Writer, curator, art historian and former PhD at the Warburg Institute student Charles Saumarez Smith has had an exciting and influential career in the arts. Beginning his career first as an Assistant Keeper and then Head of Research at the V&A, he has been Director at both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery as well as Secretary and Chief Executive at the Royal Academy. He is currently Professor of Architectural History at the Royal Academy of Arts, chairman of The Royal Drawing School and The Watercolour World, a trustee of the Garden Museum, and an Emeritus Trustee of ArtUK and Charleston.

Charles Saumarez Smith

What did you study during your time at the Warburg Institute?

I started doing the MPhil. in Combined Historical Studies, but quickly realised that I didn’t have the temperament for another two years of course work having already spent a postgraduate year doing courses at Harvard. So, I switched to doing a PhD. under Michael Baxandall, which was originally going to be about general issues of architectural aesthetics (it had an incredibly pretentious title), but turned into a case study of Castle Howard, which had a hard time as a PhD. thesis, but turned into a book of which I am still proud.

What did you enjoy most about studying at the Warburg?

I look back on the amount of intellectual freedom I had with amazement. I spent an incredible amount of time reading round my subject in the British Library and London Library with a sense of freedom which the Warburg gave. It would never now be allowed.

Do you have any particular favourite memories during your time studying at the Warburg?

Every Friday, I worked in the Photographic Collection as a way of earning a small amount of pocket money.  I would sometimes be allowed to attend lunch with an amazing group of people – Jennifer Montagu, who arrived just in time for lunch, Elizabeth McGrath, Enriqueta Frankfort, Ruth Rubinstein and Heidi Heimann, who was the quietest, but I now realise one of the most remarkable. I wish I hadn’t been so scared of them!

What do you think makes the Warburg Institute so unique?

The obvious answer is the Library. I remember meeting Ellis Waterhouse just before going to the Warburg and he said it would do me no harm to spend a year in the stacks, which was true. But I was much more influenced by the staff than the library, most of all by Michael Baxandall, who supervised my PhD., who I hugely admired and still do. Also, the essential seriousness of intellectual investigation and to go where instinct takes one, which he inspired without it ever being stated.

How did your experience at the Warburg Institute help to equip you for your career?

Being at the Warburg taught me a lot about intellectual resilience and self-discipline. I spent fourteen years working on the history of Castle Howard which was longer than it took to build it. It was a disadvantage when I was at the National Gallery not having been to the Courtauld, but otherwise, I have, I think, benefitted from being as much a cultural historian as an art historian in the way I interpret the world, and not just as a historian.

Would you recommend the Warburg Institute as a place of study and why?

The library is an amazing place. So is the Warburg’s tradition. It stands as somewhere where you can cross disciplinary boundaries, investigate ideas and how they have influenced action as part of a powerful intellectual tradition.


Read the Life After Warburg Blog for a full interview with Charles to find out more about some of the highlights as well as challenges of his career and to discover more about his new book The Art Museum in Modern Times.