Children playing ball in the shadow of the Berlin wall. 1979. (Photo by Müller-Schneck/ullstein bild via Getty)

How I discovered Art and Architecture

Daniel Johnson reflects on the great discoveries of his youth

Artillery Row

The high point of my career as an artist came at the grand old age of nine. The year was 1967. At my school, Iver County Primary (now Iver Village Junior), the headmaster, Mr Bigland, chose me to lead a team of boys and girls to paint a huge outdoor mural on the lavatory block that ran the length of the school playground. The mural depicted events over the decades since the school had been founded in 1897. In our historical imagination the two world wars loomed large, so the mural was dominated by two nearly life-sized portraits of Churchill and Lloyd George. The effect was a kind of 20th-century Bayeux Tapestry. The local newspaper covered the unveiling of the mural; my parents kept the cutting. It lasted until the lavatories were demolished, many years later, but is still visible in an old photograph on the school website. 

I suppose two such controversial statesmen — one a notorious womaniser, the other an unashamed imperialist — would now be deemed inappropriate subjects for a child to portray in a school playground. Mr Bigland loved them. A wise pedagogue, progressive in his own way, in my eyes he was a human link with the poets and painters of the Lake District whence he came. He lived in and for the school, which had its own house for the head. I’m ashamed to think that I tried his patience. Caught up in a prank with another boy that involved puncturing the caretaker’s bicycle tyres, he summoned us to his office. Indicating the cane that hung on the wall, he gave us both a final warning: if we were ever in trouble with a member of his staff again, we would be caned. He never needed to use it, on us or anyone else. Mr Bigland believed in the civilising power of culture. He also believed in me.

At Langley Grammar School, art was less highly valued by the headmaster, a scientist. My love of the visual arts was intermittently stimulated by my parents and especially my aunt, a distinguished picture restorer, with whom I explored the Tate. For a few years I became more fascinated by architecture. On a visit to Chartres, I was so awed by the cathedral that I spent the rest of the day drawing the great facade; that pen and ink sketch is the only one by my own hand to survive.

Architecture — ancient, medieval and modern — was one of the great discoveries of my teenage years. With one or two congenial companions, I explored the world by bike and by foot, by train and by plane, from the country churches of the Cotswolds to the Crusader castles of the Holy Land. 

No matter what may befall one later in life, to discover for oneself the stones of Venice, the romance of Rome and the homeland of Homer is to feel equipped for adulthood

The nearest thing I had to an aesthetic epiphany was on an InterRail holiday, during the summer before I went up to Oxford. We had already traversed Europe when my schoolfriend Julian Stanley and I arrived in Venice, there to be entertained in his palazzo by Sir Ashley Clarke. Having retired as British Ambassador to Italy, he had gone native and co-founded Venice in Peril, a charity which has done more than any other to save La Serenissima from sinking into the Lagoon. From La Serenissima we headed via her former Adriatic colony, Dubrovnik, through what was then Yugoslavia, to Athens, exploring not only the Acropolis but also the hinterland, from Delphi to Olympia. As if we weren’t glutted with the glories of the ancient world, we sailed across the Aegean to Brindisi, then found our way thence to Naples and Pompei, Rome and Ostia, Florence and Assisi. Our tour was anything but grand: we had little money and took refuge where we could, in trains and hostels, sometimes even sleeping rough. Yet the grandeur of what we had seen impressed itself indelibly upon me. No matter what may befall one later in life, to discover for oneself the stones of Venice, the romance of Rome, the homeland of Homer, to fall in love with the whole mythology of the Mediterranean is to feel equipped for adulthood. Ignorant as I was, nobody could take this love away from me.

Historian A.J.P. Taylor, pictured in 1982. (Photo by Michael Birt/Contour by Getty)

When I arrived at Magdalen in 1975 to read Modern History, A.J.P. Taylor was still a Fellow of the college and occasionally lectured at the ugly Examination Schools building just across the High, always at 9 am sharp. He once devoted an entire lecture to a bluffer’s guide to ecclesiastical architecture. “It’s very easy to sound knowledgeable about old churches and to do so is useful in all kinds of situations. This is the most profitable hour you will have spent here since you arrived at Oxford,” he assured us. Taylor was the first TV historian, a man of the far-Left who nevertheless adored the press baron Lord Beaverbrook. He was vain as he was venal. Yet his cynicism still shocked me. Taylor wasn’t wholly wrong, of course: knowing one’s Romanesque from one’s Perpendicular is still a precious social skill, though the true imposter ought to be equally au fait with the visual vocabulary of postmodernism and all the other -isms. But he taught me a useful lesson. What I learned from Alan Taylor was this: the instrumentalisation of art is the definition of the philistine. Though they were both Northerners, Taylor was the polar opposite of Mr Bigland. The former was a brilliant poseur, the latter the genuine article. The great historian, whose books I had read with admiration, was precisely who I did not want to be. But who was I?

A few years later I found myself in Berlin. It was the turn of 1979-80 and I was there for a year of doctoral research, much of it spent in a fruitless search for the meaning of life and an only slightly more successful quest for somewhere to live. The former capital was still divided by the ugliest and most notorious architectural artefact in Europe: the Berlin Wall. It was visible from the reading room of the state library, the Staatsbibliothek, where I spent most of my days. Against this unpromising backdrop, in books and exhibitions and in the pages of old journals with titles such as Die Aktion and Der Sturm, I finally found the aesthetic with which I have felt most comfortable ever since: Weimar Expressionism. It emerges suddenly, from writers’ cafés and artists’ colonies, from Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke — movements that still glow with an inextinguishable luminosity — just as the angst-driven erotica of Egon Schiele and lusty parodies of Georg Grosz still have the power to shock and seduce. The urban furnaces of Berlin and Vienna ignite and give off sparks in all directions: the abstractions of Kandinsky, the mosaics of Klee, the cataclysms of Kirchner, the threnodies of Kollwitz, the prodigies of Kokoschka, the bewitchment of Kubin. Weimar embraces the sculptural spectres of Barlach, the figurative figments of Beckmann, the futuristic functionalism of the Bauhaus, Brecht’s epic theatre and Fritz Lang’s crepuscular cinema. All these artists — and their counterparts in music and literature, poetry and philosophy — burst forth to create a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, miraculously flourishing on the eve of a totalitarian era that left nothing behind but scorched earth and human ashes.

We owe it to one another to educate ourselves. Together we constitute the sensorium of civilisation

Why I did not drop everything else and devote my life to the study of this last efflorescence of Expressionism, I do not know. Perhaps the fact that the German public had turned its back on Weimar culture was hard to bear. But I returned from Berlin with a mission. The rise and fall of that culture had persuaded me that the intellectual life was worth living — and living to the full. Mr Bigland had been right to encourage his pupils to express ourselves on a grand scale. The arts were the means by which humanity gave tangible expression to its aspirations, the prism through which the visible world is transfigured. A cultured and sophisticated public is as necessary to the artist as vice versa. We owe it to one another to educate ourselves. Together we constitute the sensorium of civilisation.


This is the second of a summer series on the theme of youthful discovery.

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