Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Life

Magazine article The Spectator

The Art of Life

Article excerpt

A wise friend once said that you only regret what you don't do. Until I met John Hall and Nick Ross, I had never really thought about it but ever since I have been regretting that I didn't spend my time between school and university on one of their courses in Italy.

John Hall formed his Pre-University Course in 1965 when he decided he was bored being a schoolteacher and fled Kent for Venice. Over 40 years on, his passion all things Italian, from sculpture to wine, remains undiminished.

In 1983 Nick Ross started Art History Abroad. At 16 a rugby accident left Ross paralysed from the neck down. While in hospital, he found he could turn pages with a straw in his mouth and started reading about art history as he slowly began to recover. Now a glamorous, floppyhaired 43-year-old in a flamboyant cape, he grins and says, 'It's ironic that I now walk around Italy for a living.' Despite the difference in age and approach, both Hall and Ross specialise in boosting their students' souls by exposing them to the wonders of Italian culture. They are both persuasive enough to have seen off any other serious competition and remain undisputed leaders in their field.

'Transcapillary transmutation' is Ross's phrase for the feeling when the hairs on the back of the neck rise in the presence of something awesome. 'Transcapillary transmutation' is particularly crucial to a man who nearly ended up with no ability to feel at all.

Ross's driving passion is to make education less of a chore, more of a lifelong interest.

'We're really using art history as a springboard to big ideas, ' he explains. He's as likely to take his students to Venice's Redentore church to look at pickled Capuchin monks' heads as to the Accademia to look at Bellini's paintings. 'It invariably sparks a lively conversation about the nature of mortality, ' chuckles Ross. One father of a previously monosyllabic teenager told Ross with astonishment that since completing the course his son was 'conversational and charming at dinner'.

Ross's offers four six-week courses annually that take in Venice, Florence, Rome, Siena, Verona and Naples: 27 students are taught in groups of nine.

There are no formal lectures -- teaching is done on site with emphasis on experiencing rather than learning. Students carry sketchbooks and are expected to draw, so that they look at things more closely.

When I enthuse to John Hall about Ross's relaxed, democratic approach to learning he is rather breezy. …

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