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Cambridge Demystified -- History of Art

As written by Snowgail
Here is the latest new chapter for Cambridge Demystified - History of Art!

CAMBRIDGE DEMYSTIFIED HISTORY OF ART

Introduction
Hi, here my guide on how I got into History of Art at Cambridge! A little about me: I’m currently doing my A Levels in the UK and study History of Art, English and History where I’m predicted A*A*A. At GCSE level I achieved a mixture of 8s, 9s, 7s and a 6. Thank you so much to @Oxford Mum, I hope this will be helpful for any future applicants <3
Why do you want to study your subject?
I’d never been fully sure of what I wanted to study, but I gained a deep passion for the subject when I discovered it at A Level. I’ve always loved art and writing, and so being able to combine the two has been like a dream I never even considered. What I love about History of Art is how it extends beyond just studying the visual elements of art, but encompasses the historical, philosophical, cultural context of the world we live in, and has opened my eyes on ongoing debates in our society. The subject is extremely fluid and dynamic, it never is just one thing. I also want to be able to be a part of changing the way we view art, especially since it has a reputation of being elitist I want to make art more accessible.
Why Cambridge?
I love the supervision system of Oxbridge it’s so exciting to be able to express your ideas with a world leading expert in your field. Being in an environment that focuses on discussion would also naturally allow me to challenge my own ideas further which is essentially what I wanted in university. Cambridge also has a beautiful endless collection of art from Kettle’s Yard to the Fitzwilliam William to the art of each college so it was an obvious choice as I wanted to be in a visually stimulating environment.

Did any of your teachers inspire you?
My History of Art teacher. He introduced me to the subject in the first place and I always love going to classes. You never know what to expect, it’s always so full of interesting discussion. (I also love hearing all the spicy gossip he knows about artists) There’s a common misconception that not studying History of Art puts you at a disadvantage, but that’s not the case at all. My teacher and subject may have inspired me but it was the work I put in outside the class that mattered.
What resources did you use?
My top tip is to dip your toes in general art history, but to find specific areas you’re particularly passionate in and focus on them. The resources below may be a useful starting point for you, but once you find something within them that you are especially drawn to, dive deeper into that!

‘The Story of Art’, EH Gombrich and ‘Art: The Whole Story’, Stephen Farthing are useful general books to get you started, but the following will offer different perspectives and raise important issues in art history:
- Ways of Seeing, John Berger
- Orientalism, Edward Said
- Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, Linda Nochlin
- Old Mistresses, Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker
- On Photography, Susan Sontag

Podcasts can also help, here are some to get you started:
- Art History for All
- In Our Time
- Raw Material
- Bow Down: Women in Art
- Meet me at the Museum
- The Lonely Palette
- The Great Woman Artists
- Talk Art

I also read many articles, such as on The Art Newspaper and Frieze, and tried a ‘Reframing Art History’ course on Smarthistory. I think the main thing is not what resources you use, but engaging deeply with them, such as asking yourself what questions you have. Youtube videos from channels like ‘Great Art Explained’, ‘The Art Assignment’ and ‘Smarthistory’ are also easy ways to further engage with the subject.
Did you attend any lectures or take part in any competitions?
I sort of religiously attended every lecture from The Courtauld Research Forum that I could they’re definitely very accessible, with interesting talks on the most diverse kinds of art. I wasn’t involved in any competitions, but the Art UK Write on Art essay competition is one to look out for if you’re interested.

Did you have any work experience?
I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to volunteer at a museum, which was very interesting as I got to learn what goes on behind the scenes of volunteering. However, I didn’t think it added much to my application so work experience is definitely not an essential.

Did you do any summer schools?
No I didn’t.

Did you do an EPQ?
I did I wrote my EPQ on how Japanese art influenced Post-Impressionism. I loved this as it was an opportunity for me to explore an area of art that I was interested in, as Japanese art isn’t taught as part of my History of Art curriculum. I would recommend doing an EPQ if possible as it’s a chance to showcase your essay writing and self-motivation abilities both essential for studying History of Art at uni.
What did you mention in your personal statement and why?
I kind of had a few key areas that I was particularly interested in, like Japanese art, Surrealism, feminist art, and I wrote about a paragraph on each. I started writing my personal statement in around June and spent forever writing and rewriting it. I tried to make it flow as much as possible, while maintaining a focus on academics and bringing in a little of my personal interests if they were relevant. I’d say it’s important not to just list things you’re passionate about, but actually engage with these ideas such as bringing when you agree or disagree with something, and further questions or thoughts you have.

How did you prepare for your admissions test?
My admissions test was an essay comparing two pairs of pictures. I did A LOT of preparation for this even though you never know what art you’ll be given in the test, it helps to familiarise yourself with the practice of comparing images. So I just found any two images (https://artuk.org/discover/artworks is a good resource for this) and either verbally tried to point out any similarities or difference between the two, or sometimes practiced writing about it in timed conditions.

How did you choose your college? Did you go to an open day and if so, did it help you to decide?
I didn’t go on an open day but I visited a few colleges when I had the chance to. I was immediately drawn to Magdalene as I found it a beautiful quaint little college and was initially fixed on choosing this. However I realised I wanted to stay somewhere larger and ended up picking Queens’ as I love the mesh of architecture through the centuries. I also wanted to be near the History of Art department and Queens’ allowed this.
How did you find the interview process?
I remember being extremely stressed leading up to the interview, but it was so much fun. The interviewers were lovely and I loved being able to talk about something I was actually passionate about as I could pick a few areas that I wanted to discuss prior to the interview. I had one 40 minute interview, but this differs from college to college and you may have two 20 minute interviews! I’m also so grateful that mine was online.

Any interview tips?
Calm down! There is no reason to be scared, remember that the interviewers invited you because they want to hear from you. Smile, be friendly and confident. In terms of how to answer the questions, speak your thoughts out loud!! The interviewers want to know how you think so show them your thought process, even explain key terms or concepts if necessary. Don’t be shy to ask the interviewer to repeat their question if you didn’t get it, and don’t be shy to change your mind if for example, the interviewer proposes a counter argument and you realise you agree with them more. History of Art is about discussion so don’t be scared of voicing your opinion. Remember there isn’t a right or wrong, it’s about being able to explain your ideas so backing up your thoughts with examples like artists or pieces of art helps a lot.

In terms of interview preparation, I tried to do as much as I could. I practiced answering questions with my teachers, parents, mentor, friend, in front of the mirror… the more practice you get, the more natural it’ll become. Practice talking about the areas you’re interested in and have mentioned in your personal statement, as well as common History of Art interview questions you can find online.

How did you feel after the interviews?
I felt so relieved that the process was finally over. There were days were I was extremely anxious, but it helped to remember that I did my best and it was now in the hands of fate. Be proud of yourself for making it so far!
Where were you when you got your offer? How did you react?
I had just finished my English class! My friend and I both got the notification and both checked at the same time. I lowkey suspected I got in when I saw that I had been offered accommodation at Cambridge, but practically ascended to heaven when I scrolled down and saw I had an offer for the course. I was kind of screaming and my heart was racing like 192391238 beats a minute. I called my parents and then told my other friends who all started screaming too. I was stuck in a sort of hazy dream for the next few days.

Are you looking forward to coming up to Cambridge?
YESSS I CANT WAIT! I can’t wait to meet everyone and live out my dream. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to study there.

Thank you for reading and I hope this has been useful. If you’re considering applying for History of Art, DO IT! It will be an amazing experience to engage with art, regardless of the outcome.
YAYY thank you so much for this, I love it :smile: feel free to ask me any questions in this thread.
Original post by Snowgail
YAYY thank you so much for this, I love it :smile: feel free to ask me any questions in this thread.

Thank you for taking the time to write this amazing chapter. I do have a few questions to ask, if it’s ok….

Firstly, I think you are right about history of art being seen as elitist. I think we need someone young to make this a fun subject and fashionable to be into art history. Maybe this is something you could achieve…. Must have a word with the bbc!

You must be a fantastic person to take to an art gallery. I would just be saying “ooh that’s really nice” but wouldn’t be able to say why. Please open my eyes to what I should be looking for and what to you makes a painting interesting.
Original post by Oxford Mum
Thank you for taking the time to write this amazing chapter. I do have a few questions to ask, if it’s ok….

Firstly, I think you are right about history of art being seen as elitist. I think we need someone young to make this a fun subject and fashionable to be into art history. Maybe this is something you could achieve…. Must have a word with the bbc!

You must be a fantastic person to take to an art gallery. I would just be saying “ooh that’s really nice” but wouldn’t be able to say why. Please open my eyes to what I should be looking for and what to you makes a painting interesting.


Haha of course, thank you for letting me write this :smile:

Yesss ahaha I will speak to the bbc right now, we definitely need to revamp art history.

no!! I honestly think I'm just like you - that kind of person who just finds every art piece just nice, I also often find it hard to find the deeper meaning of an art piece. I guess though what I've learnt is that when looking at art, it's not necessarily about what makes the piece objectively interesting, but it's about how it makes you feel. I feel like a lot of art critics attempt to dissect the formal elements of art but to me it's the emotional relation between the viewer and art that matters - so take time to just absorb all the emotions you feel, and if you don't feel anything that's okay too. I guess it's also about finding art pieces that stick out to you personally instead of trying to take everything in. so what makes a painting interesting is definitely subjective, it's about trying to find a connection with it.

in addition, it's also always useful to read the information cards next to each art piece if they're available - as they provide a lot of useful contextual information on the art, which may help you place it in the context of its time better, allowing you to understand the artist, intentions, intended audience etc, and all this gives you an informed reading of the piece.

it also helps to view the art in the context of its location, like absorbing the general atmosphere of the gallery! curators put a lot of effort in deliberately presenting pieces the way they are viewed - so consider things like the first and last piece in the exhibition, how different pieces relate to each other, differences in size between pieces, even how lighting affects the experience etc. this helps you understand the art piece a lot better, as viewing an art piece in isolation is a very different experience to understanding it in the context of the overarching message of the gallery.

so I think that you don't necessarily have to stop at each and every piece and try your hardest to understand them, it's more about feeling what you're drawn to and then reflecting deeper upon it.
(edited 1 year ago)
Original post by Snowgail
Haha of course, thank you for letting me write this :smile:

Yesss ahaha I will speak to the bbc right now, we definitely need to revamp art history.

no!! I honestly think I'm just like you - that kind of person who just finds every art piece just nice, I also often find it hard to find the deeper meaning of an art piece. I guess though what I've learnt is that when looking at art, it's not necessarily about what makes the piece objectively interesting, but it's about how it makes you feel. I feel like a lot of art critics attempt to dissect the formal elements of art but to me it's the emotional relation between the viewer and art that matters - so take time to just absorb all the emotions you feel, and if you don't feel anything that's okay too. I guess it's also about finding art pieces that stick out to you personally instead of trying to take everything in. so what makes a painting interesting is definitely subjective, it's about trying to find a connection with it.

in addition, it's also always useful to read the information cards next to each art piece if they're available - as they provide a lot of useful contextual information on the art, which may help you place it in the context of its time better, allowing you to understand the artist, intentions, intended audience etc, and all this gives you an informed reading of the piece.

it also helps to view the art in the context of its location, like absorbing the general atmosphere of the gallery! curators put a lot of effort in deliberately presenting pieces the way they are viewed - so consider things like the first and last piece in the exhibition, how different pieces relate to each other, differences in size between pieces, even how lighting affects the experience etc. this helps you understand the art piece a lot better, as viewing an art piece in isolation is a very different experience to understanding it in the context of the overarching message of the gallery.

so I think that you don't necessarily have to stop at each and every piece and try your hardest to understand them, it's more about feeling what you're drawn to and then reflecting deeper upon it.

Brilliant answer, and I will try this the next time I look at art.

My younger son also loves art and whenever we visited a place, he would make a beeline for a gallery.

In London, he loves the National Portrait gallery.
In Amsterdam, his favourite is the Van Gogh museum
In Oxford, he really likes the Ashmolean. We once saw a fantastic Van Gogh exhibition there. As a really keen artist (art was his favourite subject) he found out that you can see some Canaletto drawings. He asked to view them, so we were led downstairs to the basement. He had to put some gloves on to see them. They then said "would you like to see some Da Vinci?" Since about the age of 13, he had copied Da Vinci's drawings, so of course he said yes. On went the gloves again, and to be able to see those drawings up close and personal was a magical experience for him.
In Paris, he loves the Orsay museum.
Closer to home, he loves our local Harley gallery, where the exhibits change every time we visit.

https://www.harleygallery.co.uk/exhibition/anne-kelly-well-travelled/

Do you look at art in art galleries or online?
Where are your favourite art galleries you have visited?
Which art galleries would you particularly like to visit, and where is it? Where would you be able to see the Japanese art you really like?
Courtauld research forum

https://courtauld.ac.uk/research/whats-on-research-forum-events/

I hear the Courtauld forum mentioned many times by fine art students etc, so worth checking out.

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