Module focus: What is British Art?

Postgraduate students studying on the MA History of Art programme at the University of Birmingham have the opportunity to explore British art and the ways in which it has been made, exhibited, experienced, conceptualised and debated, through the module ‘What is British Art?’

The module explores developments in British art from c.1760 to the present. It questions and unpacks this art historical category, by examining the key debates and writings that have shaped and challenged our understanding and definitions of British art.

We caught up with Module Leader, Dr Sophie Hatchwell, to find out more about the module.

Q. What will students cover in the module?

A. “The module will survey how British art has been produced, collected, exhibited and debated, from the inauguration of the Royal Academy of Art in the 1760s to the present. It also seeks to deconstruct and challenge the traditional narratives of British art history by exploring current and pressing topics such as Britain’s imperial past and postcolonial present, queering British art, De-centring British art, and British art in a global context. So this module will challenge conventional knowledge, and explore important topical cultural issues.”  

A pre-raphaelite female portrait

Q. What do students learn from the module?

A. “The main message of the module is that the history of British art, and what we even consider to be British art, is vastly more complex and diverse than we have traditionally been led to believe. Students will be introduced to the fascinating history of art in Britain, but also explore new ideas about place, identity, migration through an amazing array of works, including historic paintings and sculptures by well-known artists like Reynolds, Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Henry Moore, and contemporary works by artists such as Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Rasheed Arareen and Lubaina Himid.”

Q. What are the highlights of the module?

A. “Two things make this module a perfect choice for art history students: first, the chance to engage with a topic that is currently being re-thought and contested- there’s plenty of opportunity to make meaningful interventions in current art-historical debate, and secondly, the benefits of studying art forms that are very well represented and accessible in our excellent regional museums and galleries- meaning students will enjoy many opportunities to explore and engage with art objects first-hand.”  

Q. How will students be assessed?

A. “This module is assessed through an essay of 4000 words. Students get to select their own topic pertaining to the themes and content of the module, and pursue their own independent research with guidance from their module tutors. This is a really important opportunity for students to conduct original research, practice and develop the skills that they will need for their MA dissertation, and also explore a topic that really speaks to them.”

Q. How does this module help further students careers?

A. “Students will gain valuable independent research skills in this module, along with an in-depth, critical appreciation of currently scholarly debate on crucial issues such as queer culture, colonialism and Britain’s Imperial past, and national art in a global context. These research skills and disciplinary knowledge will of use to them as they complete their master’s studies, and will continue to be useful to them if they chose to continue in academia, or if they wish to work in curation or learning and engagement in the museum, gallery, arts and heritage sector.”

Dr Sophie Hatchwell is a Lecturer in History of Art within the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies. Sophie’s research centres on visual culture in Britain and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a particular focus on the relationships between art writing, display and aesthetic experience.  Her work considers how text intervenes in an audience’s experience of art objects, and she is interested in tracing the diverse range of texts implicated in this dynamic. She has published on Edwardian art writing, and 20th century British artists such as Stanley Spencer, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

This module is optional for all students within the MA History of Art programme. However, students wishing to follow our unique British Art Pathway will need to take this alongside our ‘Made in Birmingham’ module in order to complete the pathway.

Find out more about the diverse range of modules available on this programme over on our course pages.

(Please note: this module is currently called 'Defining British Art' and is subject to final approval. For September 2020 entry, this module will be called 'What is British Art?')