Kate Aspinall

Kate Aspinall is an independent historian, writer, and artist. Based in London, she recently completed her doctoral studies at the University of East Anglia, sponsored by the School of Art History Studentship, and currently consults for the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation and serves as Chairwoman of the AAH Freelance and Independents. Her research looks to the role of drawing in early 20th century British visual culture with a particular emphasis on the intersections between institutional and personal discipline. Most recently, she wrote an article on the role of the drawn mark within Herbert Read’s critical agenda for a special issue of Visual Resources (February 2016). She is currently working on a monograph, The Paradox of Medium Specificity: Drawing Practice and Twentieth Century Modernism in Britain.

Selected Announcements, Papers and Publications

A Signature of Our Race: 
Herbert Read and the Line that Links
Medieval Illumination and 1930s British Modernism

(Forthcoming article in ‘Medieval Modernity: Revisiting the Middle Ages in the 20th century’, special issue of Visual Resources, Vol XXXII, no. 1-2, scheduled to be available online during April 2016)


In an article in The Burlington Magazine of 1933, British theorist Herbert Read (1893–1968) proposed “a basic linear signature of our race.” His invocation of line as a mark of identity is representative of a wider community of thinkers who linked the British avant-garde with medieval illumination via the watercolors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Theorists and scholars such as Kenneth Clark (1903–1983), William George Constable (1887–1976), and Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983) joined Read in identifying drawing as an essential aspect of medieval illumination that had re-emerged in the compositions of the Romantic period as well as those of the Neo-Romantics, including John Piper (1903–1992) and Paul Nash (1889–1946).

Theoretical enthusiasm for this lineage arose not only from aesthetic affinities but also from political utility. Amid concerns over mounting political extremism, notions of medieval art were useful as emblems of British precedent for sustainable and proud work. This paper traces the use of line at the time, most notably by Herbert Read, as a symbolic mark that promoted a balance between individualism and collectivism through its connection to the medieval period. Furthermore, I argue that harnessing the moral connotations of line was possible, and particularly effective, because of culturally available understandings of the drawn line’s distinctive intimacy.

Late Opening Tour of 
The Elemental Force of Charcoal: Drawing at the Borough
Part of South London Art Map ‘Last Fridays’

(Borough Road Gallery, Friday 29 January 2016, late opening: 6-8pm, tour: 7pm)


Tour of the Borough Road Gallery‘s exhibition, The Elemental Force of Charcoal: Drawing at the Borough, as part of South London Art Map ‘Last Fridays’, wherein the  works on display are placed within a wider historical context, referencing seismic shifts that occurred in arts education and drawing practices of the 20th century.

Drawing Done with Intellectual Care:
David Sylvester’s Drawing Exhibitions and the Shaping of the Creative Individual

(Exhibiting Contemporary Art in Post-War Britain, 1945–60, a Conference co-organised by Tate and the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, 28–29 January 2016)


Critic and curator David Sylvester played a pivotal role shaping the intellectual as well as the actual consumption of avant-garde art in the post-Second World War period and yet a key series of exhibitions he curated, focusing on the practice of drawing in the 1950s and early 1960s, has been all but ignored. Drawing for Pictures (Arts Council, 1953), Recent British Drawings (ICA 1954) and Drawing Towards Painting (Arts Council, 1962) all steered public engagement with the eclectic and often private practices of drawing at a volatile moment for art institutional structures in Britain.

Sylvester’s exhibitions place him among the international vanguard for his use of drawing theory as a tool to explore the role of the artistic individual within her practice, a perspective that points toward the role drawing took in process art and conceptualism in the ensuing decades. Many years before Lawrence Alloway’s celebrated essay on Sol LeWitt (Artforum, 1975) inspired an international audience to reappraise drawing in light of conceptualism, Sylvester harnessed drawing to speak to the limitations of modernism and individualism. Sylvester’s analysis arose from the particular socio-cultural sensitivities of 1940s and 1950s Britain about the role and obligations of creativity. This paper re-examines these significant exhibitions in order to consider Sylvester’s, and by extension Britain’s, place at the forefront of the subsequent rise in international exhibitions devoted to drawing practice.

PDF copy: Aspinall_Drawing Done with Intellectual Care_Dec_2016

TRT World Showcase 
29 December 2015

Discussing Ellsworth Kelly

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 17.18.17

Vimeo Video

I am proud to announce my election in November 2015 as the new Chairwoman of the
Association of Art Historians’ (AAH) Freelance and Independent Committee


While we as a group are excitedly preparing for the 2016 Annual Conference in Edinburgh, I am personally excited by our potential to rise to the rapidly changing needs of the growing freelance economy: specifically, to expand conceptions of what being independent denotes through creating new platforms for research and collaborating with related professional bodies.

PDF of AAH Bulletin with discussion of handover: Bulletin 121 F&I pages

‘The Pasmore Report?:
Reflections on the 1960 Coldstream Report
 and its legacy’

(Art School Educated Conference, Tate Britain, 11-12 September 2014)

Reveiw_Art School Educated: Reflections on a Conference | Victoria and Albert MuseumAbstract

The publication of the First Report of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (1960), otherwise known as the first ‘Coldstream Report’, is a graspable moment of displacement in the British art world. It represents a shift between an educational system based on disciplined studies of techniques and crafts to one based on conceptual thinking and design. Its legacy is marked by trauma and confusion that deepened as the decade matured, spilling over into creative outbursts and political revolt. It has become a symbol of oppressive, narrowly defined rigour and prejudiced artistic values. As such, both the report and the painter and educator who leant it his name, William Coldstream, have been blamed and demonised. This paper approaches the report as an image, for it is not only invested with symbolic, representational meaning, but it also is among those victims of iconoclasm – works of art, signs, inscriptions or pictures – that act in the words of theorist Bruno Latour “as a mediation to access something else”. The Report is a window to a set of values for education, but also for the perception of the artist’s relationship to society. Half a century later, it is important to carefully weigh the document itself against the politics and motivations of the diverse committee members who authored it. Using ministerial archival records opened in the late 1990s, this paper reflects on how such a document presents a methodological conundrum in tracing intention and effect, as well as the dangers of conflating it with any one participant.

‘The Aesthetic of Scientific Authority in a Nuclear Age:
Jacob Bronowski and Feliks Topolski’

(British Art in the Nuclear Age, ed. Catherine Jolivette; Ashgate, 2014)

British Art in the Nuclear Age

Winner of the Historians of British Art‘s 2014 Multi-Author Book Award


Celebrity historian of science Jacob Bronowski interpreted Polish émigré artist Feliks Topolski’s use of line as an analogy for science’s use of subjective judgment in the ‘Knowledge or Certainty’ segment of Bronowski’s 1973 BBC television series The Ascent of Man. The culmination of Bronowski’s views on the relationship of scientific authority and epistemological method, the episode examines the ethics of interpreting scientific judgement through Topolski’s particular dynamic aesthetic. As a visual embodiment of Bronowski’s ideal epistemological approach, Topolski’s drawings become instructive rather than merely aesthetic – helping a public removed from scientific realities to conceptualise the language and significance of subjective (and thus fallible) judgement as a possible alternative to unreflective technocracy. Through addressing the developing paradoxes for nuclear scientists as authorities in the 1950s and Bronowski’s decades-long engagement with these discussions, it is possible to trace the seeds of that later collaboration, which was formulated around the hotly debated twenty-five year anniversary of the atomic bombings in Japan.

Preview Available via Google Books


Lee Hallman’s review in Burlington Magazine (May 2015): Burlington Magazine May 2015

Robert Sutton’s review in Art History (Nov 2015): Art History November 2015

Camilla Mørk Røstvik’s review in The British Journal for the History of Science (Dec 2015): British Journal for the History of Science_Dec 2015