Introducing Dr Leah Clark

Dr Leah Clark, our new Director of Studies in History of Art, is an art historian whose research looks at the exchange and mobility of art objects in the fifteenth century.

Tell us about your research.

I’m interested in the exchange and collection of objects in the fifteenth century. By ‘objects’ I mean a broad range of artefacts that were collected, which include anything from ceramics and jewels to the more traditional categories we associate with collecting today such as sculpture and paintings. My research largely looks at collecting from the point of view of the objects rather than the patrons, so rather than viewing collections as static or reflecting the tastes of one patron, I’m interested in the stories objects tell as they move from person to person. Many objects didn’t stay in one collection very long as they were often used as collateral and were pawned or sold when funds were required.

You’ve an interest in the sensory aspects of art history: can you explain? How do spices and other aromatics feature in the world of art?

Art history has predominantly been concerned with sight, but scholars are now turning to the other senses to consider how objects and works of art were engaged with and this can reveal new insights into works we thought we knew so well.

For example, collectors in the Renaissance were interested in the touch and the sound of Chinese porcelain, not just the blue and white patterns. An attention to these sensorial conditions has led me to consider how porcelain might have been valued but also what it was used for. Chinese porcelain was extremely rare in Europe for most of the fifteenth century, and it was often received as diplomatic gifts from the Mamluk and Ottoman sultans (what is now Syria, Egypt, and Turkey) often gifted in tandem with rare and highly prized spices. For Europeans, the material of porcelain was understood to be almost magical as how it was made was a mystery and some believed it had apotropaic qualities, that is, it could detect and even deter poison.

My research has discovered that many collectors didn’t just use porcelain for display, but indeed used it to hold spices, so it was bound up in the diplomatic gift exchanges and the interests in its material make up. This has led me to think about what other prized objects were used with spices, and I have now started looking at incense burners, spice jars, and metal receptacles that were often used throughout the spaces of a palace or a home.

What I’ve discovered is some of these objects might have been used with paintings – such as incense burned in front of a painting of the Virgin, or special water buckets used to house Holy Water might have been hung in front of religious images and used as part of devotion. What we also see is artists starting to integrate these novel objects into paintings of the time, so for example the well-known gifts of the Magi – gold, frankincense and myrrh – might be depicted in a painting in contemporary receptacles collectors might have had in their own collections to hold spices and aromatics.

A sensorial approach to art history also means you really have to engage with other disciplines, which is why I’ve been working closely with Helen Coffey, a musicologist at the Open University, and we’re planning on hosting an annual conference at Oxford on Early Modern Sensory Experiences (EMSE).

Your academic profile states an interest in the ‘exchange and mobility of art objects in the fifteenth century’ – can you give us some examples? How and why were art objects exchanged?

My research has shown that objects often moved frequently in and out of collections, and through that mobility they often gained reputations. The reason for this movement was varied from being exchanged as gifts to being pawned or sold. It wasn’t uncommon to regift – something today that isn’t always seen as appropriate! But in the Renaissance, regifting was common practice and was a way to create alliances.

Objects then gained their own biographies through this process and some objects even were endowed with names. So for example, a famous jewel would have its own name so it would be easily traced and it would be shown off to visitors as ‘the jewel that was owned by such and such a king.’

I’m also currently Co-Investigator on an AHRC funded project with Katherine Wilson at Chester called the ‘Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries’ (or MOB), which as an interdisciplinary project looking at the movement of a wide range of objects from floor tiles to medieval shoes. We have a forthcoming edited volume due next year as well as an exhibition at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester opening in spring 2022.

Why is studying the history of art important? What makes it relevant today?

History of art cuts across so many subjects and disciplines, so you can study art history and also ask questions about gender or race or economics or even the environment. The visual skills you learn in the history of art are particularly important, especially in today’s world when we are continuously bombarded by images – whether in the media or on social media. History of art gives you the critical tools to assess the visual world around you, whether it’s a building that you’re living in, a picture you’re looking at on your phone, a poster on the tube or at a bus station or a painting on a gallery wall.

How has studying the history of art changed in recent years, and what changes are ongoing?

The discipline has spent a fair amount of time questioning itself in the last few decades. What is often seen as an elitist, Eurocentric discipline is redefining itself. It might have had its origins as a discipline in nineteenth-century Europe, but art has been produced for millennia and in all parts of the globe. The discipline has also shifted to move away from just what was once called ‘high’ art (such as painting, sculpture and architecture) to consider all sorts of material and visual culture produced all over the globe.

Studying the history of art now involves looking at works of art from global perspectives as well as transcultural perspectives, meaning most cultures are plural to begin with and most works of art then reflect a multitude of cultures. So even if you’re looking at an Italian Renaissance altarpiece it is likely that the materials to make it travelled across the silk roads, the clothing worn by the Biblical subjects represent imported textiles, and the Biblical story itself is set in the Middle East and thus would be bound up in viewers’ perceptions of contemporary geo-politics.

It is also a moment to ask questions about who and what have been left out of traditional art history and a time to rectify that.

For me, it’s also important to widen participation in the discipline and this needs to happen much earlier – in schools. This is why, while working at the Open University, I founded Open Arts Objects, an open access platform providing free films and teaching support materials to help teachers in schools embed art history into the curriculum. Broadening the scope of art history, widening access, diversifying the curriculum, and questioning our own practices and specialist subject areas are all key things that need to happen and I strongly believe that these initiatives will only enrich the subject.

What is the direction of travel for our history of art programme, going forward?

To offer a robust and exciting programme for the history of art at Oxford Continuing Education means to also think about the developments in the larger field of the history of art and to ensure our students understand and engage with those debates and transformations. This might range from looking at the same material but asking new questions to engaging with transcultural and global histories of art. I can guarantee that whatever we do it will continue to be exciting, engaging, and life-changing!

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Published 11 November 2021