Don’s Diary: Dr Rosalind Polly Blakesley

Don’s Diary: Dr Rosalind Polly Blakesley

  • Moscow and  Dr Rosalind Polly Blakesley

Dr Rosalind Polly Blakesley, Head of the Department of History of Art, Reader in Russian and European Art and Fellow at Pembroke, describes her Michaelmas term.

My PhD students lure me down equally intriguing paths. One, via Skype from Moscow, tells me of a 19th-century artist’s journey from his native Siberia to St Petersburg atop a wagon of frozen fish.

No two days are ever the same. Never has this been more true than this past Michaelmas term, as I take over as Head of Department and Chair of the Faculty of Architecture and History of Art. The job brings the expected slew of committees, meetings and responsibilities, but I’ve learnt to be braced for the unexpected, too. Within days of starting, we hear that the History of Art A Level is to be axed. A flurry of consultation to support a national campaign ensues, thankfully compelling a different exam board to offer the A Level from September 2017. The robust debates confirm the vibrancy and relevance of art history, it’s imperative to generate visual intelligence in our fiercely visual world.

Other aspects of the job have been less fraught, but no less fascinating. Joining the Kettle’s Yard Committee leads to a hard-hat-clad exploration of the current building site, before we gather to plan for the reopening. The Director and I have been developing new collaborations between the Department and Kettle’s Yard, to maximise the use of its collections in our teaching and research.

I also find myself a Syndic of the Fitzwilliam, where a behind-the-scenes tour reveals an institution with world-class collections and staff, but bursting at the seams. I return later with our MPhil students to consider the museum’s modern and contemporary crafts, and the gendered prism through which these have often been viewed.

My PhD students lure me down equally intriguing paths. One, via Skype from Moscow, tells me of a 19th-century artist’s journey from his native Siberia to St Petersburg atop a wagon of frozen fish. Another takes me to the Ashmolean in Oxford, where she is using a remarkable collection of prints to reveal neglected aspects of 18th-century Russia’s urbanisation. We pore over images of bridges, and agree that we need to get a civil engineer on board.

My own research has inevitably taken a back seat, though I travel briefly to Yale to give a paper and the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre, which I co-direct, helps to organise a conference in Yaroslavl. Just weeks before Russia is accused of influencing the US elections, the conference theme – the role of printed media in the formation of national identity – proves, well, timely. Discussion is heated and revelatory, reaffirming the ways in which cultural debates can resonate in broader social and political spheres.

There is also a rich afterlife to the exhibition Russia and the Arts, which I curated at the National Portrait Gallery last year. Particularly poignant is the testimony of a young Russian living in London, which, she says, is no easy gig, as she is invariably pigeonholed as an oligarch’s moll or a Putin acolyte. There is scant recognition of normal, hardworking Russians who come to Britain to experience a different culture and develop their careers in the way that we accept other nationalities do. But my correspondent finds that the exhibition has prompted people to ask her different questions about herself.

As term nears its end, I escape to London for a Trustees’ meeting at the National Portrait Gallery, before retreating to Pembroke to prepare for admissions interviews. I meet with the visiting Fellow in Islamic Art to discuss our shared ambition of establishing the subject as a permanent fixture. Having served on the committee to appoint an architect for Pembroke’s expansion on the other side of Trumpington Street, I’m also keen to learn how this is progressing. As I say: no two days are ever the same.

Dr Rosalind Polly Blakesley is Head of the Department of History of Art, Reader in Russian and European Art, and a Fellow at Pembroke.​

Dr Blakesley is the author of The Russian Canvas: Painting in Imperial Russia, 1757-1881 (Yale University Press) and Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky (National Portrait Gallery).

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 80. Find out how to receive CAM.