I was deeply moved to read the obituaries of art historian and author Anita Brookner earlier this week. Dr Brookner was teaching at the Courtauld Institute in the mid-1980s and as an undergraduate student there I took her course on eighteenth century French painting. She cut a slightly distanced figure at the time, poised to lead the seminars in her study at the top of a narrow staircase above the Witt Photographic Library in the Courtauld’s Portman Square building. With her bouffant red hair, thick mascara, pressed cashmere sweaters and pencil skirts she appeared like an elegant vision from two decades previously, wreathed in expensive perfume.
Her approach to Art History seemed similarly out of time: austere, classical, erudite and unconcerned with the incursions of the social history of art and new art history that had taken hold in other institutions. In her contributions to the grand survey lecture series that took place every Monday and Wednesday morning she drew on her recent published monograph on Jacques-Louis David and I have never forgotten her passionate account of the Oath of the Horatii, her petite form taking on the pose of the triplet brothers as they made their patriotic vow.
Brookner won the Booker Prize for her novel Hotel du Lac while she was teaching us and celebrated by paying for all purchases from the Courtauld coffee bar on the morning after the ceremony. She retired a couple of years later in 1988, by which time I had graduated and taken up my first job, inputting iconographical detail to the Getty-funded Witt Library database project. My desk was just outside her office and she passed some unwanted books to me as she left: Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and Peter Murray’s essay on ‘Piranesi and the Grandeur of Ancient Rome.’
I was a callow 23 year old then and had no idea that I would one day progress to a Chair in Cultural History and the Principalship of Edinburgh College of Art. The Great Cat Massacre seemed an obscure choice of leaving present to me. But it was typical of Brookner’s wry, and deeply caring approach to her tutees. She knew where my talents (as they were) and interests might lead (not as a cataloguer or picture-librarian). Thirty years later and I now know that every sentence I write, every painting I appreciate, every sadness I comprehend owes something to her teaching. Anita Brookner’s quiet skill as a scholar and tutor has stayed with me and if I bequeath just half of her wisdom to my own students I will have succeeded at something important.