Robert Hughes dies, aged 74

Robert Hughes, the lauded art critic, writer and television documentary maker, has died.

Robert Hughes, the lauded art critic, writer and television documentary maker, died this Monday, aged 74, after a long battle with illness.

In 1980, the success of his BBC documentary, the Shock of the New, made Hughes’ bullish countenance a familiar sight in British living rooms. This was a visage of belligerence from a man unafraid to criticse what he believed to be the warts of the art world that stared at him from beneath the absence of the king’s clothes.

At times delightfully vitriolic, but always articulate and erudite, his polemics included assaults on everything from postmodernism to the increasing plutocracy of the art world. These rare qualities won him enemies, but also many admirers, the New Statesman amongst them. The pages in our archive hold many praising reviews and, on one occasion, Andrew Billen goes as far as to call him “the newspaper world’s greatest art critic.”

Australian by birth, and regarded by many of his natives as a National Treasure, he moved to Europe in 1964, writing in London for a time, before finally settling in New York. He worked for a host of newspapers and broadcasters, along the way collecting many awards for his documentaries, books and articles.

Yet his life was not without tragedy, his father died when he was only 12 and his son killed himself at the age of 34. In 1999 Hughes was involved in a near fatal car crash, from which he never fully recovered. In 2000 Christopher Spenser, producer of Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore (a documentary created in response to Hughes’ prize winning historical text, The Fatal Shore), wrote for the New Statesman about the evening of the accident, when he was waiting for Hughes to return from a fishing trip. With a shake of his head at the pettiness the drama surrounding the following court case, he praises ‘Bob’s’ bravery and “rich, original voice”.

Whether one holds Hughes' memory with love or hatred, it is with little controversy that it can be said that Monday saw the passing of the man who has been called “the world's most famous art critic.”

Robert Hughes was a fan of Lucian Freud (Image: Getty)

Emma Geen is a freelance writer. She tweets @EmmaCGeen and blogs at www.emmageen.com

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times