Putting Aesthetics into Practice: Study Tour of The Picture Gallery at Royal Holloway

Dr David Preston, Department of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy

College Excellence Teaching Prize 2020

Aesthetics (or the Philosophy of Art) is normally taught in the classroom. At Royal Holloway, however, we are blessed not only to have Thomas Holloway’s collection on our doorstep in our beautiful Picture Gallery, but also a team of expert curators working within it - yet this had not yet been previously utilised by our department. The result of this Study Tour was a unique experience for the students to a) see how the theory they had been learning in the classroom could be put to use in a practical environment b) benefit from the expertise of the Gallery’s curators and c) get a truly unique exposure to our College’s magnificent collection.


Study Tour stages

The purpose of Art and its possible cognitive triviality were major themes on my Aesthetics module. The course opened with the question ‘What exactly does Art do for us? What does it give us or teach us that nothing else can?’. Before the tour, the idea of paratext and its importance in appreciating an artwork was discussed. Paratext is any information about the work of art beyond the piece itself, and includes the character or intentions of the painter/author, the narrative of the painting, its size, date, background, etc. The question of the previous week’s class was if we can appreciate a work of art independently of its paratext and, if we are, if our impression or interpretation of the piece changes once we become aware of its paratext. This was set to act as a lead-in to the tour.  

With the help of Dr. Michaela Jones from the Gallery, I selected eight pieces which I suspected the students would be unfamiliar with, but had quite interesting stories behind them (this varied from quite a mundane painting by quite a famous artist, a seemingly mundane scene depicting something rather awful, a pleasant piece painted by quite a suspect painter, etc.). The students were then given a catalogue of the eight pieces showing just the paintings with all paratext removed – the idea being that they would be unaware of who painted it, what it depicted, etc. They were also told not to Google Image search the pieces. 

The students were put into groups and asked to choose a painting purely based on its aesthetic merit and then asked to prepare a short presentation on what it was about the particular paint-on-canvas on that piece in particular that drew them to it over the others. They were also told not to visit the Gallery before the tour, the idea again here being that the first time they would see the painting and learn anything about it would be when they came to face-to-face with it on the tour. This would tie in with the ‘Auratic’ experience of seeing an original work of art in person rather than a copy/photograph of it (which was also discussed on the module).  

In place of that week’s lecture, we met in the Gallery. The students were brought to each painting and the group who had chosen it gave their short presentation. We then opened the discussion to the class as a whole to get other opinions on the piece and discuss reasons as to why some disagreed with each other. Dr. Jones then gave a short talk on the piece’s history and filled them in on the relevant paratext, and I finished by explaining how it related to other material on the course. The tour was designed so that every student would have the opportunity to have their say on most pieces.  

The seminars then fleshed out what was said on the tour, and which piece’s paratext had the most impact. About 90% of students said the paratext changed their initial impression of the paintings. This wrapped up the course quite nicely as it took us full circle back to Week One, in that it would seem it was the paratext, and not the piece itself, which was ‘giving’ them something. 

 Dave P



A surprising number of the students (a large portion of whom are BAME) said they had never ‘properly’ been in a gallery before (by ‘properly’ here I mean with purpose being to study/appreciate art rather than, say, social engagements, start of term welcome drinks, etc.) and these, in particular, were the ones who I felt benefitted most from the experience -  the effect of putting into practice what they had studied on the course was all the more heightened owing to the fact that this was the first time they were properly ‘exposed’ to works of art.

One of my students on the module was too ill to attend, but was able to Skype in from home with the help of myself and a friend holding and directing the iPad. She could therefore also benefit from the tour, ask whatever questions she had, and get fully involved in the discussion.


Student feedback

The gallery tour, forming part of an already highly engaging Aesthetics module, made for an innovative way to turn the theory we had learnt into practice by coming face-to-face with the college’s impressive art collection. 

Using these resources as an interactive teaching method was a fantastic idea and, by far, of all the lectures I have attended in three years of study the most unforgettable. 

Dr Preston hand-picked the most interesting artworks and framed them with fascinating questions about the theories relevant to our previous weeks of study, allowing everyone to participate with a great group dynamic. Additionally, having this particular lecture comprise the final week of this module meant that our theoretical learning truly paid off.


See other case studies on our Seminars and workshops page