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AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership: ‘Settings and Subjects in Early Netherlandish Painting’

Posted on 21 April 2017

The Department of History of Art at the University of York and the National Gallery invite applications for a three-year full-time Collaborative Doctoral Award studentship, fully funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), to investigate the interrelationships between figural subjects and settings in the making and meaning of early Netherlandish paintings. The studentship commences on 1 October 2017 and will be jointly supervised by Dr Jeanne Nuechterlein (University of York) and Dr Susan Foister (National Gallery).

The Bowes Museum’s recently-acquired St Luke Drawing the Virgin and Child by the Bouts workshop ( both depicts and was made by an artist setting his subject. Combining elements of portraiture, religious subject, interior and landscape, the composition depicts the Virgin and Child posing before a cloth of honour, while Saint Luke uses metalpoint drawing to transform the figures into a head-and-shoulders rendition. In the right background, a partially painted panel indicates figural outlines and a first layer of the Virgin’s red cloak, though it is not clear whether Saint Luke intends to give this in-progress panel an entirely abstract background (like the Bouts-workshop Mater Dolorosa with a gold ground, NG711, c. 1470-75), or will set the Virgin and Child against a depiction of cloth (as in the Bouts-workshop Virgin and Child, NG708, c. 1465), or perhaps frame them with elements of an interior with a view out onto landscape (as in the Bouts Virgin and Child, NG2595, c. 1465). Any of these choices would create a different effect from the main scene’s full-sized, semi-narrative rendition of the Virgin and Child situated in a well-articulated space.

Settings and Subjects takes this Bouts-workshop painting, which will form the heart of an exhibition opening at York Art Gallery in Autumn 2019, as a starting point for investigating how and why early Netherlandish artists formulated varying contexts for figural subjects. These settings ranged widely from entirely abstract grounds, to cloth backdrops, to dividing balustrades, to glimpses of a room corner, to more detailed interiors with or without exterior views, to outdoors (whether landscape or cityscape, entirely open or within garden walls). Recent scholarship has investigated the spatial and conceptual relationships between the separate panels of diptychs and triptychs, while other studies have examined the iconographic significance of particular types of settings such as landscape or domestic interiors, but there has been no systematic study of how the wide range of possible settings in early Netherlandish paintings affected artists’ creative processes and viewers’ interpretive experiences.

This project will focus primarily on portraiture and on depictions of the Virgin in order to examine the stark contrasts in effect between fully abstract grounds vs extensively articulated interiors, as well as the more subtle variations arising from different forms of depicted spaces. Starting from the premise that the meanings of figures and their settings are inextricably interconnected, the project as a whole will question how settings may have affected figural design, and vice versa; how the function of panels, or the requirements of particular patrons, may have affected the choice of setting; how different settings might alter a viewer’s experience of the same subject; how settings contribute to iconography and meaning of both secular and sacred figures; and whether consistent patterns in selection or design of settings can be detected within or between workshops in the period c. 1425-1525. The National Gallery’s excellent early Netherlandish collections and the rich body of technical and art-historical work carried out on them in recent decades will form the nucleus of the project’s case studies.

The PhD candidate will be given considerable freedom to develop his/her own dissertation topic within the wider remit of this project, and s/he will have the opportunity to contribute to the development of the 2019 exhibition.

Entry Requirements

To be considered for this funding you must:

  • have a good first degree (at least 2.1, or international equivalent) in a relevant field
  • have obtained or are currently working towards a Masters degree at Merit level, or international equivalent
  • be a native speaker, or satisfy the English language entry requirements of the University of York
  • meet the AHRC’s terms of eligibility. Note that overseas students are not normally eligible, and students with EU residency are eligible for a fees-only award (see below under Funding Notes)

Apply for this studentship

  • You must complete an online application form for a PhD in History of Art (entry 2017 October, full-time)
  • Upload with your application: a full CV; academic transcripts; a writing sample of up to 5,000 words; proof of English language proficiency (if relevant); and a supporting letter of application, outlining in approximately 1,000 words the particular area or approach to this subject you would like to undertake, and your motivations for applying for a collaborative PhD between York and the National Gallery.
  • Please ask two referees to email signed references (from their institutional email accounts) to by Friday 19 May 2017.

You will be expected to attend an interview at the University of York and demonstrate:

    • imaginative and viable preliminary ideas for research into this subject area
    • an appreciation of the nature of PhD study and of both independent and collaborative research
    • clear motivation for undertaking PhD study in York in this subject area in collaboration with the National Gallery
    • evidence that you have, or can develop, the skills required to start the proposed research

Funding Notes

This Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD studentship is funded by the AHRC. The full studentship award for students with UK residency* includes fees and a stipend of £14,553 per annum plus £550 p.a. additional stipend payment for Collaborative Doctoral students for 3 years. In addition, the Student Development Fund (equivalent to 0.5 years of stipend payments) is also available to support the cost of training, work placements, and other development opportunities. Students with EU residency are eligible for a fees-only studentship award. International applicants are normally not eligible to apply for this studentship. The National Gallery will provide up to £1000 a year to cover travel and other costs the student incurs travelling to carry out research at the Gallery and other locations. Both partners and the CDP consortium will provide opportunities for training and career development.

*UK residency means having settled status in the UK that is no restriction on how long you can stay in the UK; and having been "ordinarily resident" in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the studentship that is you must have been normally residing in the UK apart from temporary or occasional absences; and not been residing in the UK wholly or mainly for the purposes of full-time education.


Closing date for receipt of applications is midnight (GMT) Friday 19 May 2017.

Interviews are preliminarily scheduled for Thursday 8 June 2017 at the University of York.

Studentships start in October 2017.

Application enquiries

For informal enquiries, please contact the main supervisors Dr Jeanne Nuechterlein ( or Dr Susan Foister (