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Study History of Art at the University of Cambridge

History of Art

Fact File

Magdalene Campus code: M
UCAS code: V350
Course duration: Three years – BA (Hons)
Typical offer: A-level: A*AA, IB: 41-42 points
Essential subjects: None
Useful subjects: History, Languages, English

Cambridge is home to one of the greatest concentrations of world-class art collections in the UK outside London.

The city also boasts a wealth of magnificent architecture from the medieval to the contemporary. This means our students engage with many of the buildings and objects they study first-hand.

The History of Art is concerned with the study of the visual: buildings, fine art, films, advertising, everyday objects, textiles, even gardens and architectural landscapes. We consider the role of great artworks and great artists, as well as the material culture of the everyday. We study anything made to be looked at in its cultural and historical contexts: uncovering what history can tell us about the objects, and what the objects can tell us about history, culture, society, and the human condition.


At Cambridge
At Magdalene
What we are looking for
Subject Requirements
Teaching Staff

The History of Art Tripos at Cambridge consists of a one-year Part I, followed in the second year by Part IIA, and in the third year by Part IIB.

Part I consists of an integrated, broadly chronological programme of lectures, seminars, and supervisions exploring a wide range of works of art and architectural styles, from the ancient to the contemporary. Most of these are studied first hand through examples held in the Cambridge collections. The year is examined through four papers and two pieces of coursework. Two papers focus on issues of ‘meaning’ in art and architecture and two on ‘making’, the ways in which art is created. In addition to the Part I examinations at the end of the Easter Term, students submit a short dissertation and a Portfolio, the latter consisting of a catalogue entry, exhibition review and collection display with rationale and wall text.

In Part II students choose two options each year from a range of Special Subjects in the history of art and architecture as well as studying core courses in the history and theory of the subject itself, and museology and the history of collections. They also research and write a final year dissertation on a subject of their own choice.

The small size of the Department means that much of the teaching is organised departmentally, to ensure that all students receive the same level of individual attention for which Cambridge is renowned. Students in both parts of the Tripos receive regular weekly supervisions; lectures and seminars are usually given in the Department or the Fitzwilliam Museum. Students may expect 6-8 contact hours per week including supervisions and other classes. In addition to occasional field trips to museums, galleries and other sites, students are encouraged to travel independently to gain first-hand knowledge of the works of art and architecture they are studying.

More details about the papers currently taught can be found on the Departmental of History of Art website.

Magdalene has a strong tradition in the History of Art. We usually admit one or two undergraduate art historians per year, and we are one of the few colleges with two college teaching officers in the subject.

The recent gift of the book collection of the distinguished art historian and museum director Duncan Robinson (Master of Magdalene, 2002-12), means that we have an excellent art history library, with particular strengths in Italian Renaissance, and eighteenth- and twentieth-century British art. The College has also recently completed the building of its own art gallery, as a central part of our wonderful New Library building. The Cripps Gallery hosts exhibitions throughout the year and offers exciting opportunities for Magdalene students to gain some hands-on experience assisting in the care of collections and curation of exhibitions.

Fellows in other subjects with related interests include Prof Eamon Duffy (Theology/History, emeritus), Prof Simon Stoddart (Archaeology), Dr Annja Naumann (German), and Prof Emily So (Architecture). We regularly welcome distinguished art and architectural historians to the college as visiting fellows; and our Honorary Fellows include the letter-cutter and sculptor Lida Cardozo Kindersley and the film director Mike Newall.

Graduates in the History of Art at Magdalene go on to a wide variety of careers. They may not be subject-specific, but those that are include further academic study and teaching, employment in art galleries and museums, heritage management, conservation, journalism, and arts administration. Our art history graduates include the broadcaster and Loyd Grossman, and Laura Freeman, chief art critic for The Times, as well as current and former curators at Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, Harvard Art Museums, and the National Gallery of Scotland.

Enthusiasm, intelligence, and potential!

If you are fascinated by the visual; how people express themselves through art; how those objects or buildings themselves convey ideas or evoke emotions; or what objects and edifices can teach us about the past or the present, then we’re interested in hearing from you.

More specifically, we will be looking for a keen visual awareness. Do you notice visual details that other people miss? Do you find yourself wondering what those details might mean, or why they cause you to feel the way they do? Why the artist or architect chose to use the colours or materials, shapes or structures that they did? We’re also looking for people who are interested in how art or the built environment relate to wider issues of history, culture, and personal or social identity. We want to see interest and enthusiasm, but also evidence that you have begun to think some of these questions through, and to explore ways in which you can learn more, perhaps through keeping a sketch book, visiting galleries or exhibitions, or reading around the subject.

The History of Art is not only about the analysis of images, but also the analysis of related texts; so we will want to see evidence of your ability to read relevant texts critically, to weigh and judge other people’s insights and arguments, and to formulate and communicate your own. Finally we are looking for an eagerness and willingness to learn, openness to new ideas, and the intellectual curiosity to seek out more.

There are no set subject requirements for the History of Art, but it is usually expected that applicants will have studied at least one essay-based subject to A-level or equivalent. It is not necessary to have studied the History of Art at school. Useful subjects include History, a classical or modern language, English Literature, and Philosophy. 

Typical conditional offer grades for applicants taking A-levels are A*AA, with the A* in an essay-based subject. Typical grades in the IB are 41-42 points overall, with 7,7,6 at Higher Level.

Interviews and Written Assessment

Candidates will normally be invited to a single 40-minute subject interview or two 20-minute interviews, of which the second may be another subject interview or a more general interview.

Interviewers will not be looking for specialist knowledge of the History of Art as much as for intellectual potential, visual sensitivity, and evidence of enthusiasm for the subject. Candidates should be able to explain why they are attracted to the subject even if they have not been able to study it at school. They may therefore be asked about what they have read or what practical steps they have taken to advance their interest. The subject interviewers may also ask them to comment on photos or reproductions of works of art and architecture.

Applicants invited for interview will also take a written assessment. The assessment for History of Art is a Cambridge College-registered assessment. This means you will not need to register for this assessment in advance and the College will provide details directly to you. The assessment will take the form of a structured comparison of images and, again, no specialist knowledge will be assumed. More information about the assessment, including some sample questions, can be found here. Please note that your performance in the written assessment will not be considered in isolation, but will be taken into account alongside the other elements of your application. 


Dr John Munns

College positions: Official Fellow, Director of Studies in the History of Art, Associate Professor, Tutor, Admissions Tutor (Undergraduates)

Dr John Munns is College Associate Professor of History and Art History and Director of Studies in the History of Art. His research focuses on the visual culture of the High Middle Ages, and especially the long twelfth century in the British Isles.

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Dr Sophie Pickford

College positions: College Lecturer in History of Art

Dr Sophie Pickford is a College Lecturer in History of Art. Her interests are varied, ranging from the French Renaissance to the Bloomsbury Group. She is also a pedagogical specialist, focusing in particular on research supervision practices.

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