Liz Prettejohn studied at Harvard University and the Courtauld Institute of Art. Before joining the University of Bristol in 2005, she was Professor of Modern Art at the University of Plymouth; previously she was curator of Paintings and Sculpture at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. Liz recently curated the major Waterhouse exhibition that was in London, the Netherlands and Montreal. She also delivered the prestigious Paul Mellon lectures in 2011.
What projects are you currently working on?
I'm working on two books; the Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites, a collection of essays which brings both art and literature from the movement together, and The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso. My main research area is British art in the 19th and 20th centuries, which is a relatively new research field.
I'm interested in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which has been something of a poor relation in academic art history, despite being highly popular with museum audiences and the general public. I've also done quite a bit of curatorial work, including leading on three significant exhibitions, on the painters Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John William Waterhouse. My work has taken me to Stockholm, Munich, the States and France. British Art used to be quite inward-looking; now it's international. I'm part of a generation of students who started to popularise British Art; collaborating with people like Tim Barringer, Professor of British Art at Yale and Meaker Professor at Bristol in 2007.
What first attracted you to the arts?
My mother was an art historian – she did a PhD in Medieval Umbrian sculpture - and I travelled with her so was lucky enough to have some early exposure to this world. My father, a mathematician, is a very enthusiastic amateur violinist. So I guess my family's background in art and music steered me in this direction.
How did you come to develop an arts career?
Initially I worked as a management consultant for three years after university and gained experience in business, as well as earning enough money to pay off my debts! My first job was a curator at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and I also lectured at the University of Warwick. During my PhD studies, I got involved in teaching, although I wasn't sure whether to follow a career in curating or in teaching. At Bristol, I have the opportunity to combine both elements. The curatorial aspect is particularly important and I've been able to set up such opportunities for current students.
My career has really developed through raising the profile of British art in the modern period. There is a lot more research activity in this area now, but it was surprisingly neglected until quite recently, particularly given that it is so popular with the general public.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about studying the arts?
Don't be put off! The visual arts and history of art do not generally lead to huge money-making careers. However they do open the way to a wider range of job opportunities – teaching, museum and gallery work, the commercial art world etc. - than people think, and in diverse institutions. Less obvious careers include things like running collections for corporate institutions, banks, universities, learned bodies etc., as well as more obvious pursuits such as PR, marketing and journalism. Graduates from these disciplines are usually highly employable. Sadly, arts graduates suffer a little from bad press, especially the history of art.
If you could be any fictional character, who would you be and why?
I would be Alice in Alice Through the Looking Glass, because she makes her own image and refuses to accept what other people tell her to be the truth.
Professor Liz Prettejohn is part of the public panel discussion, Art for art's sake?, concluding InsideArts at the Watershed, 7.30 pm, 20 October 2011.