JOSEPH SHARPLES

John Kinross Scholar in 1981 

How did the experience affect you as an individual?
I was nineteen and had never been abroad before, so the whole experience was a revelation. Everything was new and different – from the cross-Channel ferry and the long, overnight train journey through the Alps, to the sight of vineyards and hill-towns and the amazing southern heat. Just as much as the art of Florence, it was the everyday culture of Italy that affected me – the food and drink, the way people dressed, the way they spoke and the way they conducted themselves in public. In the globalising decades since 1981, regional and national differences have been eroded, but back then Italy really did seem very foreign, very ‘other’. There was something genuinely exotic about the ritual of ordering a cappuccino in a bar, and it was extraordinary to see the heaps of lush Mediterranean produce in the markets. Now that we can buy fresh basil and mozzarella in Tesco, the magic is perhaps not quite the same. The dazzling light and searing heat were a big part of the experience for me, especially the contrast between the blazing streets and the cool, dark interiors of the churches – I had never encountered this before. I met other artists and students, visited other towns and cities, and spent time with Italians in their own homes. I had my assumptions challenged and became aware of my naivety, and I felt my horizons expanding in many directions. I think I must have started to think of home as a rather dull, grey place, although after I returned I found that my time in Italy had given me a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of my own country too.

What was the impact on your practice?
Armed with Eve Borsook’s Companion Guide to Florence, I tried to see as much art as I possibly could. I found that the process of drawing what I saw helped me to look more carefully and more perceptively. In truth, I spent a lot more time looking than drawing, and I remember being dissatisfied that I didn’t have more work to show for my weeks in Italy. When I got back, I reported this to Robin Philipson (head of the School of Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh College of Art, and President of the RSA), but he said that the value of what I’d learned would become clear to me over time. And he was absolutely right.

What would you say the long term impact has been on yourself and your work?
For a few years after graduating I worked as an illustrator, but from 1990 I stopped practising as an artist and focused on art history instead. I have had a varied career, working sometimes as a museum curator and sometimes as an architectural historian. The first-hand knowledge of Italian art and architecture that I gained in 1981 has contributed enormously to everything I have done in my professional life. I worked for more than a decade at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, with its outstanding collection of Italian Renaissance paintings. Much of my work has been concerned with the Victorian period, but because the Renaissance had such a strong influence in 19th-century Britain, shaping everything from Pre-Raphaelite paintings to palazzo-style commercial buildings, I have always been able to draw on my Florentine experience. It has been a solid foundation for my whole career in art history. Work aside, that deep immersion in Italian culture at a young age has enriched my life profoundly. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend three months walking to Rome. I had a number of motives for doing this, but one of them was a deep sense of Italy as a kind of beacon of life and art and beauty. I suppose many people feel this way about Italy. In my case, the feeling took root during that summer in Florence almost forty years ago.

I now work as a curator at the Hunterian Art Gallery, where among the items in my care is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s diary of his own visit to Italy in 1891. Like mine, his trip was made possible by a travelling scholarship. In his diary, Mackintosh grumbles about annoyances such as the erratic opening hours of Italian churches and the onlookers who stare at him while he tries to draw, but on every page he finds some new building or work of art to marvel at. Reading his account makes me smile in recognition. It also makes me realise what I was hardly aware of in 1981: eager young travellers from the north have always made the journey to Italy, and they always will, and I am fortunate to have been part of that tradition.