anymore- I mean it’s not a big part of the programme – so with this piece I was able to bring that back again as well.

Q: What do you hope to convey with this piece?

A: I hope to highlight the history of the Slade as an educational facility for women, which was something that I found out more about in the process of making this piece. The Slade opened in the 1870s and women were admitted, which was 25 years before any other professional art school let women enroll, which was an amazing fact to find out. What a great thing for women’s rights to be able to study at that level and I wanted to increase awareness of that.

Q: How does this piece fit in with the rest of your work? Do you explore these types of themes often?

A: Well it’s in there. The degree show I just exhibited was more about desire- the physicality of desire. I was making paintings that were quite abstract at first, but then when you look closer you see that there is actually a really fluid image of two people in a sexual act. And they were all quite colourful- I love to experiment with colour and pattern and line as well. My drawings are usually a lot looser than is shown with this piece. And my ceramic sculpture pieces deal with the hands on side of sexual encounters and just handling something, whether it’s the body, or for me it was handling clay, in order to express desire. So, yes my previous work does link in with some of the themes I explored in this piece, so it was nice to run something parallel with my contemporary practice, yet still different. In the future I do want to look more into the history of the nude, which does have an immense history.

Q: And how has this piece been received?

A: Overall it has been really positive.

Q: So, now that you have finished at the Slade, what’s next for you?

A: Good question! I am not going on to an MA & further study is not a priority for me at the moment, but I will be making work, doing some research, just getting a studio space and carrying on making work.

Art and Psychiatry: Henry Scott Tuke

By Gemma Angel, on 15 October 2012

by Sarah Chaney





Henry Scott Tuke was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1870s, winning a three-year-scholarship in 1877: sadly, this was twenty years too early for his prize-winning work to have made it into the UCL Art Museum. The Tuke family had a number of connections with UCL, however: Henry’s elder brother was a medical student at University College Hospital.

Although biographies of the Newlyn painter often mention his doctor father, little is made of this connection – Henry remains a figure of interest for art and cultural historians, and his father for historians of medicine. Yet parallels between art and psychiatry were often emphasised in the late nineteenth century. Daniel Hack Tuke, Henry’s father, was a governor at Bethlem Royal Hospital from the 1870s until his death in 1897, and art was an important topic at the asylum, for patients and staff alike. Daniel’s obituary in the Hospital Magazine, Under the Dome, concentrated on his well-known son, noting that:

The early death of his eldest son, who was a brilliant student of University College Hospital, was a painful blow to Dr. Tuke, but no doubt he found some amount of solace under this loss in the successful career as a painter of his other son, Mr. H.S. Tuke. The latter has been a foremost member of the Newlyn School, and like most of his brother artists of that school of painters, has lived a good deal on his boat on the coast of Cornwall, and, we remember, that about three seasons since, Dr. Tuke, upon his first visit to the Hospital, after his autumn holiday, said to the present writer that he had much enjoyed it, having in good part spent it with his son upon the latter’s studio-boat. [1]

From this remark, it would seem that Henry and his father were close. It may be interesting to pay closer attention to the fact that Henry Scott Tuke is best remembered today for his Impressionist style paintings of male nudes, becoming a cult figure in gay cultural circles. Was this connection also made in his life? Certainly, homosexuality (or ‘sexual inversion’ as it was more commonly known at this time) was a topic of interest for many psychiatrists, among whom Daniel Hack Tuke was extremely prominent. In Austria, for example, forensic psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing devoted much of his magnum opus, Psychopathia Sexualis (first published in 1886) to the topic, later becoming a fervent opponent of Paragraph 26, which outlawed homosexual acts in German and Austrian law.

English sexologist, Havelock Ellis, meanwhile, had been mentored by Hack Tuke during his own days as a medical student. In the early 1890s Ellis and writer (and self-confessed ‘invert’) John Addington Symonds corresponded about a book they wished to write together on the topic. Ellis complained about the lack of interest from his medical colleagues, in particular that Daniel Hack Tuke himself “wrap[ped] a wet blanket around it [the topic], with averted eyes”. Symonds had similarly been annoyed in a letter to his friend, Edmund Gosse, that when he tried to ‘draw’ Tuke on the topic of ‘sexual inversion’ he “found that he preferred to discourse on ‘hypnotism’.”[2]

Symonds and Gosse were both certain of the ‘character’ of Henry Scott Tuke’s art (i.e. homosexual). Perhaps this was also why Symonds felt that Daniel would be a natural ally, in addition to the doctor being an old friend of his father’s. In 1891, he sent the psychiatrist his philosophical text on homosexuality, A Problem in Modern Ethics, but informed Havelock Ellis that Tuke “shrinks from entertaining the question in any practical way.”[3] A year later, Symonds was made ‘angry’ by Daniel’s attitude, seeing it as evidence of the refusal of English Medical Psychologists to discuss the topic at all. Tuke, Symonds claimed, was “unscientifically prejudiced to the last degree.”[4] Today, we may well feel that Symonds’ anger was justified, and that Daniel Hack Tuke should have lent his well-known name to a project, in support of his son. Or we may feel that the “sentimental” psychiatrist (as his colleagues described him) was the very worst person for Symonds and Ellis to approach, and that the topic of sexual inversion might, to him, have appeared personally painful. He may have worried that his involvement might reflect badly on his son’s career or, alternatively, he might not have regarded the topic as falling into the field of pathology at all. We can conclude, however, that Ellis and Symonds felt that Daniel Hack Tuke’s personal connections should encourage a commitment to exploring homosexuality both medically and politically, and that the quiet, serious doctor did not.

He did, however, keenly support his son’s career, attending exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Art – and, perhaps, at the Slade before that. While there is no work by Henry Scott Tuke himself in the UCL Collection, the Art Museum includes work by his teachers. The artist studied under Sir Edward Poynter, depicted here in a portrait by Alphonse Legros, another of Henry’s teachers.

Sir Edward Poynter by Alphonse Legros (1837 – 1911) from the UCL Art Museum


[1] Anon. “Daniel Hack Tuke, M.D., F.R.C.P., LL.D.” Under the Dome, vol. 4, no. 14 (June 1895)

[2] Havelock Ellis, John Addington Symonds, and Ivan Crozier, Sexual Inversion: A Critical Edition, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) , p. 39; Symonds to Gosse, 15 Nov 1890 in John Addington Symonds, The Letters of John Addington Symonds: Volume III 1885-1893, eds. Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters, ed.(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969) , p. 518

[3] Symonds to Ellis, July 1891, Symonds, John Addington, 1969, p. 587

[4] Symonds to Ellis, July 7 1892, Symonds, John Addington, 1969, p. 710

Art Not Words: Female Figure Standing, 1913

By Gemma Angel, on 13 August 2012

Lisa Plotkinby Lisa Plotkin






1913 was an interesting year for British women. Militant suffragette violence had reached an all-time high, with dozens of women sent to prison each week in the name of female suffrage. The deeds of the suffragettes became more and more outrageous as time went on, with many smashing windows, setting fires, attacking members of parliament, and just generally causing havoc by doing things that women simply were not supposed to do. Under their militant slogan “deeds not words!” thousands of women joined the cause.

By 1913 women were doing and not just saying. They may not have had political representation, but they were making political news. They were heavily involved in local politics; they were nurses in larger numbers and doctors in fewer; they were teachers and factory workers; reformers at home and missionaries abroad. In short, they were as diverse in occupation then as women are now. And they were also artists.

Thia was a fact that UCL’s Art Museum left me no doubt of during their most recent exhibition, in which work from the affiliated Slade School of Art was showcased. Founded in 1871, the Slade School followed UCL’s proud tradition of gender equality and admitted men and women on equal footing, seven years before the University of London allowed women to take examinations.

In 1913 women’s output was limited, constrained by legislative factors and social mores. But in 1913 their artistic output from the Slade was nothing short of astonishing, both in quantity and quality. The featured artists in the recent UCL Art Museum exhibition were tasked with taking historical pieces from the UCL collections, and producing works that somehow comments or speaks to the earlier works.

The two easels grabbed my eye immediately – in fact for me they were really central to the whole exhibition. As you can see from the image below – the piece (by current Slade student Laura Kuch) features two almost completely identical paintings of the backs of nude women. Kuch positioned them as though they were facing back-to-back – their double always invisible – but standing just behind them.

Laura Kuch, Dopplegängers, 2012. Two wooden easels, Dora Carrington, Female Figure Standing, 1913 (framed), Fanny J Fletcher, Female Figure Standing, 1913. © Laura Kuch. Installation shot photographed by Mary Hinkley, UCL Media Services.

But Kuch herself was not the painter of these two works; she discovered them tucked away in UCL storage. This surprised Kuch. Why were there two identical paintings, both labeled “Female Figure Standing, 1913” and why were they attributed to two different artists?

It was later discovered that the two artists, both women students at the Slade in 1913, painted this female figure standing as part of a competition. These two paintings were the first and second place winners. As an historian of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, these two female nudes speak to me. Women artists painted this woman 99 years ago. They competed in a university competition 99 years ago. A woman took off her clothes for a group of artists 99 years ago. Those are all statements about the status of women 99 years ago. It might seem divorced from the larger Woman Question of the time, but it wasn’t.

The great, late poet author Adrienne Rich once wrote: “We are not the Woman Question asked by somebody else; we are the women who ask the questions.”[1] The women artists of the Slade from the 1870s until today posed their questions and stated their answers, through art. Not deeds, not words, but art. And now almost one hundred years later we still get to enjoy it.


[1] Adrienne Rich, “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” in in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986).