Art History for All with East Sussex College

In February 2020, Courtauld Educator Dr. Julian Freeman led an Art History for All workshop with East Sussex Coast College, which included a visit to Hastings Contemporary. Julian invited Ben Fairbrother – who took part in our programme at the college in 2015-16, and now works at Hasting Contemporary – to work with this year’s cohort.

In this blog post, Ben Fairbrother shares his experience of the day, and highlights the impact that our programmes have had on his progression to university and subsequent career


In January I gave a tour of Hastings Contemporary to a group of Access students from East Sussex College, as part of the Courtauld’s Art History for All outreach project. As a former student of the college I attended the project in 2016, so I jumped at the chance to help deliver it in 2020.

The Art History for All outreach project was for me, an introduction to The Courtauld and an invitation to take part in a working world I had previously seen as off-limits. The experience was one of multiple factors that encouraged me to pursue Art History at further education and beyond.

When I started the Access course in late 2015, I had no intention to take up Art History. I knew I wanted to be back in education and had picked a broad course to find my way there, but I had no real plan beyond it. However, within the Access course references to visual artefacts were regular and I was beginning to understand the wealth of information offered by paintings, pots, walls, and other artefacts.

The Courtauld came to the college in early 2016 running workshops in class and visits to galleries. An early workshop had groups design an exhibition using print outs of several paintings and another of a floor plan. It was a simple task, but each group had a unique arrangement and a solid explanation for it. This was an encouraging exercise in curation; however, the real benefit of these informative and accessible activities came later when the college visited the Courtauld. The previously imposing environment that a distinguished institution could present was now paired with a positive local experience and a friendly point of contact.

This was my first visit, which began with a tour of key works from the collection and ended with the imposing task of presenting a painting to the class and to any other visitors passing by. In a pair I presented Cranach’s Adam and Eve (1526), now one of my favourites within the collection. It was a flustered affair, but it provided an opportunity to participate where I would otherwise have only observed, engaging with a gallery in a new way.

Ben delivering a presentation on Cranach’s Adam and Eve at The Courtauld Gallery

I was encouraged to return for Insights into Art History, another day of workshops and conversations at the Courtauld. Here, I was able to spend time with pages torn from Turner’s sketchbooks and led through a contemporary exhibition, ‘Soaring Flight – Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings.’ I had started the session unaware of the landscape paintings of John Constable but ended it thinking about how both his work and Turner’s related to Lanyon’s, all with the support and enthusiasm of those leading the sessions.

Ben took part in our Insights into Art History Programme in 2015-16

Much like Access was a crash course leading into higher education, the Courtauld workshops readied me to interact with art institutions with a new confidence I might otherwise only have gained after graduating. At university I drew upon these experiences in essay writing and research and ventured into multiple galleries, on foot or by email, asking for opportunities whether advertised or not. It was generally successful and always met with a pleasant response.

This beginning culminated in a successful stint studying art history at university and employment at a local gallery, where I have been since August 2019. Here, I am able to give tours of current exhibitions to the public and most recently, to the Access students.

Ben leading a tour of Hasting Contemporary to this year’s Art History for All participants from East Sussex College

The chance to deliver a tour similar to one I not so long ago received is a wonderful bookend to my early foray into Art History. It is also evidence of the ongoing support I have received from those working in the Courtauld and East Sussex College.

The aim of the tour, as it was when I was a student, was to illuminate some of the ways one can investigate a historic or contemporary artefact. Sometimes this requires participation as well as observation, perhaps questioning an authority such as a curator or artist. I wanted to stress the versatility of a gallery space and therefore, the scope of questions the students might ask, and their ability to ask those questions.

Written by Ben Fairbrother, Hastings Contemporary