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Interview: Susanna Avery-Quash, senior research curator (history of collecting), National Gallery

20 January 2023

‘Secular paintings can be equally potent triggers for sacred reflections’

Looking at pictures helps me see the world better. It slows me down and encourages me to look at things in detail, and also to think about their wider contexts. Paintings compel me to engage with another person’s world and viewpoint.

In 2019, John Ruskin’s bicentenary, I studied his texts and drawings while preparing a conference about him and museums. Ruskin’s watercolour study of a kingfisher’s feather underscores his reverence for nature, which encouraged me to look myself more closely at natural forms. “Hockney’s Eye” exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum last year included his arresting series of portraits, produced in 2000, of 12 National Gallery warders. Hockney’s obsession with how we see things challenged me to think more about our perceptions of time and space and how artists record these on a flat surface.

I was taken round Italy on family holidays, because my father, Charles Avery, is a historian of Italian sculpture. I learnt more about Renaissance art at school through my teacher Kate Evans; Giotto’s work during my Modern Languages degree with Robin Kirkpatrick; 18th-century British architecture with John Newman at the Courtauld; and the history of museums and Victorian collecting through my doctorate with John Gage. A constant mentor has been Nicholas Penny.

I enjoyed several fast-paced internships at Christie’s, but works of art pass through auction houses quickly, often disappearing from public view after the sale. I’ve always been grateful to study art in public galleries, especially those free of charge; so you can return to visit favourite pictures and discover new ones.

It’s been a privilege to connect people with paintings in a public gallery for nearly 25 years, with all the positive potential that such encounters bring with them.

I’m constantly drawn to the deep sensitivity towards the human condition that Rembrandt’s paintings demonstrate, as well as to the joyful exuberance of the abstract shapes and colours in Matisse’s art.

The National Gallery is the national hub for art-historical, conservation, and scientific research about historic painting. Research enables us to fulfil our core responsibilities of caring for our paintings, interpreting and sharing them in ways that are authoritative, meaningful, and sympathetic to contemporary life and concerns. At present, our research encompasses cultural and intellectual history, preventative and structural conservation, restoration, heritage science, technical imaging, and the digital humanities.

Historians, dealers, and collectors will be interested in authorship, which has an effect on a painting’s commercial worth. The longstanding Rembrandt Research Project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Dutch art historians to produce a comprehensive catalogue of authentic Rembrandt paintings.

Painters develop their own thinking and artistic output by studying how artists attempted to solve the perennial question of how to represent 3D entities moving through space and time. Research scientists study painters’ materials and how they created the effects they did, which in turn can influence techniques used by fellow conservators when restoring pictures. On the other hand, non-specialists looking at a picture may attend to its subject matter or how a particular painting may make them feel.

We know that many visitors, whenever they have a life decision to make, come and sit in front of a favourite painting to gather their thoughts, a particular favourite being Monet’s Waterlilies. I’ve gained strength from early Italian paintings, especially Ugolino di Nerio’s Deposition.

I’m currently in charge of the “Buying, Collecting and Display” and “Art and Religion” research strands, as well as our Women and the Arts Forum, and Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project, all of which encourage people to engage with our pictures in fresh ways from a variety of entry points.

Religious subjects may help people connect with spiritual things, but secular paintings can be equally potent triggers for sacred reflections. Art makes you see and, therefore, understand more clearly how things connect, and connection crucially encourages reflection about our relationships with self, others, and God. Art also encourages people to be receptive to the present moment, which is something that the spiritual life does, too.

Roughly one third of the paintings in the National Gallery’s collection of Western European art have Christian subjects because, after classical antiquity, Christianity shaped European culture between the 13th and 19th centuries. We address how and why these sacred works of art were made, what they might have meant to their original viewers, and what they mean to beholders today.

The power of their narratives and beauty of their execution speak to everyone — non-believers, too. So I’m thrilled to have been able to develop the Gallery’s Art and Religion strand over the last decade.

We have a highly respected Master’s degree in Christianity and the Arts, taught in association with King’s College, London. Students work across disciplines, exploring art-historical and theological dimensions of Christian art, using the collection to explore visual arts and spirituality, often learning in the galleries.

Each of the Gallery’s Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion, in addition to teaching on the MA course, produces a public-facing output. For instance, Dr Joost Joustra’s “Sin” exhibition brought together art by Bruegel, Velázquez, Andy Warhol to Tracey Emin — a version of his show is now on a nationwide tour. In 2022, Dr Rebecca Gill’s pioneering Virtual Reality experience, Virtual Veronese, invited audiences see what Veronese’s The Consecration of Saint Nicholas would have looked like in 1562 in its original sacred setting, and discover the story of its creation.

“Fruits of the Spirit: Art From the Heart”, co-curated by the Revd Dr Ayla Lepine and me, pairs nine pictures from the Gallery’s collection with nine from other UK museums, inspired by St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, concerning the nine positive attributes of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — positive attributes for individuals and communities in secular contexts, too.

It’s the first exhibition to work in partnership with nine collections from Dundee to Plymouth, with related events taking place between now and May 2023 across the UK, including an exhibition about faithfulness, and the theme of the finding of Moses, at London’s Foundling Museum. There’s a free online catalogue and a newly commissioned poem by the Jewish poet Aviva Dautch.

Nothing beats a face-to-face encounter, but many people, for a variety of reasons, can’t travel to art galleries to see the real thing; so digital exhibitions provide a wonderful alternative. Ayla and I were keen to make no charge for “Fruits of the Spirit” or the accompanying online catalogue — a decision supported by the Gallery’s director, Gabriele Finaldi, and the head of the curatorial department, Christine Riding.

The National Gallery, as a non-departmental public body, is partly sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, although we aim soon to be 50 per cent self-funding, and we raise income from individuals, grant-making trusts, and companies, corporate sponsorship, and membership. As one of our core aims is “to encourage access to the pictures for the education and enjoyment of the widest possible public now and in the future”, I don’t think patronage of the arts should be limited to private funding — its important impact deserves significant public funding.

The NHS believes that participation in the arts can dramatically improve health outcomes and well-being, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing agrees. I’m glad about that.

I was born in St John’s Wood, and grew up in Isleworth, near Osterley Park House and Hammersmith, before going to Peterhouse. I settled in Cambridge and brought up my family here, near my parents and my two triplet sisters and their families. We all benefit from the vibrant mix of town and gown. I’m particularly grateful for the magnificent Fitzwilliam Museum and Kettle’s Yard, and Peterhouse Chapel and my local church, St Andrew’s, Girton.

Gratuitous violence angers me. What disappoints me is that the press never celebrates good-news stories. I’d love more air space for positive happenings. They not only reflect human nature as much as bad events, but also promote charity and good will in others.

Hearing my two sons and two stepchildren with my husband laughing makes me extremely happy: there’s nothing I love more than having everyone gathered round a family meal.

The way that night continues to turn into day gives me hope, or the dead of winter giving way to new life in spring. I am given hope when I see close family and friends who have overcome very considerable challenges not stopping smiling or giving up on love or life.

I pray that God’s will be done on earth and his Kingdom come, and that those I love find true happiness, peace, and health, in body, mind, and spirit.

I’d choose to be locked in the Duomo in Florence, my favourite city, with Jesus. Being in his presence would allow me to “behold God face to face” and understand better his own perfect vision for humanity, rather than seeing things “through a glass darkly”.


Dr Avery-Quash was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


More information about “Fruits of the Spirit: Art From the Heart” here

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