I have not thought much for many years about the Courtauld Institute, where I was a student from 1966 to 1970, at a time when it was situated in a beautiful Adam-designed  house in Portman Square. Then last week I was tracked down through this blog by a fellow student (who also has family connections in Dalston) and then this morning, in one of those accidents of synchronicity, I turned on the radio and there was a programme about Anthony Blunt (the Courtauld’s director), bringing together various people who knew him well, including Anita Brookner, whose course on 19th Century art criticism I still remember vividly and with gratitude. And John Golding, who was the most modern person there, teaching us about cubism, with the precision and passion that could only come from being a practising painter himself. I’m sure that both would be surprised to discover that between them they introduced me to Marxism, by a most indirect and circuitous route. In Brookner’s case, it was making me read Walter Pater which took me, via his surreptitiously autobiographical philosophical novel set in ancient Greece and Rome, Marius the Epicurean, to Hegel, and dialectics. Golding pointed me in the direction of John Berger’s wonderful Marxist essay about why cubism could not survive the conflict of the first World War because of the way it forced people to take sides – another window into dialectics. These courses ran in parallel in the same term and by the end of it I was reading Capital.
Listening to the programme, it all came flooding back. Not just the names of those lecturers that had slipped my memory, but the building itself, much more like a house than a college, with the student common room (the only place you could smoke) in a hut on the right hand side of the garden at the bottom of which was another hut where they taught restoration. The restoration students cleaned tapestries by laying them out on the lawn and shuffling delicately up and down over them with damp sponges strapped to their soles, which gave them a Japanese air, like something out of the chorus of the Mikado. I remember coming back from a visit to Paris in the summer of 1968, fresh from les evennements and discussing them in that common room with some of the other students (I’m guessing Corinna Lotz and Chris Rawlence, perhaps, both of whom were more politically active on the left than I was) and being interrupted by an incredulous Tory student who couldn’t believe that we should be ‘on the side of the students’. ‘B-b-b-b-but’, he stuttered, ‘They’ll b-b-b-b-b-burn down the L-l-l-l-ouvre!’ his voice becoming almost a howl, ending in a crescendo of anguish.
The closest I ever came to intimacy with the great man was in my first term (autumn, 1966, it must have been) when, I suppose as a sort of introduction to the culture of the place, we were asked to write a paper about the Adam brothers and the building itself. I elected to study the ceilings, many of which were beautifully painted, research for which required me to lie on my back on various floors whilst looking up intently. Whilst thus engaged one afternoon I was interrupted by a polite throat-clearing cough, and there, standing over me, was Blunt, with a visitor. I suppose this room must have been his personal office. He was as gracious and charming as if I had been some inhabitant of Buckingham Palace but nevertheless made it absolutely clear that he wanted the privacy of his own space – NOW! My only other clear memory is of him giving one of his famous lectures on Poussin. But I was moved to hear, I think it was from Ben Read, years later, that when he first re-entered the building after his awful public disgrace, staff and students lined the hall, and all the way up that imposing curved staircase, applauding, to welcome him back.

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