Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview
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The Burlington Magazine 1903-11

Helen Rees Leahy

In March 1978 the editor of The Burlington Magazine, Benedict Nicolson, celebrated the 900th number of the journal by reflecting on the enormous social changes that had occurred during the seventy-five years since the Burlington had first appeared in March 1903. As he said, 1903 “was a different age”: during that year, Lord Rosebery held a party for the inmates of the Epsom workhouse to celebrate his son's coming of age and Edward VII became the first English monarch to be received by a Pope since the Reformation. Nicolson also noted “many pleasing symbols of continuity” that had survived the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, including The Burlington Magazine itself. 1 For in 1978 the Burlington remained dedicated to the exposition of “scientific” connoisseurship that had inspired its creation in 1903. The same is true today for, apparently immune to the impact of critical theory on the discipline of art history, the authority of the Burlington still resides in its reputation for publishing the most significant attributions and discoveries made in Italian archives and the corridors of English country houses, and their impact on the unending project of (re)forming the canon.

When the Burlington was founded in 1903, art history was, according to Nicolson, “developing rapidly” as was demonstrated by the number of scholarly publications issued that year, including Bernard Berenson's Drawings of the Florentine Painters, Lord Balcarres' monograph on Donatello, and volume seven of Wilhelm Von Bode's magisterial Rembrandt catalogue. 2 And yet, despite all this activity, “… a strange and curious anomaly” existed, “… namely that Britain, alone of all cultured European countries, [was] without any periodical which makes the serious and disinterested study of ancient art its chief occupation.” 3 It was to fill this vacuum, and so restore British scholarly credentials on the European stage, that The Burlington Magazine was founded. On this basis alone, its creation can be regarded as an important moment in the institutionalization of art history in Britain. 4 However, as this chapter shows, from the moment of its inception the Burlington was the focus of a series of connected struggles which, far from being “disinterested, were engaged over the legitimization of art historical expertise and, by extension, over the power to authorize acquisitions by both public museums and private collectors.


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