Transforming how we understand art

Professor Christiana Payne

Through a series of ground-breaking publications exploring themes in British landscape painting, Professor Christiana Payne has transformed the way in which artists, experts, curators and the public view and understand art.

Moving away from a typical approach which focuses on art movements, Christiana has brought together historic and contemporary paintings around common themes. This has generated fresh insight and appeal, bringing in new audiences and providing museums and galleries with a model for future exhibitions.

Uniting yesterday with today

Janette Kerr, Sea state force 12 - Hurricane Abigail, Scatness
Janette Kerr, Sea state force 12 - Hurricane Abigail, Scatness

Christiana’s pioneering studies of themes in British 19th century art draw on sources including artists’ writings, exhibition reviews, poetry and knowledge of the evolution of artistic processes. Together they offer new insights into the relationship between people and landscape, and what it can tell us about national identity, class relationships, scientific discovery and the growth of environmentalism.

Her research has inspired practising artists to work with her to co-create exhibitions exploring historic and contemporary treatments of a universal theme.

The Power of the Sea: Making Waves in British Art 1790-2014 was held at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol in 2014. The collaboration with Janette Kerr attracted more than 11,000 visitors over three months, with attendees labelling it ‘outstanding’ and ‘inspirational’. Such was its success that the RWA commissioned three further exhibitions: Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1767-2017 with artist Stephen Jacobsen, Fire: Flashes to Ashes in British Art 1692-2019 in partnership with Rachael Nee, and Earth, due to take place in 2023.

A Walk in the Woods: A Celebration of Trees in British Art (2017–2018), held at Higgins Bedford in 2018, attracted more than double the usual number of visitors to the town museum and generated its first national press coverage. Visitors reported being ’stimulated’ and ‘inspired’ by the exhibition, encouraging the museum to commission two further thematic exhibitions: Round and Round the Garden: A Celebration of Horticulture in British Art (2019) and Dreams and Nightmares (2019-20).

Making exhibitions ‘accessible without compromise’

Christiana’s work on these exhibitions enabled two nationally important collections to reach new audiences while providing enough academic rigour to satisfy their core supporters. Practising artists and contemporary art lovers have developed a new appreciation of the work of earlier artists, while art historians and more conservative visitors have come to recognise the intellectual content and visual appeal of modern art.

“Christiana combines academic rigour with the ability to write display labels for a broad audience, making complex, often fascinating, information accessible without compromise.”

Director, Royal West of England Academy

Trees for wellbeing

Inspired by Christiana’s research on trees in British art, The Woodland Trust invited her to speak at the Hay Festival in 2017, at the launch of its Charter for Trees, Woods and People at Lincoln Cathedral later that year, and at the Cheltenham Festival in 2019.

Many of the visitors to A Walk in the Woods at Higgins Bedford praised the calming effect it had on them, and it drew in many people seeking to boost their wellbeing, from those recovering from mental illness to a local yoga group.

Exploring this theme further, Christiana co-hosted a conference at Oxford Brookes in May 2018 which brought together artists, academics, environmental activists, healthcare professionals and horticulturalists to discuss Trees and Wellbeing: Past, Present and Future.

'Last Summer Things Were Greener' by John Byam Liston Shaw
John Byam Liston Shaw - 'Last Summer Things Were Greener'

National recognition

Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings & Watercolours – Exhibition Film, Ashmolean Museum

Christiana’s revisionary research has led to demand for her to support the work of some of the UK’s biggest national museums and galleries.

In 2016, Tate Britain invited her to contribute an essay on a painting in its collection for its Art in Focus series. The following year, the National Gallery commissioned her to teach a course on trees in art, while the Victoria and Albert Museum asked her to assemble three topic boxes for public viewing in their prints and drawings study room. Her work for the V&A led to two exhibitions: one exploring trees in photography and another looking at their representation in book illustration.

In Spring 2021, Christiana curated the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings and Watercolours for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Image credits:

Banner - William Henry Millais, 1828–1899, British, Figure by Sir John Everett Millais, 1829–1896, British, Hayes Common, 1852 to 1853, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.1.17 

Sea image - Janette Kerr, Sea state force 12 - Hurricane Abigail, Scatness

Woman in garden image - Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash