I am an art historian, focusing on the sculpture of late-medieval and early-Renaissance Europe. My primary interests lie in sculptural materials and techniques, and especially in the question of how three-dimensional surfaces are transformed by polychromy, the addition of paint, gold and inlays, and by the subsequent, successive alterations, deliberate or by chance, that they undergo during their lifetimes. These serial transformations can inform our understanding of an artist’s intentions and workshop practice, of an object’s physical history and of changes in its function and meaning, as well as touching on wider issues of taste, aesthetics, belief and reception.
Questions raised by the making, function and meaning of objects (and words), have driven my research in other areas, for example the extraordinary, monochrome Passion Cycle painted for the Benedictine house of San Nicolò del Boschetto in Genoa and, more recently, the language of Ghiberti’s Commentarii and drawings made by sculptors.
Since arriving at the Ashmolean, detailed attention to object and text has remained paramount, as I have become increasingly interested in museum collections as tools in university teaching. In particular, I am concerned with two things: the usefulness of objects in developing close looking as a transferable skill, and their capacity to act as a starting point for other kinds of research and investigation in both undergraduate and graduate learning.
This capacity is independent of any direct thematic, functional or historical connection between the object and the discipline under consideration but, rather, is reliant on the object’s inherent quality of ‘agility’ - its potential to submit to interrogation from and to speak into any number of disciplinary standpoints. Teaching faculty and graduate students to work with objects in this way has therefore become central to my work, as articulated in my recent article, ‘Agile Objects’, co-authored for the Journal of Museum Education with Dr Senta German.
In other lives, I worked extensively as an actor and musician, was for a decade a director of the contemporary gallery Man & Eve and am Chair of Trustees of the educational charity Our Hut, which teaches on architecture and the built environment in inner-London schools.
Jim Harris is Andrew W Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator in the Ashmolean’s University Engagement Programme.
He trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and as an art historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he wrote his PhD thesis on the polychrome sculpture of Donatello, under the supervision of Professor Patricia Rubin. He subsequently held the Andrew W Mellon Research Forum Postdoctoral Fellowship and was Caroline Villers Research Fellow in Conservation.
His research employs the technical examination of sculptural materials and surfaces, alongside archival work, to investigate issues of artistic and patronal intention and the shifting meanings of objects.
At Oxford, he is concerned with exploring the use of the Ashmolean’s collections in university pedagogy and he has spoken widely and published on the subject of object-based teaching.
Jim is co-founder, with Dr Senta German, of Agile Objects, a resource for university museums and faculty members seeking to exploit collections in university teaching.
2017 Agile Objects, with Senta German, Journal of Museum Education, vol.42 no.3, pp.248-257
2017 Lorenzo Ghiberti and the Language of Praise, Sculpture Journal, vol.26, no.1, pp.107-118
2016 Exploring Psychiatry through Images and Objects, with Charlotte Allan, Maria Turri, Kate Stein and Felipe da Silva, Medical Humanities, vol.42, pp.205-6
2011 Pentecost: The Master of the Regensburg Hosteinsfrevel in S. Nash, Late Medieval Panel Paintings: Methods, Materials Meanings (London), pp.76-87
2011 Looking at Colour on post-Antique Sculpture review of Vinzenz Brinkmann, Oliver Primavesi, Max Hollein, (eds), Circumlitio. The Polychromy of Antique and Medieval Sculpture (Liebighaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, 2010) in Journal of Art Historiography, no. 5
2011 Defying the predictable: Donatello and the discomfiture of Vasari, in J.Harris, S. Nethersole and P. Rumberg (eds.), ‘Una insalata di più erbe…’: A Festschrift for Patricia Lee Rubin (London), pp.151-163
2009 Northern European Polychromed Sculpture in V. Brilliant (ed.), Gothic Art in the Gilded Age, exh. cat., John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida (Sarasota), pp. 78-93.
2007 (Re-)Making Beauneveu: The Scholarly Construction of a Great Artist, and Digest of Documents, in S. Nash, André Beauneveu, “No Equal in Any Land” – Artist to the Courts of France and Flanders (London), pp. 178-205
2006 Whose Perspective? Andrea del Castagno, Paolo Uccello and the Patron’s Point of View, immediations, vol. 1, no. 3, (2006), pp. 5-23
2011 ‘Una insalata di più erbe…’: A Festschrift for Patricia Rubin, with S. Nethersole and P. Rumberg, (London)
2009 immediations: The Courtauld Institute of Art Journal of Postgraduate Research, vol. 2, no. 2 (London)
2009 immediations Conference Papers 1: Art and Nature – Studies in Medieval Art and Architecture, with L. Cleaver and K. Gerry, (London)
2008 immediations: The Courtauld Institute of Art Journal of Postgraduate Research, vol. 2, no. 1 (London)
Selected Lectures and Papers
2017: Objects of Inquiry: Ways of Seeing, Ways of Knowing in the Humanities, panel discussion chair, Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, University of Wyoming
2017: Why Didn’t Sculptors Draw?, Robert H Smith Renaissance Sculpture Conference: Creating Sculpture: The Drawings and Models of Renaissance Sculpture, Victoria and Albert Museum
2017: Lorenzo Ghiberti and the Language of Praise, Italian Renaissance Seminar, St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford
2016: Agile Objects: Teaching and Learning with Real Things, Invitational Lecture, Philadelphia Museum of Art/University of Pennsylvania
2015: Substance and History: Donatello, Colour and the Stories of Sculpture, Invitational Lecture, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
2014: Agile Objects, Agile Minds: Teaching and Learning in the University Museum, Invitational Lecture, Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, University of Wyoming
2014: Ghiberti, the Siena Font and the Idea of Expertise, Robert H Smith Renaissance Sculpture in Context Seminar Series, Victoria and Albert Museum
2014: Painting in Three Dimensions: Colour and Sculpture, Colour, The Warburg Institute and National Gallery
2014: Agile Objects: Collaborating with (real) Doctors, Expanding a Shared Vision: the Art Museum and the University, Yale University Art Gallery
2013: ”What are we that you should care for us?” Merchants and Courtiers Monuments in Elizabethan and Jacobean London, History Department Colloquium Series, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver
2013 Donatello and the Stuff of Florence, Local Heroes: Artists and the Importance of Place, The Frick Collection, New York
2012: The Image of Violence and the Promise of Peace: pain, suffering and death in the visual culture of fifteenth-century Florence, The Arts of Peacebuilding, University of Edinburgh Centre for Theology and Public Issues/Kroc Centre for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
2012: Building a House for Repentance: the Monochrome Passion Cloths of San Nicolò del Boschetto, European Painted Cloths from the fourteenth to the twenty-first century: pageantry, ceremony, theatre and the domestic interior, Courtauld Institute of Art
2012: Changing Colour: Sculptural Polychromy and Environmental Legibility, Saturated Space, The Architectural Association, London
2011: The Sum of the Parts: the fragments of Donatello’s Santo Altarpiece, Taking Shape: Italian Altarpieces before 1500, National Gallery/Courtauld Institute of Art
2010 : Donatello and Polychromy: Transforming and Transcending the Materials of Sculpture, 2nd Copenhagen Seminar on Polychrome Sculpture, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek/Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen
For the past four years, Jim has worked with Dr Antoniades on a series of teaching, research and public engagement events, bringing research and clinical neuroscientists to the Ashmolean each March for Brain Awareness Week.
This award-winning project, now in its fifth year, brings senior and junior psychiatrists, and medical students on specialist rotation in psychiatry, to the Ashmolean to reflect on and consider their clinical practice in light of thematically selected images from the Museum’s collections.
Over the past three years Jim has been involved in an exchange of ideas and expertise with colleagues at the University of Wyoming Art Museum, the University of Wyoming History and the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research.
Boom Town: a collaboratively-curated, research-led display in the Money Gallery, 2015.
This research project, undertaken with Dr Erin Maglaque, then a Junior Research Fellow at Oriel College, grew out of classes taught in the History Faculty and focused on a single object from the Wellby Collection of European Metalwork, drawing together strands of economic, political, religious, social and technological history.