Nigel Henderson and the Art of Work, 1949-60
This research interrogates the problems of defining and documenting modes of artistic labour that operate outside the conventions of the art-historical canon. My thesis analyses how the meaning of the term ‘work’ mutates in art as the material traces of artistic labour migrate from informal sites of artistic production to the official places of art’s presentation and preservation.
The dominant conception of artistic labour today – as reinforced by popular culture, the art museum, and the market – largely derives from painting and sculpture. It rests upon an ideal of artistic labour as the work of the skilled hand of the individual artist who toils autonomously and alone in the studio. In post-war Britain, however, methods of artistic work began to emerge that were neither painting nor sculpture, and which departed the studio in order to infiltrate the working world and to contaminate the work of art.
This thesis focuses upon the artist-photographer Nigel Henderson, whose approach to artistic labour in 1950s London was characterised by negational, collaborative, amateurish and automated methods that resisted and reworked the traditions of skill, authorship and form. Crucially, despite Henderson’s departures from the category of art and its conventions, he never entirely vacated the authorial position of the artist. Instead, his efforts were oriented towards expanding artistic labour into new spatial, technical, material and conceptual terrains.
The question of the location of artistic labour is critical for this inquiry. My research is structured around a series of sites of art production, specifically those located outside the studio: the art school, the exhibition, the domestic interior, and the darkroom. The issues raised by Henderson’s approach to artistic labour are mapped against broader alterations to working life in Britain after the Second World War, when the balance between manufacturing jobs and clerical work shifted and industry was separated from new residential zones. Despite such changes, questions of work are largely neglected in the art-historical literature on the period, just as post-war Britain is overwhelmingly overlooked in the recent critical and theoretical scholarship on art and labour.
Crucially, this research grapples with the problems that Henderson’s approach to artistic labour poses for the art-historical classification of his work today, not to mention its cultural and economic valuation. These are problems I experienced first-hand when I was tasked with cataloguing the private, pre-museological and pre-acquisitional portion of Henderson’s archive, which is stored at the house he occupied from c. 1954 until his death in 1985. As I sorted through the morass of material, I was struck by its refusal of the art-historical conventions of authorial attribution, dating, and the identification of medium or form. The trace of Henderson’s artistic labour has an unsettled status in the present; its resistance persists today.
My thesis locates this archival encounter at the root of my research. I compare my experience of the material in its unstable state in Henderson’s private archive with the museological classification and taxonomical ordering of his work at Tate. By occupying the cleft between the informal archive at Henderson’s home and the official collection and archive at Tate, my research questions how the museum shapes the way that artistic work is known. Most fundamentally of all, I ask what kinds of labour are excluded as art is assimilated into the canonising conventions of art history.
School of Arts & Humanities
Arts & Humanities Research, 2016–
+44 (0) 7718 222587
Rosie Ram is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate and visiting lecturer at the RCA. She is a specialist in modern and contemporary visual culture and curating. Rosie is Academic Leader of the RCA summer school Curating Contemporary Art and Design: Theory and Practice. Most recently, she has been working with Tate Britain where she has co-curated 'Vital Fragments: Nigel Henderson and the Art of Collage' and co-convened the international conference 'Cutting Edge: Collage in Britain, 1945 to Now'. Rosie's research has been supported by an AHRC International Placement Scheme fellowship at the Yale Center for British Art. Prior to her doctorate, she worked at Chisenhale Gallery.
- MA Culture, Criticism & Curation (Distinction), Central Saint Martins, UAL (Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship for Academic Excellence), 2013
- Archivist & Collection Manager, Nigel Henderson Estate, 2014-ongoing; Academic Leader, Curating Contemporary Art and Design: Theory and Practice, RCA, 2020; Co-convenor, Paul Mellon Centre Doctoral Researchers Network, 2018-19; Visiting Scholar at Yale Center For British Art, Yale University, AHRC International Placement Scheme, 2018; PhD Teaching Assistant, 'The Ephemeral and the Fragmentary: towards other ways of mattering’, MA cross-programme, RCA, 2018-19; Visiting lecturer: MA Curating Contemporary Art, RCA; BA Fine Art, Liverpool Hope University; MA Culture, Criticism and Curation, CSM; BA Textile Design, CSM; School of Arts & Humanities Research Student Representative & Council Representative, RCA, 2017-18; Programme & Operations Coordinator, Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2015-2017
- Co-curator: 'Vital Fragments: Nigel Henderson and the Art of Collage', Tate Britain, 2019-2020; Co-curator: ‘Flow and Flux TECHNE Research Show’, Triangle Space and Cookhouse Gallery, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL, 2018; Curator: 'In Collaboration: Eduardo Paolozzi at the Central School, 1949-55', Central Saint Martins Museum & Study Collection, UAL, 2017; Co-curator: 'Anthony Caro: The Inevitable Revolution', Central Saint Martins, UAL, 2014
- AHRC International Placement Scheme, 2018; TECHNE (AHRC) Work Placement Fund for six-month curatorial placement at Tate Britain, 2019; TECHNE (AHRC) Study Support Fund for conference visits throughout 2017-18
- Co-convenor, international conference 'Cutting Edge: Collage in Britain, 1945 to Now', Tate Britain, 2019-2020; 'The Central School of Arts and Crafts: An "informal nucleus" of collaborative practices in post-war London', research seminar, Paul Mellon Centre, 2018; 'Collage & collaboration in post-war Britain: John McHale's scrapbooks', joint fellows seminar, Yale Centre for British Art, Lewis Walpole Library & Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, 2018; ‘Art & the Urban’ (co-convenor), Royal Holloway University of London, 2018 (funded by TECHNE, AHRC); ‘Art is no Business’ (co-convenor), Kingston University London, 2018 (funded by TECHNE, AHRC); ‘The Art School and the Studio’ seminar series, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL, 2017-18; ‘“Discarded things, vituperative fragments”: Rethinking value within the Nigel Henderson Archive' (keynote lecture), 'Value' conference, Royal College of Art, 2017; ‘Creative collaboration and post-war prints’, TECHNE student conference, Amnesty International, 2017; 'In Collaboration: Eduardo Paolozzi at the Central School' (organiser and contributor), Central Saint Martins, 2017 (funded by RCA and CSM)
- Co-author, 'Vital Fragments: Nigel Henderson and the Art of Collage', exhibition booklet, Tate Britain, 2019; Co-writer and co-producer, 'Collage in Action: Nigel Henderson’s Screen', 12 short films, Tate Britain and Paul Mellon Centre, 2019; Co-author, ‘Dark Times’, Tate Etc. magazine, issue 48, 2019; Lead Editor, 'Prova', RCA Research Journal, issue 4, 2018