National Gallery director set to receive honorary doctorate from School of Advanced Study

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Dr Nicholas Penny, renowned art historian and outgoing director of London’s National Gallery, is to receive an honorary degree from the University of London at the School of Advanced Study’s (SAS) degree ceremony on 11 December. 

Recently awarded a Knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours list, his Doctor of Literature honoris causa is in recognition of outstanding support of The Warburg Institute, particularly its very successful MA in art history, curatorship and renaissance culture [run in collaboration with the National Gallery].

Sir Nicholas’ association with the University of London goes back a number of years. After a first degree at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, he completed his postgraduate studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

Commenting on the honorary doctorate he says, 'I am delighted to be associated in this way with the School of Advanced Study. My scholarly interests as an art historian were first fostered at the Courtauld Institute and the Warburg Institute, and I am pleased that I have strengthened the links between these and other academic institutions and the National Gallery.'
A research fellowship at Clare Hall, Cambridge, marked the start of an academic career, which included teaching art history at Manchester University. While still in his early thirties, Sir Nicholas Penny was appointed to the Slade Professorship at Oxford University and to a senior research fellowship at King's College, Cambridge.

Under his seven year directorship the National Gallery staged its most popular exhibition, ‘Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan’, as well as exhibitions by renaissance heavyweights such as Frederico Barocci and Paolo Veronese. While at the helm, the gallery also hosted showings of Rembrandt's later works and, in 2013, for the first time, the number of annual visitors exceeded six million.

A prolific writer, Sir Nicholas Penny is the author of many books and articles on both painting and sculpture, and on the history of collecting and taste. Works include scholarly catalogues, introductory texts for the student and critical reviews for the general reader.

‘Sir Nicholas Penny’s contribution to the School, in particular to The Warburg Institute, has been distinctive,’ says Professor Roger Kain CBE FBA, Dean and Chief Executive of the School of Advanced Study. ‘He cares deeply about furthering the cause of art history and has been extraordinarily generous with both his skills and his time. Support of the National Gallery was critical for the development of The Warburg’s very popular MA in art history, curatorship and renaissance culture.’

Professor David Freedberg, Warburg’s director says, ‘Sir Nicholas Penny is one of the world’s great historians of European painting and sculpture of the Renaissance and after. He has been an inspiring teacher, a scintillating communicator of the importance of works of art and a renowned curator. Few art historians have his range or keen sense of the complex relationships between the art of antiquity and later epochs, and of the interplay between art and its social contexts. His life and work represent the finest ideals of The Warburg Institute and we join the university in celebrating his award of an honorary doctorate from the School of Advanced Study.’    

The graduation ceremony takes place on 11 December 2015.

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1. For further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8653 /

2. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities and celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2015. Officially opened in 1995 by Sir Anthony Kenny as a federation of the University of London’s research institutes, it has established itself as the UK’s national humanities hub, publicly funded to support and promote research in the humanities nationally and internationally. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2013-14, SAS: welcomed 743 research fellows and associates; held 2,081 research dissemination events; received 26.4 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 202,891 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. Find out more at or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

3. The Warburg Institute, incorporated in the University of London in 1944, is the premier institute in the world for the study of cultural history and the role of images in culture. It is dedicated to the history of ideas, the dissemination and transformations of images in society, and the relationship between images, art and their texts and subtexts, of all epochs and across the globe.  As its motto Mnemosyne suggests, it has long been concerned with memory and its transformations across cultures. Founded by Aby Warburg in Hamburg at the beginning of the 20th century and exiled from Germany in 1933, the Warburg Library attracted the greatest humanist scholars and philosophers of the time – from Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Cassirer to Walter Benjamin – and became one of the leading centres in Germany for the understanding of the interactions between images and society across time and space. From the outset the Warburg Institute has been notable for its interdisciplinary research extending across the histories of art, science and religion to anthropology and psychology. One of the Warburg’s distinctive features has always been its engagement with what are often considered the superstitious, irrational and emotional elements of cultural phenomena. This has enabled some of its most significant contributions to the understanding of the dynamics of cultural transformation. Its library, famous for its powerful and suggestive system of classification, has unique strengths in all these areas, but particularly in the fields of Byzantine, medieval and Renaissance art, the history of humanism and the classical tradition, Italian history, Arabic, medieval and Renaissance philosophy and the histories of religion, science and magic. A hallmark of The Warburg Institute today is its epistemological openness which makes it a critical focal point for innovative research across the borderlines between the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences.  

4. The University of London is a federal University and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University is recognised globally as a world leader in Higher Education. It consists of 17 self-governing Colleges of outstanding reputation, together with a number of prestigious central academic bodies and activities. Learn more about the University of London at

5. Sir Nicholas Penny has been the director of the National Gallery since February 2008. After obtaining a doctorate from the Courtauld Institute, he began his career as a lecturer in art history at the University of Manchester. His first museum position was that of Keeper of the Department of Western Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Sir Nicholas was Clore Curator of Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery between 1990 and 2000, and then Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts from 2000 to 2002. He returned to Trafalgar Square from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where he was Senior Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts from 2002 to 2008. Sir Nicholas is the author of many books and articles on both painting and sculpture, and on the history of collecting and taste. His works include scholarly catalogues, introductory texts for the student and critical reviews for the general reader.