In order to introduce our team to the wider world, we decided it would be a good idea to ask each individual member just exactly what moment or artwork it was that introduced them to the world of art and how that moment has impacted on their life within art history so far.
Today we have a brief chat with the president of the society, Caroline Robinson, about the work of art that introduced her to art history.
I was raised in a somewhat typical working-class family, wherein family was everything and you cared for everyone the same way you would want them to care for you. All I knew of art by the time I was around 8 years old was that it was pretty, it was expensive, and it wasn’t for people like me.
My mam and I had travelled to Scotland for the wedding of my godmother, a fantastic woman with a wealth of knowledge and wit so sharp it was dangerous. One night, after the excitement of the wedding had calmed down and we were sat together chatting away, the age-old topic of what I wanted to do when I was older was brought up.
My godmother, G, knowing that I had something of a creative side, went into the kitchen and brought back a tiny fridge magnet that she had bought during her time in Amsterdam. The fridge magnet depicted the scene of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
She asked me what I thought and I was brutally honest in a way that only a child can be; these people were ugly, the colours weren’t pretty, they looked sad and it wasn’t a nice picture. G surprised me by announcing that I was, in fact, correct. The picture wasn’t meant to be pretty.
I sat on her knee for maybe 45 minutes whilst we analysed the image together, we talked about the fact that this is how people used to live, and some people still do to this day. She asked me why I thought they were eating potatoes and when I said ‘because they’re poor?’ she clapped and grinned at me as though I had just solved an amazing riddle.
The overarching theme that I picked up that night was that, although this painting could easily be seen as a depressing example of poverty, it actually shows a loving family sitting down together to eat. The woman to the right pours drinks into cups for everyone whilst the woman to the left assists the man in cutting up his food.
Detail from Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In those 45 minutes, the painting went from an eyesore that my little brain couldn’t understand to being the foremost example of the underlying thread of humanity within each of us. G went on to explain the tragedy of the life of Vincent Van Gogh, and she had tears in her eyes when she spoke about how much sorrow he had within his life.
Something within me changed that day. Art went from something of an elite practice not to be understood by the likes of me, to something so universal and welcoming that it seemed almost a crime that it wasn’t taught to every single person on the planet.
I’m proud to say that G is still one of my greatest supporters throughout my time at university, and she cheers me on to this day. She encouraged me to reach for a higher education and supported me through my years at university. One day I hope to be able to take her back to Amsterdam so we can see Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters together in person.
Caroline Robinson lying on her sister's lap whilst G reads a culture magazine. Caroline is the President of the Edinburgh University History of Art Society and plans to work hard to be able to encourage other working-class students to strive for higher education.
Written by Caroline Robinson. c. 2020.