Obama’s daughter, Malia, to take a Gap Year

President Obama’s older daughter, Malia, has decided to go to Harvard University, but has chosen to take a gap year.  The university encourages its undergraduates to take a gap year before or during their studies and about 80 out of 110 now do so; it’s a growing trend.

It’s wonderful to see that America’s First family is endorsing this incredible opportunity for school leavers to get some life experience outside of the classroom.  It is a time which can be hard for parents but, as the President said “I’m not ready for her to leave … but she’s ready to go.  She’s just a really smart, capable person and she’s ready to make her own way.”

So, what will she be looking for in her year out?  Learning, but not in a classroom.  New life experiences, but in a supported environment.  Skills that will enhance the rest of her career and life.  Oh yes, and some awesome, fun times are a necessity.

Where to start your research and planning

globekh1124Like everyone else, she’ll be daunted by the incredible range of opportunities she has but you can squeeze a lot of experience into one year. The best place to read reviews is at www.gooverseas.com (hint: we get amazing AHA reviews).

The www.americangap.org is a great place to explore different options and has just published its 2015 National Alumni Survey which shows improved civic engagement, improved college graduation rates and improved GPAs* in college. She may already have attended one of the many gap year fairs organised by www.usagapyearfairs.org , and at www.interimprograms.com she can get great advice: they’ve been helping shape American gap years for 35 years. She could also look at the not for profit www.yearoutgroup.com which promotes the concept and benefit of well-structured year out programmes and is based in the UK where the concept originated in the 1960s.

Obama: “art history was one of my favourite subjects

Although the President made an off-the-cuff remark comparing earnings after technical training to those after Art History degrees, his hand-written note of apology shows that “art history was one of my favourite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.

It is impressive to learn that the President went out of his way to meet Glenn Ligon, whose 1992 piece “Black Like Me No 2” hangs in his personal quarters along with this piece by Ed Ruschka.  Whilst it is pleasing to hear that the President values the subject and that it has given him joy, what he perhaps misses are the life lessons to be learned from studying art history.

Ed Ruschka, "I think I'll ..." 1983
Ed Ruschka, “I think I’ll …” 1983

First, you learn to observe – did you know there are courses for medics and police to improve their observational techniques using art?  Next, you need to understand the context of the piece of art. What was happening in the world at the time, both before and after?  History, philosophy, politics and literature will all help you achieve a deeper understanding of a piece of art.

Critical thinking is a key skill to unravel the complex tapestry of events that inform the arts.  If you want to understand Leonardo da Vinci you will learn about political power and dynasties, architecture, geography, engineering, science and, of course, “get up and go”.

The Last Supper
The Last Supper

As the great man once put it “it had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Malia has already interned twice in the film industry, so she has begun to go and “happen to things.”   Let’s hope that after her gap year, she too will look back and be glad to have done something which gave “a great deal of joy in [her] life that [she] might otherwise have missed”.

Euclid is on the radio again …

"School of Athens" by Raphael, Vatican Museum
“School of Athens” by Raphael, Vatican Museum

Director Nick has been musing on a BBC Radio 4 programme on Euclid’s Elements (you can download it here).

Euclid was the Greek mathematician writing around 300 BC who came up with the Golden Section which, in turn, had such a great influence on the Renaissance and the world of aesthetics and science.  He is the fellow in Raphael’s “School of Athens” demonstrating geometry or at least, thought to be.  Some argue this may be Archimedes of Syracuse.


Detail of man with compass, "School of Athens" Raphael
Detail of man with compass, “School of Athens” Raphael

The Elements is written in 13 volumes (less onerous than it sounds, a volume, in ancient terms, is like a book in the Bible).

It is amongst the earliest books to be printed in the 1480s in Italy, at the time of Leonardo.  It is also commentated upon by Britons, including Playfair in the eighteenth century.

Euclid proves through mathematics, things which are provable and always true (universal truths) – these, in turn, are used by Renaissance man as an indication of God’s presence.  Many Churches, from Chartres Cathedral to Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy, employ the Golden Section for its Divine implications.  Painters too, like Piero della Francesca, use the Golden Section and in today’s world of science, the Golden Section appears within cell structure and nature.

The Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi, Florence
The Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi, Florence

This video is worth 4 minutes of your time – when did you last see Donald Duck and Greek architecture together?

One thing that strikes me is that Euclid’s geometry is based on 2-dimensional geometry but when one speaks of the geometry of a curve, i.e. the curvature of the world, or indeed, 3-dimensional geometry, not all of Euclid’s truths apply. These later two are non-Euclidian geometry.

Most amazing of all is that Euclid’s mathematics is born of a society which needed to solve building problems in emerging city-states.  How do you mark out a perfect square foundation the size of half an acre, with right angles and so on?  You do it with a stake, a pole and geometry which will always give you the right answer.  On paper, we do the same with a ruler and a compass.

"God the Geometer", 13th century manuscript, frontispiece of the Bible Moralisée of Blanche of Castile
“God the Geometer”, 13th century manuscript, frontispiece of the Bible Moralisée of Blanche of Castile

Why is it important?  It raises the thought that there may be natural laws to aesthetics or rules of beauty and that, as Keats says, “truth is beauty and beauty truth”.  Euclid reminds us that he was only dealing with two dimensions and that there is so much more mathematics to be had.  Euclid also reminds us of the fluidity between the arts and the sciences and this is the sort of cross-curricular knowledge that is at the heart of AHA.

6 weeks that will change your life: the AHA Gap Year Course

Minerva FB hero
Piazza Minerva, Pantheon in the background, Rome

An overview: what is it & who is it for?

  • a 6 week course across Italy (4 week option in late summer)
  • study Western civilisation through art, architecture & sculpture
  • stay in Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Siena & Verona
  • for 18 – 22 year olds
  • for those of every academic background who seek a cultivated mind

“If I could relive something in my life, it definitely would be reliving my experience with AHA.” Mia, 2015

St Mark's Square, Venice
St Mark’s Square, Venice
  • gap year, undergraduate & post degree students
  • historically, a third are arts and architecture students, a third are doing other humanities and a third are scientists (usually doctors)
  • students who realise that a cultured, educated mind is a mark of distinction in whatever career they pursue
  • students join individually rather than in groups
  • we are a British organisation but we attract students from across the globe

We take students aged between 18 and 22 from every academic discipline. They join because they want to understand why art is important. AHA is the only organisation dedicated to studying the wonders of art at first hand in the company of brilliant, unstuffy tutors who bring art to life. Importantly, we offer the chance to experience Venice, Florence and Rome for meaningful periods of time with shorter stays in Naples, Siena and Verona.

Botticelli's Primavera, detail
Botticelli’s Primavera, detail, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Why should you join?

We want you to have a real, visceral experience of art. So, all of our teaching is on site in small tutorial groups, where we foster discussion and argument. On site study permits all sorts of practical insights such as scale, real colour, and in the case of architecture, actual space.Lav teach for YOG

Furthermore, how wonderful to study the creativity of others and find inspiration. This is where an educated mind becomes a cultivated mind; it is a maturing process in terms of character and intellect. What better way to spend part of a gap year en route to higher study.we have amazing tutors

  • we offer privileged access to the treasures of Italy – The Sistine Chapel and St Mark’s Venice, to name but two
  • a six week course with AHA is similar to 2 years of University study* representing astonishing value
  • AHA extends intellectual horizons and gap year students do not “switch off”
  • no obligatory exams but possibility of US college credit**
  • how can six weeks in Italy not be fun?

There are no exams on this course because it was born out of an ideal of a gap year, where students sought to embellish their minds through travel, experience and broader horizons. However, don’t imagine this course is a breeze. We work hard, not least because everyone has travelled a long way and there is much to see and do.
Students are over 18 and as such they travel as independent adults on a course where accommodation, travel, special museum bookings and excellent tuition are dealt with by AHA. Thus, you make the very best use of your time.

  • University style teaching in tutorials of 9 or fewer students
  • AHA studies art in context to include music, philosophy, literature, poetry, politics, theology and aesthetics
  • AHA proves broad academic interests to universities and employers alike who look for sentient, interested, interesting students and employees
  • we offer travel and pastoral oversight in one gap year experience

* Though comparisons are admittedly imprecise, it is interesting to note that most universities offer 4 hours contact time with a tutor per week in the arts. An AHA course of on site study would represent just shy of 2 years of university study. So, an AHA course is a mighty asset in one’s education.

** On a purely elective basis, students can ask for assessment which could be used to apply for college credit. It comprises a tutor report, attendance record, creative work (film, drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, poem or play), project (2,000 words), image recognition paper and a multiple choice paper.

What do you get?

15.07NthGuggArguably, Italy has more significant art than any place on earth and so we study painting, architecture, sculpture, textiles, gardens, mosaics, drawings and decorative arts over the following periods:

  • the Ancient World
  • Romanesque
  • the Renaissance
  • the Baroque
  • Classicism
  • Modern and Contemporary

Within these periods we study:

  • Painting techniques (fresco, oil, tempera, etc.)
  • artists: their biographies, significances, influence and patronage
  • connoisseurship and collections
  • art criticism and propaganda

Naples Sunrise
You will be in some of the most beautiful cities in the world:

  • Venice – The Renaissance and modern
  • Castelfranco – Palladio’s Villas
  • Verona  – The Gothic, ancient and the court at Mantua
  • Florence  – The Renaissance
  • Siena  – The Gothic and politics
  • Naples  – Ancient Pompeii, The Baroque and modern
  • Rome – Ancient, Renaissance, Baroque and modern

We break up the course with day visits to a selection of the following:

  • Padua – for Giotto
  • Pasagno – for Canova
  • Emo and Maser – for Palladio
  • Mantua – for The Gonzaga Court
  • Vicenza – for Palladio
  • Pisa – for the tower
  • Arezzo – for Piero della Francesca
  • Bomarzo – for the first monastery
  • Pompeii or Herculaneum
  • Vesuvius

Venicetaxi for YOGThe programme is very carefully designed to be both chronological and thematic in order that students can fathom such large swathes of history.

We also teach the context of art, so we touch on the following where relevant:

  • Music
  • Political theory
  • Economics
  • Philosophy
  • Theology
  • Poetry
  • History
Torre del Mangia, Siena
Torre del Mangia, Siena

We build a solid foundation of the terminology of art and history:

–           architectural; vocabulary & descriptive terms

–           classical or biblical narrative; myths & stories

–           geographical; Italy and Europe

–           basic datelines, significant families and Popes

–           general themes; politics, propaganda & patronage

Sistine ceilingThere is also time for:

  • Drawing; there is always someone to help and encourage craftsmanship
  • Marbled paper making
  • Italian classes in manners and comportment (2 sessions at the beginning of the course)
  • Mask making in Venice
  • Gondola rowing lessons
  • Visits to concerts and the Opera and the football
  • Occasional cooking classes

I hope you will agree this course aims to make the most amazing use of your time. Quite simply, we want this to be the greatest experience and a true education.  Follow us on Instagram and like us on Facebook to see why people love our courses.

To read more independent reviews on: gooverseas.com.

“It’s been two months and I’m still obsessed with how amazing this trip was.”  Livvy, Gap Year course 2015

5 essential tips for planning a Gap Year

  1. DON’T leave it all to the last minute ⏰

Start planning now and enjoy the process. Search for gap year bloggers, gap year courses and reviews online (try www.gooverseas.com ). Make lists of your favourite travel bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers (we’re @ahacourses, if you were wondering 😀) and follow them, see if it’s something you would enjoy.  And keep your mind open – it is all about broadening your horizons.

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This is your chance of a lifetime so discuss it with your parents but don’t expect them to do all the research for you.  Check out www.yearoutgroup.com for different ideas on what you can do during your year with experienced and trusted providers.

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2. THINK about your 52 weeks in detail

A whole year means you can do several different things. Consider all your options and decide what will suit you best.  You have time to do that gap year course, visit that idyllic beach and fit in some work experience or volunteering, it’s just a matter of planning your time and your budget.

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 16.00.42It is also worth thinking about what you want to get out of your gap year.  Universities will be impressed if you have learned transferable skills and matured e.g. critical thinking skills, knowledge of a new subject, experience of a different culture.  They will be less impressed with a tan!  It may be useful to think about how relevant your experiences are to the course you want to do.  And, of course, after a gap year, some people find that they wish to take a different course.
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3. BUDGET now, don’t panic later 

Many people pay for gap year travel by working for part of the year, asking for Christmas and birthday presents to be in cash from parents, godparents and grandparents, or some may have savings.

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There are also scholarships and bursaries to be had if you plan ahead and research your field. AHA have an annual scholarship for a 2 week summer course each year. If you are at an HMC school you can apply for a Bulkeley-Evans gap year scholarship.  Ask your careers department if they know of any scholarships or travel awards that you might apply for. Gateway Gap Year Awards (Murray Edwards) are available for Cambridge applicants “who would benefit significantly from a gap year before embarking on their studies at Cambridge.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 15.26.17If you have your heart set on a year out, you have to be determined … see this list of what NOT to do, if you are saving up for your year out.

4. PERSUADE other people a gap year is worth it

  •  recent research suggest that those who take time off after school come back to academia with much better motivation having explored and developed their identity, built resilience and learned tolerance.
  • YouthTruth research from the US show that 40% of high school students didn’t feel they had developed the skills and knowledge for college-level classes: it doesn’t make sense to start a college/university education if you aren’t ready.
  • explain that this a year out not a year off: you want to continue to learn but not in a classroom and not necessarily for a qualification.  This is about learning about you and the world and your place in that world.

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5. Ready to start planning? Double check the details 🌍

  • check your passport will be valid for your trips (some countries require you to have an additional 6 months validity after the end of your trip)
  • find good travel insurance and always read the small print
  • learn to pack lightly!  Generally the advice is to pack, then remove half the clothes and take twice as much money but this brilliant video will help lighten your load too 👜
  • make sure you know what local customs are: we have found that a large scarf is the perfect cover up for heads, shoulders, legs (when your shorts are too short) for some churches and that only tourists order milky coffee in the afternoon in Italy!

If you’re not quite ready to start planning … you can start dreaming.  Remember, no one ever regrets taking a gap year – they just regret not taking one.



Food in the Baroque: Examining depictions of fruit in the works of Caravaggio

Whilst we at AHA are particularly wedded to delicious Italian food, as a little change of pace from usual, we’re going to be having a look at depictions of food (well, just fruit really) in the work of everybody’s favourite Baroque painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601)
The Supper at Emmaus (1601)

Caravaggio is obviously best known for his stark usage of dark and light, his hyper-realistic representations of biblical scenes, and of course, for being a bit of a loveable rogue (he famously killed a man after an argument over a game of tennis.) However, as well as all of this, Caravaggio had a supreme talent for still life painting.

Granted many of these depictions are within larger pictures, such as The Supper at Emmaus (1601), housed at the National Gallery, and his Bacchus (c.1597) at the Uffizi in Florence, but there are instances where depictions of food take the centre stage, like the spectacularly originally named Basket of Fruit (c. 1595-96), in the Ambrosian Library, Milan.

1280px-Canestra_di_frutta_(Caravaggio) (1)What is perhaps most interesting in this painting, is that the fruit shown is not perfectly manicured and polished, instead it looks almost as if it is decaying. Some leaves sag wearily under their own weight, whilst others are pockmarked and filled with holes, whilst a central apple bears all the hallmarks of having a worm buried deep in its flesh. Even the grapes, so often shown as glowing orbs of purple and green, are distinctly dusty, and some even look to be rotten, turning to detritus quicker than their friends.

As a painter, Caravaggio was never one to skirt around the truth, or do things by the book. He was renowned for using prostitutes and other folks of ill repute as models in his paintings, in order to portray a gritty realism onto his canvasses, and the slow decay of the fruit in Basket of Fruit is reflective of this style.

610N08952_6G4RZStill Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (c. 1601-05)

In stark contrast to the slightly tatty, ragged appearance of fruit in Basket of Fruit, the work Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (dated between 1601 and 1605, but widely disputed) is a veritable smorgasbord of earthly delights. All of the produce seems to scream at the viewer ‘EAT ME!’ with its appeal heightened by the cross-sections of marrow and watermelon portrayed. One can almost see the juice dripping invitingly from the melon. Virtually all of the imagery in the painting is of immense fertility and life – a handful of art historians have even argued that the writhing, bulbous white marrows are decidedly phallic, bringing to mind Nicholas Poussin’s famously censored painting of Priapus (1634-38). The iridescent freshness and life of the fruit is contrasted greatly by the stone ledge upon which it is placed. Not only is it solidly cold and grey, but it also cracked and chipped, perhaps serving as a reminder that the fruits will also perish one day.

A version of this blog post appeared in January, 2013.

Ming: 50 years that changed China at the British Museum. A review by AHA alum Will Martin

Ming is a word familiar to most of us, and tends to be synonymous with any fragile, rare Eastern pottery. We all know the trope of the Priceless Ming Vase; someone on a (usually pretty mediocre) TV show happens upon a Ming vase, and is at pains to ensure that no harm comes to it. What happens next is inevitable – one particularly clumsy character will knock it off its absurdly precarious perch, smashing the vase into a million pieces, before spending the rest of the episode frantically trying to repair it!

Longquan shrine (Yongle era, 1406). Stoneware, celadon glaze and gilding. Zhejiang province

In reality however, the Ming dynasty, also known as the Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling house of China for around 300 years between the late 14th century and the middle of the 17th century. The influence of the Ming dynasty on the politics, art, governance and history of Asia is huge, but it is perhaps not always appreciated.
Now though, light is being shed on the dynasty through a new exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400 to 1450 – the period in which the dynasty cemented China as a superpower in an increasingly globalised world – and brings together artefacts from various museums in China, as well as the British Museum’s collection, and pieces from other museums in the UK.

The effect of this collaboration between the various museums is a stunning array of pieces, spanning the obligatory Ming porcelain, gold, jewels, textiles, paintings and much more. A large amount of the antiquities displayed have never been seen outside of China until now, and as such, this is a rare chance to view some truly stunning Eastern artwork.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration of lotus flowers (1426-1435). Made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi (province), China, Ming dynasty Xuande (reign)

The exhibition starts with a brief video, providing a timeline of the five rulers of the dynasty during the 50-year span covered. Initially focusing on the Yongle emperor and his decision to move the court of the dynasty from the city of Nanjing to Beijing, the exhibition moves on to look at all parts of Ming society, examining military, religion, hunting, every day courtly life, trade, and everything in between.
There is surprisingly little porcelain given its indelible association with the word Ming, although the standout piece is a huge, polychrome cloisonné jar, covered with dragons and various other regalia. Also amongst the collection are a vastly opulent sword, whose handle takes the form of a gilded dragon, a beautiful golden Buddha, a Daoist shrine crafted from a single piece of jade, and numerous pieces of red lacquered furniture.

Cloissoné enamel jar and cover with dragons, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

Furthermore, adorning the final wall of the exhibition is, strangely enough, a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the northern Italian Renaissance artist. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, but is notable for featuring a small Ming porcelain bowl, illustrating the pervading influence of the dynasty throughout the world at the time.
These are some of the very best pieces, but truth be told, almost everything in the place is a highlight – such was the quality of the artefacts on show, it took me nearly three hours to leave what is essentially a single room of pieces!
I went into this exhibition with virtually no knowledge of anything to do with the Ming dynasty, but came out feeling far better acquainted with what is a truly fascinating part of history and of art. Tickets are not cheap, but for such a brilliant exhibition, they are worth every penny.

Tickets for Ming: 50 years that changed China, are available to book online, and cost £16.50 (£13 for concessions). The exhibition is free to British Museum members. The exhibitions continues until 5 January 2015.

Copyright for all images belongs to the Trustees of the British Museum

For more information; visit www.britishmuseum.org

The Diagnostic scans of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, by AHA tutor Freddie Mason.

It is often said that the life of Maurizio Seracini is like something out of the Da Vinci Code. He studied bioengineering at Harvard in the 70s before returning to his home, Florence, to develop technology to investigate Florentine renaissance paintings diagnostically and non-destructively. Since then, he has adapted medical and military technology to scan paintings and disclose secrets locked within the layers of paint.

In the 90s he used this technology to scan the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio to find a lost Leonardo fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, believed to be under the Vasari frescoes that are visible today. More recently, he turned his attention to an investigation of da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. What his work uncovered in this latter piece is simply spell binding.



Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, 1481

I recently helped to write a chapter in a book to be published about what was discovered. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what Seracini’s work means for Leonardo da Vinci scholarship and the future of art history.

Leonardo’s enigmatic Adoration is unfinished and in a somewhat unsatisfactory state. The yellowing varnish that covers the entire piece mutes the vibrancy of the forms a great deal. Art historians have long suspected that a hand other than Leonardo’s applied the paint to the work at a later date. The dark brown smears in the foreground certainly seem much cruder than the delicate forms of the congregation.

But despite its unsatisfactory condition, it is clearly a bold work, exhibiting the young Leonardo’s precocious talent. With the painting, Leonardo broke decisively from the moods of pageantry and celebration that Gentile da Fabriano chose for his famous Adoration half a century earlier and instead gave the event a highly unusual sense of troubled urgency. Figures approach the Madonna in a state of unrest, desperately trying to catch her attention or a glimpse of the miraculous occasion. Gone are the dreamy, utopian landscapes of, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, and instead we have a work that finds a kind of disquiet in the worship of the young Christ. It is a painting, I think, which associates the coming of Christ from the trauma of his crucifixion.

With Seracini’s scans we are able to see Leonardo’s original intentions for the piece. They provide us with unseen Leonardo drawings and a fascinating insight into his compositional process. We are literally able to ‘step into’ the painting.



Underdrawing for Leonardo’s Adoration.

Notice how the leg of the Virgin is bathed in an ethereal light in the under-drawings. This detail is completely lost in what is visible today. The scans restore a former luminosity to the seated Madonna and a sacred atmosphere to the event. This luminosity perhaps explains why one of the figures to her left appears to be shading his eyes.

Notice how Leonardo thought it necessary to design a much more complete architectural setting in his preparatory sketches. This is a truly remarkable insight into Leonardo’s compositional process: he seems to have felt the need to build the temple first before subjecting it to imaginary ruination. In the discovery of these hidden sketches we can see Leonardo working as a master of naturalistic gesture and anatomy, but also as an architect.

Notice how Leonardo included figures rebuilding the temple in his preparatory sketches. The ruined temple is a common theme in adoration scenes. It is meant to represent the decay of paganism at the birth of Christ. But, its rebuilding displays a desire to preserve, reawaken and revere the forms and ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. It seems Leonardo intended a more complex symbolic duality to the image of the ruined temple. The condemnation of paganism combined with the respect for classical antiquity is after all a contradiction at the heart of all renaissance religious painting.

These are just some of the amazing details you discover when observing Seracini’s scans. I think it is safe to say that his work has changed art history for ever.

Crucially, the scans are not just an important moment for scholarship, but also a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience.



Books about town: by AHA alum Catriona Grant

Quick! Last chance to see the wonderful collection of book benches scattered around London as part of the collaboration between the National Literary Trust and Wild in Art.

War Horse bench


The project comes to a close on the 14th and 15th of September and it is certainly worth visiting a few of the literary pews before they disappear.


For the dedicated among you, there are 4 trails around parts of London – the City Trail, the Bloomsbury Trail, the Greenwich Trail, and the Riverside Trail. Some seats are tucked away in hidden venues, such as the Noughts and Crosses themed bench at Fen Court in the City, whilst others are in popular tourist spots or public thoroughfares such as Mary Poppins in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, or the Shakespearian homage plonked outside the Globe.


Noughts and Crosses at Fen Court
a detail from the Mary Poppins bench
Shakespeare at the Globe


Some benches are specifically tied to their location – a series of pastel motifs and character portraits commemorating Mrs Dalloway is to be found in Gordon Square Gardens, adjacent to Virginia Woolf’s former home in Bloomsbury – an endearing Wind in the Willows bench is placed at the steps of the Bank of England, where Kenneth Graham once worked, – and a lively depiction of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days featuring a mock newspaper front page detailing Fogg’s ambitious wager, is found in the basement of Stamfords, a well loved travel bookshop in Covent Garden.


Mrs Dalloway
Wind in the Willows
Around the World in Eighty Days


A variety of local artists produced the series, which will be auctioned off in October to raise money for the National Literary Trust charity. Do try and spot a few if you’re wandering through London – they are a beautiful contribution to the bustle of city life, in the same vein as the ever popular Art Everywhere project that stretched throughout the UK over the summer.


All photos courtesy of Fiona Grant.

Where Communism and Commercialism Collide: Beijing’s 798 Art District and Shanghai’s M50, by AHA alum Helena Roy

China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.

Graffiti in the 798 Art District, Beijing

Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.

The 798 Art District in Beijing
Graffiti in M50, Shanghai

Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.

A statue in the 798 Art District

Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.

ShaghART gallery and streets in M50
Political art depicting a PLA soldier in M50, Shanghai

But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.

Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.

The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.

Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.

All photographs by Helena Roy.

HERE’S TO GAP YEARS: singer songwriter and Courtauld student Marie Naffah talks about her year out


A level results.  Less than a handful of letters that can make you go:





(*These weren’t my grades, I promise.)


You may have bagged your chosen grades and packed your bags- ready to roll straight out of school, on into university. Sorted. You may be staring at some unwanted, isolated letters, having loaded your school portal three hundred times on a dodgy Wi-Fi server, only to find out that the future you thought was yours, well, isn’t.

BUT DO NOT FRET. Here is why a gap year was one of the best decisions of my life:


With an entire year, I was able to research internships that really interested me. I contacted several companies, and landed a 3-month placement at Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence. Not only did it fill some space on the old CV, but it also allowed me to experience the business world of curating and marketing, giving me a clearer idea of things I’d perhaps like to do after university.


Travelling is arguably one of the most significant reasons why one should consider taking a gap year. It’s a perfect time to see and do things you have never done before, and perhaps may never have the time to do again. I did the Art History Abroad Summer Course of 6 weeks. I joined the course not knowing anybody, but from day one I was fully immersed with the 19 other like- minded students and the fantastic tutors. Starting in Rome and ending in Venice, passing through places including Naples, Siena, Florence and Verona, we were able to skip queues of the Academia, eat where only locals would eat and continuously develop such an enthusiasm and appreciation for the profuse amount of art that Italy has to offer. And that’s only 6 weeks. As a musician, I toured around the UK and travelled to Paris, playing shows and building the foundations of an international fan-base. I was recently named MTV’s Unsigned Artist of 2014, and I look back on my gap year as a crucial turning point for my career.


You can take your well earned break from exams and really research the course you want to do.


From climbing mount Vesuvius in Naples to playing one of the most magical shows of my life in Montmartre, Paris, one thing I learned was, on a gap year, you can say yes to everything.


I got a job in a café, I ran my own music night – do what you want but you’ll be thankful for some dosh!


For the first time in your life you can be totally selfish. I made a list of everything I wanted to achieve and just went and did them.


Forgive me for ending on a very cheesy one, as I try to avoid the ‘I found myself on my gap year’ cliché. But whatever you choose to do, your Gap Year can teach you a lot about yourself. You roll your eyes , but trust me, it’ll stand you in really good stead for the future years.