Having seen the subject she loves grow from an offering to four pupils to one of Bradfield’s most popular A Level and IB subjects some 25 years later, Brigitte Bond discusses why History of Art is the cutting edge subject every pupil should study.

What is in a painting? Do you gaze at a work of art and just see figures, colour and brushstrokes or is there something deeper? In my mind, History of Art has been given the wrong name. On the surface it would appear that learning for this A Level is based around discussing paintings, sculptures, buildings and their context but that does not tell the full story about what the subject is really about, what life lessons can be learnt from it or how this subject will make you a more open-minded citizen of the world and develop any number of career pathways for you. Nor does that simplistic view explain why it has become one of Bradfield’s most popular courses for Sixth Form pupils or, indeed, why our History of Art Department is now one of the largest in the country.


A Level pupil

So what is History of Art? It’s about discovery and intuition. It’s about debate; deciding whether to accept an interpretation or question it. Despite the historic nature of its content, History of Art touches on so many contemporary issues. Fundamentally it is the study of human societies. Perhaps the course should be called Civilizations, the name given to the latest BBC series on Art History, because it has a truly global view and is a record of human history, but that still doesn’t quite do it justice.

A more accurate title might be Visual Communication: a way of seeing the world and our place in it.


IB Pupil

A poet or a novelist uses the written word to communicate and we are not surprised when they use language to say something incredibly profound. Yet most of us do not consider that an artist is doing the same thing. There is a perception that art is purely about aesthetics and enjoyment, but it too is a method of communication, one which has equally insightful things to say about humanity’s concepts.

Obviously, aesthetics is a part of it. At face value you can look at a painting and think ‘isn’t that beautiful’; equally someone else might think it is shockingly ugly. One can appreciate the work as an historical artifact and enjoy learning about past events and history through it. However, hidden beneath all the layers of paint is a visual language. Just like the poet, the artist is saying something profound about their own or a society’s experience. When you study History of Art, just as one would learn a foreign language, pupils learn how to read visually.

We teach pupils the syntax of visual language; about composition, form, colour, light, style and materials of paintings, sculptures or buildings encouraging them to discuss what they think the artist is trying to make them see. There is an element of detective work, considering why the artist has placed the protagonist in the middle or to one side, why they have included a particular object within their work or why they have chosen particular colours, scale or materials. Pupils explore what motivates an artist to paint or sculpt, or an architect to design and the techniques used. Artists and architects have always expressed their attitude, and the attitudes of those around them, to the society in which they live.

The curriculum has evolved in recent years from its previous focus on Western art to a world perspective. It has blown traditional European History of Art apart, and so much for the better.

If you are looking for a subject which can keep pace with the emerging world cultural, societal and political trends, topics and debates, this is the subject for you. The paintings, sculptures and buildings that we study may well be from the past, but they are entirely relatable to today, and that is the true brilliance of the subject.

One week we could be discussing ethnic diversity, looking at churches and mosques and the visual language used to reflect the intensity of faith and the next week we could be studying memorials to war, reflecting on how we memorialize victims or celebrate heroes. These are just some of the debates that develop during the course and let me tell you the debate  is fierce and thought-provoking. These classroom discussions will develop skills of verbal and written expression and, most importantly, a self-reflection of one’s place in the world. All works of art and architecture have both local and universal perspectives for us to consider.

Take the idea of migration for example. We look at the US-Mexican border in an image by Frida Kahlo. Painted in the 1930s yet, particularly given the views of the last U.S. President, you can place her debate squarely in a 21st century context.


A Level pupil

Earlier this year we got involved in the national Stephen Lawrence Day by studying Chris Ofili’s No Woman, No Cry. Most people would say the painting is not a portrait because it does not look like Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen, but this is what it is. It doesn’t use traditional visual language but a truly creative and innovative approach from which you discover the extraordinary journey of this woman’s campaign for justice since Stephen’s death. Pupils looked at how it explores institutional racism and ethnic identity; depicting a black British migrant living in Britain whose son was a black British national.

Pupils learned that the artist used elephant dung within the portrait. Why? It’s all about ethnic diversity. How do different cultures look at the presence of elephant dung? Some look at it and think that is an ugly, incongruous choice of material but that isn’t the case with every society. The choice of dung is key to making us think about the experience of black British citizens. This exploration makes us become more open-minded and see that someone else is thinking differently and that we should perhaps reevaluate our preconceived ideas. That is one of the most important messages for young people today.


All this visual perception and world perspective begins to feed into one’s potential beyond Bradfield. People tend to think that History of Art is only useful for gallery or museum curatorship but look back at the transferable skills discussed in this article.

Thinking about a career in Law? History of Art will give you confident and dexterous debating skills. Want to be a journalist? History of Art will provide you with the ability to present ideas and deliberate in writing. How about a job in marketing, advertising or graphic design? This subject will provide you with the skills to visually communicate and understand the persuasive power of advertising. A perfume or car advert becomes not just an image of a familiar brand but one you really understand, in which you can decipher its persuasive powers and comprehend the psychology used in the design, exploring what the advertisers want you, as a consumer, to notice.

So what is in a painting, a sculpture or building? In short, everything. History of Art is so much more than an academic Sixth Form subject. It is a voyage of discovery across the vast expanse of life experiences and the body of our humanity that will help you see the world differently. What more could you ask for?