The first English Art History PhD

Image from the autobiography of George N. Kates, 1989, Oxford University Press.

Oxford students, 1930 – the year of the first PhD in Art History awarded in England.

It is well known that, for a long time, Art History didn’t have it easy in Britain. After all, this is the country where the first Secretary of State for Culture (a position that was established only in 1992) joked that he was now head of the “ministry of fun.” The first chair in Art History was thus only established in 1955 at the university of Oxford. Only since then has it been possible to receive a proper university education in the subject – or so the story goes. When Francis Haskell gave a “Thank offering to Britain“ lecture on 22 November 1988, he apparently felt uneasy. His homeland, Haskell said, had after all absolutely no merits in the proliferation of art historical research. „Any English art historian of my generation is bound to feel even more embarrassed than flattered to be asked to give the ‚Thank you to Britain‘ lecture.“ His lecture on “The Growth of British Art History and its Debts to Europe” (Proceedings of the British Academy LXXIV (1988)) thus emphasised first and foremost the latter part: That art history as an academic discipline was a complete import from Europe, transplanted to the British Isles. That the said first chair at Oxford was held by Edgar Wind, a German émigré, supports this argument. Haskell consequently dedicated his lecture not to England, but to the Warburg Institute, as the driving force, or so he argued, behind the establishment of Art History in Britain.

What went unnoticed is, however, that it was quite possible to obtain a degree as an art historian even before the magical date of 1955. The earliest doctorate awarded for an art historical thesis at an English university that I have found so far dates to the year 1930. Admittedly, this still appears to be very late when compared to Germany, where the first professor for Art History, J.D. Fiorillo in Goettingen, took office in 1813. However, as Wolfgang Beyrodt has shown, it was at least until 1900 quite uncommon actually to obtain a degree in the subject. Just think of one of the most important modern art historians, Heinrich Woelfflin, who graduated in 1886 in Philosophy – and not in Art History (Kunstgeschichte als Universitaetsfach, in: Peter Ganz et al. (ed.), Kunst und Kunsttheorie 1400-1900 (Wiesbaden: Harassowitz, 1991), 313-333).

So, the first art historical graduation in England still took a bit longer than in Germany – but maybe not as long as is often assumed. The student who earned his D.Phil. at Oxford in 1930 with a thesis on “The passing of the middle ages and the advent of the Renaissance in French art” was Mr. George N. Kates (Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research VIII (1930/31), 176). His supervisor was Professor Arthur Magyer Hind, Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford from 1921 to 1927, Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard in 1930/31, and later Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.

Kates, born in 1895 in Cincinnati, had already graduated from Harvard in 1922. The descendant of a wealthy industrialist family, he grew up in different countries, and was educated, among others, in private schools in Mexico City and New York. As he wrote in his quite entertaining autobiography The years that were fat: Peking 1933-40 (1952):

KATES_cover“My family’s general habit of living had been international. I had grown up familiar with many countries of Europe, and with Central and South America as well. An English governess, and later a succession of frauleins and mademoiselles, had taught me some of my languages” (p. 1-2) – etc.

His professional career started quite glamorously: after graduation, he worked in Hollywood for Paramount Pictures where he “spent five swiftly moving and diverting years surrounded by all the trappings of its fabricated ‘glamour’” (p. 3).

Nevertheless, Kates returned to university to obtain his doctorate. And how intensely he studied:

“In Oxford, amid endless conversation, teas and dinners, with games and sport and long walks about the countryside, I continued to ‘read’ in European History and the Fine Arts. I spent the frequent vacations of the English university year on the Continent, in one charming place after another.” (p. 3-4)

His so-called ’studies‘ don’t seem to have occupied too much of his time. One thus wonders how this man, apparently more accustomed to the good life and its “routine luxuries” (p. 3) than to serious academic study, managed to finish a thesis. And here, the Harvard connection might prove to have been important again. Kates, as said, had graduated from Harvard in 1922; from 1923 he was secretary of the newly founded “Harvard Club of Oxford” which helped Harvard students to spend a year in England. It is, thus, possible that Kates was involved in lobbying the other way round too.  The appointment of his supervisor to the Harvard Charles Norton professorship in the very year of his PhD graduation, 1930, suggests the density of links between within the contemporary academic world. As Kates indicates quite bluntly in his autobiography: “The dons of Oxford, I discovered, secretly yearned for money (and I was making money, lightly and readily)” (p. 4). It seems that Kates had talents in parallel to his scholarship, that his teachers were quite charmed by. This post is not intended as a comment or a critique on Kates’ thesis, which may indeed be a significant piece of scholarship. But it seems clear from his own memories of how he obtained it, and its subsequent obscurity, that this was not the main aim of the work.

The first art historical PhD obtained at an English University thus changes the gloomy picture slightly. It certainly was a subject which could be studied before Wind’s appointment in 1955. Nevertheless, It seems it was not, at its earliest stages so much the target of the committed scholar as of the leisured and well-heeled, a feature which maintains its distinction from the development of Art History as a discipline on the Continent.


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