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We wanted to give you a chance to find out more about Liz Prettejohn. Her research focuses on Victorian painting and sculpture, the Pre-Raphaelites, Aestheticism, classical reception in modern art, and relationships between philosophical aesthetics and art practice.

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I was born in the United States, and I did my first degree in History of Art at Harvard. Afterwards, I worked in management consultancy. I did that for a few years, and was transferred to London. At which point, I got fed up with business life, and decided to do a Masters in History of Art.

The thing that fascinated me at the time was that, although I had a degree in art history, I had learned very little about British art, particularly from the 19th century. There was material on the golden age of British landscape painting - Turner and Constable - but after that, there was the idea that British art had ceased to be interesting. The idea that it was only things like French Impressionism that really contributed to modern art.

One thing led to another, and here I am - 30 years later, and I’m still working on British art.

A question of taste

I was intrigued by the idea that there was a taste problem - that much of Victorian art, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites, was in bad taste. Therefore, it couldn’t be part of a university degree.

It was somehow vulgar - the colours were too brash, the subject matter too sentimental, too romantic. I thought that the drama, the bright colours, the heart-rending stories, the interest in narrative and literature - all those things that we weren’t supposed to like - were intriguing.

I've spent most of the rest of my career trying to work out why it is that Victorian art particularly has such a low scholarly reputation, while at the same time being popular with audiences and the general public.

A changing field

When I did my postgraduate degrees, believe it or not, we didn’t have the internet to help us do research. Now, if you look up any British artist, say Dante Gabriel Rossetti, you’ll find thousands of images and websites, as people all over the world are picking up on interesting artworks.

19th-century British, Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art is popular in China, Japan, South Korea, South America and all over the world because these dramatic, colourful images speak to people. And, in a sense, that encourages us to question what we thought was good and bad taste.

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1868

New ways of looking at the past

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888

The World Wide Web has actually made our field seem very different. People think art historians might study digital art made using digital technology. In fact, the internet and new technologies are just as important for the circulation and study of older works of art.

These technologies make possible new ways of looking at the art of the past. For example, when I started, there were no scholarly books on John William Waterhouse, a painter of classical antiquity and subject matter from legend and ancient mythology. Now, he's attracting increasing attention from scholars. He is one of the artists who appeal most to the younger generation of contemporary artists, and particularly in the Far East.

Exhibitions and curating

I originally wanted to write a book on the aesthetic movement - about artists such as James McNeill Whistler, who were interested in ideas of beauty for its own sake, and the importance of beauty in the world. I was persuaded to focus on Pre-Raphaelite art first, by an editor who knew it was popular. Afterwards, I wrote Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Painting.

I started doing much more exhibition work because the research areas I was working in were popular with museum-going audiences. I think my proudest achievement is an exhibition on Lawrence Alma-Tadema, his family and his studio houses. Not because of the work I did on it, but because of the way the project developed.

Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Painting by Liz Prettejohn

Liz with Edwin Becker of the Van Gogh Museum and Andreas Blühm of the Groninger Museum

For the Alma-Tadema exhibition, we got together scholars who were working on interior design, on late 19th-century female artists, and on the international art worlds in which these artists participated. They were joined by scholars who worked on film because the works of art that were created in these studio houses turned out to have a big influence both on early Hollywood and European cinema. 

The exhibition catalogue became an international bestseller, with republication after the exhibition itself had closed, which is rare. We also held a conference that was later published in the online journal, British Art Studies.

With a new take on the work that brought together scholars from different fields, it made for an exciting result.

Inspiring audiences and making connections

Through exhibition, you reach different kinds of audiences. You reach artists who do very different things with the material from what you ever expected, and you reach more general audiences. This might seem a little bit separate from my activities as a university academic, but they all connect together.

One of my PhD students, working on the relationships between musical theory and painting in the later 19th century, told me that she’d been inspired as a teenager by seeing the Waterhouse exhibition in the Netherlands that I had worked on. Sometimes it is the next generation who get interested through an exhibition or a display.

At York, we're strong in the study of British art. We have good period coverage of the whole history of art, from the early medieval through to the contemporary. This allows us to see the links to the other parts of the world, and the other parts of history of art, that make it exciting for us.

Contact us

For any support or guidance on completing your journey to York, we're always close at hand.
+44 (0)1904 324000