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Smashing the age barrier

The Ancient & Modern prize for original research goes to scholars both young and old – under 25 or over 60. John Carswell reveals what inspired him to set up the award

The idea for the prize had its origin in New York in 1966. I was staying with the painter John Ferren and his wife, Rae, seeking a gallery for my own work. I had met them in Lebanon the previous year, where I was teaching in the art department of the American University of Beirut.

John was a leading light of the abstract expressionist movement, and had been chosen by the US administration to be sent abroad to interact with local artists. It was the inspired idea of the Kennedy regime to send artists, writers and poets to be cultural ambassadors. John was chosen because he had lived in Paris and spoke fluent French. He had become friendly with Gertrude Stein, who pronounced him to be the only American artist who was any good. He had also met Picasso and helped him stretch the canvas for Guernica.

John was a macho character in the Hemingway mould who smoked a pipe and whose expressionist action paintings mystified the Lebanese. We had little in common stylistically, as my own work at that time was a kind of hard-edged conceptualism, executed in black and white on wooden panels. But it reminded John of his own work in the 1930s, and he and Rae invited me to stay with them when they returned home and see if I could find a gallery for a one-man show.

The Ferrens lived in a brownstone on West 73rd Street. When I arrived, they made it clear that this was to be no holiday. I had to leave the house after breakfast and not return before five o’clock, when I would be given a drink and recount my experiences during the day. The search for a gallery was a dispiriting experience and it was six months before I succeeded. One day Rae took me to meet the widow of the famous painter Stuart Davis. She told me that for three years before he died he had applied for a Guggenheim fellowship, and each time he was turned down. Why? Because he was too old.

This stuck in my mind, and some years later I realised there was another category of people who miss out: those who are too young and have yet to get onto the first step on the ladder. This led to the creation of the Ancient & Modern prize, which is awarded for original research to scholars aged under 25 or over 60.

It is easy to apply, with no references needed, simply a statement of age and a brief summary of the project (no more than 500 words), with an emphasis that it would be difficult to find funding for the project from any other source.

The applications are judged by an anonymous committee, on a scale of 1 to 20. They never meet, and there is no discussion. The scores are added up by the honorary secretary, and the highest gets the Ancient & Modern prize; the runner-up gets the Godfrey Goodwin prize (named after the distinguished Ottoman architectural historian, who died in 2005).

And the 2013 award goes to...
Harriet Nash from the University of Exeter, 61. The winner of the first prize of £1,000 is investigating the fast-disappearing use of sun and stars for the timing of the division of water in Oman – the only country still using traditional irrigation systems that probably originated in Central Asia 4,000 years ago.

The Godfrey Goodwin prize of £500 goes to Polina Ivanova, 24, who is at Harvard, and plans to follow in the footsteps of a little-known Ottoman traveller, a contemporary of Evliya Ēelebi, called Bulus al-Halabi (or Paul of Aleppo), an Orthodox priest who journeyed from Aleppo to Muscovy in the 17th century.

Past winners include Martha H Henze from the USA, aged 81. Her proposal was to draw up an inventory of early Anatolian carpets in Ethiopian churches. Her prize, awarded in 2008, was very productive: she went on to discover rare 17th-century Ushak carpet fragments in a remote monastery in Ethiopia.

At the other end of the age spectrum, in 2001 the young English scholar Emma Dick, then 24, was given the Ancient & Modern to compare two of the Topkapi’s imperial illustrated albums, the Sūrname-i Hümayun and the Sūrname-i Vehbi.


More about John Carswell

Cornucopia 49, April 2013
Ancient & Modern Prize No.7

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