Colnaghi Foundation Journal 03 - Page 10

‘Actaeon not words’
Jennifer Fletcher is very proud of several things.
She traces her family origins to Durham mining stock.
She was taught by Ernst Gombrich. She played hockey
doubles for the London School of Economics when
she was a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art. In
Venice she swam (aged 44) in the Coppa Byron from San
Nicolò al Lido to the Excelsior Hotel and got a medal
for her efforts. She was the Slade Professor at Oxford in
1990-1991, the second woman to take up the position.
Two of her students have been Directors of the
National Gallery and several others are distinguished
scholars and curators.
There is a photo in The Times of 27 February 1971
in which she appears with a group of fellow students
in Piccadilly Circus together with other art historians
protesting at the threatened imminent sale and likely
export from Britain of Titian’s late masterpiece The
Death of Actaeon. She is seen in profile, energetically
leading the chanting demanding government
intervention: “Actaeon not words!” is their memorable
slogan. Fortunately for all of us, the painting was saved
for the nation and now hangs in the National Gallery.
She is proud of that, too.
Jennifer spent her entire student and academic career
at the Courtauld Institute, from 1957 to her retirement
in 2002. She is now a Courtauld Fellow. Her devotion
to teaching and her commitment to her students have
been unremitting. Her lectures are impressive and
memorable. She gives them a braccio, stunning feats
of memory and erudition. The Slade Electors of
1990 were astounded that the audience kept coming
back religiously week after week to hear her speak
on the portraits of Titian. She repeated the Oxford
Slade lectures at the National Gallery but her creative
approach to lecturing and her sensitivity to her listeners
meant that they ended up being quite different. In her
room at the Portman Square Courtauld, which was
hung with pieces of velvet and silk and an exotic piece
of Indian armour on the door, we were inducted into
deeply stimulating discussions. I was an MA student
exactly thirty years ago and took her course on Art
at the Court of Philip IV of Spain. She led our small
group in the exploration of the iconography of hunting
and the role of dwarves in the stiff protocol of the
Alcázar, as well as the influence of Rubens on the
young Velázquez. She introduced us to the juego de cañas
in which teams of horseman chased each other across
the Plaza Mayor throwing wooden spears to thrill
courtiers and plebeians alike, to the King’s lugubrious
correspondence with the holy nun, Sor María de
Ágreda, and to Cassiano dal Pozzo’s wry observations
on art and artists in Madrid in the mid-1620s.
Although Jennifer taught Spanish Baroque and has
supervised MPhil dissertations and three PhD students
on Spanish art who have gone on to be serious
Hispanists (several are present in this volume), Jennifer’s
great passion lies elsewhere. Not in the plains of Castile,
or even in Bernini’s Rome (which she has also taught
on), but in Renaissance Venice, the city of the Bellini
family, of Pietro Bembo, and of Titian. Venice has
been and continues to be an inexhaustible source of
fascination and wonder for her. As conversation with
her ranges from Titian’s use of fur in his paintings, what
Giovanni Bellini’s female portraits may have looked
like, the use of Venetian dialect in sixteenth-century
documents and sources, and what it really meant to
belong to the Scuola Grande di San Marco, it dawns on
one just how deeply familiar she is with the city on the
lagoon. Possibly even more so than with contemporary
East London, for which she and her beloved brother,
Andrew, have had great affection. Several contributors
to this volume are Venetian specialists.
To those who know her, Jennifer is straight talking.
Her use of expletives is expressive and she is not always
quotable. It is not unheard of that she has referred to a
colleague as a “lazy bastard”, with a short first syllable
for dramatic emphasis: “Lazy baestard!”. That’s because
she has little time for those whom she thinks are not
pulling their weight. Her career, it is probably fair to
say, was held back because she prioritized teaching
and dedication to students above academic politics and
finding time to publish. Her students have been the
Her talking may be clear but her handwriting is all but
impossible. Like the codes used by Venetian diplomats in
their official correspondence, it requires interpretation.
Whether it is comments on an essay, corrections to a
chapter draft, or a postcard from Treviso, every sign and
stroke is a precious bearer of meaning and time invested
to draw out the content is time well invested.
This volume of studies is dedicated to Jennifer Fletcher
out of friendship and gratitude of students and other
Happy eightieth birthday, Jennifer!


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