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  • John Heskett (1937–2014)
  • Clive Dilnot (bio)

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John Heskett at home, c. 2013.

Photo: Sofia Sallons.

John Heskett, who died in February this year, was one of the first serious historians of modern design in Britain. Born in Coventry in 1937, his father a merchant seaman, he took a degree in economics, politics and history from LSE in 1960. After a variety of jobs in the UK and Australia, in 1967 he secured a position lecturing in social and economic history in the department of history of art and design at Coventry Polytechnic. This was at a moment when art and design education, elevated after 1964 to degree status, was beginning to concern itself with the historical and theoretical studies needed for the field. While fine art was able to appropriate a long tradition of art history and criticism, no such histories or traditions of criticism were available for design. Essentially, much of that history had to be written – particularly its social, economic and political components. With his background in economic and social history Heskett was well positioned to begin this work. In the early 1970s he became part of the emerging first generation of British historians of design. [End Page 309]

It was in this context that he first got involved in the ‘Art and Society History Workshop’, which had begun its informal discussions in 1976 and in 1977 had an initial conference in London at which Heskett spoke. History Workshop Journal published the text of his talk – on ‘Art and Design in Nazi Germany’ – in issue 6 (autumn 1978, pp. 139–53), in a feature, ‘Art, Politics and Ideology’, that gave some focus to questions of art (and to a limited degree design) as historical evidence in social and political history.

The changes in the history of art and design taking place in the 1970s had a number of catalysts. A more general sense of the growing importance of the image (and design) in popular culture, the development of cheap colour printing (a few years before colour television became generally available), and the switch to photographically based advertising, all forced a new attention on the visual realm and on design in particular. At the same time, understandings of visual culture acquired a new political charge. The catalytic event which propelled these concerns into public consciousness was John Berger’s Ways of Seeing of 1972, first as a TV series, and second as a small book. Scholarship too began to reflect this interest. In art history there were the two crucial volumes that T. J. Clark published in 1973 – The Image of the People (on Courbet and the 1848 revolution) and The Absolute Bourgeois (on artists and politics in France 1848-1851). As a commentary in New Left Review explained: ‘To the eternal – and false – question: ‘What is revolutionary art?’ Clark gives an implicit reply by substituting for it another, more fertile one: ‘What were the effects of a particular Revolution upon pictorial practice?’.

Taken in conjunction with the wider pressures of the moment, the impact and legitimating force of Clark’s books were bound to result in implications both for history – in what manner could works of art or more generally images stand as historical ‘evidence’? – and for art and design history. For both there was the vexed question of the relative autonomy of practices of image making. Models of simple reflection were no longer adequate. This issue Heskett tackled head-on in his paper for HWJ. Rather than a focused historical study of art and design in the Third Reich, Heskett’s essay offers a long and discursive review of a number of (mostly) German exhibitions and academic conferences that, between 1974 and 1977, had begun to look again at the question of what constituted ‘art’ in the political orbit of the Third Reich and in Germany (not quite the same things) between 1933 and 1945. Heskett’s point was that reductionisms of vulgar left and right, both of which, if differently, denied a realm of action that was not predetermined by ideologies, missed the fact that historical developments are not, as Heskett put it in a later essay on...


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pp. 309-313
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