I am an independent art historian and curator, and have published more than a dozen books and many essays. ‘Art historian’ is maybe not quite the right label: I write about art, and I write history – two lifelong guiding passions – and try to bring the two together in my work. For example, my most recent book, This is Tomorrow: Twentieth-century Britain and its Artists (Thames & Hudson, 2022), charts the course of a turbulent century through the lens of artists’ lives, focusing on moments and movements in which artists have been involved, including the women’s movement, the growth of modern media and technology, and the effects of global migration. I am particularly interested in the ways in which history flows through individual lives, and I increasingly turn to spoken history as research material, alongside visual and documentary sources. During 2016–17, as National Life Stories Goodison Fellow at the British Library, I listened to probably hundreds of hours and many voices from the Artists’ Lives archive; This is Tomorrow and an earlier book, Studio Voices, owe a lot to this phase of research.
My life as a published author began with poems and short stories in student magazines while I was studying English at Oxford. I continued to publish in magazines like PN Review and Encounter, and received a couple of Arts Council grants. The best of this early work, I’ve always felt, were poems that started life with looking at paintings, which helps to explain why – some years later – I began writing seriously about art.
My first full-length art book was a monograph on the twentieth-century British painter Sandra Blow. Before this, I’d taught English and worked as an editor in academic and fine art publishing, then freelanced as a writer for museums, exhibitions and cultural organisations.
I have scripted and presented features for BBC Radio, including The Wreck of the Alba (2009) and The Flower Fields (2012). In a programme for ‘The Essay’, Land and Sea and Sky (2010), I reflected on the connections between the coastal landscape of Cornwall, where I live, and my writing life. These connections are also the bedrock for the cultural-history narrative in The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time, first published in 2008 and about to appear in a third edition. I’ve also written and edited books for children, of which my favourite is Vincent’s Starry Night and Other Stories: A Children’s History of Art, which runs from cave artists to Ai Weiwei in sixty-eight short stories and has been widely translated.
In 2018–21, I was RLF Writing Fellow at Exeter University, based at Penryn Campus in Cornwall.