Notebook - Rosie Millard

Guessing the exact title of a Turner watercolour is impossible - even for Nicholas Serota

The signs looked auspicious at Tate Modern for the Patrons' Art Quiz. We were all divided on to tables named after art movements. Nicholas Serota, the Tate's director, and Peter Blake were Pointillists. Michael Craig-Martin, begetter of the Young British Artists, was a Pre-Raphaelite. I was on the Rubi-Conicals, whose meaning was a bit more obscure. It didn't matter: much more exciting was that we had Judith Keppel, the first winner of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, on our team. So we had at least one person familiar with a quiz triumph. Each table was equipped with a Tate curator and an artist. Our curator was in charge of the permanent collection at Tate Britain. Our artist was Michael Landy, famous for taking apart and destroying all his possessions.

So as Bamber Gascoigne (yes, the great man himself - they don't stint on the quizmasters at Tate) banged the gong and opened the quiz with the poser "Which art movement was associated with Andre Breton?", the Rubi-Conicals felt good scribbling down "surrealism".

The next round involved identifying works in the Tate collection. Matisse's Snail, Epstein's Rock Drill: so far, so easy. But getting the exact title of a Richard Deacon sculpture or a Turner watercolour was almost impossible. For everyone. "How did the director do?" twinkled Gascoigne, forcing Serota to admit that he was not au fait with the title of every image in the great Tate empire. Perhaps he was trying to clear his head in order to focus on who said "I need art like I need God" (Tracey Emin) in the quotations round, or who moved from Bath to live in Pall Mall (Gainsborough) in the Blue Plaque round.

It's all very well having Peter Blake on your table, but what Serota needed was our secret weapon, Mary Rose Beaumont, an art historian from the City & Guilds art school. Forget the Patrons. This woman should be on Mastermind. She knew it all, from the definition of grisaille to who played Van Gogh in Lust for Life (Kirk Douglas), via operas designed by David Hockney (Magic Flute, The Rake's Progress). A rare wobble would bring out a stout affirmation from the formidable Keppel, whose knowledge, if not so finely tuned, was astonishingly wide, encompassing things such as who drew Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine (Jacques-Louis David), what linseed oil is made from (flax) and what Francis Bacon did before he became a painter (interior decorator).

Landy sat back and watched. One woman at our table asked him what he was currently working on. "Nothing," he said. "I'm thinking of ideas. It's terrible. I watch the rest of the world going about its work, and I have to sit in my studio and think up what to do next. Sometimes I can't wait to get to bed in the evenings again," he added, as Beaumont got us into pole position by knowing that Paul Nash was a war artist in both world wars.

That, I suppose, is the difference between a proactive and a reactive job. The artist goes to his or her studio and creates something from nothing. The art historian must go to his or her study and focus on what the artist has created. Anyway, the night was a triumph and the Rubi-Conicals came first, storming a gritty tie-breaker thanks to Beaumont knowing that Caravaggio's real name was Michelangelo Merisi.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, To save Africa we must listen to it