“A Creative Spark”: an interview with Dr Anthony Parton

The Talisman, Serusier, 1888

I arrive (in a flurry, a few minutes late) to find Anthony happily seated in the upstairs room of Saddlers drinking tea.

BK: Anthony, you are known for your enthusiastic and engaging teaching style. How would you like to introduce yourself to the The Bubble and it’s readers?

AP: Hello Bubble! I am Anthony Parton! Here are the grizzly details: I am fifty-two years old, I feel a bit like a dinosaur. I am technologically incompetent; the older I get the more regressive I think I am for my hatred of technology. I have taught History of Art modules at Durham since they were introduced here twelve years ago. My specialism is modern Russian art but more generally I am interested in the art of the modern century. We lack a History of Art department, and have to run our modules from the education department. But, having said that we have hordes of students enrolling, two-hundred and fifty, so that it feels like a mini-department. I like the buzz and energy students create, and I think my students know this. As most of my students know I am married to Janice! I have no children but two-hundred and fifty of my own – which keep me busy!

BK: How did you first become interested in History of Art as a child or teenager?

AP: My father was an art teacher, who taught after the Second World War at a special school. He taught art therapy, and produced brilliant results, using art in very creative ways to help his students liberate their creativity and potential. My earliest encounter with art came at three o’clock in the morning at the age of four. I found my mother shouting at my father, who was painting a huge landscape, with paints spread all across the living room.

I am hesitant about confiding this, but I have a skeleton in my closet, which I don’t tell many people about, but I will tell you. I began my university career at Hatfield college at Durham, but left after a month and a half. I struggled to settle in – I experienced six weeks of hell as a Durham student. There was a moment when I was walking down Saddler Street, in floods of tears, not knowing what to do with myself. I was the first member of my family to come to University. I bumped into an old school friend, who suggested I have a chat with his father, Fenwick Lawson, a contemporary British sculptor, the artist of the sculpture “The Journey”, which stands outside the Gala Theatre. Fenwick said to me “Are you an Art Historian? You look like one to me!”. I explained my situation, and he explained that it was not too late for me to apply to a university to study Art History. Two hours later, I had an interview. I packed my bags at Hatfield straight away, and walking down Saddler Street was chased by my tutor, shouting “How dare you leave Hatfield?”. When I got on the bus at North Road I promised I would never come back to Durham again. But here I am! The six weeks I did have at Durham, help me to support students in desperate situations. The big problems in life inevitably work themselves out, as they always do.

BK: Individuals have often argued that the study of paintings is not as valuable as the study of literature or philosophy. What do you think is the value of the discipline of History of Art to Durham students?

AP: History of Art is sometimes described as a fashion subject, a decorative addition to life, a ‘bauble’ that you can do without. This is a popular misconception; the study of art is about creativity which is absolutely fundamental to our nature as human beings. If we accept the biblical account that men and women were created in the image of God, then, given that God is a creative god, it follows that we necessarily possess a spark of that divine creativity within us. Creativity it seems to me, then, is a fundamental part of what we are as human beings and to engage in creativity is to reflect something of the ‘divine’ in a world which is fallen and corruputed. Sometimes I lose all hope in human beings and their ability to anything remotely decent, good or worthwhile. It is only when I see human beings engaging in art, literature, music, performance, design and creative expression of whatever kind, that I ever think there is really any hope for the world. If only we can stay creative, stay true to one aspect of God’s image in us, then there is a glimmer, a chance.

The visual arts are one of the means by which we communicate our feelings, experiences and identity to the wider community. It is a very important means of expression. To study art in a wider context is an exploration of how humans relate to the pain, joy and unhappiness of the world, but also about how they relate to the political and economic events of society. When the chips are on the table, in a nutshell, the arts are about life and what and who we are as human beings. They are not a decorative adornment, they are as important as the study of chemistry or physics. I don’t see History of Art as an abstract study, but as an essential part of life and how we function.

BK: Anthony, one of my most memorable and enjoyable lectures was in your class, where we listened to a French song to enhance our study of Belle époque France. Could you tell me about the History of Art modules on offer at Durham and how they complement each other as well as other disciplines?

AP: I think the visual arts connect to almost every other discipline in the University. Because we don’t have a department we have students from many different subjects. History of Art helps them to understand their subject. Life is not compartmentalised as we are led to believe, and the visual arts act as a bridging subject. I remember at registration when a Biology student asked if History of Art would relate to Biology. My response was of course it does; you cannot look at Pre-Raphaelite or Renaissance art without talking about Biology. A professor of Biology in the 1850’s took his students to a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition to study plants and flowers in Millais’s painting of Ophelia, as opposed to taking them on a field trip. Paintings open doorways into other fields of study.

We now have seven History of Art modules available. The modules are designed for progression, with introductory modules to Modern Art taught at Level One and more specialised modules at Levels Two and Three. I’m looking into adding a new module called “Objects of Desire” on Orientalism and Art in the Far East.

BK: Finally, Anthony, if you had to be a painting, which painting would you be and why?

AP: This is a very boring answer; I would not like to be something zesty and exciting, that everyone talks about and looks at, like the Mona Lisa. But instead, I would like to be a small, and discreet symbolist painting from the late nineteenth century, located in an atmospheric and intimate setting, seen only by a few people. Why would I be a symbolist painting? Because, I would like to think that I have lots of secrets to give away, but only to a few select initiates who are willing to spend lots of time with me. Out of the lecture theatre, I don’t like to be the centre of attention or make a lot of hullabaloo. I wouldn’t like to be in the public eye, and be the ” Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” by Picasso. Ideally, I would be “The Talisman” by Paul Sérusier, a tiny painting on a cigar box lid. Although it is small and unobtrusive, the picture is one of the cornerstones of modern art. It is the bringer of good luck, and a little unfinished and rough, like myself. Human beings are always unfinished.

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